Why Are You Telling This Story?

April 28, 2022 § 10 Comments

On the intersections of art, justice, and personal responsibility

By Jeannine Ouellette

Pamela Paul’s recent New York Times column, “The Limits of Lived Experience,” argues that writing about people whose lives differ from ours involves empathy and imagination, and is therefore good, while “policing” what others should or shouldn’t write is bad. Paul writes,

What troubles me most about the increasingly dogmatic emphasis on ‘lived experience’ is that it feels like yet another way of policing and limiting culture. Most creative people are open-minded, empathetic, and imaginative; they build worlds that let us cross borders. Recent efforts to contain and limit expression is a worrying one, and an issue I expect to return to in columns to come.

I find Paul’s take reductionist and full of red herrings, including the alarmist subject line with which her column swam into my inbox: “Who gets to tell stories?” This question and the column itself sidestep the issue’s central dilemma, which is simply that we assume responsibilities when we choose to write about others whose lives differ from ours, especially if they have less power than we do. Accepting these responsibilities means neither succumbing to dogma nor being censored, as Paul asserts. It means recognizing and engaging with questions of ethics, justice, and creative accountability. I emphasize questions, because this complex, multifaceted topic defies easy answers. No single formula can address every possibility across genre, from whether or how to write a fictional character who is gay when I am straight, to whether and when to step back entirely from a subject or character. 

What we’re really talking about is the profound and indelible link between the workings of individual human imagination and the collective human experience. The least we can do is consider our work in this context. I often start by asking myself why I am writing a particular story at a particular time. For example, I teach creative writing in prisons. Not surprisingly, this work is powerful and has changed me. Yet, I haven’t written about it. To do so feels exploitative considering the vulnerability of my students and the significant difference between my privilege and power, and theirs. It could be read as suggesting a “good-doer-ism” with which I do not identify or wish to advance in my creative work. Yet, if I had a very compelling reason to write about my work in prisons, one that in no way risked using my students as “material,” perhaps I would. So far, that has not been the case. 

Overall, as both writer and teacher, I find the question “why am I (or you) writing this story?”  invaluable because it raises auxiliary questions about a story’s topic and characters in relation to a writer situated within a particular time and place. A recent example: after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for insulting Jada Smith’s hair at the Oscars, many Black women in my online writing groups expressed discomfort with white women publishing essays on the matter, pointing to racially charged contextual issues best understood and addressed by Black writers (media stereotypes of “the violent Black male,” racist laws regarding Black women’s hair, etc.).

Rather than thoughtfully consider such complexities, Paul defends the status quo, wherein those with the most power tell the most stories and gain the most from telling, regardless of who gets silenced and sidelined in the process. In Paul’s view, this is justified: “If we all wrote only from our personal experience, our films, performances, and literature would be reduced to memoir and transcription. What an impoverished culture that would be.”

This is not only hyperbolic, it is uncurious about the evolving ethics of storytelling in a world where we are, thankfully, growing slightly more aware of and hopefully more committed to changing how structures of oppression and ethics of representation interact with art. Such questions arose during my 2015-2017 MFA experience, yes, but I’ve felt them more viscerally since the whole world watched my city burn through June of 2020 after the violent police murder of George Floyd. The link between my values and my voice strengthened, and my understanding of my ethical obligations to speak to the issue of power and representation in creative writing intensified.

Art is bigger than self-expression. It’s bigger than the “imagination and empathy” Paul extols, as crucial as those elements are to creativity. Art operates as a change agent, fueling social evolution as it simultaneously responds to and pushes culture forward through actively engaging with the most important questions of its time.

What are those questions now? Other than those about our burning planet, almost all of our crucial discourse surrounds power structures, especially white supremacy and patriarchy as fueled by capitalism. Paul argues, “privileging only those voices with a stake in a story carries its own risks,” and points out that “authenticity of voice … doesn’t guarantee quality of prose, storytelling, pacing, dialogue, or other literary merits.” In so doing, she sounds distressingly similar to opponents of other social and racial justice efforts such as affirmative action, who’ve argued that prioritizing access for marginalized groups could result in unqualified hires. 

This and other binaries in Paul’s column frustrate me. Instead of encouraging those who wish to write outside their own experience to consider their decisions with care and attention to the ethics of representation, seeking out resources as needed to do so responsibly and authentically (I’ve included some at the end of this essay), Paul reduces the conversation to a threat:

Taken to its logical conclusion, the belief that ‘lived experience’ trumps all other considerations would lead to a world in which we would create stories only about people like ourselves, in stories to be illustrated by people who looked like ourselves, to be reviewed and read only by people who resembled ourselves.

Hmm. According to a 2020 analysis, “Just How White is the Book Industry,” also published by The New York Times, “Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.”

This conversation should not be about some exaggerated risk of “censoring” those writers most likely to be published in the first place. Rather, it should be about how we can all make work that is imaginative, empathetic, and authentic without contributing to power structures or imbalances that continue to harm and destroy the lives of others. Ultimately, we will all bear the consequences for our art and its impacts, intended and unintended, in the wider world we share.

Resources for writers:

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping

Writing the Other

Representation Matters: A Literary Call to Arms

When it Comes to Writing the Other, What Questions Are You Not Asking?

Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Narrative, North American Review, Masters Review, Penn Review, Calyx, and more. She teaches through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Catapult, the University of Minnesota, and Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter.

I Love Zoom Writing Workshops

February 28, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino

I love Zoom writing workshops. I love the way some people name themselves on Zoom: Steve’s iPad, or Grandma Lois, or JCO, as if Joyce Carol Oates is slumming with the twenty of us on a Saturday afternoon.  I love the pronoun designations, eighty percent of them she/her, often the obvious ones; the rest silent, bestowing upon us the gift of guessing.

I love the beginning of these workshops, the participant credentialing. We hear from a novice, a nail technician contemplating a novel about a nail technician who solves crimes based on her knowledge of hands; the seasoned writer mentioning every journal that’s published her creative nonfiction about Overactive Bladder; the elderly white man describing in detail his 750-page manuscript about an Indigenous community on a South Dakota reservation he’s never bothered to visit, written in the voices of tribal people.  

I love the chat box. I love deciphering the frequent “great idea” or “yes!” comments where the antecedents are mysterious. I love the two people who ask the same question in the chat that someone just asked aloud, how usually they are anal types worried about following instructions. I love feeling slightly superior because I don’t worry much about the instructions. I love it intensely when someone I know in the workshop sends me a direct chat message with a swear word in it.

I love the people who have to be told “You’re on mute,” as if we haven’t all been doing Zoom for three years. And oh, how I love their opposites, the people who forget to put themselves on mute when their cell phones ring, so you get to hear them yelling at someone.

I love seeing people’s cats walk in front of their screens. I especially love it when the cats’ tails brush against their owners’ faces, forming temporary moustaches. I love the man, at least I think it was a man although he didn’t tell us the pronouns to use, who aimed his camera at the top half of a portable whirring fan and left it there for the entire workshop. I deeply love the woman with makeup like Bette Davis’s in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane whose camera showed only her left eye and nostril in extreme closeup until the break, when she forgot to go on mute and yelled at her cleaning lady to reposition it.

Of course, I love to hear the white man read. He doesn’t read whatever we were supposed to write for twenty minutes based on the prompt. Instead, he reads from his manuscript about the tribe in South Dakota. He provides several minutes of prologue and an introduction to the personnel, followed by ten minutes of stilted, Tonto-like dialogue. I very much love the moment when the workshop instructor politely tries to wrestle control of the reading session, and fails. When others finally read, the white man turns back to his laptop, presumably composing page 751 of his manuscript. He forgets to put himself on mute. We hear him typing hard with his index fingers and exclaiming “mmm-HMMM!” when he writes something he likes. Gosh, I love that.

Unlike him, I love the prompts, the way they juice me up. The number of things I write that begin life as workshop prompts surprises me, even if they bloom into something different along the way. I almost never read my words aloud during the workshop. I love to hear people read who are insecure, tremulous, and often wonderful writers. They’re people who might not come to a workshop if it weren’t on Zoom, not knowing if it’s worth their time and money to travel, because they live in Tulsa or Bangor or East Jepeepee, the name my father called any place impossibly far away.

I’m from a tiny, snowbound town, so maybe I wouldn’t be there, either, if the workshop weren’t on Zoom. On Zoom I’m meeting Twinkle the moustache-tailed cat, hearing about the white man’s Native protagonist, staring into Baby Jane’s violently periwinkle-lidded left eye. It’s better than no workshop at all, and sometimes it’s better than workshops I’ve attended in person. This essay, in fact, is the offspring of a Zoom workshop prompt. I really love that.
___

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Lumiere Review, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is presently working on a collection of short prose and is lightening her mood with the occasional humor piece.

Honesty and Bravery in Creative Nonfiction Workshop Commentary

February 21, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Laura Johnsrude

I love workshopping creative nonfiction pieces with other writers, around a small table, in a small room. (Ah, remember those small rooms?) I enjoy focusing on craft and style and I’m delighted when revision choices slap me in the face.

Nothing will annoy me so quickly, though, as around-the-circle workshop commentary being derailed by an earnest participant’s “you’re so brave,” or “I admire your honesty.” No matter that the speaker is heartfelt, moved by the power of the piece, the statements about the author—instead of the work—risk diverting the conversation to personal anecdotes and echoed praise around the room. Digressions about similar experiences can suck up a large slice of the author’s allotted critique time.

I’m not dissing such conversations. One of my favorite activities is meeting writer-friends at coffeeshops to discuss essays-in-progress, to bemoan the limits of memory, and to exchange story ideas. 

But this essay is about constructive commentary of a piece of creative nonfiction writing.  

Before paying for a writing workshop, I’ve always looked for cues that the experience will be fruitful, will include productive criticism guided by an experienced author and/or educator. I look for descriptions about how the commentary experience will run, whether the plan includes language that is both useful and kind: what works well for me; what works less well for me; I am unclear about. I feel fortunate because most of my paid workshop leaders controlled the conversations expertly, redirecting wayward discussions.

But I remember uneasy moments. I recall the look on my friend’s face—a friend with a chronic illness—when a reader told her she was brave, as feedback to my friend’s essay about some singular bodily discomfort, some daily hardship. My friend’s face froze, hardened, as we hung there waiting for our workshop leader to redirect the room, which she did. The author’s bravery (or cowardice) was immaterial to the craft assessment of her piece. Placing value on an author’s “good” character—her strength—is a fraught rubric. What if the author’s piece is about something repugnant, undignified, disturbing? What if the content or craft choice of the essay involves evasion, or the narrator’s helplessness, or shame? My guess is the reader would have said, “I admire your honesty.” Only a slight pivot, still focused on the author, not the language.

And there’s another rub—that an essay reveals personal and intimate details does not mean that it is well-written. Many of us have read raw and unguarded essays not yet revised beyond a first draft, but the author might merit the adjectives “brave” and “honest.”

No way to know.

Workshop feedback complimenting an author’s bravery and honesty implies an elevated relative worth of such unveiling, over essays revolving around the ordinary, the everyday.

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a delightful essay around his habit of chewing gum, “Letter of Recommendation: Gum,” by shaping his images and language into a tight, compelling story.

I admire Knausgaard’s microscopic attention to sensory detail and use of scene to reflect on a moment when his habit made him feel small.

And that brings me to another argument against using the word “honest,” regarding the writer, in a venue designed to comment on the writing, either in a workshop or even in a book review (which is published criticism). I hadn’t considered that “honest” might be a loaded word in a creative nonfiction book review until I found myself stumbling over it, recently, as it implies some unlikely insider knowledge about whether the author has revealed everything, held nothing back, and it places a preferred value on doing so. Unlike “accuracy,” in evaluation of straight nonfiction writing, “honesty” is neither here, nor there, as creative nonfiction literary criticism. We can employ more appropriate terminology to admire how writers shape language to share painful and intimate details, or to portray habits, routines, or the microscopic analysis of a body part—a belly button, a hammertoe, a tattooed broken ankle.

No creative nonfiction writer reveals everything. We all choose what to include in a piece, select words and phrases that sound best, depict the memories that are most powerful. We vary sentence length to convey tone, or control pacing, or to end the last paragraph with a punch. We shape the story to suit the goal. We dip in and out of the present to bring in threads from long ago, and we employ metaphorical songs or images—the ones we decide will serve the piece. We intentionally shave the sections that don’t work, the tangents that swerve too far off course. The boring bits. We don’t tell the truth about which family member was unhelpful during our recovery because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t reveal our misgivings about a neighbor, even though the wariness is pertinent. We don’t interview everyone who was there, at the bedside, when our mother died, or when our daughter had a seizure. We tell our truth in whatever way we choose to do so, revising and rearranging the paragraphs until the essay lands, thump, as a finished whole.

We write creative nonfiction, not nonfiction, you see.

When you read my essay, please tell me what works best for you, what doesn’t work so well for you, and tell me what bits are unclear. Tell me when the voice is inconsistent, or the tense changes are distracting, or the pace slows down so much that your mind wanders. Tell me if my piece lacks depth, or if my reflections seem unexplored. Tell me which sensory details made you sigh, which lines you won’t forget, which metaphors are fresh and exciting.

But during workshop, please don’t tell me I’m brave. And don’t tell me I’m honest. Honesty is too high a bar for me. My focus is on the language, crafted to tell a truth, or many truths.

But not every truth.

__

Laura Johnsrude is a retired pediatrician living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her piece, “Drawing Blood,” was published in the spring 2018 issue of Bellevue Literary Review and won Honorable Mention for the Fel Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, and in The Boom Project anthology, and her book reviews have been published in Good River Review. Publication of her piece, “Losing Flesh,” in Under the Gum Tree is forthcoming. Find her on Twitter: @LauraJohnsrude

I’d Be Grateful for Your Blurb: Making the Ask (a little) Less Awkward

February 3, 2022 § 15 Comments

By Mallory McDuff

Oprah. Terry. Cheryl. Janisse. Brené. Liz.

It took ten seconds to write their first names on a blank index card, as if I were brainstorming party invites or recalling past lovers. I was a member of their virtual paparazzi, following these famous authors on social media, not to suck up, but because I thought of myself as a close friend of their work.

When my editor later reminded me of the deadline for endorsements for my book, Our Last Best Act, about revising my final wishes with climate and community in mind—I started with my pie-in-the-sky list. Typing out the names, I used the heading “long shots.”

“I realize this list is aspirational,” I wrote, apologetically. “So I’ve included writers within my reach in bold.”

The word “blurb” was first used by the late humorist Gelett Burgess, whose 1907 book cover featured a photo of a woman he named “Miss Belinda Blurb,” shouting affirmations. These days the requisite “ask” can feel like a request to sit at the adult table.

My list included climate experts, writers specializing in grief, practitioners of green burial, and those long-shot authors and influencers. Blending memoir with on-the-ground research, my book stemmed from the tragic mirror-image deaths of my parents—and my father’s lifelong intention to have a funeral that relied on family and friends without harm to the Earth.

I’d spent a year researching end-of-life options like conservation cemeteries, aquamation, death doulas, green burial, home funerals, and even human composting. My 15 and 22-year old daughters gave input about each choice, since they would have to implement my plan.  

So the story was personal. But as a professor of environmental education and a single mom in the mountains of North Carolina, I didn’t have time during the pandemic to get existential or insecure about asking for blurbs. The process became relational, small points of connection for the long haul. Here’s what I learned that made the task feel a little less awkward:

Rejection now might lead to connection later.

While I didn’t hear back from Oprah or Cheryl Strayed, I received lovely rejection notes from several well-known authors or their PR people. Making a human connection felt like a win, even if it didn’t result in a blurb. One writer hadn’t responded to my e-mails, yet she discovered my request in her inbox months later and asked me to be a guest on her podcast. A climate scientist who declined to blurb offered to share my book on social media. Given her platform, I considered her offer a win.

Social media can be a viable way to engage and even follow up.

I’m a social media addict who doesn’t own a smartphone—for a reason. But communication with authors on social media was a vital way to connect, through comments about their posts but also direct messages. Long before writing this book, I’d been an authentic presence on their feeds. Literary citizenship felt like a positive use of time online.

Endorsers may give critical feedback before the book goes to print. 

One of my endorsers who was an expert in green burial also sent three pages of single-spaced feedback, which were vital for my final edits. While I would have loved her suggestions earlier in the editing process, her input at that stage still proved invaluable.

Our shared humanity connects us—even in the awkward practice of asking for blurbs.

One of my dream endorsers wrote me at 10:30 pm as I graded papers on my laptop in bed. That night, we exchanged messages about the challenges faced by our teens in pandemic times, the struggles that held our hearts much more than a blurb or a book launch. I’ll never forget the last line of her e-mail that night: Drink some tea. Go for a walk. Take care of yourself.

Another A-game writer couldn’t commit to a blurb until she read the entire book. The hard copy arrived at her home the weekend before her family planned to gather with her elderly father—to talk about his final wishes. None of my strategic lists or Instagram fangirl comments could have anticipated the depth of that shared experience. Some trust in the serendipity of the universe reminded me of the mystery beyond my control.

Despite these lessons, asking for blurbs may remain one of the “most dreaded parts of writing books,” as an Episcopal priest wrote after asking me to blurb her forthcoming book. Decades ago, my parents had been on her “discernment committee,” a group who provide guidance to someone considering the priesthood.

“I was thinking about how much I adored your parents and how meaningful they were to my beginning life as a priest,” she wrote me. “That’s some wonderfully godly stuff—that in my life as a writer, I meet you.”

Writing about life, death, and Earth—in a climate crisis in a pandemic—made me see the people whose endorsements I sought as fellow travelers discerning the next best path. Brené Brown says it best with her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough.’ We’re all trying to create meaning with our stories. Asking and giving help along the way is one small gift we can share.

___________________

Mallory McDuff is the author of four books including her most recent: Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love (Dec. 2021, Broadleaf Books). She teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, WIRED, and more. @malmcduff

Our Beloved Writing Organizations Need Us. Now You Can Win Prizes for Helping Them

December 7, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

I haven’t worked on my memoir in two months. A small part of me believes this isn’t supposed to happen. As a writer and coach, my creative tool belt is packed with strategies. But when the world is big and I feel small, those strategies can’t prevent my stories from crawling right back into my belly button.

When that happens, I turn to my writing community for inspiration.

I know how precious this community is. I drafted my first stories in the early 1990s. Back then, the only two writer hangouts I knew of were coffee shops and college classes. At the time, I was a college dropout, which only left one option. Sometimes I’d stand in the back of local coffeehouses on open mic night, praying for the courage to share my work. Occasionally I’d read, but I never felt cool enough to ask the “real” writers if I could join them. Instead, I wrote alone. If my stories hadn’t been so persistent, I might’ve given up.

Thankfully, my writing community is now only a click away. It’s given me so much over the years. I turn to Brevity for Allison K William’s posts on building your author platform and her anti-huckster brand of self-promotion. Abby Alten Schwartz’s essay about thinking like an art director and Brenda Miller’s case study on the hermit crab form inspire me to see my work in new ways. But the ones that feed my soul remind me not to give up, like Chelsey Drysdale’s 100 agents and Shiv Dutta’s Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life. I soak in each writer’s successes, setbacks, and tenacious belief in their stories no matter how long and daunting the way ahead seems.

The writing organizations we depend on have spent the past eighteen months playing a whack-a-mole-style game of pivot. Some reinvented programs or invested in equipment so they could transition classes and conferences online. Others offered generous refund policies to help writers feel safe registering for in-person events at a time when uncertainty was the norm. Pre-pandemic, most ran on volunteer sweat and budgets that barely covered expenses. Now, they must account for the additional costs required to sustain themselves during COVID and the learning curves demanded by new systems. 

Last year, I created a #Giveaway4Good campaign to support writers and communities as we weathered the relentless COVID doldrums. Each week I designed challenges that asked you to support charities, writing organizations, independent bookstores, and other writers in exchange for prizes. Together, we raised over $24,000—a response that fueled my courage and creativity during the first half of the year.

This fall, I’m in a creative trough caused by overwork, recent losses, and a broken middle finger. In the face of these setbacks, the world seems big, and I feel small. So once again, I’m leaning on our beloved community, but this time I’m also giving back by running a second #Giveaway4Good campaign.

Last week, writers earned tickets by donating to charities. This week, donate $10 or more to your favorite literary organization will receive one ticket toward my drawing for a $30 gift card to New Dominion Bookshop, PLUS one copy of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to BookThe War of ArtGetting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative NonfictionDoodling for WritersThe Best of Brevity, The Business of Being a Writer, and a signed copy of My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson.

You’ll also be entered into my grand prize drawing for a one-year membership to James River Writers, a 3-pack of webinars from The Crow Collective Online Writing Workshops, one Jane Friedman webinar of your choice, a 10-page manuscript review plus one-hour coaching session with me, and a query letter review by Allison K Williams.

Those of you who donate to Brevity, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, or James River Writers will receive three tickets into this week’s drawing.

Generous donors of $100 or more will get access to a mindful writing class scheduled for early 2022 and a chance to win a storytelling coaching session with Amy Eaton.

All you need to do is email me a screenshot of your donation (name of the organization and amount only) and sign up for my newsletter. That’s it.

Low on funds?

Support these organizations online by subscribing to their newsletters, following them on social media, and sharing two social media posts about a current offering or why you love them so much. Send me email proof, and you’ll earn one ticket into this week’s drawing.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this post given how challenging the past two months have been. But then I read a few Brevity blogs and thought of the good we’ll do. Your words and this community make me feel brave, big, and connected, and as a result, my creativity is flowing again.

Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others. 

My Dark Passenger: The Secret Torment of a Writer

December 3, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

It’s unsettling to empathize with a serial killer, even a fictional one, but here we are. I’m watching the Dexter reboot on Showtime with a newfound perspective on the lead character’s inner conflict. Dexter is driven to kill, an urge he calls his “Dark Passenger.” I’m struggling lately to come to terms with my own Dark Passenger — the shadow self of my writer’s identity. My desire to write, submit and get published has spawned the twin demons of imposter syndrome and intense fear of missing out, and the more I accomplish, the worse it gets.

Though I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years, I’m new to lit pubs, journalism and the writing community. I enjoy my work as a freelance healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant, but for years felt an itch to expand creatively. I secretly dreamt of writing a memoir, but had no idea how to begin. Then the pandemic upended life and shook my priorities like a snow globe.

I joined an online journaling community and began sharing personal essays. I made friends who invited me into not-so-secret Facebook writers’ groups and felt a connection I was unaware I’d been missing. I found a memoir coach, started my book, took a Zoom course to learn how to pitch editors, and landed my first major byline.

The night I got that acceptance I had my first encounter with my Dark Passenger. I was on social media chatting with friends. Several of us had pitched the same editor after he spoke with our class, but so far none had heard back. Then the first of our group posted her exciting news: he said yes. I was happy for her. Then another friend posted. She also got a yes.

An ugly emotion tickled my brain. Jealousy. I wanted in. It was a wholly separate feeling from my genuine excitement for the others, but it was real. I joined my husband and daughter to watch TV, distractedly checking my phone. And then it happened. The editor emailed. He loved my pitch and wanted my story. In one hour, my emotions had run the gamut from happy to envious to self-pitying to exhilarated. Was this normal?

My taste of success ignited my curiosity to learn more, experiment, be bold. But it was my involvement with the writing community that lit a fire under me and fueled my ambition. It’s no different than when I learned to play tennis — I challenged myself to play with people better than me, and it forced me to level up.

Engaging with more experienced and accomplished writers inspires me to push hard and aim high. I’m a competitive person. I don’t want to be the fangirl relegated to the sidelines, cheering and handing out snacks. I want to be on the court, crushing balls and celebrating points. I’ll still be cheering the other players, but I’ll be fully in the game.

All of this is healthy, right? Yes and no. What I didn’t anticipate was the anxiety that would spread like black mold in the shadow of my desire. Every acceptance, every piece published, is an adrenaline rush — but like any good high, it eventually wears off and leaves me wanting more. And while I love the marathon commitment of writing memoir, the finish line is far in the distance. In the meantime, I see the mileposts of fellow writers getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “I don’t belong here.”

When Dexter’s hunger to kill intensified until he could no longer ignore the urge, he channeled it the best way he knew how: by following a strict moral code and killing only violent criminals who had escaped justice. Once satiated, his Dark Passenger would go quiet for a period of time.

Each time I’ve been published, I’ve basked in the glow of accomplishment, reassured I haven’t lost momentum, that my license to write wouldn’t be revoked. I could shift back to other priorities until the pressure started building again.

Did I just compare my urge to be published to the obsessions of a vigilante serial killer? Sadly, I did. Because here is my ugly truth. For me, it’s not enough to write. I crave the visibility that simultaneously terrifies me. I want to connect to strangers through language. I need the validation of a yes. And when I don’t feed that hunger, it turns cannibalistic, eating at my confidence. My own Dark Passenger, whispering in my ear:

“That brilliant idea you had in the shower? Someone else is submitting it right now.”

“It’s been months since that editor ran your story. She’s already forgotten you.”

“Everyone you know has work coming out. What have you done lately?”

My FOMO is real, but I’m learning to channel it in a positive way.

I can challenge myself to collect rejections. The more I send out, the better my odds — plus, submitting regularly makes each attempt less fraught.

I can remember to have fun. Having a separate source of income frees me to approach creative writing with a sense of adventure. I can explore different genres or go after moonshot pitches, knowing my writing group will be there to cheer my efforts or commiserate with my setbacks.

I can recognize that writing is not a zero-sum game. There’s an endless need for content and room for all of us. I can be inspired by the gorgeous work of other writers and motivated by their success, knowing that ultimately, every writing path is unique.

______

Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, The Manifest-Station and more. She moonlights as a healthcare copywriter and marketing consultant and once had a column about hooping. The hula kind. Abby is currently writing a memoir about her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.

Don’t Give Us Anything Today

November 30, 2021 § 36 Comments

It’s Giving Tuesday! A hyped-up commercialized day of charity to balance out the hyped-up commercialized days of shopping! You’re probably getting exhortations from every nonprofit you’ve ever lent your email to, plus the charities who bought your email from them. It’s inbox hell.

Brevity does not want your money today.

Instead, consider the spirit of Giving Tuesday: if you have, give. But for your author friends and your literary community, the gift of your time and attention is far more valuable than a monetary donation. In that spirit, here’s Brevity’s wishlist of Mostly Free Acts of Literary Citizenship for Giving Tuesday:

Free, 10 minutes or less

  • Google an author friend’s name or scroll their social media, and comment on their most recent blog post/article/essay. Let them know someone is reading.
  • Pick a quote you like from your friend’s book or essay and post it on your social media. Tag them. If you know how to schedule Tweets, pick three friends and do one a week between now and Christmas.
  • Phone your local library and request they order your friend’s book.

Free, 20 minutes or less

  • Write a note to an author/writer friend you admire, and tell them why.
  • Whatever app, gadget, or process makes your writing life easier, write 50-100 words about why. Send it to Brevity [ brevitymag+blog (insert @ symbol) gmail.com and yes that’s a plus sign] with WRITING HACK in the subject line and we’ll do a round-up of writing-life hacks in the weeks to come.

Takes More Effort But More Rewarding:

  • Write a review of a new, small-press book for your or someone else’s blog
  • Contact your favorite literary podcast and say you’d like to see the author on it (with two reasons why they’d be great!)
  • Offer to read a friend’s manuscript or exchange pages when you both need feedback

Under $20

  • Buy a friend’s book. If it doesn’t interest you, put it in someone else’s Christmas basket
  • Subscribe to a literary magazine you’d like to be published in (win-win!)
  • Take a chance on a new author—tell your local indie bookstore what you enjoy, and ask what they recommend (bonus points: relationship-building with the store that will one day be recommending your book!)

They’re small things. But they’re not insignificant. As humans, we minimize ourselves and our impact. Particularly in these times, our focus is so strongly on survival and protecting those closest to us, it’s difficult to take outward actions, to engage in a world that has become so actively hostile to our ideals. We tend to think, How much does my compliment matter? Does anyone care what I think?

It does.

We do.

And each time we take action to benefit a friend—or wish a stranger well—we take one tiny step towards our own happiness. In a challenging time, feeling our own power to do good, even in tiny doses, can reaffirm our faith in ourselves, in each other, and in our literary world.

You matter.

Your writing matters.

Your opinion, your thoughts, and your inherent membership in our community matters.

Step forward with your words.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Your Memoir Is a Turkey

November 25, 2021 § 8 Comments

Your memoir is a turkey. The surprisingly beautiful plumage, the majestic strut, the delicious meat beneath the feathers, the hidden goodness all the way down to the bones.

So often, to get to that goodness, we need an axe. As with turkeys, memoirs often call for dismemberment of the past, careful plucking, and a great deal of dressing to present the important parts for the feast. Garnishes. Good china. All so your vaccinated friends can gasp in admiration and your mother can suggest you should have used more salt. Or less salt. Or at least left out Cousin Sue.

Our holidays this year (again!) take extra effort for community. Effort, perhaps, saved from shopping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, and the forced gaiety of a table full of kin instead of family-of-choice. This year, anyone you’re seeing, you’re seeing on purpose.

We see you. We share this strange and challenging time, and we’re glad you’re our community. Glad you read, glad you write, glad you share your words with us, and Brevity’s words with your friends.

Thank you for contributing to our mission with your talent, your attention, your monetary contributions and your time.

And always, thank you for writing, for reading, and being part of the creative nonfiction and memoir world. We’re here for you. Thank you for being here with us.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Brevity

On Writing Retreats

October 12, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Adelle Purdham

The first time I organized a writer’s retreat I did it because, as a mother to three young kids, I wanted the time and space to write. A word to the wise: if you want time and space to write, don’t organize a writing retreat and facilitate it yourself.

Renting a space meant I had to do all the grunt work. I was preparing lunches and bringing in yoga instructors and providing feedback on writers’ work. With a clump of memoir writers, I was faced with participants in tears and traumas that risked repeating themselves, skipping from body to body like a virus to a host. How to manage it all, in my new-found role of hostess, chef, therapist, teacher, while still making space for my own emotions and work? In truth, I didn’t, I could not.

I resigned myself to giving the time and space to other women to write, and when I did that I encountered a truth greater than the value of that writing time I was giving up. Hosting the retreat was a time for me to teach, and to help other women find their story, their voice, and share it with the world. There are times to write and there are times to learn. Teaching is the highest form of learning. And it’s not that I necessarily learn directly from the writing of the writers I’m working with, though often I do, but I learn from their bravery; I learn from their curiosity and courage. I learn from their open hearts. And in return, I offer them mine.

Tips for organizing your own writer’s retreat:

  1. Know your why. I thought I was getting into organizing writing retreats because I love to write, but it turns out I also love to teach and facilitating The Write Retreat has been a perfect marriage of these skills. Empowering and supporting women writers is deeply gratifying work.
  2. Know your audience. I’ve heard of a doctor who runs writing retreats for other doctors. Find your niche by considering what specifically you have to offer. With an MFA in creative nonfiction writing, I attend to attract more memoir/ personal narrative writers to my retreats.
  3. Create a sustainable business model. Consider partnering with other writers and other businesses that can add value to the service you are providing. For example, working with a venue that can manage administrative tasks for you, such as registration, saves time and energy that can then be put back into the retreat, while inviting guest speakers brings in expertise to support the work you are doing.
  4. Put your heart into it. Your participants are counting on you to deliver quality programming. Are you able to meet as many of the group’s needs as possible? Consider setting up Zoom meetings beforehand to get to know participants and find out what those needs are. Send out a questionnaire afterwards and reassess how each session went and learn what you can do better for next time. Let your passion shine through.
  5. Create a safe space. As writers, we know how vulnerable it can feel to share our work, especially work that’s newly formed. Create parameters around how work is shared and how feedback is provided. Focus on what works in the piece and celebrate loudly.

Tips when deciding if a writing retreat is right for you:

  1. What do you hope to get out of it?  Are you seeking comradery and community or solace and space? Do you want intensive feedback, one-on-one time, or time to play on the page? Each writing retreat is going to offer a balance of these things—a coming together and time apart. Feedback and inspiration. Find the retreat that offers the balance that’s right for you.
  2. Does it add value? Is there a guest author you want to meet or a writer you really want to workshop with? Is the location ideal? Is the timing right given the stage of your project, or during the period when you want to get a new project going? Is it the chance to relax and inspiration that you need? The retreat needs to bring value to you and your work.
  3. Does it feel right? Often, we know in our gut if something is right for us or not. Read the fine print. Does the idea of sharing a room with a stranger put you off? Are your food requirements able to be met? Is the retreat space accessible for your mobility needs? Are you attracted to everything on offer? If not, wait for the next one.
  4. Are your friends interested? While attending a retreat on our own is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and make connections with other writers, there’s a level of comfort that comes with bringing a friend along. Also, reading past participants’ testimonials can be a great indicator of what you may be in for.
  5. When in doubt, reach out. My expectation is that if a business wants my patronage, they should be willing to answer any questions I may have. If you’re at all unsure, reach out with any questions and an organized facilitator will be happy to answer them.

After facilitating my latest retreat, feelings of wellbeing and gratitude washed over me. I spent the weekend as one of fifteen women sharing stories, with catered food and a team of other professionals to share the load of running the weekend. I’ve learned a few things about how to run a retreat as the years have gone by and I continue to learn. I drove home alone along the open stretch of road, rows of pines waving at me as I passed by, and I knew I had experienced something with these writers so seldom granted to women, and especially mothers: freedom.

___
Adelle Purdham is a writer, speaker and parent disability advocate. She holds an honours degree in French literature and is a certified teacher. She earned a graduate certificate from Humber College’s Creative Writing by Correspondence program where she wrote her memoir Here We Are, Happy. Her essay, “The Giving Tree” will appear in the anthology, Good Mom on Paper (Book*hug Press, spring 2022). Adelle’s work has also appeared in The Toronto StarThe MightyBroadview Magazine, and she’s a regular contributor to 3.21: Canada’s Down Syndrome Magazine. Adelle is the founder of The Write Retreat, facilitating wellness, workshops, time and space for women writers to create. She is currently completing her MFA in creative nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College and writing her next book, I Don’t Do Disability and Other Lies I’ve Told Myself, an ensemble of first-person essays through memoir. Visit her online adellepurdham.ca

Writing Groups: How? Why?

September 30, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Aimee Christian

A few years ago, I took a ten-week class at the creative writing school in my city. As the sessions drew to a close, we talked about what we would do next: a break, another class, a writing group, work with an editor? I couldn’t decide. I was so fired up about my writing that I wanted to do everything but take a break. 

I went for coffee with a classmate who seemed to have all the answers. I downed my Americano and asked her if she wanted to be in a writing group with me. 

“No,” she said with confidence. “Writing groups and classes are too much work spent on other people’s writing. I don’t want to read and edit other people’s pages anymore. I’m going to invest my time and money in an editor to work on my own pages.”

I thought she was wrong, so I wished her well and took another class. And another one. She was right: the classes were a lot of work on other people’s pages. But I was learning. With every editorial letter, every line edit, my eye got sharper. With every reading assignment, I was becoming better-read.

And when it was time to keep revising the same pages I’d generated in class, it was time for writing groups. During the pandemic, I’ve created and participated in groups that have helped my craft, my process, my accountability, and my entire writing life. Writing groups have solidified writing in my life in seven ways: 

1) Accountability

Some of my writing groups provided, or were specifically for, accountability. People who commit their goals to another person are more likely to accomplish them. Knowing someone can see me keeps my ass in the chair! I have ignored my family and foregone beautiful weather, woken early and stayed up late in the name of completing assignments I said I would.

2) Process

Making time for thought. Making time for my words to breathe. Making time for revision. Having two and three and four opportunities to workshop the same piece. Having group members to read something on deadline at the last minute, or cry with when something gets rejected for the tenth time. Making time to try again and again. Having a proverbial drawer for all those drafts moving through revision cycles and the many pairs of eyes they need. That’s process. 

3) Learning

Writers are notorious introverts—but we also love to talk, and we memoirists love to talk about ourselves in particular. Even in my silent Zooms, we use the chat function like crazy. Ask a memoirist for help and you will hear all the details about how they edited, who helped them, what classes they took, what books they read, where they submitted, what tier rejection they got, and more. You will get offers to read drafts—maybe even an offer to edit. 

4) Editing  

Editing other people’s pages and writing feedback letters have helped me see similar issues in my own writing. When I resisted someone’s feedback suggesting I kill a particular darling, cut a section I loved, or clarify something I felt the reader should understand, it became crystal clear to me why only when I found myself giving that very same feedback to someone else.

5) Motivation

Connecting with other writers and seeing their growth is powerful. Hearing where they’re submitting, where they’re being accepted, helping them achieve their goals always makes me feel like their success could rub off on me, and often it does! I belong to one online group that holds submission parties, and another whose participants commit to getting 100 rejections in a year. 

6) Hive Mind 

I subscribe to lots of writing newsletters and scan calls for pitches and submissions on Submittable and elsewhere, but a group of writers means a lot more sets of eyes. I love getting texts, Slack messages, and emails with calls for pitches and notes saying “Thought of you!” or “Have you seen this?”

7) Camaraderie

Meeting other writers, whether newer or further along in their work, is the best thing about any group. Writers are the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. Writers better-published than I have read and edited my pieces, recommended and loaned me books, connected me with other writers, and suggested outlets to pitch. In turn, I have done the same. We are the only people who understand each other’s writing woes, and because of this, I’ve made lasting friends.

So yes, a writing group is time and work spent on others’ pages. But it’s also time and work for your own. A group can improve your writing and introduce you to a life of literary citizenship. Want to know more about how? Create one. 

Join me in conversation about writing groups! How to form one, why to form one, how to improve yours. Leave with tools to make the most of your time, minimize your efforts, and achieve your goals. First session is Sunday October 10th7:00 – 8:30 pm EST. Info and registration on this page

______________________

Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net

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