July 1, 2019 § 31 Comments
By Jenny Klion
Acknowledge that you are, in fact, the oldest living being in your class, older probably than the classroom itself, and definitely older than your eye-candy teacher.
If and when you are not the object of any classmate’s romantic or sexual affection: let it go. You had your turn, and you did it well. Remember that at one time, you too might have wondered who that random older woman was—the one looking to get laid at the summer writing workshop.
Realize you may miss out on some late night social intrigue, since you have opted out of staying in the dorms due to the nightmare scenario of shared coed bathrooms. Harken back to the time when you knew you were done doing circus work, because you ultimately couldn’t live without porcelain.
Know that your work may scream Boomer themes and concerns—your poor little rich girl saga, for example—and that your story might not be as fresh as your classmates’ stories, with their contemporary radium-filled toxic hometowns and their coming-of-age slaughterhouse sex patrols.
Comfort yourself with a lunch at the documentary-famed pint-sized burger joint in town, which traffics in cash only, offers no condiments, only tomato and onion on white bread toast, with the burger cooked medium rare, and you better not ask for anything else. Do this because you know that you are not part of the popular crowd anymore. Suffice it to say that your idea of partying involves getting a to-go cup for the remains of your one glass of sangria from the Cuban restaurant you eat at by yourself.
Bless your soul also when you admit that at one point you feel like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, whose ability to land a doomed plane on the surface of the water was due in large part to the depth of his age and experience. And that you yourself survive the crushing defeat of a bad critique, with your head held high to boot, because you’ve already been there and done that before. Many times over. And come out with something better on the other side.
Pat yourself on the back when you exchange your campus keys for a certification of completion. You have earned serious bragging rights, and that kind of satisfaction never gets old.
Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.
June 13, 2019 § 20 Comments
After three years of recovering from a divorce, a surgery, and a layoff that had occurred simultaneously, I joined a writing workshop. I was the first student assigned to share my work, an essay about my estrangement with a sister, and my family’s history of mental illness and alcoholism. I was concerned about revealing vulnerable information about myself, but I was even more fearful about exposing my family. I told myself I could cross the publishing bridge if and when I came to it. For now, I had to be brave enough to share the draft with my classmates.
I’ve been a part of enough writing groups to know that the disaster-scenarios novice writers often consider rarely come true. No one was going to plagiarize my work: Writers are generally too consumed with their own stories to even think about stealing someone else’s. I wouldn’t be judged for revealing personal information: mining one’s dysfunctional background for material is par for the course. I reminded myself that a workshop setting has a high level of acceptance and confidentiality, and that the masterclass I’d joined was advanced: comprised of serious writers who’d had to apply to get accepted. If anyone knew these unwritten rules, they would.
I emailed my essay to Staples. Since I hadn’t my work in many years, even placing my order felt momentous. I was afraid of sharing vulnerable information. I’d also been wondering, if in the years between workshops, I’d lost my touch, that my classmates would inform me that I sucked.
As if to intensify my foreboding, the weather was overcast and thunder roared as I drove to pick up my copies. I whisked down my raincoat’s hood as I walked through the automatic glass doors towards the print counter.
A mountain of a young man took up the space behind the desk, his long dark hair in a ponytail.
“Name?” he asked.
“Kelsey,” I said.
He nodded, smiled, and pointed his finger in the air in a gesture of recognition, and then placed a carton on a counter. The carton’s shape reminded me of a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin box. Instead of breakfast treats, it contained something far sweeter: my work. He pressed the box’s tabs to reveal 10 copies of my essay, neatly stacked and paperclipped.
As I fumbled with my wallet, he asked what I thought of the print job.
“Very nice,” I said as I whipped out my debit card.
“It was good,” he said.
The chatter of other customers, the beeping of office equipment, suddenly ceased. I looked at him, stunned. He had read my work.
“I know I probably shouldn’t have read it,” he said. “But I saw the first page, and I couldn’t stop. I had to see what’s going to happen next!”
He didn’t pick up on my clenched jaw. In fact, he smiled, expecting me to be flattered. Speechless, I concentrated on remembering my PIN. The clerk handed me the receipt and said, “I like your writing style.”
I thought of his eyes scanning certain sentences of that essay, his mind becoming acquainted with my family in ways many of my friends, and even my psychotherapist, were not. I felt as violated as if he had touched me. But it was too late to slap his hand away.
I got in my car, shut the door, and took a deep breath. Once I drove off, I gave up my attempt to make a left turn out of the parking lot: it was too complicated. Here I was, finally revealing some of my most intimate traumas, and my first reader was the Staples clerk?
I catastrophized: Would this weird guy track down a family member and share what I’d written, disrupting a tenuous peace? Would he stalk me? I’d submitted the document by email—would he publish my unedited first draft online, destroying my copyright?
The first people I usually shared my work with were friends who were also writers. In this case, though, the process was out of order: One of my first readers had been a stranger. In therapy, I’ve explored healthy boundaries: which people to let into my life, and who to keep at bay. But as someone who writes creative nonfiction, I must reach a comfort level in which I let in anyone who reads my work—whether my dearest friend or bitterest enemy.
I considered complaining to the store.
As days passed, my horror decreased. I couldn’t believe the Staples guy admitted reading my essay, but his easy confession showed guilelessness. Perhaps he was a writer, too. In his awkward way, he was just trying to connect.
From now on, I’ll make the copies myself. But the biggest takeaway came in that terrifying moment when my classmates pulled my printed essay from their folders, ready to critique. Part of me was relieved my work had already been seen by another…and that he’d been a fan.
Elizabeth Kelsey is a member of GrubStreet’s writing community in Boston. Her essays have appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine; the Boston Globe; Eating Well; Runner’s World; and other publications. She is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, where she focuses on topics such as the opioid epidemic, changing marijuana laws, and mental health.
June 12, 2019 § 36 Comments
By Brianna Bell
Last week Jeffrey Goldberg, mansplainer-in-chief at The Atlantic, wrote an article appearing to suggest that women can’t write 10,000 words. Women across the world nodded their heads in unison, “Yes, Mr. Goldberg,” they said. “Finally a white man who understands us.”
I can’t write 10,000 words, because I’m a woman, of course. I can write 700 words, however, and a listicle is even better for my short attention span. As the wise Mark Twain once said, “write what you know,” and what I know is why I cannot write 10,000 words.
Here are the reasons:
Women can’t write long features because we’re so busy talking
I know that women can be long-winded, but that’s when we’re using our mouth, using our fingers to type is a completely different thing. Besides, women don’t need facts and figures to back them up when we ramble on with our words. If only we spent less time talking, we could have the gumption to write long-winded stories like white men can.
We are too busy with our families to write 10,000 words
Women work really hard to balance it all. But some dreams are just too big and insurmountable. Sure, we can write a 2,000-word feature in Good Housekeeping, but we cannot write a full cover story of 10,000 words. We can’t even read those cover stories—we skim them quickly between soccer practice or driving our elderly parent to their dentist appt (we can’t even write the full word, appointment, appt will do). There is no time to read 10,000 words, and there is definitely no time to write 10,000 words.
We prefer the personal essay
Women are such deep feelers. My feelings are so deep, an ocean can barely contain all the feelings I have, about all the things. The personal essay is perfect because it requires only feelings, no research or statistics.
The women who can write 10,000 words, write books instead
There are some women out there that are capable of writing more than their grocery list. But these energetic women decide to focus their time writing books. Although women don’t like reading 10,000-word magazine features, we love ourselves a good book. There’s nothing like chick lit and a hot bubble bath to relax us after a long day of balancing it all.
There already is one woman doing it
It is important to fill quotas, and I don’t think it’s right for men to dominate with their 10,000 words without a little bit of a challenge. Luckily, there was that one woman who wrote a cover story that one time, and so now thankfully we can say that we’ve already done it. There’s no need to put too much pressure on ourselves.
We get distracted easily
There’s nothing like a woman who flits about, from one task to the next. One minute she’s folding a load of laundry, the next she’s paying the heat bill, and then she remembers her Starbucks date with her high school friend Sally, so she’s flitted off to that. Expecting a woman to stay focused for an entire 10,000 words on a single story is an impossible expectation.
I know I said that this would be 10 points and 700 words, but I’ve been writing this at my kitchen island while my three kids, two cats, and a dog all begged for snacks and entertainment. I simply cannot finish, which proves that Mr. Goldberg was absolutely correct. Us women cannot be trusted to write 10,000 words.
For this woman writer, 590 words will do.
Brianna Bell is a Canadian freelance writer with work published in The Independent, CBC, and The Globe & Mail. She has never written a 10,000-word feature.
May 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
Randon Billings Noble, in our May 2019 issue, explores the claim that essay collections must always be “themed,” and suggests that maybe the better question to ask is is not, Is the book saleable? but Is it sailable?
Here’s an excerpt:
During our proverbial New York lunch, right before she signed me, my once-upon-a-time agent asked what I wanted from my writing career—fame? fortune? —as well as what I wanted from this book in particular. I remember saying—so unguardedly, “I want to write a good book that people can read.”
In the years that followed—when this agent and I broke up, when my book was rejected by many more agents, and contests, and presses—I returned to this answer again and again. I return to it now when I wonder why The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it, why that literary festival rejected it, why that award didn’t choose it. I wrote a good book, and people can read it. That’s the main thing.
So if you are putting together an essay collection, I ask you to consider what your motive is in writing this particular book. If you already have a theme that drives your writing, that’s wonderful—follow it where it takes you. But if you don’t have a particular theme—and if you don’t really want to have one—take heart. Write the book you want to write, and then think about how it might be described, pitched, published and sold.
Randon Billings Noble’s full essay can be read right here. Do it.
May 9, 2019 § 24 Comments
By Chelsea Biondolillo
This list was inspired by the bookstore events coordinator who wanted to know, “What is the target audience for your book (i.e. history buffs, scientists, gardeners, kids, retirees, etc.) and why do you think your book will interest them?”
PEOPLE WHO WILL BE INTERESTED IN MY BOOK
- People who were children.
- Anyone who has ever seen a bird close-up, or who has longed to.
- My mother.
- That one childhood friend who will probably skim the pages of a copy at a bookstore, to see if she can tell whether any of the essays are from the time in my life when she is certain she loomed large. Though she’s in there, she’ll never know where exactly, so she’ll decide against buying a copy.
- Those of us inclined to carry a stone around, for luck or company.
- My ex-husband’s second wife.
- People who thought it was going to be a book about birds. Half of them will give up halfway through and the other half will think it’s pretty interesting for a bird book that isn’t exactly about birds.
- That one acquaintance who reads literary nonfiction by women writers so he can impress the kind of women who read literary nonfiction by women writers (even though they all end up going “crazy” on him). He doesn’t know yet that my book might work against in him in that regard.
- People who pick up feathers, even though it is against the law to do so.
- Students assigned it in their advanced nonfiction workshops by professors with innovative and admirable pedagogy.
- People who don’t normally like nature writing, but who make an exception in my case.
- Women who at least one person has called crazy.
- Half a dozen people I met once and made an impression upon, most likely in my thirties, as I was more memorable then than I’ve ever been.
- Anyone who starts out their days with a lot of ambition and big plans and then finds themselves sinking into the mud of their memories, the things that were said to them, by them, over them, who finds that the view of the middle distance out a picture window can be enthralling in the worst way, capturing minutes and even hours of the day before you notice it’s happened. Something important is out there, you and I both know it, we just have to maybe look a little harder or for another moment or two to figure out what it is.
- Owners of tattoos they don’t regret, despite the side-eyes of a certain types on public transit and in long lines at the grocery store.
- Owners of lonely hearts.
- That other childhood friend who will read her name on a page and think at first that I have maligned her. A closer read will reveal otherwise, but there’s no telling if my book will get one from her.
- Anyone who has run away from something.
- A small cadre of lurkers who have quietly and steadfastly supported me through a lot of bullshit and a few parades. They probably won’t even tell me, until I run into them somewhere unexpected, and that will be a wonderful and endearing surprise.
- Readers inclined to possess pretty books. It is a pretty book, after all.
- Those few dearest, brightest lights who are hearts of my heart. Who bolster, cajole, inspire, comfort, and champion me. Who I bolster, cajole, and hopefully inspire and comfort right back. They will tell me that everyone should be interested in my book, and I will tell them I believe them.
- Those of us who ran the long way ‘round until we came back home again.
- Those of us afraid that home has been lost forever.
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of the essay collection The Skinned Bird and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. She lives and works outside of Portland, Oregon, in a house her grandparents built.
April 8, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Ross West
Is this thing on?
[Tapping on microphone]
Okay, welcome, welcome everybody—nice to see such a good crowd. The subject of my talk today is Farrah Abraham. You may remember how she rocketed to fame as a participant on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She followed-up with appearances on Teen Mom, Teen Mom OG, Couples Therapy, Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars Family Edition, and Celebrity Big Brother.
Now twenty-seven, her indefatigable commitment to cultivating and leveraging her name, her celebrity—her brand, if you will—is simply breathtaking. What I’m here to tell you is that Farrah Abraham should be a role model and an inspiration for every writer attending this conference. This is true whether you are promoting a book, building a platform, or curating your career.
Just this month Abraham added “book critic” to her already impressive résumé with a review of Joan Didion’s groundbreaking Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Demonstrating the attention-getting panache of P.T. Barnum, Abraham titled her review, “Joan Didion is a Gin-drinking Bore Who Writes Convoluted Books.”
[Audience gasps and hisses]
I should add—
People, please. I should add, this piece was not written on spec—a practice painfully familiar to many of you fledgling self-promoters. No, Farrah Abraham was commissioned to write the piece—by Penthouse magazine.
I can see the name of that publication has some of you fidgeting in your seats. But let me remind you of a few authors who were glad to have their work appear in Penthouse: James Baldwin, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and Phillip Roth.
Abraham is not without a certain amount of her own literary credibility. Her memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended, was a New York Times e-book bestseller. How many of you can say that?
[Indistinct comment shouted by an audience member]
Yes, I agree, it was absolute garbage. Her review of Didion’s book is even worse. As if Abraham is completely unfamiliar with the concept of an essay collection, she’s stumped as to why the pieces jump “from year to year, often for no rhyme or reason. The non-linear structure confuses me. I had to wonder, ‘Was Didion even trying when she wrote this junk?’”
[Audience gasps and jeers]
Yes, junk. Ahem. And then there’s this: “If you’re looking to find out what not to do as a writer, this is a great book for you.”
[Groans and hoots]
Look, I don’t disagree with you. Let me come right out and say it: Abraham doesn’t have, and never will have, the literary talent of Joan Didion’s toenail clippings.
But that is not the point.
Now please, people, can we all get off our artsy-fartsy high horses and get down to business?
Here’s the bald-faced fact: Success in this today’s publishing world is all about ambition.
So how do we learn from a fantastically successful self-promoter like Farrah Abraham?
Has writing your book landed you an interview? If so, great. But how can you make that interview work for you? In other words, ask yourself this: What would Farrah Abraham do?
Research shows that the more times a prospective buyer is exposed to your book’s name, the more likely she will remember it, google it, and buy it. So when the interviewer asks you a question, keep in mind the writer’s eleventh commandment: Thou shalt take every opportunity to flog thy book. Commit to memory such phrases as “As I talked about in my book…” and “I devoted a whole chapter in my book to that…”
Listen to how smoothly Abraham does it: “When you need a book to read and ponder your drug problems, pick up a Didion essay collection. If you’re looking for a book that discusses real issues, you are better off picking up my memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended. My life story is closer to the truth of life.”
[Sneering, derisive laughter]
Yes, it’s appalling, grotesquely so . . . and it’s brilliant. Don’t forget, her book came out in 2012—seven years ago. But she’s still out there hustling the merch.
Let me be blunt: If you want to build your platform, if you want to blossom your career, sell books, and make money, you need to hold these truths to be self-evident: The race doesn’t go to the talented, or the clever, or the crafter of the most elegant lines since John Milton. The prize goes to the most aggressive promoter.
What matters is visibility, publicity; any and all attention you can generate in print, radio, television, podcasts, and blogs—exploding across social media with the attention-getting energy of a lightening bolt.
Abraham knows this in her bones. Her formal education is an associate’s degree from a defunct cooking school, but when she saw an opportunity to crap on one of the literary titans of the past hundred years did she hesitate? Not for one second. She’s a minnow calling a whale puny. That, ladies and gentlemen, is audacity.
And does she allow herself to be hobbled by some misplaced sense of humility? No! She’s riding the galloping stallion of her career and she’s giving it the spurs for all she’s worth.
If Farrah Abraham is anything, she’s shameless—a quality I suggest you nurture. And if you don’t already have the word careerist in your vocabulary, add it immediately, apply it to yourself, wear it as a badge of honor.
Any of you have a problem with that?
Another of Abraham’s skills: she thinks laterally. She accompanied the release of her memoir with a tie-in album of her music—one song for each chapter in the book. Pure cross-promotional genius. Farrah Abraham: TV star, best-selling author, literary critic, and accomplished musician. Has a nice Renaissance-woman ring, doesn’t it?
In point of fact, the reviews of her record were brutal; one used this phrase: “the most horrible combination of sounds to ever be assembled in the history of audio recording.” Doesn’t matter. Self-promotion is not a rearview mirror enterprise. What matters is what’s new and what’s next.
So ask yourself this: What am I going to do and how far am I willing to go? Abraham went all in, starring in the adult films Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom and Farrah 2: Backdoor and More. You might not want to promote yourself quite so, well, nakedly. But people, one way or another it’s all about exposure. You need to act and act aggressively. Your books are not going to sell themselves. Your career is not going to spontaneously generate.
Let me leave you with this thought. Being a writer is, first and foremost, about pushing, plugging, hyping, branding, merchandizing, and in every other possible way advertising your work and yourself. It’s not a career for the timid.
Are there any questions?
Ross West earned an MFA at the University of Oregon, where he worked for nineteen years as science writer and editor of the research publication Inquiry then as senior managing editor of the university magazine Oregon Quarterly (circ. 95,000). His essays have been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest; Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and The Best of Dark Horse Presents. They have also appeared in Oregon Quarterly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Recent publications include an excerpt from his novel in Embark (October 2018) and a short story in Spank the Carp (February 2019). He served as the text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and the Atlas of Yellowstone.
March 27, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Laura Jackson Roberts
As an autoimmune disease sufferer, I face a lot of physical limitations. Things hurt, I’m tired, and I don’t accomplish as much writing as I want to. My two unpublished manuscripts are more than enough to sow the seeds of despair-by-comparison as writer-friends surge forward while I “get some rest” and “take it easy” as I’m always advised to do. Perhaps the worst thing about autoimmune disease, though, is the brain fog. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes it, but it’s described as fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, and depression.
I feel compelled to explain brain fog with more figurative language than WebMD offers. Brain fog means my head has filled with sludge. Physically, the bones of my skull feel as though they’re pressurized and bulging; mentally, I’m sifting through oatmeal. Thoughts are in there, but when I reach in to grab one, it slithers away and the ooze closes around it.
Off the page, I’m the mom who forgets to send snacks. I haven’t signed my son’s nightly reading folder since he was in first grade (he’s 12), and the mailman brings a daily stream of you-forgot-to-pay-us reminders printed with tomato-red ink to tell me what a failure I am.
On the page, a sentence takes ten minutes to write, and what comes out makes no sense. Yes, we all produce wretched first drafts, but a brain-fog-draft reads a lot like a seven-year-old recalling last night’s dream: We were in our house but it wasn’t our house and there was some guy but not really and then we went to this other place where there were zebras and Grandma was there except she was fourteen feet tall and had celery in her purse.
I can delete incoherent drafts and nobody will know I’m having brain fog. But I can’t hide it so well in person, and that’s a tricky problem. After all, what do writers do when we get together? We talk about what we’ve read.
I’m terrified of other writers. Of the conferences I’ll attend and speak at this year. Of public interactions in which I might be required to recall an author’s name and book title. Because I don’t remember what books I’ve read. Moreover, I don’t remember who wrote the books I’m not sure I read. And I sure as hell don’t remember the precise titles of the books I’m not sure I read by the authors whose names I can’t recall.
“Brain fog is not a real thing,” one doctor told me. Oh, but it is, and I wish I could remember his name and write him a poorly-worded letter with little-to-no narrative tension and an under-developed conclusion. And then forget to put a stamp on it and find it under the fridge in 20 years.
Aristotle said, “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a certain way.” In other words, fake it until you make it.
As per his advice, I’ve developed tactics to get through literary events and discussions, even when the oatmeal thickens between my ears:
Use your befuddlement to your advantage.
Befuddlement can easily be mistaken for laser-focus when you employ the right eyebrow angle. Raise one, lower the other, as though you’re trying to wear a monocle. Gaze at people’s knees. Any higher and it looks like you’re staring at their crotch; any lower and you’ll appear narcoleptic.
Writers who know what they’re talking about always look at ease. Practice the nonchalance as fervently as possible beforehand. Hold a cup of coffee in your non-dominant hand. Use the dominant hand to thoughtfully touch your chin as the conversation unfolds. Hmm. Yes. Indeed.
Add generic thoughts as appropriate:
“That was a brave choice.”
“I visited that city. It’s just as he described it.”
“I wonder if she envisioned the socio-political ramifications of that particular passage…” Make sure you trail off.
Be the first to leave.
When in doubt, bail the hell out.
“I have some thoughts on that book, actually, but I’m meeting someone at the bar.”
(This one may backfire, as writers often follow one another to watering holes where discussions expand in subject and volume. Use your best judgment. Other choices include “Advance Auto Parts,” “the alley behind the hotel,” and “church.”)
Fake it ‘till you make it.
I’m trying, Aristotle. And no matter what happens in public, the real work happens in the quiet moments. Sometimes, what I want to say just has to wait until my body can help me say it. I’m learning to be okay with that. On clear-headed days, I know that the words on the spines of the books don’t matter as much as the words within them. With patience, those ideas do seep in through the fog and take hold. And eventually, their idea-children find their way back out though my fingers as I write. In those moments, I know why I’m writing, and I know it has value.
And if we meet at a conference, just let me stare at your knees.
Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in West Virginia. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She lets her kids play with sharp objects, hates earwigs, and has unusually small feet. Find her on Instagram at @thatwvwriter or at www.LauraJacksonRoberts.com.