May 14, 2021 § 23 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
The e-mail from the publisher of my first book popped into my mailbox on a Saturday. I was sitting in the wooden bleachers at a baseball game. My nine-year-old grandson was pitching. I didn’t open it, not only because I was cheering him on through the chain-link fence. I had no expectation of good news. After the game ended and we’d all hugged goodbye, I sat behind the wheel of my Subaru, blasting the air conditioning in an unseasonably hot Sacramento spring. I clicked on the email.
“I am writing to give you notice that The Reluctant Artist will be removed from our active title list on June 30, 2021 (hereafter the Termination Date).”
Which meant they would no longer sell my book. All rights would revert to me following the ominous sounding “termination date.” Mention of my freedom thereafter to publish the entire book or any of its individual poems let me know this was a form letter; there are no poems in The Reluctant Artist. I imagined a purge was underway and that many poets had received a similar missive. Out with the underachievers. A list my book belonged on. No quibble there. Royalty statements for the last two years of the contract were in the red. I wondered if I’d get a bill.
If I’m honest, I’d considered it an unexpected gift that it was published at all. With 73 pages of full-color photographs, it must have been expensive to print. Then there’s the size, smaller than a coffee table book, bigger than most others. And the contents. Neither fish nor fowl. A hybrid memoir/art book, written by a little-known writer about her even more obscure father.
Sitting in the hot car, air from the vents blasting my face, I skimmed it quickly and tossed it onto the passenger seat. I was used to impersonal rejection emails. This was sort of the same thing. Wasn’t it?
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d decided not to tell anyone. Not my husband, my sisters or kids (the primary audience for the book in the first place). Telling anyone would have made it too real.
The news nested somewhere in the back of my mind, behind conscious thought.
The following Monday, I sat beside my seven-year-old granddaughter, shuffling math worksheets and reading packets, organizing her materials for Zoom school. In the kitchen, I poured her favorite juice and spread Nutella on a toaster waffle. Savoring the scent of warm grains and melty chocolate, the termination notice resurfaced.
I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as the author of two books from small presses—not one, two. Five years passed so quickly; my quirky book fading in the sunset hadn’t crossed my mind. With a typical rejection, I could consider where to send it next, or perhaps undertake another round of edits. A published book ceasing to be “published,” losing its home, its advocate and legitimacy in someone’s eyes other than my own, felt different. An erasure, an accomplishment withdrawn.
I could tilt at more windmills by sending it out to other small presses. I could self-publish. A viable option for an e-book. Even if I could finance printing an art book, I didn’t think I wanted to.
I snuck my granddaughter her breakfast. Eating “on camera” wasn’t allowed, yet making Eva wait until the 9:30 break wouldn’t go well for any of us, least of all the teacher. We finished the Number of the Day worksheet (32) and a math assignment about telling time, the “real” way, with two hands on a clockface. I brewed a fresh cup of coffee, poured Eva more juice.
“Drink it fast,” I said. “It might stop the hiccups.”
Ten years ago, when The Reluctant Artist was conceived, my dad had just died. The two essays that became the nucleus for the text were about finding my way back to writing as my father, a lifelong creative, was dying. I loved his art and harbored no doubts about its merits. I was not so confident about my own abilities or identity as a writer.
I retrieved a well-thumbed copy of the book from my office and smoothed the cover with the flat of my hand— a self-portrait of my father from the sixties. Returning to Eva, my steps were light. Proud, nostalgic, and grateful, for Dad, and the writer I was.
During the 9:30 break, we watered the vegetables we’d sprouted from seeds then moved to wood-framed beds in the backyard.
“Look Grandma, this tomato has flowers.” Eva pointed to a spidery yellow blossom.
I was reminded of something I’d read and heard said several times. That you could write the same book every ten years and each time it would be entirely different.
Eva flitted from plot to plot, waving the misting hose like a magic wand. I’d water more carefully after our morning together ended. The Reluctant Artist had felt safe, finite and contained, a package. Yet themes and ideas I’d struggled with before and since are there, embedded in the text, their surface barely scratched, likely only discernible to me.
With Covid-19 and quarantine, my writing had suffered pandemic paralysis. Perhaps it was Spring’s arrival or that the economy and schools were slowly reopening. Or maybe it was the vaccines in mine and others’ arms. A sense of emerging on the other side, ready to pick up where I’d left off, or, better still, to begin a new page.
I wasn’t the same person or the same writer I was ten years ago. No longer hesitant to explore deeper, murkier corners—to pose questions, struggle to answer them and not feel I’ve failed if I only manage to come up with more questions.
To the persistent hum of bees sipping lavender pollen, I sensed the delicate pulse of new words, new thoughts and new ways of expressing them. I was excited to discover what would grow. Much as I anticipated the bounty of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and beans to come. Promises for now, setting down roots, reaching for the sunlight, beckoning the bees.
Dorothy Rice is the author of two memoirs, Gray is the New Black (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing statewide environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Dorothy co-directs the literary series Stories on Stage Sacramento, reads submissions for Hippocampus Magazine, and works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit.
May 12, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Candace Cahill
I am a rule follower. But I am also independent, resilient, and stubborn. I like to do new things and expand my knowledge. So, in the summer of 2019, I set out to write a book. Was I a writer? No. Am I now? Absolutely. Well, I’m learning anyway.
Writing the book itself was an adventure. The initial draft felt like going on a ten-mile hike, falling at the two-mile marker, and continuing despite bloody knees and palms. During the second draft, my wounds wept, then became itchy and crusty. On subsequent revisions I aired the scrapes, let them dry out and scab over, then soaked them lovingly in long, hot baths and applied ointment. Throughout the process, I fought self-doubt and imposter syndrome. And still do, but the scabs have fallen away, leaving tough scars and proof of my journey.
Now, I am on to the next stage of the process: pursuing publication.
If I want to go the traditional route, which I’ve discovered is the Holy Grail for most writers, I must get an agent. As the first in a series of gatekeepers within the realm of publishing, their job is to put my needs and desires as an author first. An agent would promote my work through an intricate courting process to big-time publishers, who only accept agented submissions. But—and this is a big but—the agent must choose me as a client. Therefore, I have sent passionate letters in hopes of luring one of them to love me. Have you ever gone about ‘looking for love?’ Yeah, kind of…counterintuitive. But this is the no-money-up-front option, which is particularly appealing to an out-of-work Alaskan tour guide in the era of covid-19.
Hybrid-publishing presents like an ‘a la carte’ menu for writers. They offer a team of professionals, all under one roof, who help an author develop and publish a well-constructed, marketable book. The single biggest difference is that the author foots the bill. Hybrids are not vanity presses. A hybrid press has a submission/acceptance process, seeks excellence in product outcome, and cares about the author’s success. A vanity press will accept all offered material, if the author has the capital upfront, and throw it ‘as is’ between two covers, without any quality control.
The self-publishing route requires—or allows—the author to do everything themselves. Essentially, the writer hires independent contractors: an editor, proofreader, cover designer, formatter, etc., then submits the work to a publisher facilitator, like Amazon, Barnes, and Noble, or Apple Press. Perfect for the independently-minded micromanager. Hmmm.
So, as you can see, the selection of a publishing track creates a whole new level of fright and exhilaration. It’s like a hike across the Chilkoot Trail: thirty-three miles over a three-thousand-seven-hundred-fifty-three-foot pass carrying a thirty-pound backpack and sleeping in the cold after tying your food up in a tree.
When I completed my manuscript, I immediately sent out a round of query letters to agents, utilizing tools designed to assist me in my search, like QueryTracker. So far, I have not elicited the attention of an agent.
Since January, I have sent thirty query letters, received one full manuscript request, seven rejections (two personalized), and the rest have been crickets. Not a bad showing, although yesterday when another rejection arrived, this one of my full manuscript, I resorted to dipping spoonsful of peanut butter into a bag of chocolate chips and stuffing them in my mouth.
Throughout this courtship process, I have rewritten or edited my query letter dozens of times. I participated in #PITMAD and began sending queries to small, independent presses that do not require agented submissions. I’ve written a respectable synopsis, am knee-deep in crafting a proposal, and attended numerous virtual writing events. Essentially, I am DIY-ing the sh*t out of this process.
But, I have yet to mention marketing, which is a whole other ‘opportunity’ for growth. In keeping with my hiking analogy: comparable to tackling the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trail.
Nevertheless, I will forge on and head back to the querying trenches, because, as I’ve made abundantly clear, I am a rule follower.
Candace Cahill is a silversmith, musician, storyteller, and writer who lives in Denali, Alaska. You can find her work at ThomasCahillDesigns.com and https://mysonlostagain.blogspot.com/. Her work has been published by Severance and she is currently pursuing publication of her memoir, Goodbye Again.
May 6, 2021 § 20 Comments
My MFA taught me a lot about writing. It didn’t teach me jack about publishing. Yet somehow, I published. I queried. I got an agent. I’m publishing again. And through all that, I became someone who gets paid to teach people how to write and publish. I can tell authors how to write a query, when to send it and to whom. I can say why a manuscript is too short, what can be cut if it’s too long, and how to save a thousand dollars on editing with fixes you can do yourself in a (very intense) weekend. I can even make you like social media—and discover why you don’t really need quite so much of it.
I acquired this information long after I finished my MFA, and I got most of it for free. Two years before my first round of querying, I began reading 8 different agent blogs, going back in the archives a couple posts at a time until I’d read their entire blogs. In the process, I saw how publishing evolved 1998-2010, and learned whose taste (and advice) had been proven right. Since then, I’ve broadened my sources, keeping current with publishing news, platform-building trends, and writing techniques so I can share what I know with you.
Unless you’re also planning on becoming an editor/coach of both fiction and memoir, you don’t need to know everything I know. But you do need to know a lot. Fortunately, most of what you need is already available online, where you can access a wealth of writing, editing, platform and publishing information at your convenience, in your pajamas, for (mostly) free.
Sources I recommend:
Writer Beware! the Blog covers publishing bad practices and scams, and they aren’t afraid to name names with documentation. Read as far back in the archives as you can, and you’ll know how to avoid existing scams and recognize new ones.
The #Amwriting podcast gives useful and specific information about the writing process, publishing and marketing from a literary agent, two authors, and a variety of special guests. Lively and fun listening!
While Query Shark (dormant, but excellent archives) focuses on fiction queries, watching how queries evolve from terrible to “send now!” and seeing common mistakes will teach you to improve your own.
Kate McKean’s Agents and Books newsletter has both free and paid versions ($5/month). Past newsletters include advice on querying, the parts of a book contract, and what to do when there’s a mistake in your book’s online listing.
Want writing assignments to magically appear in your inbox? Here they come! The Story and Spark newsletter offers biweekly craft lessons with a short story and a writing prompt. Matt Bell’s newsletter offers monthly writing exercises with wonderful context.
Jane Friedman offers frequent, inexpensive webinars (usually $25) focusing on different aspects of writing and publishing, with handouts, recordings, and Q&A. (My next one, Memoir From Memory, is May 27)
Creative Nonfiction magazine offers inexpensive webinars (usually $15-25) on writing and publishing, especially for those with a more literary bent. Upcoming topics include daily writing practice, incorporating details, and my own Writing Powerful Sentences.
It’ll take more of your time, but volunteer as a reader for your favorite literary magazine (just email them and ask when/if they need readers). Nothing will teach you more about the submission process, and what makes engaging writing, than seeing what actually arrives in a literary inbox.
The weekly Virtual Author & Writer Events newsletter lists free and paid readings, classes, workshops, talks and author interviews. (You can list your own events, too!)
The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, biweekly on Zoom, covers publishing, self-promotion and writing better, and includes networking time with other writers, and a lively chat box each episode. The May 11 episode will focus on querying.
The gentle, Canadian podcast And She Looked Up Creative Hour, aimed at visual artists, has process, selling, and writing-life advice. Start with Episode 18: How to Get a Book Deal when Nobody Knows Who You Are.
Jane Friedman’s Sunday Business Sermons: Part of her service to the community, Jane’s a publishing expert sharing what’s made her successful, from mailing lists to online courses to how she gets everything done. Watch the replays on Facebook.
People who want to sell you something: Very often, experts and coaches offer free introductory webinars—usually about 30-45 minutes of information and another 20-25 minutes of “buy my services.” Social posting apps like Tailwind and Preview send regular newsletters with tips and tricks for using and enjoying Instagram. You might want their services eventually, but you can access the free information now. Websearch [topic I want to know about] + “free webinar” or “free training” and you’ll be amazed what pops up.
You can start reading/watching/listening casually, or plan a curriculum for yourself with regular times to learn, do additional research, and blog or write from your new information. However you do it, work self-education into your routine. I listen to Jane Friedman while I do the dishes; literary podcasts in the car. I bought a seated exercise bike so I can pedal while catching up on social media and newsletters (sorry, Peleton-eers).
Whether or not you have an MFA, educating yourself about publishing is a largely self-driven process. The truth is out there. It’s (mostly) free. And it’s up to you to find it.
Tell us in the comments who you love for writing and publishing info!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to learn what she knows? Writing, editing, publishing and platform consultations can be booked here.
May 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By John Domini
It was wholly personal, first to last, yet I’d never have finished the book without thinking who else might read it and why — thinking, that is, of suspense, sequence, and the market.
At first it was only jottings, a diary. No Moleskin, rather a hand-sized spiral-bound thing off the Safeway shelves for “School Supplies.” I needed to get back to school, though I was approaching 40. I needed to start over, to forge a life that felt more honest. In the effort to renew, nothing proved so helpful as the old. More and more I worked out trips back to Naples, the ancient seaport where my father had grown to adulthood and I’d visited as a teenager. The downtown byways may have remained in continuous use longer than any around the world, and there I became a kid again. I traveled wrinkled yet wide-eyed, my knees creaking but my spirit developing fresh flex. Nowadays, almost three decades later, I can revisit the first stirrings of that renewal. I can browse again through my off-the-rack notebook.
The quaderno lies bundled with six or eight others, from subsequent trips. I have as well pages of newsprint which passages underlined or starred, and thick sheafs of exploratory prose, the earliest printed on dot-matrix. Between those fragments and the later, fuller MSS, I can retrace my own twenty-year journey from broken to whole.
In making myself over, my go-to workshop became family’s native city. Rich with beauty and inspiration, it also held ugly secrets, tight corners that can suffocate hope. Two or three of my most disturbing discoveries concerned my own relations, even my father. The man died halfway through my learning, or re-learning, but his old stomping grounds continued to speak (as did his ghost, I’m convinced, a couple of times). I found that all my family complications, even the most recent, had some connection to ancient tribal ways. So too, my own reconstruction demanded I comprehend both new wounds and old scars.
Yet likewise integral to Domini Redux was a career in literature. Yes, “career” is a euphemism, in a country so unfriendly to the arts, and “literature” too remains a slippery slope. I lost my footing often, as I clambered into the second half of my life. Still, I committed to teaching books, writing about them, and what’s more to composing as many as I could, myself. I was all done with “business writing,” though the contracts were more reliable, and certainly more lucrative. From here on, I’d have to make do with other support structures, in particular magazines, newspapers, grants, and literary agents.
These came querying, or responding to my own, every now and again. Over time a long and winding time—I placed Naples pieces in major papers, in better quarterlies and a couple of slicks, and my research also won a substantial grant or two, carrying a whiff of prestige. Over a long time, more than one agent suggested a book.
These were men and women of decent sensibility, and I was hardly cold to the idea myself. The first title I ventured, as I worked up the first proposal, was Eternal Downtown, the last was Cooking the Octopus—and neither of those, as you can see, appear on the cover of the final. In one sense the whole process left me with nothing. A pair of file folders grew fat with rejections, concluding of course with a kiss-off from the agent, and I developed a churning nausea every time someone said “proposal.” Yet by now I can also make out how these labors had another, better outcome, over a long and winding time.
Each run at the materials, I realize now, put up some load-bearing wall for the structure that now stands complete. Even the scrapbook left from Eternal Downtown, saddled with the generic subtitle “biography of a city” (sorry; the agent insisted) — even that preschooler’s mudpie had an organization I continued to use thereafter. Each section, then as now, bore a title taken from the city’s timeless folk sayings. Indeed, when I named one MS Cooking the Octopus, I was citing such an aphorism: “the octopus cooks,” say the Neapolitans, “in its own water.” The many meanings of this strange old saw took me onto ripe farm terraces, thickly planted, where every row told a story. Then too, as I sorted out those stories, I recognized finally that they were all, one way or another, my own. That is, the best book I could bring out of my repeated immersions in Naples wouldn’t be journalism or history, but rather a text that combined such conventional elements with speculation and insight entirely my own, the murmurs that filled my head while I was submerged in the Tyrhennian — the very story I’d been living.
In other words, twenty years after it began, I at last claimed my own project, declaring it a “memoir.” This in turn gave the thing a conclusion, one that I’d desired and eventually won, through meditation and hardscrabble. For wasn’t I a new man? Newly remarried, relocated more happily than not, with a shelf full of my own books and a passel of other scholarship and criticism, more esteemed than not? And if that’s where the story ended, then I had the story itself—the one about an old guy born again.
All well and good, but along with story comes a host of craft issues. At the outset of this piece, I used a pair of catchall terms, “sequence” and “suspense.” The other words for it fill the syllabi of seminars in Creative Nonfiction: pacing, grounding, the balance of research and experience and the manipulation of first person. I was constructing a narrative after all, describing a journey of the spirit. For it to compel and convince, each of the stages along the way required its own signal-flare, and each of these had to go off somewhere in Naples. The city limits still set the borders for my odyssey. The very idea of defining limits, however, goes to story. It takes two decades of my life and three millennia of urban life and provides them, together, a pleasing and comprehensible shape.
The ultimate title, this Archeology construct, expresses a sort of contract with the reader. It implies a long stretch of time, but also a system for working through it. A dig has order and process—as does the recipe for a good ragù.
Yet when I speak of my project this way, like something with a clear sense of direction, don’t I sound a bit like a literary agent? Aren’t such compositional concerns all about pleasing potential readers? When someone takes up a book, they like to know they’ll get somewhere, and if an author can deliver, he or she has got a market. Come to think, now ten years past the end of my book’s twenty-year storyline, just calling it a “memoir” smacks of the market. An educated literary man, such as Domini 2.0, has to know that, lately, there’s been no hotter genre in publishing. Surely I could come up with a better name, less of a commodity and more of a quest…
What began as a scribbly and secret affair came to light only after I drew up a contract with the reader, and yet now it can’t help but wander off in still another direction. I wouldn’t have it any other way, actually. I can’t think of a more vivid demonstration for why I sought to spend my second life this way, with the endless surprises of storytelling.
John Domini’s latest book is the memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragù. He has four novels, including a loose trilogy set in Naples, three books of stories, and essays and criticism all over, including Lit Hub and the New York Times.
April 12, 2021 § 15 Comments
By Michelle Redo
About five years ago, I downloaded my first audiobook. It was Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. She’d just been interviewed about it on the prominent public radio station I worked for and I thought it would be a great way to test drive my new Audible subscription. I climbed onto the elliptical machine at 5:30 am before the onslaught of my workday and hit play as I began to pedal. The narration opened by clarifying that the introductory sections would be read by the author, but the book itself would be narrated by Debra Winger. What the…? Gloria Steinem shopped out telling her own life story to someone else!?
I was aghast. I found it difficult to continue (although I did… Debra Winger wasn’t too shabby a substitute.) But I loved the experience of listening to a book and thereafter found myself searching for good listens by a single criterion, memoir narrated by the author. True, not every author is a great narrator by default, but they are indeed the keeper of meaning. This simple key unlocked Heather Harpham’s gentle voice revealing the struggle of her baby born with a life-threatening blood illness. I learned what I had in common with Trevor Noah as he told me about his religious mother growing up in South Africa. Shonda Rhimes confessed her year-long experiment to just say yes to all the scary opportunities that came her way, despite her fears and anxieties. As these people generously shared their lives with me, I’ve counted them as my friends. Friends who have sat down in front of a microphone, pretending it was my ear and told me their story. Themselves.
This wasn’t so different from my job at the radio station, working with reporters and hosts to promote their features or shows. One day a new reporter followed me into the sound booth next to my office. She was young but super accomplished. She’d been published in the New York Times and The Atlantic, had a PhD From Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar.
She looked over the promo script I’d written about her story as I closed the door behind us. We hadn’t worked together yet.
“I know I have a high voice.” Her eyes flashed a pre-emptive confession. “I’ve been told to try and use my chest voice.”
Her voice is indeed high, perhaps obscuring her expertise and experience. But if I had a hundred dollars every time a female reporter said that to me… well, I’d have hundreds of dollars. They’d been told to use a more demure sound. Bring the tone down.
I too had been told this in my twenties. I did sound young. Worse, I sounded insecure (probably because I was insecure.) So I told myself, I didn’t really like talking anyway. I far preferred the scripting, directing, and editing side of the production glass. And in recent years I’ve noticed an increasing number of younger sounding voices on the radio. Voices that convey gravitas through their soprano register. At first, I felt a little resentful at what I’d missed out on. But I decided not to dish out what I’d gotten.
“Well, your voice is high…” I agreed with this reporter, “but that’s who you are. And you’re the expert on the topic of your story. So you can certainly assert what you have to say with confidence. Just hold your own with it.” In the years since, her reports have uncovered hidden toxins in drinking water; articulated nuances in important ballot questions; dug into the science behind the coronavirus in its early weeks. The “high-voiced” reporter has won numerous awards for her reporting.
Now I’m a freelancer, and as I was recently preparing to co-lead a workshop aimed at coaching writers in reading their own work aloud, my partner suggested we ask some writers what they’d most want to get out of such a class. I’d already begun compiling a tip sheet of techniques and practices for them… but their single immediate response? I don’t like my voice! How can I change it to sound better?
Uh-oh! I wasn’t expecting that!
My blunt response: you can’t.
Allow me to play this out…Your voice is your primal auditory thumbprint. It’s why a long-ago friend says, “It’s so good to hear you!” Our voices reveal emotion and meaning that words alone can’t. As with our writing, our voice is a simple thing to aspire to, yet an elusive, delicate piece of ourself to nurture, to coax. A unique gift that must be diligently, bravely unveiled. But simple is rarely easy.
So when you next find yourself in front of a microphone or an audience (let’s hope sometime soon!) remember this: your voice is the perfect vehicle to exemplify you, and bring the story of yourself to life. Your voice is you. I’m your listener friend out here, and I just can’t wait to meet you.
Michelle Redo is a freelance podcast producer and thirty-year award winning former public radio veteran at WGBH in Boston. She’s taught audio production at the Banff Centre. She’s at last sitting down in front of a microphone herself as the host her new podcast, Daring to Tell, which features writers reading their true essays, memoir chapters or non-fiction stories of personal daring.
March 19, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
When my mother passed away suddenly in the summer of 2014, I wrote a book of poems about her titled Saris and a Single Malt. I started to write the collection when we got the phone call that she (out of nowhere) was feeling unwell, and my father had to rush her to the hospital. I wrote as we boarded the plane to New Delhi. I wrote when I found out that the doctor had to put my mother on a ventilator. I wrote when we landed in India’s capital, and my brother hugged me tight, “I am sorry. She didn’t make it.” I wrote as a swarm of known and unknown faces cried and expressed their condolences. I wrote when we cremated her and completed the last rites. I wrote when we collected her ashes in the urn. I completed Saris and a Single Malt in less than a week’s time. That’s how intensely I was trying to cope and grieve. It wasn’t about documenting what was happening as much as it was about making sense of the senselessness around me. Saris and a Single Malt reiterated that sitting in the sea of my emotions, feeling every wave and turbulence, and swimming through words is how I get to the other side and eventually, heal.
In spring of 2020, when the pandemic hit New York, and we went on PAUSE, my pen found a mind of its own. I wasn’t surprised when I found myself writing daily. Not fiction, though. When the world around you seems to be in a disarray and you are concerned about the safety of your loved ones and your own well-being, creating an alternate reality through the world of fiction didn’t work for me. But I did complete my upcoming book of essays titled A Piece of Peace. I didn’t write for things to fit a certain style or magazine. I put things down without much deliberation. I wasn’t trying to reach a certain word count. The moment, the gush, the rush…that’s what I captured in my essays. The more I penned, the more grounded I felt in our new norm. Showing up to my daily practice of writing (much like yoga) helped me understand people, the pandemic, and the unprecedented times in a more compassionate way. It made me less fearful and more certain of my next steps. It took away my sorrows on days that felt heavy. It created space for my own self-care.
Anne Frank said,“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” The pandemic taught me that writing centers, heals, and humbles me. It helps me stay dedicated and disciplined and away from the unnecessary & mindless distractions that don’t always add meaning to life.
I asked 12 women writers what is the one thing that the pandemic has taught them about writing. Here is what they had to say:
“In order to give your creative mind a room of its own switch off from social media during the writing day.” ~ Cauvery Madhavan, Author of The Tainted
“Writing perseveres. Words are powerful, and they are powerful whether they come from a loud voice behind a public lectern or a quiet keyboard in quarantine, so we must keep at it.” ~ Jennifer Klepper, USA Today Bestselling author of Unbroken Threads
“I’ve learned that just as much as we require antibodies to fight off this terrible virus, we need stories that pull us up and out of depression by increasing our capacity for empathy and hope.” ~ Joyce Yarrow, author of Zahara and the Lost Books of Light
“As writers we find hope through the power of story. Our characters emerge from the darkest hours and that victory empowers us to keep the faith that we can succeed too.” ~ Anju Gattani, author of Duty and Desire
“The biggest lesson about my writing that the pandemic has taught me is that I like to write with friends. In the beginning I wasn’t getting any writing done. But then I got together with a group of women from WFWA, and I have been writing with them via zoom almost every day since May. I have made more progress than I did in the past so many years, finishing two books (edits on one and 1st draft of the second).” ~ Priya Gill, University Professor, Texas
“From overwhelming vulnerability unconstrained wonder has emerged, allowing me to draw from experience and possibility as never before.” ~ Mel Greenberg, Best-selling Author. Producer. Midlife Advocate. Speaker.
“As the pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty, and confusion to many parts of my life, writing included, having a strong community of trusted writer friends who understand not only the usual issues career-authors face, but also pandemic-related craft and business challenges, is invaluable.” ~ Jen Gilroy, writer of contemporary romance and women’s fiction with heart, home and hope
“I think the one thing that the pandemic has taught me about writing is how important it is to how I function in the world. In other words, how necessary it is to my overall feeling of productivity and well-being, and how it can provide insight into how I’m doing in general.” ~ Anita Kushwaha,Author of Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters
“I can’t expect hours of solitude to write—I work full-time, volunteer with the Gaithersburg Book Festival, live in a multi-generational home, and have a kid learning remotely/virtually—but I can expect myself to be patient and recognize when my writing moment is here.” ~ Serena Agusto-Cox, poet, editor, owner of Poetic Book Tours
“I can write with a house full of husband, teen, 91-year-old father-in-law, and two cats.”~ Catherine Prendergast, author of The Gilded Edge, forthcoming from Dutton press October 2021
“Those early days of sheltering in place, found me outlining a new manuscript–the hardest part of the writing process for me. The task required a level of keen focus and taught me that writing can be a sanctuary. My job wasn’t to wring my hands about the pandemic, but to get that book outlined.” ~ Elizabeth Wafler, Author & WFWA Director of Craft/Education Programs.
“The one thing pandemic has taught me is that writing helps me untangle my thoughts and release negative emotions.” ~ Sujata Parashar, Novelist
Has the pandemic taught you anything about your relationship with writing? Share in the comments below.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
March 4, 2021 § 28 Comments
Most writers have a love/hate relationship with their book’s acknowledgements page. It’s the writer-equivalent to the 45-seconds where the actress thanks everyone under the bright lights on the Academy Awards stage, only you were probably wearing your pajamas and not a made-to-order Vera Wang gown when you compiled your own gratitude list. Even so, it’s your moment to offer thanks for those who put up with you while you were working on your book. Writing the acknowledgements also means you are nearly finished, or at least you think you are, and for those brief seconds, while you’re typing ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, you might be delusional, but you are happy.
But when you send your manuscript off, the acknowledgements become a source of stress. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic after realizing someone important was left off? After publishing six books, I believed forgetting someone was the worst of it. I never considered including someone could cause so much trouble, until it did.
In my latest book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I gave some backstory about my mother’s childhood; it was important for the reader to see where she came from, why she behaved in the ways she did—she was sometimes mean, but never in the abusive ways of her own parents.
Before she died, my mother read the manuscript. She knew she had veto power, as the closest people in my life do, but she hardly ever used it. She was glad I was telling her stories, though she did joke, “This is plagiarism!” When I asked what she meant, she said, “You’re stealing all my stuff.” Then she warned me that some of the family might not like what I had written about her parents.
Soon after Bad Tourist came out, I received a scolding Facebook message from my cousin, which she also posted publicly on my Facebook wall, trying “to set the record straight” about our grandparents. While I decided what to do, I blocked her so she couldn’t write more public messages. Being blocked enraged her, so she took to the internet, posting her complaints in the comment section of guest blogs and under reviews of my book. She said my book was “fabricated nonsense” and “rubbish.”
I sent her my carefully crafted response, saying “I understand your narrative is different, that the people you knew as your grandparents were different than the parents my mother grew up with, and I am sorry if this information is hurtful to you. All our narratives and our personal truths coexist and all are valid.”
She wrote back, admitting she did not know if what I had written about our grandparents was true or not, but that I had, in fact, written “lies.” She insisted I had written that she and my aunt supported the book, “throwing them under the bus.” She wrote, “Even if I said you could use my name, that’s besides the point … you never sent us a draft of this story before you published it, and you quoted in your book that family and friends had read and agreed the draft.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I went back to the chapter in question, and as I had thought, I had written no such thing. I closed my laptop and went out skiing. About a mile down the trail, I realized what she had meant: The acknowledgements page!
I had acknowledged both my cousin and my aunt as people who were “cheerleaders and confidants.” They were in the large list of people who had also read drafts of my book, giving me valuable feedback, though the sentence was clear that not everyone on that long list had read (and approved of) the book. I wrote back to my cousin, asking her to look at the actual words on the page. I said that being listed was meant to be a nice thing.
I also vowed not to include an acknowledgements page in my next book.
And I learned (or re-learned) these lessons:
- There’s no reason to use someone’s real name. It might seem weird to you that your husband or daughter or cousin has a different name, but most readers won’t know or won’t care (even if they know you in real life).
- If you use someone’s real name, make sure he or she has agreed to it in writing after reading the manuscript. If you already know they won’t approve of the material, but you’re not planning to change it, you must change the names. My cousin would have been angry with me even if I had changed her name, but her grievances would carry less weight. And if I had let her read it, and she outright disagreed with specific parts, like the recreated dialogue, I wouldn’t have changed it, but I would have let the reader know she remembered things differently than I did.
- Make sure whatever you’re writing is your story to tell. In this case, it was very much my story to tell. If it’s your story, you don’t need permission to tell it. If your story also happens to be a friend or family member’s story, you should get permission or risk losing the relationship. The person I needed permission from—my mother—granted it
- Don’t let friends and family read early drafts—ever. The parts they object to could possibly be cut in the revision process, and you’ve created trouble for yourself for nothing. Only let friends and family read the final draft (with time to change their names). And be ready to defend your writing—you are the only one with ultimate veto power.
- Even though you think it’s an honor, some people might not want to be listed in your acknowledgements page.
In my cousin’s last message, she wrote, “I’m sad this has happened because we did genuinely care about you … I do wish you all the best for the future.”
Losing my aunt and cousin feels like I’ve lost another piece of my mother, which makes me profoundly sad. But at the same time, wasn’t their “care” always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?
When we write the stories we must tell, even if others would rather we kept them secret, it’s never a betrayal. The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice. Anyone who genuinely cares about you, in the present tense and unconditionally, will eventually come to understand you must continue to tell your own truth.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
March 2, 2021 § 25 Comments
When I was a circus aerialist, my act finished with a dramatic upside-down slide, dropping 16 feet head-downwards before catching in the aerial fabric, my skull inches from the ground. It was a crowd-pleaser, and it required more technique and timing than sheer strength, so it was a good trick for the end of a tiring show. The only problem was, the back of my knee was the “brakes.” Squeezing hard on the fabric with my upper calf kept me from concussion, but it also gave me rope-burn.
I did it anyway. It was the best trick I had, the one that made audiences clap and put money in the hat at the end of the show. The raw skin was usually worth it. But sometimes, when sticky humidity told me “this one’s gonna be bad,” I’d look at the audience and judge their enthusiasm, their involvement in the show so far, and think, Have they earned this? Do I want to give them this much?
I face the same challenge as a memoirist. When I break out a particularly intense story, or share deep vulnerability on the page, I go full out. But I temper my words in subsequent drafts, gauging how personal I want to be based on the readers I’m hoping for. That’s easy enough to do for an essay or an Instagram caption; I can start later in the story or end earlier, leave some details out, put some mitigating circumstances in. I have some control over how far the story goes, where I submit it, who will see it on which social media.
Adjusting memoir-pain tolerance is much harder for a book. The writing process lasts longer; the potential audience is bigger. Our relatives and friends may treat a book with more weight than a Facebook status.
I’ve had editorial clients ask, “Should I just make this a novel?”
Novels need complete dramatic arcs, compelling characters, and an ability to fully embrace new scenes or plot elements. “What actually happened” isn’t always believable as fiction. The more gripping the story, the less it may resemble your story.
For novelists, the craft of writing is as important as the story itself. Sure, some average writing makes the bestseller lists, but usually because the story has powerfully hooked the public. Novels based on the author’s experience draw from life, but approach the subject from another point of view, or with a better ending, or happening to different people. Write your novel because you want to write a novel, not to hide from your own story.
Memoirs are elevated by truth. Readers can forgive an arc that doesn’t quite resolve when they’re thinking about the real-person protagonist. Decent-to-good writing becomes gripping when you’re telling the truth. Plenty of memoirists are also incredible writers. Plenty of memoirs-in-progress are not yet excellent writing. How much time do you want to spend “becoming a great writer” versus “becoming a good writer, learning about myself, and getting my story into the world”?
I’ve had clients ask, “Could I use a pen name?”
Memoirs sell on topic and name recognition. The less recognizable you are, the more powerful your topic must be. If you’re writing about your week in Bin Laden’s bunker, or your high-class Manhattan escort days, or your Secret Service career, sure, use a pen name (and lawyer up!). But if you’re trying to avoid social fallout, don’t bother. You’d have to start establishing that fake person’s publication record and online presence now, and your family is going to find out eventually anyway. Why sacrifice your existing network to temporarily hide, while also sabotaging your ability to sell your own book?
Put the effort of re-visioning your life as fiction into cultivating positive relationships with your readers and your fellow writers. Skip building a fake person to promote this book—instead, build your own courage and your support network. Part of publishing memoir is standing up for your own story. If you’re not ready to share it as yourself, you probably aren’t ready to share it at all. Keep writing and publish later.
Writing good memoir hurts, because good memoir pokes old wounds. Publishing memoir means knowing ahead of time you’re going to inflict pain on yourself, and choosing to share your story anyway. The pain becomes a badge of power, a sign that silence doesn’t control your story. That you’re strong enough to tell. You trust your readers to listen. You give readers hope, you’re not the only one this happened to—one day, you’ll be strong enough to tell your story, too.
When I did my rope-burn aerial trick, sometimes the audience had earned it with their laughter and applause. Sometimes they hadn’t, and I ended with something less dramatic but without physical pain. But more times than not, I did the trick for me. Because I could. After about 4 years, the back of my leg scarred over. No more rope burn. I’d leaned into the pain so many times it couldn’t hurt me anymore.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Wondering how much pain your memoir can take? Register now for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings March 10 at 1PM Eastern (recording available).
January 29, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
Like many of you, when I started publishing my work – mostly essays and a few short stories – I always had a bigger project in the back of my mind. I kept notebooks and files on these ideas. Sometimes these projects seemed like they might be books. I even self-published a novel (historical fiction) in 2001, just as Amazon was starting to be a big player, and sold the 4,000 copies I had printed, before I decided to move on.
A literary agent in Chicago read that book, and I signed with her to represent me in order to either sell that novel to a bigger publisher, or perhaps generate something else appropriate for her list. After a year or so of back and forth, we amicably parted ways, as it became clear that we didn’t have the same goals or vision for that book or other books I was doodling around with.
I felt freer after I was back on my own, kind of like when you break up with a nice boyfriend, but you know he’s not really The One.
I continued publishing essays and short stories, and working on ideas for longer projects. I have always worked on several manuscripts at once. This is just the way I work best. I also queried various literary agents at different times, first when I put together my published essays with a similar “theme” (how I hate that word…), then when I wrote a novella.
I knew that writing a novella (it was 115 pages long) was a hard sell, unless you were Joyce Carol Oates, whose novella Black Water I had the chutzpah (idiocy?) to compare my novella to. Then I put the novella together with my published short stories and saw that they did kind of go together in that they were mostly about women who get themselves in trouble with the men in their lives. (The men often die in my stories, which keeps my husband wondering what I am thinking whenever I get quiet and moody.)
I meticulously researched agents who might be interested in my collection, and crafted a stellar query letter. Some nice replies, and a few requests for the manuscript, but ultimately it became clear that a short story collection with a novella at its centerpiece wasn’t going to be the launching pad for my literary career.
Then I received an email from Jeff, a literary agent at a prestigious agency. He had read one of my short stories in a literary journal, and wondered if I had any longer projects. Did I ever! Oh, my dear Jeff, how joyous I was that you plucked me out of the slush. By the time I replied and sent him my newest manuscript (a memoir) and a few other ideas, I had us lunching in New York City (where he, of course, is based).
The problem was that Jeff didn’t want a memoir. Could I make my memoir fiction? It turned out that I could not. God knows, I tried. But then one day I figured out that I was rewriting my memoir for one person: Jeff. And it wasn’t fun, or true, anymore.
We parted ways amicably, and I often think of him – and my trip to New York City to meet with him – fondly.
I continued to write essays and short stories, and occasionally query an agent I scouted in Publisher’s Marketplace, and that’s how Liz and I met. She read my query and loved my memoir, and of course I signed with her. She, too, was with a big deal agency in NYC.
We worked together for six months to get my book in perfect shape to send out. I didn’t go to NYC to meet her, but I could tell she and I would have a blast together if I did. We would have dinner, and toast our upcoming success, and …
I got an email one day from Liz. She was leaving the agency, and couldn’t take her current clients with her. I was assigned to one of the partners in the agency. I was mad/sad for a few minutes, and then realized “PARTNER.” I immediately Googled him, and contacted him, and once again thought, “This is a win/win.”
He was really nice, but he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for my book as Liz. Adios, Michael, and another Big NYC Agency.
One might think that after all of this, a normal person would regroup, or perhaps find another line of work. But, as my husband often remarks, I am one of the most stubborn people he has ever met. (I prefer to think of myself as persistent.)
Amazingly enough, throughout all these years of elation followed by defeat, I kept my hopes for that book alive, and kept publishing essays and short stories.
Then last year I signed with another agent. For sure Emily and I were going to be besties. She and her partner Susan were so nice, and they loved my book, and we all had the same vision, and I signed another contract, and…
Then the virus hit, and I don’t blame Emily or Susan, but I waited a respectfully long period of time before emailing them, after checking several times to make sure they were still alive. And there was a very long silence, during which time I had several bad thoughts, and worried thoughts, and then mad thoughts. And then I saw that the one-year date to re-sign my contract was approaching, and I decided to break up with my agents.
It was actually a bit freeing.
Just recently though, I thought of Jeff. I wondered how he was, and if he would remember me. Just a short note – something chatty, yet informative. He was, after all, my first.
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. Her short stories have been published in several literary journals. This is her 10th essay for the Brevity blog. Follow on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com