TYPO

November 29, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Adam Patric Miller           

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Wow. I stopped writing. Funny how that goes. I have something to work with in all the entries up to today, but I’m too tired and irritated to think about going in to shape it up. That will be the summer. Literary time moves so slow you might be dead before things pick up. Met Toby Wyatt at Momus Café to discuss strategy to become the English Dept. Chair—a job I don’t want. But Brad is so bad, he’s causing damage to students. And with Molly Sauereisen as language arts coordinator, she’s trying to fuck up the core books we teach. Why do I care? Should I care? I’m busy collecting agent rejections. Here’s one: “I’ve reviewed your submission with Jonathan and I’m sorry to report that we just aren’t wholeheartedly connecting with your work, despite its many charms. So, we should step aside. We truly appreciate the look, though, and we wish you nothing but the best of luck.” Here’s what I think. That book has zero charms. Scary thought: the book I’ve written is not what I think I’ve written. It is a sugary confection. It is charming and fun. At some point the dementia set in but I kept writing, like now. There have been intimations. I’ll type an email, re-read it, and see typos—I mean extreme typos I used to never make. Or I’ll be talking to class about what is due on Friday—to remind them—and they’ll all tell me, “You said Monday!” Friday, Monday, Monday, Shmunday. I wish me best of luck. Today I’m teaching the end of Mrs. Dalloway. I’ve concocted a Party Quiz—if you don’t know the book, it ends with the snob Mrs. Dalloway throwing her party and the Prime Minister shows up, but, you know, so does Death. I think I tell my students Virginia Woolf thought she heard birds singing in Greek. The hallucination one character has seems too familiar to me. Grace says, “Don’t make everything about you.” And I say, “What else do I have?” I know what she means of course. But Septimus sees his friend blown up in WWI; Dad’s buddy died at Iwo Jima. None of those things happened to me. I remember a funeral for a student. The student’s mom stared at me after I looked at her son in the coffin. She wasn’t crying. Her eyes were filled with the black ink of rage.
___

Adam Patric Miller is the author of A Greater Monster (2014), a collection of essays selected by Phillip Lopate to win the Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize. He’s won a Pushcart Prize and a Notable Essay Selection in The Best American Essay Series. Miller’s work has appeared in River Styx, The Blue Earth Review, Agni Magazine, and The Florida Review. Miller writes and teaches in St. Louis, Missouri. Twitter: @patric_adam

Same Memoir, Different Planet: An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

November 10, 2021 § 4 Comments

by P.J. Powell and Natalie Lockett

Charlie Jane Anders / Photo by Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People

In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Nebula- and Locus-award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders blends memoir, anecdote, and expert writing advice into a how-to guide for writers on using creativity to get through hard times.

P.J. Powell and Nat Lockett interviewed Anders for the Brevity blog, exploring how memoirists can use a sci-fi master’s writing tools to convey defining moments of their past.

Nat & P.J.: You talk about getting into a character’s head and transporting yourself to another place when you write sci-fi. Could a memoirist think of their past in the same way?

Charlie Jane Anders: Totally. The moment you turn something that really happened into a story, it [moves] beyond an unprocessed series of events that you’re putting on the page as they happened. You massage it. You create a narrative around it. You channel your imagination and try to create a scene and a moment—try to draw people in and push them through a chain of events with a certain logic. Real life never quite has that cohesiveness.

Memoir, personal essay, and creative nonfiction require a lot of the same muscles, strengths, and ideas fiction does. You can still do a lot of the stuff in Never Say You Can’t Survive in terms creating characters, plots, scenes, momentum, and through-lines. Even if you’re writing about real people, you’re still kind of turning them into characters.

Natalie Lockett

N & PJ: What can you do in sci-fi writing that could help someone telling a true story?

Charlie Jane Anders: You can do what we can’t in real life: control the focus and the frame; juxtapose things.

In reality, you can’t cut directly from a person saying something to that person doing the exact opposite. Those things might happen three weeks apart, but in your story – fiction or nonfiction – you can skip that time and cut right to the next important action.

You can also slow down or speed up time. Live in a moment for pages, then go through 100 years in a paragraph. And while you’re writing, even as you’re emotionally inhabiting the characters in the moment, there’s a part of you that can be building in an extra layer of meaning and allowing us to see the bigger picture. You can depict that layer through what the characters notice and see, the narrative itself, or the order in which you present things.

N & PJ: What advice do you have for rendering real people in written recollection?

CJA: Part of how I deal with my past is trying to understand what really happened. If you put yourself in the shoes of other, real people, that can be powerful. It’s hard to do, and there’s nothing wrong with telling your story as you see it. Just know other people might see things differently. Sometimes, oftentimes, I’ll have a version of events in my head that’s like, “Okay, this happened and this happened,” but then I’ll go back and find actual facts or documentary evidence proving my recollection is flawed and it didn’t quite happen the way I think it did.

It’s really liberating and healthy to realize we all fudge the past a little bit. Your perspective is always going to be limited, and you have to accept that and try to get a reality check as much as you can. But at the same time, yeah, it’s your story, it’s your experience. You’re writing about what you feel happened. I’ve written personal essays where I was like, “Okay, I know everybody, we all agreed at the time this is what happened,” and then I’ll write it and people are like, “Oh, is that what happened? I mean, I feel like…” Because time has passed, and our recollections may have diverged.

Memory is weird.

N & PJ: As someone whose stories can take place anywhere from augmented-reality San Francisco to a space society orbiting a living blob, what world-building advice can you give to people writing creative nonfiction?

CJA: The thing people and worlds have in common is they’re meaningless without a history. Real or made-up people don’t exist out of nowhere; they’re a product of all the things that have happened and the choices they’ve made. It’s the same with the settings where your memoir takes place.

In The City in the Middle of the Night humans have been living on this other planet for hundreds of years, and I had to keep going back and thinking of that so the settings and characters would feel real. Everywhere you look, you see the past. We know there were wars between these two human cities because there’s this war memorial. Later, we go to a garbage dump, and there’s random, weird crap from the war effort and back when these two cities used to trade.

P.J. Powell

Real life is like that, too. New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Ida will always look different than New Orleans before. I read an article about Confederate statues standing for over 100 years. People got used to them being there. Why? To understand that you have to understand not just the Civil War, but Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and this mythology of the lost cause people created in the South after the war.

A sense of past makes the world of the story feel lived in; it helps us understand why the characters are the way they are.

N & PJ: Never Say You Can’t Survive is about writing to help us as individuals and as a society through tough times. Why is the concept of “story” so important in fiction, nonfiction, and life?

You can present a million statistics and facts, and it doesn’t make any difference. People are swayed by anecdotes, narratives, and emotion. Not so much information, as by the emotional content of, “Here’s a really compelling story.”

I’ve worked as a journalist and you’re taught that, yeah, you might have a ton of facts showing there’s a problem, but you need a narrative hook. If this problem affects lots of people, [find] a person affected by the problem, make them a character in your article, and show us their journey. Show us how it affects them personally. Nobody is going to care if it’s like, “Oh, a million people had this problem.” Who cares? I can’t encompass that. My brain can’t wrap itself around a million people doing a thing.

But if I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this specific person had this problem and I feel really bad for them” and there’s a picture of them looking really sad, or, “Oh, they did this thing and they’re awesome” and they look really happy, that’s how we process the world, and that’s a huge challenge for anybody who’s trying to get us to grapple with abstract things like climate change, pandemics and other nebulous, hard-to-encompass problems.

Stories are powerful. Stories are what the world is made of. If you can tell a story that’s compelling, whether it’s made-up or real, it could change people’s views of the world. It can rewrite our ideas about reality and that’s powerful and important.

___

P.J. Powell and Natalie “Nat” Lockett co-host Write Away with Nat and PJ, a podcast where they explore writing and books they love by interviewing authors and publishing professionals. (More writing advice and conversation with Charlie Jane Anders will be featured on the November 15, 2021 episode.) P.J. Powell’s short fiction and essays have been published in Evening Street Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Youth Imagination, and other placesNat Lockett is an author and essayist with nonfiction work featured in Herstry and Across the Margin. Her first novel, The Dead King, is currently haunting editor inboxes via her agent Tara Gonzalez of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Writing and The Green-Eyed Monster

October 20, 2021 § 13 Comments

By Laura Davis

In the final weeks before the launch of my first book in nineteen years, I’m excited, exhausted, obsessed, and optimistic—when I’m not feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. As I get closer to my launch, I’m more emotional, on edge. It’s getting harder to remain grounded in all that’s good and steady in my life.

Yesterday, I started listening to one of many writing podcasts I subscribe to. The latest episode was about deconstructing a book launch. Oh, I thought, that’s perfect for me. I can learn from the mistakes and successes of this author. So, as I folded clothes and organized the mess of papers scattered across my bed, I hit play.

The name of the podcast doesn’t matter, nor does the name of the author. She was talking about what went well and what didn’t in her pandemic book launch. In the first five minutes, it became clear that this woman had many things I didn’t: the backing of a big publisher, a huge marketing campaign and budget, lots of personal connections to the literati, publishers, broadcasters, podcasters, and famous writers. She’d clearly called in her chits and gotten lots of people to promote her book in circles vastly bigger and more influential than mine.

A ball of dread sparked in my belly. I knew enough about self-care to turn off the podcast, but it was too late. I’d already been sucked into a sticky web of anxiety. All the hard work I’d done for my launch, everything I’d set up looked paltry and insignificant by comparison. I was sure that the opportunities that I could only dream about were falling into the other author’s lap. Terry Gross, sure! Tim Ferris, of course. Reese Witherspoon’s book club—absolutely! The green-eyed monster firmly attached herself to me. “Why don’t I have…?” “Why can’t I be…?” “My book will never…” I spent the afternoon doom-scrolling in my mind, playing out worst case scenarios. The Burning Light of Two Stars would be published and instantly drop into the pit of obscurity. The capstone of my writing career would never be read. It wouldn’t touch people. It wouldn’t reach readers. I’d never recoup the tens of thousands of dollars I’d invested in this launch.

That’s when I remembered what my upbeat and brilliant book marketing coach, Sue Campbell from Pages and Platforms, told us once in a mindset call, “When you compare, you despair.”

So, I called it a day, packed my swim bag, and headed to my haven, the Simpkins Family Swim Center. Five minutes from my house, this state-of-the-art public pool is where I go for exercise, solace, meditation, and to still my churning mind.

I swiped my admission card, peeled off my clothes, donned my cap, goggles and fins, and slid into the cool depth. As soon as I hit the water, my whole body relaxed. As I went through my workout—kicking, pulling, breathing every third breath, then every fifth, then every seventh, sprinting, followed by a cool-down—I glanced underwater at the swimmers to my right and left.

I’m always struck by the egalitarian nature of the pool. There are babies, toddlers, school children, swim team members, the water aerobics ladies (who remind me fondly of my mother), old people, able-bodied people, people with disabilities, bodies that are obese, thin, shapely, flabby, and everywhere in between. Sometimes, the swimmer to my left zips along, doing flip turns and a fast freestyle, lapping me regularly, while the swimmer to my right is so slow, I’m doing three laps to his one. I think about this every time I swim—there is always someone faster than me and always someone slower.

The other swimmers only exist in my peripheral vision for a moment. Then I slip back into my own deep-water groove, savoring the way the light filters through the water, relishing the sensation of my whole body moving weightlessly, the pleasure of counting laps. I focus on being in my own lane, relishing the vitality and strength in my body.

And that’s how it is with my book launch. I’m in my own lane. I’ve made a plan. I’m executing that plan, swimming toward an uncertain future—as we all are, in ways far vaster and most significant than the launch of my new book.

Jealousy poisons and cuts both ways. While I’m busy coveting what another author has, another writer is wishing they had my privilege, platform, and publishing history. There will always be an author with more. Each time I hunger for someone else’s success, it poisons me. It makes me doubt myself and my own trajectory. To compare is to despair. All I can do is keep swimming with strength, purpose, and passion in my lane.

____

Laura Davis is the author of The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story, the story of her loving yet tumultuous relationship with her mother, and six other nonfiction books, including The Courage to HealI Thought We’d Never Speak Again, and Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. Her groundbreaking books have been translated into 11 languages and sold two million copies. In addition to writing books that inspire and change people’s lives, the work of Laura’s heart is to teach. For more than twenty years, she’s helped people find their voices, tell their stories, and hone their craft. Laura loves creating supportive, intimate writing communities online, in person, and internationally. You can learn about Laura’s workshops, read the first five chapters of her new memoir, and receive a free ebook: Writing Through Courage: A 30-Day Practice at www.lauradavis.net.

Writing 9-11: The Costs and Benefits of Saying Yes

September 11, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Jessica DuLong

“What about another book?” The editor’s email subject line announced her overture. Who would turn down such an offer? Still, I hesitated.

She was encouraging me to expand the piece I had published about the spontaneous boat evacuation of nearly half a million people from Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I knew turning that into a book would require immersing myself for many months in the suffering and fear of a dark day in American history.

It would mean putting myself into the heads of people like ferry captain James Parese, whose over-and-back routine suddenly shifted that day from ferrying passengers to rescuing them. Instead of staying put on the safe shores of Staten Island, he made the choice, again and again, to drop lines, pull out, and steer his boat straight toward the incomprehensible hell unfolding at the tip of Manhattan.

I was wary of taking this on. A decade after the terrorist attacks, I still struggled with the psychological fallout from my service at Ground Zero.

For four days, I had worked as a marine engineer aboard fireboat John J. Harvey. After the planes struck, the retired 1931 FDNY vessel was called back into service to supply water to firefighters at the World Trade Center.

A pontoon boat operated by merchant marines had rushed me to the site. There, I spotted the Harvey among the assemblage of workboats stationed along the seawall. The outmoded, historic fireboat that had stolen my heart was back, pumping river water up through her deck pipes, doing the work for which she’d been built.

I warmed at the sight, but also braced myself. Once I’d set foot in that dust-coated lunar landscape, nothing could ever be the same.

A day after both towers collapsed, firefighters continued battling the blazes that would rage on for months. Ironworkers cut away at what had already been dubbed The Pile. They pulled up sections of steel whose molten ends, exposed to air, flared up once more.

Reporting to the captain for duty aboard Harvey on that late summer day, I saw snow. Powdery ash had settled on every surface. Paper, plastic bags, and debris had tangled into nearby trees—some standing, some toppled. Responders in hard hats, coveralls, turnout gear, and blue and green scrubs rushed around in this blizzard. It made no sense. That day, that dust became a part of me.

Ten years later, the editor’s book invitation left me torn. My work at the Trade Center still haunted me. Yet, as a journalist, a historian, a responder, a witness, and a patriot, I felt the weight of responsibility. The boat lift story is one of grace in response to brutality. This history matters. I felt obliged to collect and share it.

I knew well the deep immersion that book writing requires. At the time, I still felt depleted from writing My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America and the two years of book events that followed. That book had called upon me to merge memoir with 400 years of Hudson River history. Naively, I supposed that writing about the September 11 boat lift might be simpler since the events took place on a single day.

I accepted the editor’s offer. The writing took a toll.

Reporting on topics like violence and human suffering has consequences for the mental health of journalists and historians, a fact that has become more widely recognized in recent years. Organizations like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, established in 1991, continue to assemble and share additional resources like these: Resources for Journalists Coping With Trauma.

I’ve now spent a second decade swimming in the trauma of terrorism, reliving awful close-ups of the World Trade Center catastrophe at every stage of reporting, interviewing, writing, and revising. Some days it’s been hard to see past all the horror.

I wish I could say I took advantage of Dart’s resources and found constructive ways to cope. But that wouldn’t be true. In reality, this project has exacerbated existing anxiety issues and left me reeling through difficult periods of PTSD.

But… I’ve also relished the gifts it’s brought. Document this history has granted me the privilege of discovering how new, often unlikely, alliances formed between people who worked together to help.

Now, with U.S. society newly sensitized to the ruinous costs of erasing or eliding our brutal histories, I feel heightened urgency to share the generous efforts made by all the helpers that day. The remarkable choices they made reveal the power of collective action, make evident the force of good.

Somewhere in the middle of writing Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift, I discovered light amidst the darkness. Chronicling the series of lifesaving, selfless acts performed by countless everyday people revealed the reflexive human drive to aid those in need. Memorializing the maritime evacuation as a landmark event in our history is critical to our understanding the hope and humanity that so often comes in response to disaster. Stories of how people rallied together with the simple, clear recognition of human interconnectedness show us who we can be again. Seems like a good time to remember that.

Saved has come out in time for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The process of drafting the preface while struggling through the pandemic left me raw. But I hope this anniversary will be the one where I let go of some of the awfulness and embrace the good.

The boat rescues that grew into the largest-ever maritime evacuation upend common assumptions about human limitations. Mariners who improvised this massive, unplanned, successful effort showed who we are when we’re at our best. This antidote to divisiveness and fear offers an enheartening message for right now.

Recognizing the large-scale compassion and creativity that occurs in response to hatred and evil has expanded my belief in human potential.

Saying “yes” to that editor is what gave me that chance.

_______

Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based author, editor, and collaborator/coach who helps writers develop a wide array of narrative nonfiction books. SAVED AT THE SEAWALL: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift is the definitive history of the largest ever waterborne evacuation. MY RIVER CHRONICLES: Rediscovering the Work that Built America won the 2010 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award for memoir. A USCG-licensed marine engineer, DuLong served aboard retired 1931 NYC fireboat John J. Harvey for two decades, 11 years as chief.

Getting Over Over-Editing

August 31, 2021 § 11 Comments

I love being an editor. I love pointing out craft fixes that immediately make this book and all an author’s subsequent writing better. I love pointing out major structural overhauls…and inspiring them to do that work. Most of all, I love how analyzing other writers’ work helps me improve my own.

How did I get to be an editor? After an MFA and years of tidying friends’ work for free, I hung up my shingle and congratulations me, I’m in business. While there are certificate programs for copyeditors and online courses for story and structure editors, we’re not like therapists or dentists. There’s no licensing to give us permission—and no regulatory board to make sure we’re honest and competent.

I’ve heard from plenty of authors who’ve had bad experiences with professional editors or writing coaches. The scammed/mistreated/poorly edited authors aren’t usually willing to speak publicly, and I don’t blame them for being embarrassed or intimidated. But plenty of authors have told me privately about money lost and feelings bruised. Since I can’t out specific people (hearsay), I’ll tell you my own editing sins—and how to avoid them as a client.

Overwhelm. Early in my editing career, I tried to fix every single thing that could possibly help a manuscript. Pages went back crawling with red ink and hundreds of margin comments. No no no, Previous Me! Editors should do one stage at a time. Feedback on commas comes after story and structure. In a developmental edit, I’ll point out some repeated sentence-level mistakes for the author to fix globally, but it’s my job to limit the amount of editing to what an author can handle in one or two more drafts.

Don’t let this happen to you. Know the difference between developmental editing, line editing, copyediting and proofreading. Be honest with yourself about what your work needs, and specific with the editor. It’s OK to say, “I only need feedback on the story,” or “What I really need help with is making my sentences stronger.” The editor may say your work needs a different level of editing, and you’ll be able to decide if you agree.

Over-criticizing. Editors don’t just point out what’s wrong; they reaffirm what the author is already doing beautifully and inspire them to build on those strengths. Unless you’ve hired a straight copyedit or proofread, your editor should recognize moments like “this sentence is great” or “the way you handle this theme works well because X.” Now, my own editorial cheerleading balances out comments like “WHY DOES SHE GO BACK SHE KNOWS HE’S TERRIBLE HUGE LOGIC ISSUE HERE!!!” but I was a lot worse at that balance ten years ago.

Don’t let this happen to you. Get a free or paid sample edit. Look for the editor’s tone—how does it make you feel? If your sense is, “Wow, I didn’t see that and boy is fixing it going to help!” this might be your editor. If you feel discouraged beyond that initial “Crap, there’s more to do than I thought…” (which is very normal!), think about whether this editor is the right fit. Try applying fixes they suggest in the sample to your whole book, and see if that feels like improvement.

Over-ruling. There’s grammar, and there’s writing in your natural voice with consistent word patterns that make sense for the character, situation and setting. “Rules” against run-ons, comma splices and ending sentences with prepositions can help readers smoothly navigate your prose, or they can make your natural voice sound stilted and prim. Finding my own barometer for voice—“Like you’d tell a friend, but better”—saved myself and my clients hours of analyzing commas and awkwardly reframing sentences. “Correct” is only useful when a grammatical convention serves the book.

Don’t let this happen to you. Learn enough grammar and punctuation so that when you violate a convention, you’re doing it on purpose. Identify key elements of your own voice and amplify those as you gain confidence in your work. If an editor strips away your phrasing in the name of “correctness,” you’ll know it’s happening and be ready to push back.

Over-scheduling. Yeah, I still suck at this one. I’m often late returning manuscripts, compensating for my guilt by trying to do an extra-good editing job. I’ve learned techniques to speed up line editing, make margin commenting faster, and communicate better when I’m running behind (most clients aren’t mad, they just want to know what’s happening!), but I could still allow myself more cushion time.

Don’t let this happen to you. It’s OK to nudge your editor! More than once, even! Email a week or so before the deadline to ask if they’re on schedule, giving them an opening to tell you up front if they’re not. Let them know if you have a planned retreat, time off work, or a deadline.

My clients have given me grace for my mistakes, and I’m honored to be a small part of their journey to publication. Improving author communication, setting clear expectations, and educating myself to deliver useful, encouraging and thorough editing are daily practices, ones that serve what truly feels like my life’s work. I’m grateful to be able to do it.

Ever thought being an editor could be your life’s work, or even a pleasant sideline? Want to be a better editor or better at the business? Join me for a three-webinar series, Build Your Developmental Editing Business, beginning October 20th.

We’re Not Going to Talk About It

August 11, 2021 § 36 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Shame is visceral.

An essay about a pivotal moment from my childhood had been declined. In the rejection letter, the editor wrote:

Thanks for sending us more of your writing. Regretfully, we won’t be able to publish your work this time. As you know, only a fraction of what we receive is selected for publication, so even very good writing must sometimes be left out.

We’re grateful you chose to share your creativity with ________ again. Effective simile: ‘You both pump and fly through the air, back and forth, like the metronome on Grandma’s piano.’ Muscular description: ‘you descended, the poles pounded to earth, and you dragged your feet across the ground…’ Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.’

That last comment, “Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her,’” was difficult to hear. Outside our zone? The submission guidelines hadn’t listed any such prohibition.  

“Punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.” My words accurately described my father beating my mother. I could’ve said he pushed her around or he roughed her up a bit. But I couldn’t because he didn’t push her around or rough her up—he punched her, knocked her down, and kicked her.

I cringed. Why had I written the essay? How could I have been so callous? Why did I send it?

Shame kneecaps.

One morning the boy next door said to me, “Your parents really went at it last night.” I was in ninth grade and crazy about that boy. I said nothing.

Shame silences.

Many times, my mother has said, “Maybe it was partly my fault. Maybe if I’d kept my mouth shut.”

“No,” I have said, just as many times. “No one gets to beat you because they don’t like what you say.”

Shame eats autonomy.

Then I got angry. Then irate. Then pissed off. About the rejection letter.

Why had I written the essay? It’s my flashbulb memory. It changed me. I still think about it. Writers are told to pay attention to stories that play in their heads, to write about them. They may become inspiring essays. And, not writing about domestic violence won’t make it go away. It’s still going to happen.

How could I have been so callous? I wasn’t. The editor was. Perhaps there was a better way for the editor to reject my essay. But I can’t think of one. The standard spiel “not a good fit” would’ve sufficed. Sort of like, We don’t have any record of your room reservation. Or, We don’t have any tables at this time. Not publishing an essay about domestic violence won’t keep it from happening. It just remains a dirty little secret.

Why did I send it? Because it’s a good essay. Because sharing lets others know they’re not alone. And because I don’t like to share my story. It took me twenty years to share it with a good friend. She told me her daughter kicked out an abusive partner. He was sorry and wanted to return. The daughter was wavering. I listened but didn’t share.

Shame isolates.

The guilt of complicity gnawed at me. The next day I called my friend and told my story. My friend asked, “Can I tell my daughter about your childhood?”

“Yes, that’s why I told it to you,” I said. “Tell your daughter it will get worse. It will become harder to leave. The children will suffer.” The daughter didn’t let her partner return. Did my story influence her daughter? I don’t know. But my friend told me how much my story meant to her. That’s the power of story.

I’ve been a lover of story all my life: fiction, memoir, nonfiction. Story exposed me to the ugliness of racism, sexism, genocide, war, violence, abuse, poverty, prejudice, intolerance—experiences I didn’t have in my white, middle-class sphere (except for domestic violence, which travels everywhere). Story makes me walk in other people’s shoes, enter their worlds, feel their humanity.

I remembered my mother’s words about blame and applied them to myself. Maybe it was my fault for submitting it. Maybe if I’d have kept my essay shut up in its file. No, I told myself. No one gets to sweep your story under the rug.

The ideal rejection from the editor would’ve read, “Thank you for your submission, but we have to pass at this time as we’ve recently published a thought-provoking essay on domestic violence. Please submit in the future.”

__

Victoria Lynn Smith lives in Wisconsin near Lake Superior, where she recently started paddle boarding. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles. Her work has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television’s Moving Lives Website, Brevity Blog, Better Than Starbucks, and in several regional publications. Her flash essay, “Cloud Like a Lamb,” which is the subject of this essay, recently won third place in the Jade Ring Contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Writers Association Her dream is to one day visit the Shetland Islands. For more visit https://writingnearthelake.org/.

And, In Closing

August 2, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson

Bogged down in the minutiae of researching pertinent life events for your memoir? Stalled on the third chapter of your novel? Perhaps it might be helpful to set aside all those notebooks and research materials and skip right to the most fulfilling part of writing your book: The Acknowledgement Page.

After conducting an informal survey of my friends who are writers, I was heartened to know that I am not the only person who starts reading the end of a book first. And by the end, I don’t mean the final chapter or last page of the book itself. I mean, of course, the Acknowledgements. The part of the book where the author is obliged (“has the opportunity”) to thank each and every person who contributed to the planning, execution, and publication of his or her book.

Each and every person.

Because if you leave someone out of your acknowledgment page, there will be blood. Well, maybe not blood. But hurt feelings, and maybe lasting grudges. And whining. Certainly blood, hurt feelings, grudges, and whining are all states of affairs we writers hope to avoid at any cost.

The purpose of the acknowledgement page is to display a final appreciation, basically by sharing the names of those who contributed to your (hopeful) success in bringing your book to fruition.

There is a hierarchy of name-dropping in the best of these acknowledgements. Kudos to you if you attended Bread Loaf or had a residency at Ragdale or Yaddo, and can thank the overlords of those institutions for giving you the space and time away from your annoyingly demanding family and job.

If you haven’t been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship or even been a top-twenty finalist in an essay contest sponsored by your regional newspaper, don’t despair that you have nothing of note to put in your acknowledgement page. Your work should speak for itself, or at the very least Twitter will.

Next in the hierarchy of thanks might be your agent (although he or she might be first, depending on how high up the agent food chain they are). This is the person who discovered your talent, nurtured it, and believed in you, even after you secretly began to hate them for all their whiny, nit-picking demands. (Line edit a third time? Really?) Try to avoid groveling or too much familiarity (“I’d like to thank my new bestie, my brilliant agent Maureen, who I am now naming my firstborn after”) in your thank you – a cool detachment is best.

If your book required research of any type, this is also the place to thank the staffs of the libraries, websites, history centers, coffee shops, and chocolatiers who provided you with nurturing and even nourishment during your ordeal. How would you have brought your book into the world without quiet carrels and caffeine? Without the barista who understood your need for the quiet corner table by the window, and who kept on an eye on your laptop while you used the restroom?

This is the time to really lay it on if you had encouragement from, or took an MFA class from, or attended a lecture (that you paid for as part of a conference) by anyone in publishing with name recognition. Just don’t veer into crazy stalker territory. Though the words of a well-known writer or teacher may have changed your life, that person (amazingly) might not even remember you from the residency you had together in 2008.

Sincerity and gratitude are your bywords. But unctuousness is not.

You might start by writing an exhaustive list of those you want to thank in your acknowledgements, and then winnow that down. You don’t want to end up gushing like Sally Field in her Oscar acceptance speech, but you definitely don’t want to leave an important person (like your mom or spouse) out.

On second thought, maybe you should gush. After all, you published a book, damn it. A real book with words and paragraphs and chapters that you dreamed up and sweated over and made fit together in a way only you could have done. And if you want to thank everyone from the doctor who delivered you to your seventh grade English teacher to your great Grandma, then it’s your time and place to do so. And I will read it all first, before I even start with Chapter One.

_____

Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications including – of course – the Brevity blog. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals. Follow her on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com

I Just Didn’t Fall in Love

July 27, 2021 § 18 Comments

By Daien Guo

“I’m sorry. I just didn’t fall in love.”

The email landed in my inbox with a dull thud. I stared at the words over and over, hoping their meaning would change with each reading.

What about that first tentative sloppy kiss on the stoop of my graduate student apartment in Morningside Heights? Five years ago, when I still had long hair and I thought you were some surfer dude from California because of your sea-shell necklace and laid-back vibe? Then I learned you had graduated from Harvard with a degree in sociology. That shouldn’t impress me but it did.

Or the first time we traveled to Europe together, wandering through the streets of Milan giddily licking our second shared gelato of the day?

The weddings we went to in Napa, watching the sunset over the vineyards while clinking glasses swirling with amber chardonnay. The late-night check-in calls and texts. That time you bought me a pair of cashmere-lined leather gloves from Bloomingdales.

I’ll never forget the first time I met your sister at the family Thanksgiving. She gazed at me with her kind brown eyes and whispered conspiratorially, “He is my best friend.” I looked at you from across the room and our eyes briefly met – a zing of understanding and chemistry shooting across the family parlor like a superpower in a Marvel film. A superpower that I thought would last forever.  

I thought you would propose. I thought we would honeymoon in Lake Como. I thought our first-born child would have lovely warm brown eyes with flecks of grey, just like you and your sister.

Instead, you wrote to me in a freaking email, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t fall in love.”

I’m just kidding.

The email came from a literary agent, with whom I have no personal history.

I have always wondered when this phrase – I just didn’t fall in love – became a standard well-accepted way of politely rejecting querying writers? Why evoke such a crazy intense, intimate and emotional scenario when a more cool and objective one would suffice?

It might be kinder to just write dispassionately: “I don’t think your writing is good enough.” 

Or: “This book idea is boring.”

I’m no stranger to rejection letters. I’ve received them and I used to dole them out myself. Almost 20 years ago, when I was in college, I was a summer intern in the editorial department of Simon and Schuster. My cubicle was just outside the office of Alice Mayhew, a petite woman with a spritely gait that reminded me of my grandmother. She cracked pithy jokes with the gravelly voice of a life-long cigarette smoker, though I have no idea whether she smoked or not. Michael Korda with his British accent and bespoke three-piece suits was on the other end of the hallway. I wondered if they got along. They didn’t, people whispered. To my young eyes, both of them resembled eccentric elder relative characters out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The hallway was lined with oversized posters of New York Times Book Review covers that spilled out of the available wall space in Alice’s office – she had a lot of books that made the cover. 

My main responsibility was to read the slush pile and draft rejection letters. I used my literary gifts, meager as they were, to imitate the rejection letter in the style of each editor along that corridor. The editors in the middle of the hallway had direct impersonal styles – “Thanks for your manuscript. I enjoyed reading it but this is not right for our list at this time.”

Michael Korda’s were succinct and dry. “I’m sorry, but this is not my cup of tea.”

I forget how many rejection letters I wrote/imitated that summer. I don’t recall ever saying that I “didn’t fall in love,” but perhaps I used the word “love” in more insidious and thoughtless yet well-intentioned ways.

As an aspiring writer myself, I tried to respect the slush pile, reading through the first few chapters and identifying something positive that I could put in the letter. I would write one or two sentences of praise – “I loved this character” or “I love your lyrical descriptions” – before getting to the apologetic rejection.

Now I’ve gotten those letters myself and they are the worst. “I loved your voice… I loved the concept…” Love. Love. Love. My eyes scroll down the email and the longer the compliments flow, the faster my heart sinks.

It’s like a man who – during a clammy humid night – confesses ardently that he loves your earlobes and your toes and that mole on your left hip. All the insignificant body parts. But he just doesn’t love you.

How can you use love as a verb if it all sputters into nothingness?    

Rejection will always hurt. It will always send writers into a whirlwind of doubt and despair. But I propose that we tamp down the emotion and take the “love” out of rejection.

There is only one scenario in which a literary agent should use the word “love” in an email to a writer. The template is below:

Dear Writer,

I just finished your book and I love it! Please let me know if you are available tomorrow to discuss representation.

____________________________________

Daien Guo is a writer based in Washington D.C. She has published her writing in Lunch Ticket, Show Us Your Wits, Furious Gravity: DC Women Writers, Little Patuxent Review, 3Elements Literary Review, and Columbia Journal of Asian Law.

What The New York Times ‘Guest Essay’ Means for the Future of Creative Nonfiction

July 23, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Zoë Bossiere

In April, The New York Times announced that the paper’s “Op-Ed” opinion section, established in 1970, would be rebranded as “Guest Essays.” This seemingly small change, made with minimal fanfare, actually marks a momentous shift for the creative nonfiction essay. The essay has existed much on the fringes of literary writing and journalism since Michel de Montaigne penned his Essais in 1580. Famously, even he thought them a waste of time, warning readers, “I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

While the essay as a form— a written attempt, an experiment, a method of discovery through the process of the writing, itself—is now centuries old, in the publishing world it has only officially existed since 1983, when it was placed under the umbrella term “creative nonfiction” for the purposes of National Endowment for the Arts fellowship category and university course programming. But far from the dry research papers most students associate them with, the essay is alive with the obsessions, anxieties, and jokes of the day.

When one teaches and studies the essay, as I have devoted my academic career to doing, one begins to see it everywhere. In addition to those essays that might appear in venerable literary publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or The Sun, increasingly the essay also pops up in our social media feeds, sometimes in the form of Twitter threads on depriving one’s daughter of beans, or rehoming the demonic Chihuahua from hell.

Social media in general has contributed to the ascension of nonfiction in popular culture—our insatiable appetite for true-to-life stories told by real people. However, as NYT editor Kathleen Kingsbury observes in her explanation of the new Guest Essay, “What is disappearing [online]…are spaces where voices can be heard and respected, where ideas can linger a while, be given serious consideration, interrogated and then flourish or perish.”

I tend to agree with her. The breadth of perspective that can be conveyed in a single social media post is limited. As we spend more and more time reading shorter and shorter paragraphs of text, our attention spans are shrinking along with the size of the posts we consume—a condition that’s been exacerbated by our increasingly-online pandemic lives. Not every issue can, or indeed should, be elucidated in even the longest thread of 240 characters or less.

The “Guest Essay” rebrand provides a subtle but important distinction. More than the simple expression of opinion, an essay is rhetorically savvy and, often, emotionally affecting. Now, as the issues of the day become increasingly complex and multifaceted, the essay can be an important way—perhaps the only way—to navigate nuanced, complicated, and seemingly contradictory perspectives. (Which is not to say all viewpoints are ethically equivalent.)

As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to view an issue not as a double sided coin—a two-dimensional “for” or “against”—but as a prism with multiple stakeholders and rationales. The essay allows the writer to engage with her subject on a deeper level, to get at the heart of an issue and take the reader on a journey that isn’t fueled by the immediate emotional reactions—such as outrage—that many shorter “takes” engender.

In addition to teaching the essay, I am also the managing editor here at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, where we exclusively publish short nonfiction essays of 750 words or fewer. The essays submitted to us touch on a range of experiences by writers from all walks of life—women writers, BIPOC writers, trans and queer writers, and disabled writers, to name a few groups. Far from Montaigne’s original assertion that the self is “vain” and “frivolous,” the essay has become the mode du jour of contemporary thought in a time when the personal is inevitably determined by the political.

Though essays are written for a myriad reasons and in many varied forms, the common purpose of the contemporary essay in the public sphere is to foster well-informed critical thought and radical empathy for perspectives not our own. To provide readers a window into the proposals, interpretations, and aspirations that shape our diverse world.

The birth of The New York Times “Guest Essay” places the nonfiction essay firmly into the spotlight of socio-political discourse just when we as a country need it most. In the ensuing decade, we will need to read essays by the trans folx whose rights are in danger of being legislated out of existence, by the undocumented immigrants and their children who have been detained in cages at the border, by the many communities who continue to be devastated by gun violence and police brutality, and far too many more to list here.

Because at its heart, the essay speaks to those quintessentially human parts of ourselves that colder, jargon-laden editorial and journalistic articles can’t quite replicate. Though the NYT’s track record is far from perfect, the emergence of the essay in the world’s most widely-read newspaper comes at a crucial time, offering potential for a new era of empathy and reflection in public discourse.

____

Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies and teaches creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity, and the co-editor of its anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Find her online at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere.

Giving Up on Giving Up

July 20, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Kirsten Voris

Photo by Bill Hatcher

Five rejections in two months. I should be congratulating myself. It’s simple math—submitting more = more rejection.

I still find the stream of “nos” dispiriting. And draining. I was at the bottom of the drain, and calling a summer submissions break, when I attended How to Publish Your Writing in Literary Journals. The editors of Radar Poetry, Rachel Moles and Dara Shrager, appeared as part of a free monthly Zoom series on writing and publishing, offered through Authors Publish Magazine. (Which, by the way, is a great resource for fee-free submission calls.)

I was looking for surefire acceptance tips. What I heard was more math. The “pandemic effect” meant submissions to Radar Poetry’s 2020 summer contest were up by 50 percent from 2019. Increase in competition = higher bar = more rejection. I felt a touch less dejected.

Then Rachel and Dara shared the news that there are different kinds of rejection. That rejection is nuanced. Sometimes, they said, rejection is an invitation to try again, with a different piece of writing.

I’d imagined rejection emails were boilerplate assigned at random each time the editor pressed their big, red “no” button. Some are short, some have two paragraphs. Some describe the sheer volume of spectacular essays cascading through the submissions window. Some wish me luck, elsewhere. All of them amount to the same thing. Or so I thought.

Not so. Rejection, it turns out, is tiered. The difference between a standard rejection and a tiered rejection is encouragement.

A tiered rejection may not refer to the name of your piece. But if the editors have read your work with interest, enjoyed your writing, and/or encouraged you to submit again, this is good news.

Google “tiered rejection” and you’ll find increasingly granular breakdowns. Here, I offer a simple, three-tiered cake:

Top-tier rejections come with suggestions for improvement, praise of particular elements, encouragement to resubmit.

The middle tier includes the invitation to resubmit, perhaps praise for your story, and regret that it’s not the right thing for right now.

Standard rejections are a brief statement of polite regret, scrubbed free of reassurance or praise. And, like the foundational, bottom tier of the wedding cake, most of us get a slice of this.

Rejection is part of writing for publication. Sadly, my usual reaction doesn’t reflect this understanding.

I internalize rejection as an erasure—of my person, my sensibility, my ability to string words together. I cop an ungracious attitude. Get resentful and act like a baby– in front of my cat. This has nothing to do with journals or editors and everything to do with the climate of my upbringing. Thankfully, amassing rejections has made it easier for me to see this pattern. Which means I can change it—at my leisure.

Here is where I admit that I haven’t actually read my rejections. I skim. Absorb the sting and try to forget. Which cuts me off quite neatly from actionable information. What would happen if I went through my Submittable queue? Dug out the most demoralizing rejections and read them? What, I wondered, is actually in there?

The contest rejection that felt so cold? “Judges change every year, we hope you’ll consider submitting again…”

The third rejection of a piece I love? “You’re a good writer and this is a difficult task…”

Armored in a new mindset, I began to see the difference between “Unfortunately this is not a fit” and “We read your submission with great interest.” I begin warming to my oft-declined pieces, because maybe they weren’t so terrible. Maybe it is the math.

Even better, I found myself interacting with my rejections. Responding, instead of reacting. And one potential response to a tiered rejection is to resubmit.

When you resubmit, choose a new piece; then help the editors remember how much they liked you. Duplicate the language of the tiered rejection, and reference the previously submitted work in your cover letter.

For example if the rejection said, “We read your work with interest and hope you’ll consider sending us another piece,” you could write “Last year you read Y with interest and said you hoped I’d consider sending another piece.”

Some standard rejections always invite resubmission. If you’re not sure where your rejection falls, head over to Rejection Wiki, where you can search for sample rejections by journal, to determine whether yours is standard or special.

Radar Poetry’s Dara and Rachel wanted us to know that the editor who sends a tiered rejection is overwhelmed with submissions. They have day jobs, their own writing projects, small children. Despite this, they took time that they didn’t necessarily have to send you a personal message of hope. Because they think you have promise.

The fact of tiered rejection blew open my all-or-nothing thinking.  Knowing the nuances is compelling me to read my email. To give up on giving up. Rejection, like everything else, is complicated. In fact, it may actually be a little cheer for you and your beautiful writing.

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

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