May 11, 2020 § 13 Comments
By Julie Vick
Can’t seem to get much writing done during the pandemic? Here are some writing prompts that probably won’t help:
- Write a letter to your younger self. Find a way to casually suggest that you start learning how to cut your own hair.
- Plan a trip to a different room in your house. Write a detailed packing list.
- Imagine a character that could actually finish something they start. Write some instructions on how one would do that exactly.
- Write about one of the hardest times of your life. You know, other than right now.
- Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a quarantine from the plague. Write a historical essay about that time that focuses on Shakespeare’s wife.
- Lie on the floor for a while. Think about all the writing you could do if you got up.
- Find a photo on Instagram that depicts a family baking profiteroles in matching hand-knitted sweaters. List five possible hermit crab structures that could convey the importance of not staging unrealistic scenes at a time like this.
- Imagine someone has hit refresh on the The New York Times page 20 times in the last hour and on the 21st time, the page does not reload. Describe the type of cake they should eat.
- Write a manifesto about how any writing rejection should only be delivered at a time when the writer is emotionally prepared to deal with it.
- Outline a braided essay that interweaves musings on sourdough starters and Tiger King tattoos.
- Describe the taste and smell of the food you would make if you could just locate a single packet of yeast.
- Write an ode to Netflix, Hulu, or the My Little Pony video that has kept your child entertained for the last hour.
- Retitle 10 famous memoirs into things that could apply to this time in your life. Just don’t use “Eat, Play, Zoom”—that one’s already spoken for.
- Write one word. Any word. See? You can still write!
Julie Vick’s writing has appeared in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Electric Literature. She is an English Instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Follow her on Twitter @vickjulie. / https://twitter.com/vickjulie
February 17, 2020 § 6 Comments
by Heather Pegas
A late bloomer, I only got serious about writing creatively in my mid-40s. Although I could produce dozens of compelling grant proposals every year, when I sat down to really “write,” I struggled over what to “say.”
This grieved me because in my head I was a writer, a real one. And I can’t say how or when or even why it happened, maybe some stones fell out of the dam, but at a certain point I found my flow. I went to writing class every week, published some essays, and while my work product still wasn’t what anyone would call an outpouring, it became a reliable trickle. Most importantly, the act of writing was no longer a psychic cage-match between woman and self.
I didn’t question this shift because I was grateful. Finally. Inspiration! It really was everywhere.
Before the holidays last year, inspiration struck in a particularly weird way. I got a marketing email from a national pet store chain. Its subject line was “Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat,” and it was hawking organic turkey pâtés that my cat would not have appreciated. “This is ridiculous,” I thought, preparing to hit Delete.
Then it struck me: This is ridiculous.
I’d been given the easiest writing prompt ever and 45 minutes later, a hilarious new comedic list was birthed into the world, chock full of memorable chestnuts such as “old Post-Its” and “any goddamned thing on the counter.” I shared it with my husband and a few friends, basked in their appreciation, and then sent it off to a daily comedy blog where my work had previously been rejected.
I was hopeful. People love Thanksgiving, I thought. People love lists, and at least within the confines of the internet, people love cats!
A few days later, I received enthusiastic acceptance of Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat. It would run during the holiday week!
And that is when all the insecurities I had about not being a “real” writer returned. Had it all been too easy? Was it really funny enough? I began to mentally revise my list, and popped off an email to the blog asking how to send edits. Not hearing back, I pasted my revisions into a Gmail. I’d made subtle but important changes, “gizzards” to “giblets,” you see.
I didn’t know if these edits had been received, and by the Sunday before Thanksgiving, was in a state of high anxiety. I went to my WordPress account, desperate to find out something. And there it was, scheduled for publication the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with a photo of an adorable butterscotch kitten and…the entire second half of the list missing.
Most of the good stuff, all of the best parts, simply not there!
I sat at my computer in disbelief and, gaping at my truncated cat list, my hands began to shake. As any writer can tell you, attachment is a big part of the game. We don’t like to part with words. We may even be neurotic. Moreover, when one is attempting to crack the comedy blog market on the strength of a piece like Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat, every beat must be perfect.
Needing to know what happened, I looked back into my sent emails and found that Gmail had unceremoniously dumped the back half of my revisions into a “Trimmed Content” section one had to click to see. It was way too easy to miss those three tiny dots that would have delivered the punchline.
So I sent one email containing the full and final Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat, and a second with my abject apologies. I sat back in my chair to wait and worry, conscious of being a major P.I.T.A. My compulsion to tinker and revise had caused this problem. I hadn’t checked my revision email closely enough. And maybe even now, my emails were making a bad situation worse. But at no point had I been able to help myself.
As a distraction, my husband suggested grocery shopping. “Maybe you can take the time to consider what you’re going to do now that your comedy writing career is over,” he said.
I regarded them mirthlessly, husband and cat, then left to shop for holiday groceries ruminating all the while. And I sat on tenterhooks until the next day when the blog editor confirmed she had fixed the post, and politely but firmly requested I not send edits in that particular way in the future.
Ultimately, my cat list ran to a fairly enthusiastic response and even inspired a problem-free spinoff, Casting Notes for Your Imaginary, All-Feline, Live-Action Nativity Play. In short, it all turned out OK.
But still I’m left to ponder the welling of emotion and woe this episode triggered. Just look at yourself, I think. Brought nearly to your knees, right to the brink of despair…by your cat list. What was that about?
It wasn’t just about helpless aggravation in the face of technological failure or my myriad personal neuroses. There is a shadow side to this thing of being a writer, one that can induce a shocking loss of perspective. Your creation, even the least consequential, can assume Frankensteinian proportions, and if threatened, can consume your ego and your days, causing the deepest anguish.
Maybe this investment is a mark of the “real” writer.
When you’re sitting down to the lonely work, risking failure, hoping to be read and knowing you may never be – when you’re in constant monologue with your own over-eager audience of one – no single word is meaningless. Each choice means so much, possibly too much. And maybe it isn’t outcome that makes the writer, but rather the willingness to go “all in” on this agonizing process. No one else but a “real” writer, I guess, would know the exquisite agitation that comes in preparing to release work to the world.
Heather Pegas is a Los Angeles-based writer whose essays have appeared in The Coil and The Longridge Review. Her cat-inspired work can be found at Little Old Lady Comedy.
January 29, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Julie E. Ferris-Tillman
I’m a writer but pay the big bills with a senior leadership job in communication. I was recently laid off from said job and am now over 40 and on the job market. Friends and colleagues all expressed hope and care when saying “well now you have time to write.” True, but my writing has been dozens and dozens of cover letters, resumes and phrases engineered to meet character counts for talent management software systems. I am proof that you can exhaust “Tell us why you’re qualified in 250 characters or less” as a writing prompt.
My new narrative is my own life, but in a less interesting format than the memoir I’m crafting. I’m suddenly writing some of the most formulaic nonfiction of my life for voiceless, faceless machines on the other side of application systems. My cyborg self has embraced a new prose shaped as follows:
Dearest hiring manager,
[Please note, I searched for who might be the hiring manager for this job and spent an hour on social media hunting down executives of this company and cannot find the right one. The only email is firstname.lastname@example.org so I want you to know I did my due diligence and tried, but here, you get only a generic hail. Apologies.]
I write you a clever lead here about how much I love your company or connecting to some jaunty phrase in your job ad, maybe even matching your recruiter’s prose exclamation point by exclamation point. Then, per age-old form, I explain where I learned of this specific job [enter title here like a MadLib: Manager/Director/Vice President [of] Public Relations/Marketing/Storytelling/Communication].
I am of course, qualified. The reality is I’m over qualified but your job ad asked for no less than 23 bulleted skills and to address each of them, not knowing which may be your or your talent software management system’s favorite, I will try to touch briefly on my experience with each without making it clear to you you’ve asked for three distinct professionals to absorb one role. Lucky for you, I’m a generalist and have done all of these things. Managing people is also my superpower. And I’m a woman, something very good for your diversity hiring initiatives your website proclaims and a useful weapon in battling the cries of “old boys’ network” on company review sites.
Then, there’s something light I meant to tell you about my history with your company or your product. I’m sure I’ve used it or your company was something my grandpa told me about or once your product saved me in a pinch and now, in the grand circle of life, I write prostrate before you, asking to again be a part of your brand.
And, to wrap up this homage to my skills and beg for some sort of human interaction with feedback and voices and nonverbal cues so you can meet me and like me and we can talk and you can see my business professional dress and my table manners, I will add that I also have far more education than you asked for, am able to start immediately and will propose a couple of pathways for your [MadLib #2: content generation/social platforms/community engagement/news making] in the new year.
I am able to discuss this further at your earliest convenience.
Julie E. Ferris-Tillman [MadLib #3: Ph.D./ ]
Julie E. Ferris-Tillman, Ph.D., is a writer, comedian and dog rescuer who lives in Milwaukee, WI. She teaches at Marquette University and blogs at www.marytylermilwaukee.com. She’s been the writer-in-residence at the historic Pfister Hotel and has been creating content and writing copy for ad agencies for more than a decade. She’s currently an ethnographer of her neighborhood dive bar.
January 6, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Alison Lowenstein
After meticulously crafting a brief cover letter and biographical statement, you upload your work of creative genius, along with a twelve-dollar submission fee. You press submit and enter a period of limbo when you see the essay, along with your many other submissions–ranging from haikus to flash fiction, logged as Received.
Every evening you visit the web page for the literary journal you submitted to and imagine yourself on their homepage. Fantasizing that within minutes of the essay being on the journal’s website you get a book deal or at least an inquiry from a literary agent.
Rebuilding Your Confidence:
You reread your essay to remind yourself that you truly are talented and any editor tasked with navigating a content management system to review a virtual slush pile will be delighted to read the layered work rife with metaphors and allusions to religion, literature and a variety of high and low brow works of art.
Judging Those Who Don’t Publish:
To pass the time, you silently judge your friends who aren’t vulnerable enough to submit their creative work to literary publications like you do. You think about your old college roommate who was lauded in the alumni newsletter for discovering a procedure to cure blindness, who as far as you know has never published in JAMA, while you have had three poems and an essay featured in literary journals with a circulation of over 2,000.
Your heart skips a beat when you see your status finally changes from Received to In-Progress. You imagine your essay being discussed at an editorial meeting where the words “brilliant” and “we made a serious discovery here” will be uttered several times by an enthusiastic staff comprised of unpaid grad students and a lecherous aging professor. After two months, when your status hasn’t changed to Accepted you start reading the masthead of the journal and craft impassioned letters to the editorial board about how they better make a decision or you will be forced to Withdraw the submission. You wisely never send these letters.
Perusing Social Media:
You follow many notable writers and other literary icons on various social media platforms and cringe when you see them mention work they’ve recently published in the literary journal you submitted to and haven’t heard back from in four months. In addition, you follow the editors from the publication you submitted your essay to and wonder how they could tweet several times a day, while it takes them months to make a decision to Accept or Decline on Submittable.
It’s been six months and you still religiously check your Submissions page, but there has been no change in status. You regret not sending your essay out as a multiple submission and blame your monogamous nature as a reason for this mistake. Late one night in a fit of rage, you make your way over to the Discover page and search for other journals accepting creative nonfiction. You submit to a contest that has two hours left before its submission window closes, and a series of online and print journals, spending a total of one hundred and four dollars on submission fees. The following morning you receive an email congratulating you and you log onto Submittable and see your status has changed to Accepted.
Alison Lowenstein is a freelance writer and author of children’s books, guidebooks and plays. She’s written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Modern Loss, Gothamist, New York Daily News, National Geographic Traveler, Travel and Leisure.com, and many other publications and websites. You can find her at www.brooklynbaby.com. Follow her on twitter @cityweekendsnyc.
December 18, 2019 § 8 Comments
by Victoria Lynn Smith
Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another blog.)
I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.
“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.
“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause at the end of a sentence is nonessential or essential—to comma or not to comma. I don’t seem to have an ear for distinguishing between nonessential and essential clauses at the end of sentences.
Before I started writing, I worried about what to cook for supper. These days supper is a fleeting thought and easily evicted from my mind while I hunt for publications to submit a story. I play matchmaker. Is my story like their stories? Might it be considered even if it’s a little different? Or will some editor ask everyone in earshot, “Did she even read our journal?” My story doesn’t seem to fit. I read it again and wonder, Will I ever find it a date?
When my husband gets home, I’m reminded about supper. But it’s always another five minutes before he comes up from the basement. I keep looking at publications. When he gets upstairs, supper becomes a multiple-choice question: A) heat up leftovers, B) cook a frozen pizza, or C) go out for dinner.
Up from the basement, my husband asks, “Did you call the mechanic?”
“I forgot,” I say.
But I did rewrite the sentence I was fretting about. It lost its rhythm, so I changed it back. I played with the comma again. I put the comma in and read; I took the comma out and read. I raised my hands to the ceiling, threw back my head, and yelled. I thought about meditation, but I’d only think about commas. And comma meditation is an oxymoron. So, when he asks about the mechanic, I’m still worrying: nonessential or essential?
The real fear? I’ll make the wrong choice. An editor will read my story and notice a missing comma, in what she obviously knows is a nonessential clause. She’ll ask everyone in earshot, “How can this person call herself a writer?” It’s of no comfort that Oscar Wilde spent a whole day wrestling with one comma.
I give the comma a break and call the mechanic. If I wait until tomorrow, I might be prewriting a story in my head, and unless the story is about a mechanic . . .
After supper I go outside to pick up dog poop. I hardly notice the robust weeds in my gardens. Before I started writing, they’d registered in my brain like a 6-point earthquake. Embarrassment would lead me to pull the largest ones. But I’m looking for dog poop and trying to decide between two different endings for a short story that I’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any leftover brain capacity to feel shame about rogue weeds. Maybe I should abandon the story. But it taunts me when I ignore it, so I keep rekindling our relationship. I cut the story more slack than I’d give a person who gave me that much grief.
Maybe it would be easier to quit writing, but then I’d have to go back to my old worries.
Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles, and she is working on a collection of short stories. Her short short story “Tossed” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2019 Contest for short-short fiction. In October she received two honorable mentions in the Indianhead Writers’ 2019 Contest, one for fiction and one for nonfiction.
December 10, 2019 § 7 Comments
As the season approaches, you may want to notify your family, friends, and colleagues that you’ve been wealthy, successful, powerful and loved this year. Or at least didn’t fail as badly as it was suggested you would with that MFA in Creative Writing. (I am totally on the track to my own parking permit in the Remote Lot and teaching six adjunct classes a semester instead of seven, so suck it, Aunt Carol!)
Hence, the holiday newsletter. A chance to share those meaningful, intimate moments of your life, dreams, and family with all the people you don’t care about quite enough to send an individual card. It’s also a chance to show your mastery of the power of a well-chosen word or a scintillating sentence. Even the tiniest punctuation mark can convey worlds of meaning, and at gatherings of rivals and relatives, punctuation can spice up the most pedestrian conversation. Whether in writing or speech, herewith is your armor for the season—wear it wisely.
Apostrophe: A properly placed apostrophe is a symbol of your membership in the bourgeoisie. Sure, Cousin Ahmed owns a regional chain of successful halal butchers. But a gentle suggestion about his “lamb chop’s” sign demonstrates the value of your years of grammatical training. Try not to describe it as a “grocer’s apostrophe”—that’s just gauche.
Question Mark: A powerful deflector for all arguments. Best coupled with a distant look and a humble reference to one’s own virtue. For example, “Oh, Uncle Jim-Bob, did you mention something political? I was just thinking about whether to spend Boxing Day donating blood or working at the Habitat for Humanity project. Which would you pick?”
Interrobang: You just have to know what it is, then watch for a chance to drop it into conversation. Won’t your co-workers eyes widen when you suggest ending the company Secret Santa email with one of these bad boys!?
Ellipses: The magician of implication. Use it to suggest you couldn’t possibly list every wonderful thing in your world right now. After our trip to Iowa, little Josie won some prizes at the state fair…Jacob joined a few clubs…lots going on! Here, those three tiny dots punch above their weight, handling a fifth-runner-up for Quilting: Beginners Single Patch and the weekly Scared Straight meetings with ease.
With fellow writers, you may need to bring out the big guns. Enjoying a holiday book-gathering, but the conversation has started to flag? Bust out your opinion on the Oxford Comma. Once you mention the strippers, Stalin and JFK, the party takes care of itself.
Finally, remember to always take your notebook to holiday dinners. Then, when Aunt Carol asks “Do any memoirs actually sell, I mean, if they aren’t by celebrities?” frown distractedly, scribble, and ask her “Can you repeat that please? It’s perfect for Chapter Three…”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for more mild humor and devastating punctuation.
November 27, 2019 § 24 Comments
By Kim Hinson
When I belly up to my computer to write about certain spicy procreation events it becomes an all out, downright puritanical pickle.
I blame it on my mom. Of course I do. And you would, too.
My Victorian sensibilities started at our live-in gas station, in my childhood (of course), with my mother’s straitlaced, spur-of-the-moment description of childbirth. A feisty, lipsticky customer named Tina stopped by the station a few days after she’d given birth to her eighth child and couldn’t for the life of her remember what she’d named that new baby. Later that day, Mama, my five-year-old little sister Dawn, and I sat in the car waiting for Daddy to join us so we could drive Hansen’s Truck Stop for supper. Into the silence, Mama said, “That Tina. She just had her eighth baby and she can’t even remember what she named it.”
Little Dawn immediately piped up, “Where do babies come from anyway?”
I barely breathed for listening. Seven years old and happily ignorant, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the answer. There was a tiny, pregnant silence while Mama’s librarian brain zipped through the card catalog in her mind. She gazed through the windshield at the night sky darkening over our backyard junkyard and said breezily, “Oh, they come from down there.”
My face froze in horror, and Dawn said, “Wait. What!? Like where exactly down there?”
Mama gave a little cough. “There’s a little hole near where you pee,” she said, getting as close as she’d ever come to saying an actual private body part word. Without waiting for more questions, she leaned forward and flicked the car radio on to the only station we knew—KFIL True Country Radio—and cranked the volume way, way up. Little Jimmy Dickens cut loose with May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose and I sang along as loud as I could.
To my shame (but also a great deal of relief), I never talked to any of my three daughters about s-e-x. I don’t say that word, and I don’t put that word down in Scrabble, even if the x lands on triple letter and the whole dang word scores quadruple points. Raised in Minnesota, land of Lutherans, soybean farmers, and conversations that consist entirely of beating around the bush, I just don’t.
Flash forward forty years, to the day my nineteen-year-old daughter, Megan, wanted to start a horse breeding business. A horse breeding business that involved something called “in-hand breeding.”
Swept up in Megan’s enthusiasm, and deeply content with my innocent mindset, it never even occurred to me to say, “Wait. What is in hand!?” My Internet research on in-hand breeding turned up more mentions of private body-part words than I’d seen in my whole life. Well, I thought. This could be awkward. I don’t say private body-part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself. Like a silent but powerful family tradition, my people keep private things private. I’d certainly never asked Megan if she knew anything about it. Because that would involve talking about…“it.”
Then again, this was about horses. Surely this was different. A few months earlier we’d had a baby miniature horse born on our Texas farm just by-golly out of the blue. Nothing to it. We saw nothing. We knew nothing. Like immaculate and invisible conception. Just the way I liked it.
And then I became a writer. I knew the in-hand breeding escapade made for a hilarious story, and I knew I wanted to write about it. But, the instant my fingers hovered above the keyboard, I faced the most priggish of predicaments: How could I write about an activity that involved several private body parts and all the various private activities involving those body parts in a modest, respectable, yet comical way?
So, like a good writer, I turned to books for guidance and genteel examples.
Frank McCourt, in Angela’s Ashes, chose a couple of vaguely descriptive terms which, when read in context, clearly represented the particular body part in question. McCourt’s first word choice, “boyo,” is short, informal, and almost amiable. The expressions “my excitement” and “the excitement,” came next, representing not just a particular body part, but also the proceedings involving said body part. Sadly, none of these cheery terms quite fit my own writing voice, so I moved on to the next book.
Anne Lamott, in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, had obviously faced a similar dilemma when writing about her son’s circumcision. She resolved the issue brilliantly by writing, “I was scared…that I had, after all, made the wrong decision and now…he would need emergency surgery on his wienie” (24). Now this I liked! Thank you Anne Lamott for such an absolutely cute, yet meaningful and even accurate word choice! It also turns out that we have a choice of spellings: wienie or weenie.
Giddy with relief, I pulled myself together to write the in-hand breeding story, cheerfully adopting the word “weenie” to reference our stallion’s…weenie. My writing group, upon hearing me read my piece, snorted, guffawed, clutched their stomachs and all but fell off their chairs laughing. They wheezed and gasped things like, “Just…NO!” and “Don’t!” and “You can’t!” They couldn’t stop laughing, which, for me, is the exact reaction I’m shooting for every time. Still, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t think I should use the word “weenie.”
Thankfully, Lamott chose a couple of other words that filled the bill modesty-wise and also felt right to me voice-wise: Unit and missile. I used them both as follows:
“…wedging Mercury [our stallion] next to the pipe fence with her shoulder, she reached down and took ahold of his hyper-enthusiastic unit. Well, that certainly brought Mercury around.”
“Mercury reared up, feet planted firmly in the gravel, towering over us. But the mission was darn near impossible. There was the missile. And there was the target. But there was way too much water, and all the vital body parts were far too slippery.”
Anyway, like I said, it’s my mom’s fault. All I could do as a mature, grownup writer was to develop coping mechanisms to, well, to cope with the brunt of the backlash of this puritanical skeleton in my family’s underwear drawer.
To prudish writers everywhere: My therapist says it’s not our fault. You’re welcome.
Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. Find out more about Kim at http://kimhinson.com and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/KimHinsonAuthor