September 23, 2022 § 20 Comments
By Morgan Baker
When my husband wanted to breed our second Portuguese Water Dog, Spray, I hedged. I didn’t think this was the greatest idea. Research told me that Spray could develop pyometra, a potentially life threatening infection, or ovarian cancer. Puppies could get stuck on their way out, and some puppies just don’t make it after birth. This all terrified me. I showed Matt all the literature on the dangers of breeding. He stood his ground. This would be a great family adventure.
Ellie, my younger daughter, didn’t agree with him either. We had added her to our family to help Ellie with her anxiety when she was 13. Spray was her dog.
I also didn’t want to be a “backyard breeder.” If we were going to do this, I wanted to be a responsible breeder. The couple from whom we got Spray thought we were great candidates for breeders. They sold Spray to us on an unlimited contract, which meant we could breed her and register the puppies as purebred Portuguese Water Dogs. Most contracts restrict new owners from breeding and require them to neuter their puppies.
After much discussion, we went forward with the breeding. Spray was gentle and laid back, the sweetest Portuguese Water Dog we’d ever known and if she could bring more sweet pups into the world, we would make a lot of families happy. Not only did the Nightingales, our breeders, guide us through all the tests Spray had to undergo to make sure she was genetically fit to have puppies, they gave us their whelping box and all their blankets and fleecing pads. After more than seven litters, they were ready to pass on their wisdom and accoutrements.
I took notes and started a blog about the breeding and whelping, which coincided with Maggie’s last year of high school and her departure to college. At the end of the whole shebang, Matt suggested I write a book about the adventure.
It took years during which I taught, freelanced and drove Ellie’s carpool. I submitted queries to agents and pitched it to small publishers at the AWP Annual Conference, but it didn’t go anywhere. I was tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Then my husband and I moved to Hawaii, the perfect time to put the memoir in a drawer while I started writing about my next adventure. But the puppy story stayed with me.
We returned from Hawaii shortly before the pandemic. I participated in a virtual writing retreat and pulled the puppy book out of the drawer. I started futzing with it.
I called my writing friend, Becca, who had edited the memoir at one point. “I just realized, it’s not about the dogs, it’s about Maggie,” I said.
Her response: “I told you that three years ago.”
The memoir was about saying goodbye to Maggie, my older daughter. I had avoided writing about the depression that had tripped me up, then grabbed me and held me prisoner. It was scary and embarrassing to revisit, but I knew that was the direction I had to go.
I continued to take classes and workshops. I wrote a stronger query letter, I rewrote the beginning and restructured the whole memoir. I was patient with myself and the story, especially the hard parts.
Some writers can crank out a book every year. Not me. But I never gave up. This was a story I needed to write and wanted to share.
I learned to be flexible, to listen to how readers interpreted my story. The editor who read the very first draft, which was horrible, said the story was about my marriage. While she had a point, that wasn’t why I was writing. I wanted to write about the adventure my family went on, how I eventually got on board. I wanted to explore the conflict between how great the puppies were and how depressed I was over my daughter’s departure. I wanted to show how I made it through and how I dealt with subsequent good-byes.
Now with a restructuring, some serious rewrites, a new beginning, and more false starts with agents and small publishers, my memoir has been picked up by a small indie press. It’s a heady feeling. The new publisher thought writing about mental health was important and that my story would resonate with other moms sending their teenagers out into the world.
I am proud of myself for writing the thing that scared me the most, and I’m proud of myself for never giving up. Sometimes things take a while to cook. Sometimes simmering is better than boiling.
Maggie is now 30 years old and married. I am older too. The college days are long gone. But when I revisit the moment when we said good-bye in front of her new dorm and walked away from each other, my stomach lurches and all the good-byes I’ve had to say in my life come back and rock my soul.
Morgan Baker’s work can be found in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, Under the Gum Tree, Expression, The Brevity Blog, and The Bark, among other publications. She teaches at Emerson College and privately online. She was the managing editor for Thebucket.com. She is excited that her debut memoir will be out in Spring 2023 from Ten16 Press. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA. For more information on workshops visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.
September 22, 2022 § 8 Comments
By Evyenia Downey
Contestant number eighty-two thousand three hundred and the-market-is-already-oversaturated-with-women-writing-about-their-brains-and-boyfriends, step right up! Stand at the X on the floor — a coincidental representation of all your denied submissions. Make eye contact with the judges, but not long enough to expose the tears welling under the glue-on lashes you didn’t know how to put on but figured if you can inflate a CV you can fake an extended lash.
Get that voice ready to prove you have what it takes to win.
I feel like a contestant on American Idol every time I submit a poem or essay for publication. Before I click submit, I stop and ask myself, am I the William Hung to their inbox? She bangs, she bangs, she bangs her head into the keyboard. I try to believe the rejection is worth it. Airtime. Getting my face out there. But like those contestants we laugh about all these years later, am I better off just staying home?
Sure, the 2022 season of American Idol I watched while yet again procrastinating my mental health recovery memoir was a lot kinder than previous years. No insults. No ridicule. Yet there is always someone who stepped up to the judges with the belief they are destined to be a star. They have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of musical superstardom. They have sacrificed financial stability, a career in a sustainable industry, and have driven their family members to such intolerance that the contestant has arrived at their audition alone.
I’m not that far gone in my pursuit of literary stardom. I have a job in a casino that pays the bills. My husband listens with interest when I tell him about my dreams of being a professional writer and writing teacher. Maybe I’m not currently a gag reel-worthy contestant. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Or maybe I am already there and haven’t realized it yet. I think that’s what pushes me to procrastinate. The fear that I’m no good and don’t know it. The fear that I think I’m good and someone somewhere laughs at their screen upon opening my submission.
My dream of being a writer and writing teacher developed in my twenties when I was too mentally ill to maintain a full-time job. My undergraduate GPA with the University of Toronto stands at a 2.3 because in 2010, during my third year of university, I experienced my first serious mental health decline. I barely made in out with my life, let alone a degree.
By some blessing by the literary gods, I was accepted into an MFA program in 2017. The only reason I was even considered for the MFA was the creative writing certificate program I completed with U of T in 2016. After two poetry acceptances to online magazines, a toxic romantic relationship triggered another mental health decline and I stopped writing. But the dream of the writer’s life remained. I wanted to live just like my teachers. They wrote books and articles. They taught classes. They were not bound by a concrete schedule — the ultimate appeal to my mentally ill self.
Since 2021 I’ve considered myself recovered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a decade of bouncing between unemployment and part-time retail work, I started my full-time job in the casino. To my surprise, I was able to work forty hours a week without experiencing another mental decline. I spent the rest of the year intentionally not writing to figure out if my interest in the written word was genuine or if it was born from 9-5 anxiety.
I was sure I would experience a dwindling interest in writing.
I was wrong.
So here I am in 2022, mostly recovered from my mental illnesses (the BPD is gone but my OCD is an ongoing issue) and ready to build a career as a writer. I’ve only felt like an American Idol contestant for a few months. Not long enough to be discouraged, but long enough to receive enough rejections to feel tempted to quit.
I’ve heard motivational speakers say, “You’ve only failed once you quit.” Therefore, keep going because you never know what will happen. Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers. Stranger Things was rejected by twelve studios. Lisa Kudrow was fired from Frasier, which led to her casting in Friends. Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your road. But is there a point where you have to accept that something just isn’t meant for you?
How many seasons of American Idol do you audition for before you accept that you are not the next Kelly Clarkson?
I’m not aiming for the grand prize. I would be happy to win fifth runner up. A literary Chris Daughtry or Adam Lambert. Not everyone knows their name. Not everyone knows their work. But some people in some parts of the world are listening.
I think that would be enough.
Evyenia Downey is a writer and poet from Toronto, Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College Halifax and a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto. She writes about relationships, identity, and mental illness.
September 19, 2022 § 32 Comments
By Julie Holston
I love to read, as I assume most writers do. As a nonfiction writer, I know the value of studying memoirs and personal essays and reading outside my genre. I even belong to a book club where, instead of reading the same book for discussion, we show-and-tell the books we’ve each read or are currently reading. We exchange recommendations and sometimes even lend out a beloved book. Everyone goes home with additions to our Libby lists and GoodReads shelves. But whereas some of the group members—several of them fellow writers—read a book or more a week, my quota is closer to a book every two months. I keep books in almost every room at home, and I have titles waiting in my Audible and Kindle queues. I’m surrounded by books, so why don’t I spend more time reading?
When I was a kid, I could lie on the couch in the living room, totally engrossed in Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague while my parents watched Monday Night Football or Columbo in the same room. These days, I need fewer distractions to concentrate. My wife works from home and the Zoom voices carry throughout our small condo, so I’ll stream white noise on my phone if I’m trying to read. But having the phone nearby offers the temptation of using it to look up an unfamiliar word, and once I put down the book and grab the phone, I’ll see a text or a news alert. Before long I’m scrolling, and then I decide to do the Wordle, the Mini Crossword, and the Spelling Bee. The hour I had allotted for reading results in twenty minutes with the actual book.
I’m also attached to the idea that I need to nurse a cozy cup of coffee when I read. The only place to set it down in the living room is the coffee table, so I have to put the book aside and lean forward every time I take a sip, disrupting my reading. If I turn sideways and stretch my legs out on the couch, then I can pull the coffee table close enough to reach. Now I’m pinned, and I’m hoping I haven’t left my phone in the kitchen. If the cat jumps up and snuggles in, I’m rendered even more immobile, so I may as well settle in and read, right? But it turns out, I need both hands to hold a paperback open. Even though my rapidly cooling coffee is now within arm’s reach, I’ll still have to pause my reading to take a sip, closing the book over my fingers to keep it from flipping dramatically out of my grasp in my attempt to hold it open single-handedly.
As a young adult, I would stand in line at midnight to snatch the latest Harry Potter release in hardcover and devour it within a day or two. I never gave any thought to the effort required to hold up a pound or two of pages, whether I was splayed out on my back or curled up in a chair. Now, I need a lap or a table for a hardcover. They’re just too heavy for my middle-aged hands to support. Actually, I enjoy reading at a table, and I’ll do just that in a bookstore, where—bonus!—the table supports both the book and the coffee cup. But sitting at the dining room table feels weirdly formal at home, so I’d rather keep struggling with the couch.
Reading in bed rarely works. If I lie down flat and hold the book on my chest, it’s not positioned in the correct quadrant of my progressive lenses to see the words. I need to tilt my head back uncomfortably against the pillow to find the sweet spot for my eyes. I have prescription reading glasses, but I keep them next to my laptop in the office, and I’m never inclined to go get them once I’ve gone to bed. Sitting up holds promise. I’ll prop up the pillows to support my lower back and settle in at just the right angle so I don’t slide down the mattress. That takes a few minutes, and once I’ve begun to read, my eyes get so tired I fall asleep almost immediately upon opening the book.
I miss the girl who could plop down any place and read any book at any time. I still can’t imagine a more pleasurable way to spend a day than curled up on the couch reading. But it’s all so much trouble now. I may as well just write.
Julie Holston is an emerging writer living in Minnesota with her wife and cat. A native of Arizona, she holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, and has backgrounds in theatre, music, humanities, and education. She is currently working on a memoir and an unconventional family history.
September 16, 2022 § 1 Comment
Rebecca McClanahan, in our newest issue of Brevity, uses a scale devised by an astronomer to describe three levels of UFO encounters to encourage encounters of the deepest kind in our memoir and creative nonfiction.
Here is an excerpt of her fascinating Craft essay:
Indeed, how does any writer make contact with their subject and experience communion? First, by acknowledging the subject as an animated force, a life form with a language and structure different from ours but from which we can learn. This requires listening closely during the writing process, watching for clues. For me, this meant discovering a structure I’d never used before in my writing.
Here’s how it felt: I’m traveling with my ancestors in a space/time vehicle I’ll call the narrative. Sometimes they’re in the driver’s seat, talking through their letters and documents, and I’m in the backseat listening, recording their words. But sometimes I climb into the passenger seat and strike up a conversation on the page—sympathizing, talking back, arguing, questioning, speculating, expanding their stories through what I’m discovering through research, and even imagining their lives from the inside out: “Is this how it felt?” I might ask before entering the landscape of interior thought.
And sometimes, because by now I’ve allowed myself to be abducted by these creatures, they have claimed me as their own. Go ahead, they say, take the wheel.
Read Rebecca’s full essay here to learn more about abduction and achieving depth in your storytelling.
September 15, 2022 § 2 Comments
In a Craft Essay featured in our in our newest issue, Jill McCabe Johnson traces the literary roots of lost and found narratives — reaching “at least as far back as the French poetic form, the Chanson d’Aventure, when medieval poets ‘lost’ themselves in the countryside until they encountered or ‘found’ something inspiring and transformative” — and offers useful prompts, based on the work of Roxane Gay, Victoria Chang, and Joanne Nelson.
Here is a sample prompt:
Draft a letter to someone from your past whose journey entailed loss. This could be to a loved one who journeyed from life to death, or a relative sentenced to prison, or a friend who left home. Ask about what they saw, heard, smelled, ate, or carried.
Read Jill’s full essay in the new issue for the full discussion and numerous additional prompts: Getting Lost—and Found—in Personal Narrative
September 12, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Eunice Tiptree
“It’s important that you remember everything.”
I heard the commandment as I bee-lined for the living room. The voice came from my head, yet seemed to speak from the air. I was eight- or nine-years old.
I may have paused a second, but I did not wonder at the statement or ask myself why was so important to remember. I went on my way — the Flintstones were coming on.
The commandment only survived as a curiosity. It did not influence my course in life. Yet looking back through the tunnel of three-score years, I see I have striven to remember everything. By remember, I mean by writing in a daily journal begun the day I turned 21.
I’ve kept that journal for 47 years, a means of talking to myself through time. As if the journal wasn’t enough, I later started outlining daily events in a datebook, useful as an index to the journal and as a quick overview of my journey through the months.
I pictured my inner self as some medieval scribe in a tower ringed by windows. The scribe follows the clock of the sun from window to window for the light to write, window to window through the arc of the day and the swing of the seasons.
It’s all there, births and deaths, my career as a journalist, at first on a small-town newspaper, later developing a magazine on the space program. And it’s also there, hidden and sometimes glimpsed, submerging again and finally surfacing, decades of gender confusion that preceded my journey from male to female beginning in 2010.
After completing my transition, I thought myself a natural to write a memoir of my experience. I went over every journal entry for the two years that culminated with surgery. From the bible of my journal, I made detailed notes about each small step, lifted extended quotes, charted events to the exact day. I filled three notebooks with artifacts, an undigested digest of my transition. And began to write . . .
And write. And write.
I became trapped in what came next. Call it “Then-ism,” as in: and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened. A slow, turgid stream of “and then.”
Surprise, the entire work fell apart. I found myself lost in a swamp of 140,000 words.
I’d ignored something I learned studying at the Kenyon Review Writing Workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore: Autobiography attempts to include most of a life; memoir attempts to exclude most of a life. And, the bigger the subject, the smaller the keyhole through which you want to enter it.
A keyhole? I’d left the barn doors wide open, the silo stuffed with more mementoes than a hoarder.
I should have known better from my own experience long ago as a beginning newspaper reporter. In those days I lugged around a bulky cassette tape recorder at the ready for interviews. One time doing a feature, the tape failed. I didn’t discover it until afterwards. Forced to write the story from memory, I discovered the important points and quotes remained lodged in my mind. I didn’t need the tape. After that, I gained the confidence to trust myself — that the important stuff sticks.
Details form a seductive trap, especially when you have them all before you, in bright colors like a jar of jellybeans. Who can stop at one or even a handful?
I still have a hard time weaning myself off the sugar high. I’ll open the journals. But only to refresh my memory. I’ll go for a walk, away from temptation. As I stride along without the crutch of my journals, the bulk of details fall away, which opens space for the truly important scenes to surface. I see new relationships, connections, and hidden meanings. I see something come alive. All the while getting some good exercise.
Remember everything? Why listen to an eight-year-old? Forget everything. That’s the only way to begin to remember. Let your memory roam the seas, not get trapped against the rocks.
I’m nearing the completion of a new memoir, less than half the length of the old one and much stronger — at least a little voice tells me so.
Eunice Tiptree’s essays have been published in Brevity, Crack the Spine, Weave, Older Queer Voices and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published in The Kenyon Review and elsewhere. She writes a blog about the space program at TLI-Tiptree.com.
September 9, 2022 § 8 Comments
By Leslie Stonebraker
Welcome to part 3 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. For the genesis of this research project, read Part 1: “How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” To discover Brevity’s most overused words and best-favored subjects, read Part 2: “Word clouds and other squishy results.” This final installment is where a non-analyst tries her hand at hard math.
Before narrative, before voice, before tense and point of view, before even paragraph and sentence, there was a word. The word that birthed every other word, brought them all forth stacked and tumbling. Hieroglyphs slick with meaning that, when we’re lucky, conjure a universe in a few scratches of ink.
Flash essays are made of very few and specific words. But it’s difficult to conjure worlds in less than 750: fewer than half the essays I read achieve a sub-650 count, and only 11% contain less than 400 words. A grand total two essays limbo under the 150 threshold. It’s hard to write small. More than a third of Brevity’s accepted submissions from 2017 to 2021 clock in at 700-749 words.
Zooming outward to the rooms the words built: sentences and paragraphs. There appear to be three categories of flash essay: the nearly-if-not-exactly-single-sentence, the balanced essay, and the choppy essay. But to prove this theory, I’ll have to analyze sentences and paragraphs simultaneously, and I need to work myself up to that level of math.
Instead let’s examine the building’s aesthetic: essay type, point of view and tense. 58% of the pieces are best understood as personal essays: personal experiences told using literary techniques. Essays like Megan Pillow Davis’ “Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling,” which cleverly lulls me into forgetting the title by the end of her 708 words, such that I read her bared teeth as a snarl. Like Donna Steiner’s gleeful “Lick”—though that anecdote begins with a short list. Speaking of, more than half of the hermit crabs (themselves 13% of Brevity’s essays) are lists. The rest tend toward the lyric, the fragmented, the braided—all arguably subsets of the personal essay. Only 8 of the 228 essays analyzed could be considered literary journalism. The gravitational tug of the personal helps writers to create a strong connection in such a brief space.
This logic also explains why 85% of the essays are in the first person singular. I. Me. Point of view perspective from my eyes, staring at my chapped fingers tapping these words onto my MacBook keyboard. Distant second of second person, you netting only 9% of the essays in my data set. You that can invite a reader in, you that can put difficult events at a distance, you that sometimes requires acrobatics for exposition that you should already know since you are, well, you. First person plural and third person the remaining 6%, handfuls of essays managing these tricky points of view.
Tense, too, tends personal: 64% using present—the immediacy of running, jumping, climbing trees. 35% went reflective, those that ran, jumped, and climbed in some sepia-tone past. Only 1% thought forward: one day, when my back doesn’t ache from slouching in front of this computer, I will run and jump and climb.
Narrative time period is a different beast. In The Best of Brevity, Dinty W. Moore commended the “inventive writers” who quickly disproved his preliminary hypothesis that successful flash must focus on “the smallest period of time possible” (x). My graph verifies Moore’s realization: there are no narrative limitations to a flash essay.
Which brings me to scary big “M” Math.
Removing Jill Kolongowski’s “160 Things That Scare Me”—a true outlier with 199 sentences across 97 paragraphs—I pivot my table, nest sentences beneath paragraphs, and command Excel to create a scatterplot. Setting the background to black, I sit and stare. I like to see the flash this way, a swarm of lighting bugs, a constellation of stars.
I am happy to disprove my tidy theory of three essay types: in place of distinct groupings, a continuum. Most essays fall within a rough parallelogram below 20 paragraphs and 55 sentences. As paraphs increase, so do sentences—it would be difficult to read an essay that broke sentences across the backs of paragraphs (though successful in Irina Dumitrescu’s “Line,” and Kristine Langley Mahler’s “A Knot on the Finger,” among others). The bands of yellow dots seem to slope upward at the same rate, hinting at a golden ratio. When I limit the data to the concentrated area of light and insert a trendline (I impress even myself with this bit of Excel wizardry), I get the following Math:
y = 0.9497x + 22.595
R² = 0.2122
It doesn’t feel all that actionable, and a quick Google search confirms my coefficient of determination (R²) is probably weak. I talk up my coefficient, try to give it the determination to succeed, but it replies that I should brew another mug of peppermint tea and look elsewhere for answers.
I’m drawn to the graph’s brightness in the low paragraph counts. It signals those single sentence essays I expected to see—true one sentencers like Elena Passarello’s “Death Sentence” and close-enough-ers like David L. Ulin’s “Rite of Passage”—but also a second category: the stream-of-consciousness essay. These essays are one paragraph because it evokes the rush of a breath, words punctuated by sentences mostly for flair. Francis Walsh’s “I Can Shrink to Perfection” (22 sentences), Joe Plicka’s “But Whyyy?” (32 sentences), and even Allegra Hyde’s “Misinformation” (45 sentences) could be categorized stream-of-consciousness.
Digging further, I diagram the words per sentence of three stream-of-consciousness essays: “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” “Twenty Minutes,” and “Anniversary Disease.” Here we see the melody, pitch, and rhythm of the flash.
“If You Find a Mouse…” and “Anniversary Disease” meander along gentle turns. In contrast, “Twenty Minutes” is a high-speed chase—all peaks and valleys, especially the build and drop between Sabrina Hick’s first four sentences.
Performing the same work on five more essays, chosen because they reside in the average band of the scatterplot and because I like them:
The turn from short to lyrical sentences halfway through “WANTED: Biological Father” is obvious. The rapid fire of “Known Killers” unceasing. The lyricism of “Conduction,” the devastating finale of “Women These Days,” the evenhandedness of “When a 17-Year-Old Checkout Clerk in Small Town Michigan Hits on Me, I Think about the Girl I Loved at 17,” all appear in the graph.
Viewing flash as sentences per paragraph simplifies the drama into soft, undulating waves, the same way ocean breaking over coral turns to rumpled velvet when viewed from an airplane.
Is this a useful way to think about writing flash? Or writing generally? Perhaps a tool for revision, to ensure musicality matches content and voice. To bend and crack sentences until they shine like glowsticks. Will this data land you a Brevity byline? Against the odds, it got me one, so who knows!
Please comment with your insights. Perhaps together we can feed our addiction and tame the beast of flash.
Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 6, 2022 § 11 Comments
How arguing with yourself can sell your book.
By Allison K Williams
One key way to sell a memoir? From a “hot essay”:
- a well-argued, passionate, strongly written essay or OpEd
- published in a major media outlet
- that garners attention online and off.
Simple, right? Just write your piece and go viral! But first, let me tell you what the Powerball numbers will be this week…
Nobody can guarantee virality (not even people with millions of fans already!) Fortunately, your work doesn’t have to go viral for your hot essay to increase your audience and help sell your book. This contest has two first prizes: either hundreds of thousands of people engage with your work, or the right person does—the agent or publisher who loves your idea, or their friend/cousin/intern who brings your work to their attention. And the process of writing the essay itself will make your book-to-be even better.
What’s the difference between an OpEd and an essay?
“OpEd” comes from “opposite the editorial page,” and it’s how newspapers traditionally distinguished guest opinions from in-house, often unattributed pieces that represented the official position of the paper. Essays, in this context, are usually straightforward, first-person accounts of a significant happening or the evolution of a life around one main theme.
Essays ask questions. OpEds pose answers.
Essay titles are evocative. OpEd titles summarize the problem or the hook.
Essays start in scene. OpEds start with a lede—a single sentence that sums up the problem and your position on it.
Essays show your personal experience. OpEds show you’re an expert or have deep knowledge about your topic.
Essays use literary techniques to create emotional resonance and ask the reader to reflect. Opeds use rhetoric, supporting information & thesis/antithesis to make clear, logical arguments and call the reader to action.
Publishing a wave-making OpEd or a highly visible essay usually happens in intelligent-but-commercial media with a strong online presence rather than a strictly literary outlet. Places like Vox, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Find your ideal essay or OpEd topic by looking at the themes in your memoir.
Rather than encapsulating your plot, think about how you explain your book. There’s the plot, and then there’s the part where you tell your fellow writer, “But what it’s really about is…” Mother-daughter relationships. Overcoming addiction. Loneliness. Whatever the larger element of your book is, the thing that will make a reader say to a friend, “Reading this will help with your problem, even though your story is different.” You might have overarching themes, and themes within scenes or chapters or subplots. They’re all fair game.
Pick one of your themes. Then articulate both the most extreme position you could take on that theme and its opposite. Something like, Alcoholics shouldn’t have children/Alcoholics should have children. Center your nuanced essay or powerful OpEd on the conflict between those two ideas.
Each of these essays sold a memoir that expanded on the essay’s theme. The process of writing the short piece also helped the author solidify and define the central conflict of their book. By thoroughly examining the view opposing their own and showing their fight against it, their struggle or journey gains more tension and uncertainty for the reader.
OpEds are more likely to build your audience and platform than nail an immediate book deal—but publishing an OpEd helps answer “why me?” in your memoir proposal. Why should your book be published? Because you’re the expert in this topic. How do we know you’re an expert? The New York Times thought so, so we’ll take their word for it. Getting your opinion into the world on a smaller scale paves the way for your full-length opinion to be taken seriously, as well as helping establish the importance of what you have to say.
Whether or not you write an essay or OpEd, and whether or not it goes viral, it’s worth examining your themes and your central premise, identifying their opposites, and exploring those opposites as fully as possible. As a memoirist, you already know what happened, and there’s a tendency to support our own view (and our eventual destination) from the beginning of the book. Your work as a whole will be stronger if you reflect the constant conflict between two opposing and strongly held (not necessarily equally valid, just strongly held) ideas. Every scene will be more immediate, more visceral. Because practicing arguing both sides brings you back to when you were in conflict with yourself—when the future genuinely was in doubt.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. As a freelance editor, her clients’ work has appeared in The Sun, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The Ethel, and many more. She’ll be teaching how to pitch and publish essays and OpEds, from idea to publication, in Pitch, Publish and Get Paid Sept. 14th (yes, there’s a replay!) Find out more and register here.
August 2, 2022 § 21 Comments
By Allison K Williams
When Julie Andrews sang “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music, she stressed the building blocks. Her seven Austrian stepchildren-to-be needed to understand the scale before yodeling their heartfelt emotions through the Alps. As writers, we need building blocks, too—a sense of the seeds of our story, the events in our background shaping our family’s behavior and our own, our cast of characters, an overview of the dramatic structure.
Our readers don’t need this information.
Starting at the very beginning, in memoir, essays or novels, is a very bad place to start. Following a classic “worst part of the problem” prologue with chapters of backstory leaves the reader asking when we’re going to get to the good part. If your childhood is the story, great! But if the bulk of your dramatic action takes place in adulthood, get the reader there quickly. You can always flash back later if there’s a key childhood moment that explains, justifies or undermines the present dramatic action.
Readers, agents and editors make decisions—often subconsciously—from the first sentence, first paragraph and first page. Will continuing to read be an effort of will or an act of obligation? Or will the story scoop them up and carry them along?
Three common mistakes that disconnect readers from your first-page(s):
1) Starting with backstory. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter plunge the reader into the story? Or is it environment, set-up, or explanation of events to come? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph, maybe even the first two paragraphs.
For a book, see what’s actually needed in the first 50 pages. Ask a friend who hasn’t read the manuscript (and ideally, doesn’t know your story) to read pages 50-70, with no preliminaries. Have them list information they understand from those pages, like “they live in Chicago” or “her mother is an alcoholic.” Cut those things from the first 50 pages—if they’re clear now, they don’t need explaining earlier. Have the reader also list what they wish they knew or didn’t understand. Keep those elements from the first 50 pages, but consider whether they belong before, or should be woven in later.
2) Prologue-as-overview. Editing memoir manuscripts, I see an awful lot of prologues summarizing the story to come, carefully laying out the upcoming difficulties in dealing with the situation described on the back cover. It’s common to be worried that the reader won’t “get it,” and as memoirists, this is a scary proposition. What if someone reads my story and doesn’t understand me? What if I don’t make sense? But explaining the plot in advance distances the reader and removes dramatic tension.
We already know you’re going to make it—you wrote a book about it. Keep us guessing how you’ll get to the end of the book. Take a long, hard look at your prologue—is it making an enticing promise to the reader about a powerful dramatic element or intriguing character they’ll meet later? Or is it an overview of why you’re telling this story, listing key moments and situations to come, explaining “why I’m like this”?
3) Too many nouns. When multiple people, places and things are immediately introduced, the reader doesn’t know who or what is important. If the essay opens with six family members are at the dinner table, which ones should they carefully remember? If the reader encounters a detailed group in your opening paragraphs, they get confused and mentally back off, trying to see the bigger picture and decide what/who matters. They can also start wondering if this essay is aligned with their interests, instead of getting hooked by connecting with a key character or theme in the first page.
Count the number of nouns in your opening paragraph or page. If there are more than three people, places or things, ask yourself if the reader can track them—and why they’d want to.
If your memoir has a technical element (like sailing or horseback riding) or takes place in a specific subculture (like a particular religion or ethnic group), get the reader into the flow of the story before breaking down individual unfamiliar elements. If you’re in a racially or ethnically distinct group, you don’t have to “tour guide” your culture for white readers. Rather than defining unfamiliar words or practices, let readers outside your experience bond with your larger purpose and teach themselves the details from context—there’s always Google if they’re stuck.
As for “Do-Re-Mi”? To be honest, I’d cut those first two lines. Sure, the deer is an interesting sub-character, but you could get her in later when she directly affects the action. And do we really need to know it’s sunny right away? Start with who “Mi” is, establish there’s a long, long way to run, and start running.
Allison K Williams is the Brevity Blog’s Social Media Editor. Struggling with your beginning? Join Allison and Creative Nonfiction Magazine for Beautiful Beginnings, Brilliant Endings August 24th (yes, there’s a replay!) More info/register here.