My Writing Time is Sacred, but Please Don’t Ask Me What I Did All Day

April 21, 2021 § 31 Comments

By Sally Schwartz

It’s easy to be a writer. All you have to do is tell people, “Hi. I’m a writer.”

Gosh. All this time I thought I wrote memoir, and then this nugget of fiction pops out of my fingertips.

The nonfiction version goes more like this: It’s not so easy to be a writer.

Already I need to make an edit. One thing about being a writer is crazy easy: dressing the part. Really, I can’t say enough about the wardrobe. Everyone is going around, giving credit to COVID-19, as if only a pandemic could inspire an appreciation for elastic. Meanwhile, every writer worth her weight in sweatpants can attest to the fact that we’ve understood the joys of pajamas-as-daywear long before the world went into lockdown.

Earning no steady income, and forgoing benefits might be seen by some as professional drawbacks. Those people, who clamor for the gentle buzz of security, are among the short-sighted masses. They are the ones impervious to the thrill of the imaginary world book tour we take in our heads. They forego the satisfaction of daydreaming about the accolades not yet written for the books we have yet to publish. They don’t pretend Oprah, or Reese, are bickering over who gets to choose our memoir for their book club.

It takes a lot of time — time I could be spending writing — thinking about how I would cast the Netflix adaptation of my story.

The secret to my writing career has been my commitment to maintaining a sacred writing practice. Morning is when the muse visits me. Morning is when I am fresh, and the blank page beckons more than taunts me. To write, really write, I discipline myself to say no to all things before noon.

Obviously, I will make the occasional exception. Yesterday, for instance, I had carpet installed from 8 until 2. In my defense, it was the only time they could come. Also, last week, when the disposal broke, the guy came first thing the next day. So those writing days were shot.

Sometimes I need an emergency hair appointment, and Isa, who works magic with cut and color, only works in the morning. So that’s a writing-day exception I have to make every 5 weeks or so, depending on how bad my roots look.  

A few other things have to be in place before I write in the morning. The bed needs to be made, the dishwasher needs to be emptied, the laundry needs to be running. Also, I tend to be more open to creativity if all the bills are paid and my desk is cleared. Emails count as mail, at least to me, so when I sit down, before I write, I get through those.

I do like a fresh pot of coffee. Does that even count as a pre-writing step? Probably not.

Oh. I also need complete silence. No TV. No lawnmower, no leaf blower, and definitely no garbage truck, beeping methodically as it wends its way, slowly, up the street. Tuesday is garbage day, so forget writing on Tuesdays.

As part of the commitment to my art, I ignore my phone between 7 AM – Noon. I’m writing, I’ve told my friends. Unavailable.

If they forget, however, and I happen to be stuck in my process, I will occasionally answer. I should also admit that every now and then, I check my texts and respond. Communication is part of being a writer.

Monday – Wednesday, I find doing the crossword can help get me into a creative flow. Thursday’s and Friday’s crosswords are too hard, so my rule is only allowing myself to do the puzzle no more than three days a week. My writing time is sacred, I remind myself.

I can’t say enough about having a daily word-count target. Let me repeat that. I can’t say enough about having a daily word-count target. As I glance at today’s total, I think it bears repeating: I cannot say enough enough enough about having a daily word target.

Being a writer, a writer who thinks big thoughts, and has the discipline to sit down and get the words onto the page, is hard.

That’s why I like to reward myself, after a solid fifteen minutes or so of writing, with a little stress-relief. Online shopping is, from my experience, a great form of stress relief. You don’t have to buy those shearling lined Birkenstocks, although they would be comfortable. Also, it doesn’t cost anything to look at cashmere sweaters. Most of the time, you can even order and return, free of charge, in case you just want to see how you look in a muted rose oversized boyfriend’s cardigan. While you’re blowing off steam, make sure to read the return policy written by someone else.

Remember: reading is part of a writer’s job!

By the time lunch rolls around, I’m always exhausted. It’s a lot of work, being a writer, and I haven’t even mentioned the energy it takes to envy, and curse, all the writer friends I know who are getting book deals. The toxic energy of jealousy takes so much out of me, it’s almost like working a double shift.  

Non-writers have no appreciation for what goes into the writing life.

That’s why when my fiancé and I sit down to dinner, I hate it when he asks, “So, tell me what you did all day.”

I’m a writer. I’m very busy.
___

Sally Schwartz has worked for over nine years as a syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune, where, until recently, she published under the name Sally Schwartz Higginson. (Sally’s editorial note: Don’t ever change your name.) Sally has written a humorous memoir titled My Sister Betsy’s Guide to Life, and has an agent who believes she can sell it.

Humor and Trauma, Bathtub Bacon, and Writing While Parenting

March 8, 2021 § Leave a comment

Heather Frese and Keema Waterfield release their debut books, a novel and a memoir, respectively, this spring. They met while commiserating over launching a book while parenting during a pandemic and bonded over the element of humor in both their debuts, and below, they interview one another about those experiences.

Keema’s synopsis of Heather’s book:

In The Baddest Girl on the Planet bad girl Evie Austin of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, is in a pickle. She’s made choices. Like marrying Stephen Oden and having a baby instead of finishing her first year of college. Like wondering if an affair in adulthood redeems the affair her parents suffered through during her childhood. And before that, letting a boy kiss her under the bleachers at school. But now “Easy Evie” has to figure out what to make of where those choices left her.

Heather’s synopsis of Keema’s book:

Inside Passage is a memoir about the flow of a family constantly on the move. The book opens with the narrator’s birth at a weed-fogged party attended by hippies and musicians, including at least one future stepfather. She was lucky to survive, and this applies to the whole of her childhood, spent traversing the watery passageways of Alaska and the tumult of poverty, abuse, divorce, and uprootedness. This coming-of-age memoir is a love letter to coastal Southeast Alaska, music, and the connection between family that binds even through the roughest of seas.

Keema Waterfield

Heather: I loved Inside Passage. Bad stuff goes down, though. How did you decide to keep the tone humorous when talking about traumatic events?

Keema: This is a huge question that gets to the dark heart of comedy for me. *Spoiler* The first time I heard sarcasm was at gunpoint, at three years old. I’ve had a relentless fight-or-flight response to even the gentlest teasing since then. But I saw how jokes and laughter were a bonding experience for other kids and I pined to understand it. In my 20’s a boyfriend said, “You’re not funny and you make people uncomfortable when you try.” So, I studied it. I studied humor in literature, trying to find the meter. I watched comedy to learn the body language, even though most famous male comics still make me panic. I have a hard story, but I didn’t want to write a trauma memoir. I even tried to leave the trauma out, but then I didn’t make sense on the page. I wanted to bond with my readers, to invite them in to the quirky, goofy, flawed human I am. In the end, I decided to let my nature guide me. I figure if laughter is medicine, then the people who laugh with you when you hurt are an all-out cure.

Evie, your narrator, also goes through some stuff. A family that breaks apart in childhood, postpartum depression, some epically bad romantic choices. How did you decide to tell her story humorously?

Heather: The first thing that drew me to Evie’s voice was that it was so funny. I let her go off on tangents. Her marriage is falling apart but she’s scrubbing the shower and having this drawn-out interior monologue about soap scum. How do you clean it? You can’t use soap; that’ll just make more scum. I found as I went that the funny parts ended up carrying metaphorical weight. In the soap scum rant, she says something like, “How can something clean be dirty and something dirty be clean?” which played into the theme of a girl who gets a bad reputation. And then I used things like the sex lives of lobsters to explore Evie’s evolving feelings on romance. In a funeral scene Evie thinks that laughter and tears exist on the same continuum, which is something I believe, too.

You mention formally studying comedy. That’s fascinating because the funny parts in Inside Passage feel so natural. Was there a lot of wit in your family while growing up?

Keema: My sister and I were incredibly giddy, wild kids, but we were bookish. We rarely had a television and our social life outside of school was fairly non-existent. I had Tekla, and Tekla had me. We had our secret sister-language and no one else to practice jokes on but each other, so our humor grew up in a vacuum. Tekla was really little during our shared trauma and it didn’t scar her in the same way. She hasn’t struggled with humiliation and shame like me, so it was easier to naturally mature into her sense of humor as a social animal. I’m still more comfortable jotting down a humorous observation than trying to get the timing right in a face-to-face conversation with my rabbit heart thumping away at my brain.

I feel like Evie and I would’ve been bosom buddies. Just a couple of kids misinterpreting the world together. I really need to know: would she have been freaked out by a bunch of drunk hippies in a big wet field passing joints and instruments while their kids ran wild in the Alaskan wilderness?

Heather: Oh, I’m 100% sure she’d have been down for kindred spirit shenanigans and festivals. She’d have run around barefoot and muddy, scamming festival food all day.

Speaking of food, I need you to tell me about bathtub bacon. I heard you read my book with bathtub bacon involved.

Keema: All I can really disclose about the bathtub bacon is this: if your partner brings you bacon and a fresh cup of coffee while you’re reading in the tub to ease the lingering pain from a breast biopsy (benign!), it might be VERY GOOD for your partnership after a year of lockdown with toddlers.

You’re deep in book release with kids, too; what does pandemic parenting + writing look like for you?

Heather Frese

Heather: I’m at pandemic pod school now, which gives me a speck of breathing room for writing. I’m typing while the two oldest are on Google class meets. One’s in orchestra, so it’s Ode to Joy over and over. The middle one is now coming over to tell me about Komodo dragons. Their drool is venomous. The little guy is sitting on a bin of bristle blocks saying, “I pooping!” I’m not entirely certain it’s pretend poop, but I’m not getting up to check. This is a productive morning. Same question for you!

Keema: I have a lot of selfies from the last five years of my kids nursing on my lap while I’m writing. Most days I login to my computer and write a sentence before I stop to make breakfast. While the kids eat, I write another sentence. Two if I’m lucky. Then I change a diaper, play dinosaurs, breakup a toddler fight, and set them up with a snack and an activity or a show while mentally revising the last two sentences. At lunch I delete both sentences. If I survive putting the little one down for nap, I might get a paragraph in. Repeat through bedtime. 

I have a new project brewing, but the last five years have taught me something very important: I can’t do this again without childcare. People are so quick to ask about your next project before your current one is even in the world. Especially given our current challenges, how does that make you feel?

Heather: I’m a slow-ish, recursive writer with lots of fallow periods of not-writing, even without pandemic parenting, so I always feel slight panic when someone asks me what I’m working on next. I recently started this little scene that surprised me and had an engine, and when a story strikes like that, I try to turn on the TV for the kids, sit on the kitchen floor, ignore the dishes, and type.

Keema: Let’s talk craft for a second. Everyone says to avoid second person, and yet we’ve both done it.

Heather: I started using second person in my book as an experiment. I thought it would be fun to write the same character in both first and second person. I love second person, though. I guess it can get old, but I don’t want to be told not to do it.

Keema: I love it too! I love the way it puts me right in the shit with the narrator.

Heather: Yes, that’s it – I wanted readers in the shit with Evie. Once I started playing with second person, I knew I wanted more than one chapter in second and to experiment with form throughout. I also thought that, especially for the chapter where Evie is dealing with postpartum depression, as well as putting you in the shit, it lets Evie distance herself from…herself. Like instead of a straight narration, she’s outside narrating her life. Despite being a really heartbreaking chapter, I still wanted it to be funny. Poor Evie is so desperate she’s writing letters to Dear Abby, and that made me laugh.

One last goofy question: where do you imagine readers reading your book?

Keema: I like to imagine my readers in a camp chair somewhere with good starshine, maybe using it to shoo squirrels out of their soap stash every few pages (squirrels were always eating our soap and it totally baffled me). Or on the deck of a ferry, or a cruise ship, with the wind in their hair.

Heather: In my imagination, someone tosses the book in their beach bag. The slather in sunscreen and start reading, the waves crashing and the sun penetrating their skin until they get that relaxed, melty-boned feeling. But if someone’s reading in the bathroom while a toddler bangs on the door, I hope the book transports them to that beachy state of mind.
___

Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and the occasional poem, with work appearing in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles ReviewFront Porch, the Barely South ReviewSwitchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @Heatherkfrese.

Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, releasing from Green Writers Press in April 2021. Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her essays have appeared in Redivider and Pithead Chapel, among others, and her Brevity essay “You Will Find Me In The Starred Sky” was a Best American Essays notable. She lives with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instragram @keemasaurusrex.

Seduce a Writer in 6 Simple Steps

February 12, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Debra Moffitt

It’s easier than you think to romance a writer. A writer wants what any intimate partner wants, with just a few edits. Here’s how it’s done:

1. Send a saucy text.

Invite your writer to an unforgettable night in a text that leaves everything to the imagination. She’ll suspend belief. She’s been doing it all week! But before sending, check for grammatical and spelling errors like you’re wooing Ben Dreyer or Mary Norris.

2. Remove distractions.

Ship the kids to grandma’s. Clean up the house and clear the clutter — except for the writer’s clutter. That flotsam and jetsam (squibs of paper, exhausted notebooks, folded-over news clippings and stacks of books) must remain undisturbed in its mystical order. Do not return the writer’s books to the library.

3. Set the mood.

Draw the bath, lower the lights, set the candles ablaze. Let the wine breathe. Build a world where she can unspool her nagging, writerly thoughts. (Would this how-to be better in first person? Does “saucy” really do the job above?) Shhhh. Tell her to let it all go, let the words disappear, hide the whole alphabet under the bed, just for tonight.

4.Overwhelm the senses.

Look your best. Set her ablaze by flooding the bedroom with the sultry scent of warm vanilla and sensuous jasmine. Teasing the writer’s olfactory nodes, hotwired to the limbic system, sets up the rising action. Drop a chocolate-covered strawberry on her tongue. Avoid madeleines. Read her a poem, but not by anyone who underwhelmed her at a writer’s conference or whose oeuvre eluded her in college or whose “distilled, lyrical genius” makes her peevish with envy.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Any seduction how-to will tell you to ask your partner what she wants. But YOU can kick it up a notch by asking and then really listening. Give her a close read on this one. Do it right and you’re guaranteed a mention in tomorrow’s daily journaling exercise.

6. Prepare to have your mind blown.

Remember, she likes her endings both inevitable and surprising. Pause to savor the climactic moment as it approaches. You built the suspense – and pushed your love coaster all the way up the hill. Before the two of you tip the car over the edge together, go ahead and do that thing you know she really wants.

Leave.

Just go. Exit the room and depart the home quickly and quietly. What she really wants is to get some writing done. Return in approximately six hours. Bring food and your appetite for promising first drafts.

___

Debra Moffitt is a Delaware-based writer whose essays have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Farmer-ish and Garden Rant. She authored a middle grade book series about puberty called The Pink Locker Society (St. Martin’s). Find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Happiest_Writer .

A Conversation a Writer Had Late at Night with Her Evil Brain

December 4, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Margaret Elysia Garcia

Writer’s Evil Brain: What are you doing?

Writer:  What does it look like I’m doing? I’m making a to-do list. There are things to submit. I kinda thought about that NaNoWriMo thing again but –  I just don’t write that way.

Writer’s Evil Brain: Well you never finish those things. How about we eat something?

Writer: We just had dinner.

Writer’s Evil Brain: You only ate three pieces of chocolate today, there’s room for more! Loaf of bread maybe?

Writer: Who are you?

Writer’s Evil Brain: You.

Writer:  Keep away from me. I had a good week last week.

Writer’s Evil Brain: Not so good this week though.

Writer: I had two things published. Leave me alone.

Writer’s Evil Brain:  Did it come with health insurance? I don’t think so.

Writer: Who are you, my mother?

Writer’s Evil Brain:  I’m waiting for you to answer me.

Writer: I worked on things today. Okay? I did. And—I didn’t play online mahjong or check social media or anything.

Writer’s Evil Brain:  Really?

Writer:  Only in the morning. When I was checking email. But I am working.

Writer’s Evil Brain:  And yet the book still sits there only half edited. You aren’t getting any younger and must I remind you that hello THIS IS WHAT YOU SAID YOU WANTED TO DO.

Writer: It’s useless.

Writer’s Evil Brain: Like majoring in your own language?

Writer: It seemed like a great idea at the time and marketable to all sorts of low paying prestige-less jobs. Fuck. Now I’m doing it. Go away Writer’s Evil Brain! I’m doing shit. I’m just not doing it at your pace. Did you just finish a new play and a poetry manuscript? No you didn’t.

Writer’s Evil Brain: Actually you haven’t finished the edits on either of those things. Hey. What are you doing? You’re not going to. Put that down.

Writer: What this? [Writer pulls out edible gummie].

Writer’s Evil Brain:  Yes that. Don’t do it. We can stay up editing till three o’clock in the morning if you want. We can crack out on twitter. We can tell your Trump supporting mother in law to fuck off on text. But don’t edible, girlfriend.

Writer:  Why? Because you know I’ll go to sleep in half an hour. I have time to edit tomorrow and before the weekend is out at least one of those projects will be tackled. Why do you even care? You’ve published lots of things this year. Stop freaking out on me.

Writer’s Evil Brain: You’re going to wake up late, panic, and read the New York Times and wish you were Roxane Gay because you kind of thought those things she wrote about, and thought about writing it, but you didn’t actually write them down, loser.

Writer: I’m chewing.

Writer’s Evil Brain: I’m done with you. I’m going to go next door and bother your hack neighbor who just writes off a template. ‘Insert main character here.’

Writer: Ha! You won’t go. You hate that guy. Good night, evil brain. I’ll see you in the morning for edits. I promise.

Writer’s Evil Brain: Whatever, bitch.

Writer: Night. [yawn].
___

Margaret Elysia Garcia is the author of short story ebook collection Sad Girls and Other Stories, and the audiobook Mary of the Chance Encounters, and the co-founder and lead playwright of Las Pachucas, theatrical troupe. She teaches creative writing and theatre in a California state prison.

Reading: A Non-Linear Journey

October 28, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Ali Solomon

One of the reasons I love holding an actual, printed book is so that I can read it in any fashion I choose. At any given moment, my fingers are bookmarking multiple pages, I’m re-reading favorite passages, skipping to the ending, then flipping backwards to see how the author got there. It’s unconventional, but satisfying (and frequently scoffed at by friends who prefer their literature straightforward and spoiler-free).

See what I mean:

__

Ali Solomon is a teacher and cartoonist from NYC whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, WIRED, and The Believer, among other places. Her first book, I am ‘Why Do I Need Venmo’ Years Old, is forthcoming from Running Press in July 2021. Find more of her cartoons on Instagram @alisolomain

Monkey Mind at the Café

October 7, 2020 § 18 Comments

by Rick Brown

The first thing I do is open all of my unfinished Word documents, read a line or two of each piece, declare them irreparably flawed, question my ability to ever write anything worth returning to or completing, and decide instead to take pictures of my table top here at the café. One of them might make a good banner shot for my Facebook page. It has the right touches, after all: The coffee cup casting its shadow on the warm, worn, blond-wood table top. My new, red-covered spiral notebook reflecting the morning sunshine. Art in the commonplace. Some of the best images in the history of visual art depict stuff like this. Maybe I should start a blog for my best cellphone photos. But I digress. Back to writing. Maybe I could start a new piece? I open a new Word document, and, while I’m at it, shoot a pic of the blank screen to document the terror of starting/not starting something new. It will make a good Facebook post about writerly angst. What’s more, people will know that I’m at least trying to get some work done. That matters. Speaking of Facebook, I should probably check it while I have my phone in hand. Who knows who might’ve liked one of my many posts from earlier this morning? Got to keep up on that stuff. Those “likes” are life-affirming. Crap—nothing. A tug of emptiness ensues. Let’s see, what else is going on? Well, I’ve chewed at the skin on my fingertips in the last few minutes, picked at my nails, gulped away the lukewarm dregs of my coffee (not great coffee, by the way, though I like this café and the fact that it’s relatively unpopulated in the early morning). And now that I’ve brought to mind the café, I’m locking on the employees’ conversation. Damn. I’m okay if it’s just an incomprehensible din—like in a crowded restaurant or, more specifically, the student union of my college years (Oh, the stuff I accomplished in that place!)—but if I hear individual voices speaking in English, I have trouble tuning it out. I’m not sure how I’d do in a roomful of people speaking a language I don’t understand, but I’m guessing it would be easier. Comprehension is the rub in this case. Hey, that’s not a bad line. I can use it somewhere. Or not. Sometimes it seems like my whole writing life consists of discovering good lines but never using them. But do I really need to go down that road? No. Forget I brought it up. Now to that blank screen. I’m feeling ready. Okay, they’re still talking, comparing sucky roommate tales. I might have to pack up and head out. Maybe one more shot—just a simple opening sentence to get things flowing. That’s pretty much what Hemingway said is key, right? And he was no slouch. Okay, here goes. Oh wait, a text message…

___

Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Writing Prompts for When You Can’t Write Due to a Global Crisis

May 11, 2020 § 14 Comments

julie-bio-pic-cropBy 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

On Unexpected Writing Prompts and Easy Thanksgiving Meals for Your Cat

February 17, 2020 § 6 Comments

H Pegas 2020

Heather and Pepys

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.

 

The Job Application as Ultimate Writing Prompt

January 29, 2020 § 9 Comments

applicantBy 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 talent@company.name 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.

Please see attached resume to learn more.

Sincerely,

Julie E. Ferris-Tillman [MadLib #3: Ph.D./      ]
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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.

Seven Stages of Submittable

January 6, 2020 § 14 Comments

AlisonPhotoBy Alison Lowenstein

Submitting:

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.

Dreaming:

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.

In Progress:

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.

Acceptance:

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.

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