Writing Like a Mother

August 16, 2017 § 25 Comments

Shanon Lee Headshot  1.jpgBy Shanon Lee

Sometime after having a baby, and making a fateful decision to ditch grad school to pursue a writing career, I had this notion that writing while mothering would be easy. I imagined working from home would be orderly, convenient and efficient. It was simple. I would write in the quiet moments before our hectic morning routine got underway, during the baby’s naptime and after everyone had gone to sleep at night.

I had to learn the truth the hard way.

That some day’s the muse doesn’t come, or if it does – I may not be prepared. That writing requires mental and emotional labor I am not always equipped to manage. That great writing rarely happens when you are sleep deprived. That writing while mothering is draining.

I am consumed with guilt when I choose writing over spending time with my children, and racked with anxiety when I ignore my impulse to write. By now I understand, as much as I adore my children, I need dedicated time and space to artfully compose the stories I am called to write. New challenges emerge while trying to accomplish this.

Reading Black, White and Jewish, was my first glimpse into a writing motherhood – albeit bad one. In the book, Rebecca Walker detailed the neglect she suffered while being raised by a writer for a mother. While literary icon Alice Walker attended writing residencies for long stretches, she left her daughter alone at home – prematurely forcing her to become independent.

In one heart-breaking passage, Walker described how her mother paid a neighbor to take her back-to-school shopping in her absence. Without parental guidance, she experimented with drugs, became sexually active at a young age and had an abortion at age 14. As raw as the stories in Walker’s memoir are, I know it will never be my children’s reality. My compulsion to write will never drive me to neglect them.

Yet, even though I could not identify with her mothers choices, I understood the impulse to retreat into isolation to create. I have often fantasized about what might happen if I could focus on writing without the demands of rearing children, working and managing a household.

Women like Alice Walker knew there were options for writers who did not forgo motherhood to pursue a writing career. They knew extended solitude was necessary to create their best work and set out to find it. They understood the benefits of immersing themselves in the world of writing, surrounded by their peers, if only for a moment in time.

They knew there was a space for us.

Alice Walker worked on her first novel during her residency at MacDowell. At some point, she attended Yaddo too. Susan Cheever, Mona Simpson and Susan Minot have children and are also among Yaddo alumni. Writing mothers including Jane Hamilton, Karyn Kusama, Dani Shapiro and Annette Gordon-Reed have all attended Hedgebrook. These women honored their passion by negotiating time to devote to their writing and other moms can too.

I am convinced that attending a writer’s residency does not have to disrupt our entire life, or permanently scar our children. Writer-in-residence programs now offer short stays and even virtual options for those who need it. Weekend writing seminars and workshops are an alternative for those who cannot commit to a full residency.

In November of 2016, I attended a weekend writing seminar in St. Petersburg, FL. It was the first time I travelled away from home alone to write. Their dad held down the fort and our kids had a blast while I was gone. At times, it felt as if I missed them more than they missed me. Most importantly, attending the seminar allowed me to bond with my peers and learn skills that took my writing in a new direction.

This year, I completed a summer writing residency that did not require travel, but offered one week of private accommodations to write in peace during the day. I will continue to submit applications to notable residency programs like Hedgebrook, in hopes of being able to completely break away from my daily obligations and just write for two weeks.

My definition of being a great mother has expanded to include being someone that protects her identity as a writer and satisfies her impulse to create. By carving out space in my schedule for dedicated writing time, I am honoring my purpose and the legacy of writing mothers that came before me.

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Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One and the REELZ Channel’s SCANDAL MADE ME FAMOUS. Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Lily, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She is the writer, producer and director of Marital Rape Is Real. Learn more about her work at Mylove4Writing.com.

Anxiety and Public Reading

August 4, 2017 § 19 Comments

Profile_KOBy Katrina Otuonye

I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”

The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before, that voice was usually buried deep, deep down and now she’s emerged. This is bad, because she’s a bitch. This is also very good because now she’s shown herself, so I can crush her.

All of this is happening while I’m reading my work, which I’m rather proud of. I’m proud of my ridiculous memory and that I get to write about my experiences. I’m proud that I’m a damn good writer, that I got to read my work. I plan to keep sending out my writing and publish my book.

But in that present moment, licking my lips, reading my work, little preppy me speaks up. She says, “You’re too nervous. You’re never going to finish. This isn’t going to work. You should stop right now and walk out the door.” I actually pictured myself gathering my papers and dashing out. I didn’t speak to the voice, I know that in some twisted way, this voice is attempting to protect me. It’s just that we all so easily have these little spoken or unspoken worries circling all day every day, whether or not they’re fully acknowledged.

I keep saying little because that’s what these worries are—they’re diminutive, but powerful. They can’t take over unless you let them. I keep saying you, but really I mean I. I mean me. They are the imagined voices of the people that don’t care all that much about me, but still sort of exist in my orbit. I care way too much about those people. I’m working on it.

In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o gave a speech at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood event, about representation and her hopes and dreams when she was younger, not of being a great actress, but of having lighter skin. Even as she started to accept herself, started to become more comfortable with who she is, she said, the hardest part was allowing herself that acceptance because, “I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.” Sometimes it seems easier to think, “woe is me” and give yourself permission to stop trying. It can feel better to place yourself in the hole first, at the very bottom, where you believe everyone else will put you anyway.

In relationships, or the confusing situations I keep finding myself in, it’s the voice that says, “Well of course he ghosted you, why did you think he would text you back, what about you made you think that he would show up?” It is a sad and dangerous hole, and I can tell you your life will be 1000 times easier—my life is easier—when I stopped trying to analyze and police the motives of others in an attempt to apply the unknowable and uninteresting to my sense of self-worth. It has no bearing. This feeling that we’re not quite good enough, that I am not enough, it keeps us in the dark. It keeps us from loving fully and honestly. It keeps us from being vulnerable, from being ourselves, from honoring our values, feelings and instincts. Listen to your better angels. They’ll always steer you in the right direction.

So while I was still reading, I had a little smile on my face as I thought, screw that, I’m not leaving. I just started. And the little me went away, because I moved forward. Because often the people who don’t have my back (real people, not my damaged subconscious) are playing small and trying to bring me down because they don’t like the sight of me striving, writing, editing, revising. At the reading, I was too focused on telling my story to pay her any mind. I was still nervous, I still tripped over a word or two and changed a couple phrases on the fly, but it was me and it was my work. I did it, and it was good, and I knew exactly what I was doing.
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Katrina Otuonye is a writer and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She holds a BA from the University of Tennessee and an MFA from Chatham University. Katrina’s work has appeared in publications such as Tarpaulin Sky PressLitro MagazineCrab Orchard Review, and The Toast, among others. She’s currently retweeting to her heart’s content @katrinaotuonye, and writing a memoir and a collection of creative nonfiction. You can find more of her work at katrinaotuonye.com.

 

I’d Like to thank the Staff for Inviting Myself to Open Mic

July 10, 2017 § 6 Comments

zz_candlerBy Pete Candler

Please, please, do sit.

[Wait for applause to die down.]

I didn’t get here by accident, you know. Get to being a writer, that is. If you thought I meant this place, whatever it’s called, well then, yeah, I did get here by accident. I was looking for the Mothlight.

People think that being a writer is so glamorous, but I want to tell you something: I drove myself here tonight. I parked the car myself. (Do they even have a valet at this place?) And then I walked myself from the parking lot.

Now since the emcee tonight apparently forgot to introduce me, I should probably tell you a little bit about myself. One thing I’ve learned from being a writer is that you can’t assume that people know or care who you are. So: I am a writer. I write fiction and essays and stuff. In the course of my career, my work has been turned down by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Sewanee Review. My occasional pieces can be found on award-winning websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and I am currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic.

You may think that being a writer is a whole lot of sitting around staring out the window, contemplating the sublime beauty and mystery of the cosmos, hobnobbing with other writers in white linen suits, swilling gin martinis with literary agents and high-powered editors from Knopf and FSG, but let me tell you something: writing is a lot of work. You have to read a lot. And write, too. You have to read stuff that’s already been written, and then try to write new stuff that other people won’t read.

I’ve had to read a lot to get to where I am now, standing before you. I read a lot of articles on how being a writer is the most miserable job anyone could dream of, so horrible that only a writer with a vivid imagination could think it up, and how you only ought to do it if you are really good at it or you have the drive to become so, or you basically enjoy suffering. Well, it’s pretty obvious one of those things applies to me, or I wouldn’t be up here giving a public reading of my work, now would I?

It’s not all fun and games, either. I mean, I’d love to ruminate on the beauty of the yellow-bellied sapsucker or the dung beetle all day, like anyone else, but there is work to be done. There’s a lot of research involved, too. For instance, I googled myself sixty-two times today.

You think googling yourself is easy? It’s hard to see all those nasty things that are not written about the stuff that you’ve never gotten published. People say—and I trust those people, because they say this sort of thing—that you should never read the comments online. Well I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. Once I had a brilliant article that was not published and the comments were so—well, I’ll be honest, they made me feel a little ill. There was no substance to them whatsoever.

I once had a fake twitter account set up in my name, and that was a challenge. Man. There were like four followers, each with a face like an egg, and the fake me didn’t sound anything like I would sound if I had ever published anything.

I read lots of articles too about how writing for a living is only for a select few, how most people who attempt it never make it to the big time and the rest toil away in relative or absolute anonymity, bearing up daily under the weight of soul-crushing despair. Well here I am, living proof.

And what’s more: writing is an exercise in self-knowledge. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re alone in front of a computer screen, staring at your rejections on Duotrope, which, as a bonus, is helpful for understanding the concept of infinity. For example, I learned today that my vocabulary is roughly 21,500 words, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that that number includes words like “dilatory” and “obstreperous.” I also learned that my surname means “Fish Slayer” (or possibly “Weasel,” these things are not 100 percent accurate, you know?). On top of that, I discovered that I could identify 16% of the world’s famous works of art, 0% of the nine greatest opening lines in literary history, 100% of a lineup of Disney characters, and that if I were a mixed breed of dog, I would be a Shit-spaniel. My rapper name is Dead Honky, and I’m not really Nova Scotian at all. I learned that the first word I would read this morning would determine what I had for lunch. And do you know—lo and behold—that word was “rejection?”

But let’s be honest. That’s not why you’re here, is it?

[Do not look at people in the eye as if you actually want them to answer this]

Presumably you’re here to listen to me read some work of brilliance that I am going to lay before you like a votive offering, a sacrificial token of my religious devotion to art. But you’ll have to settle for the turn of phrase “a sacrificial token of my religious devotion to art,” which is kind of like a little work of genius right there, so I’d say you’ve already gotten your money’s worth. Because as for that work-in-progress, it’s complicated. Someone once told me that great works take time, and mine is taking lots and lots of time, so it kind of follows that it’s a truly great work that I’m sure you’ll be willing to wait to pay for. And another person once told me, just days ago—that doubt is an indication of your talent, and let me assure you, by that calculus, I am a fucking genius.

So, wait. Just wait. Come to think of it, I should have waited for the 10:25 slot. That’s a good time. People are just a little bit drunk by then and not falling over, trash-talking drunk. Just tipsy and loosened up enough to laugh or cry when they’re supposed to.

Anyway, thanks for coming out tonight. I have been here all week.

[Violent applause]

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Pete Candlers scholarly and creative work has been rejected by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Modern Theology, Poetry, and The New Yorker, which once returned an unsolicited manuscript (circa 1997) submission with no note or letter but with a simple but thorough slash through the pages. Candler lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes fiction and essays. He is currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic. His twitter handle: @tweetcandler

Speech to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop Upon the Occasion of the Midweek Writing Doldrums

July 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

zz EuniceBy Eunice Tiptree

With workshops all morning, afternoon talks, and readings every evening, the eighty writers attending the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Gambier, Ohio, had little time for the terror of the blank page, no time to wallow in self-doubt. The Kenyon summer classes are “generative,” meaning that participants are asked to sprout new work each day over seven days, from prompts designed to jar you out of your comfort zone, producing “seedlings” that grow into full works over the months that follow.

But it was mid-week, and my group, the eleven tired souls gathered around the workshop table in Rebecca McClanahan’s literary nonfiction section, were starting to flag. As someone who has attended the Kenyon Workshop since 2004, I well knew the signs. Our group needed a boost.

As it turns out, Rebecca’s assignment provided the vehicle. Her instructions were to “Choose a non-literary text, pattern, or template from commerce, art, music, contemporary culture . . . Then, either employ that pattern as a shaping device, or incorporate the pattern into your piece in some way.”

Taking a walk in the afternoon on the bike path by the small Kokosing River winding below campus, my mind sifting and rejecting ideas, I felt trapped in my own doldrums. Then as if a gift from a cloud-free afternoon and the swirling water of the river, the perfect template appeared to inspire my fellow writers. We needed to hear a speech, and not just any speech, a speech in the style of Winston Churchill:

Speech to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop Upon the Occasion of the Midweek Writing Doldrums

Winston_Churchill_during_the_General_Election_Campaign_in_1945_HU55965I say to those who joined this workshop, we have before us an opponent of the most testing kind, our fatigue and self-doubts.  We have before us many, many long hours before this workshop ends.  You ask, what is our aim?  I can say it:  It is to write, by day and night, with all our might with all the strength that God can give us; to write against the monstrous effects of fatigue and burn-out never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human frailty.  I can say to this workshop, to all those who have joined us in this struggle, “We have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their best, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defeat the storm of incoherent and shapeless language, and to outlive the menace of the blank page, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.  That is the resolve of this workshop.  That is the will of the Kenyon Review family.  We participants and instructors, linked together in our cause and in our need, will defend to the death the cause of writing, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of our strength.

Even though large tracts of our minds and many old and famous tropes have fallen or may fall, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go to the end; we shall write in the halls and cottages.

We shall write with growing confidence and growing strength; we shall defend our craft whatever the cost may be.

We shall write on Middle Path.

We shall write in the fields and in the streets

We shall write in the hills.

We shall never surrender our talents, until, in God’s good time, our growing capabilities stride forth to produce polished and complete drafts.

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Eunice Tiptree transitioned from fiction to literary nonfiction at about the same time she began transitioning from male to female in 2010. Her essays have appeared in BrevityCrack the Spine, Weave, and elsewhere.  She has also published poetry in Straylight, Rock and Sling, and Inscape Magazine.  Before transitioning, she was a journalist specializing on the space program.  She currently is putting the finishing touches on a memoir of her transition, three years in the making.

The Perfect Writing Conference Scholarship Essay

June 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Sara Goudarzi shares her decidedly brilliant application letter:

zz Goudarzi

Dear Tonawanda Writers Conference application committee,

I’d like to be considered for a writing fellowship to attend the 17th annual TWC this summer. I’m currently polishing my novel, which I’ve been working on for as long as your conference has been running, maybe longer. That’s just one example of how dedicated I am to my craft.

My literary speculative crime novel tells the story of a suburban man searching for his missing wife. Soon he realizes that he’s hunting for more than just his partner but also for their pet hamster that’s gone rogue. As he journeys through the subway stations of New York City looking for the fetid rodent, he comes across his wife’s hooker sister (who in a twist turns out to be the protagonist’s aunt) and saves her from playing the ukulele in a boho dress for money at Union Square. In the process of journeying through a hidden underworld he collides with a psychic cat and an orange-haired thief out to kill him and embezzle money from the U.S. Department of Treasury. Will Josh be able to use his time traveling superpowers to find Fluffenuget, save his marriage and avoid the downfall of the nation’s economy?

I think your committee has the vision to understand the uniqueness of my narrative written in the style of Raymond Carver—with whom, according to ancestry.com, I share two percent DNA and whose third cousin’s grandson I hung out with and chatted craft for a couple of days—unlike all those “literary” agents who are ignoring me. They’ll be sorry, believe me. Especially when I land that seven-figure book deal and M. Night Shyamalan turns Marmota Annals into a movie.

Giving me this scholarship could, actually will, put your conference on the literary map (let’s face it, you’re not exactly Bread Loaf). And if you don’t, you’ll be haunted by guilt for all your days after I win all the literary prizes. This is Pulitzer, Man Booker material. All I need is someone to realize it and to help me with edits, which you can do. In fact, I’ll be happy to just email the opening 450 or so pages to you for some light revision, maybe some structural work and you’ll see, it’ll blow you away like the kite in The Kite Runner—see what I did there? That’s the kind of clever wordplay you’ll find in my MS.

So please consider giving me the fellowship and don’t be like all those dumbasses that passed on signing The Beatles. Marmota Annals could be your I Want to Hold Your Hand. 

Thank you,

Sara

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Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and editor. Born in Tehran, she was raised in Iran, Kenya and the U.S. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, The Adirondack Review, The Globe and Mail and Drunken Boat and featured in an upcoming poetry anthology. Sara is the author of Amazing Animals and four other titles from Scholastic Inc. She recently completed her first novel and is at work on a second.

Finding Your Writing Fix in Online Classes

June 14, 2017 § 18 Comments

x rae_mosaicBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ll admit it — I’m a little bit of a conference junkie. I love using writing as an excuse to go places and meet people and yes, take a little time off work. I go every year, without fail, to Hippocamp, situated right in the middle of charming Lancaster (and filled to the brim with other CNF lovers like me), as well as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a small–but–mighty conference that lets poets take over Salem for a weekend of words and witching. So earlier this year, when I first learned about the Iota Conference, where Penny Guisinger has been hosting weekends of writing on the beautiful and scenic coast of Maine each summer. I was instantly wooed. I cyber-stalked the Iota website, trying desperately to come up with ways my hectic schedule might allow for it, but no matter how many things I rearranged, I couldn’t make time with a brand new job and several other immovable commitments to contend with.

Right around the time I was seriously considering having some of my organs harvested so I could afford a last–minute trip to Iceland for NonfictioNOW (be careful not to search for the conference attendees’ posts on social media — you’ll die of jealousy), I saw that Iota was starting a new online component. I could get my fix with a short class about an interesting topic, AND I could stop researching the value of a black-market spleen? It was a no–brainer.

The key to success in online learning lies between two things that are notoriously hard to control — technology and humans. Without easily navigable technology that makes logging in, communicating, and accessing resources simple and intuitive, as well as a group of people who are dedicated to remaining engaged — posting in the discussion boards, responding to their classmates’ questions, ideally paying attention to the class for more than an hour per week — you’ve got little more than a good idea and a WiFi connection. Thankfully, the class I decided to take from Iota Online had both. For four weeks, myself and nine other writers dove into Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction with Penny.

Each week, Penny posted a link to a YouTube video lecture and uploaded a handful of readings that supported the week’s focus. For a short course, it was comprehensive — we looked at the form itself and what was possible within it, and discussed situation, story, scenes, revision, and the senses. After reading the pieces each week, we discussed them, argued about their merits, and sang their praises. The discussions could have landed flatly, after each person uploaded their paragraph-long summary. But our instructor, even from afar, was able to be diligent about challenging us, asking questions, and suggesting additional readings or craft articles. It kept the conversation moving, and it kept me from mentally logging out of the course site after my “assignment” was done. I wanted to keep talking, and debating, and finding new authors to obsess over. The interactions I had on that message board mimicked the ones I craved as a conference junkie, but were somehow better. Here, I could debate the finer points of sensory detail and sentence structure with a New England psychologist, a Midwestern academic, a European expat artist, and a Canadian freelancer — and no one would know if I wasn’t wearing any pants.

At first, I was afraid that I would have trouble finding things to write about. I tend to be a tad long-winded when it comes to my CNF (which is why I was drawn to this course in the first place). What if I couldn’t rein myself in enough to keep it under 1,000 words? But by reading a TON of great flash CNF, I started to process my thoughts in short, vivid bursts, looking for brief but undeniably rich moments where before, I might have seen pages of exposition. Stories that seemed impossible to tame (too much backstory! all that context!) suddenly boiled down to handful of telling moments — watching a movie with a crush, looking for Christmas lights in a dingy basement, shoveling snow on a Saturday. With feedback from my generous classmates, and personalized feedback from Penny, I kept honing those brief moments of light and color into what they were meant to be — flashes.

Writing itself is the ideal activity for distance learning. Diverse opinions from new writers and readers are what make my work stronger. But it’s not always feasible to take a week off work and travel to a conference or residency. Online writing classes do the hard work for me — they collect individuals who are passionate about writing and share an interest in learning this new thing (scene work, dialogue, speculation, character development, whatever), and create a space where we can gather. Interestingly, having all our feedback posted publicly seemed to encourage my classmates and I to dig deeper with each subsequent week. By reviewing each other’s insights on a single person’s work, we could agree on an excellent point, and more importantly, offer unique insights that would complement what had already been addressed.

In a somewhat surprising way, I was able to access this jolt of creativity and energy — the kind I usually only find at conferences — without leaving home. At moments when I craved a change of scenery, I committed to completing my Iota classwork at a coffee shop or collective work space, where I felt able to focus completely without worrying about the laundry, or the bills on the table, or the many, many teen dramas I have yet to binge on Netflix.

Maybe it was poetically appropriate for a flash CNF class to be brief, but it was clear that by the end of our four-week class, my colleagues and I had barely scratched the surface, and better yet, we’d all gained this new toy that we wanted to keep playing with. In the end, I was left with pieces of writing that made me more excited than I’d been since I finished my MFA thesis. I couldn’t wait to get them out into the world. So far, they’ve been to a couple of readings, been submitted to a handful of online magazines, and helped me gain admission into – you guessed it – a writing conference.

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** Iota’s upcoming classes are now open for registration.
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Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as an editor for online magazines, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

That Writer

June 7, 2017 § 25 Comments

Dorothy Parker showed a lot of wtf smilies to fellow members of the Algonquin Round Table.

That Writer. Every writing group or class has one. The person who talks more than everyone else combined. Who comes in stoned, or just high on life. Who interrupts the teacher we’ve all paid big bucks/gone through a tedious application process to hear. Who comments as if they themselves are the teacher. Who says things like “Well, you know what Flannery O’Connor said” as if we all know exactly what Flannery O’Conner said, and it wasn’t “Nobody cares, shut up.”

Look around the table. Do you see That Writer? No no, don’t point—Instead, draw a smiley face expressing pain and show it to the writer next to you by turning your notebook on the table.

If you can clearly identify That Writer, I’m sorry, there’s nothing you can do. Practice your expressive smileys, and how to say “could you unpack that a little more?” with respectful seriousness for the days you haven’t done the assignment and are trying to run out the clock (That Writer has their usefulness!).

Wait—what? You don’t see That Writer? Oh dear. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you carry a bag of pens? Do you rummage in this bag more than once per class?

Have you ever cut your nails in class, you know, just that once when you had a bad hangnail and it was under the table and really quiet, not at all like it might be additional punctuation in the story of whoever was reading out loud at the time?

Does your jewelry make a delightful collection of wooden and metallic sounds?

Have you ever entered the room prior to class to find a previously arrived fellow-writer typing vigorously, earbuds in, and signaled that you need their attention? When they remove one earbud and say “yes?” in a sharpish tone, have you then courteously let them know you just need to use the printer and will that be OK? Did you then sing quietly to yourself while printing?

Have you written a chapbook of poetry, not self-published by any means but issued by the small independent press you own that has published several of your chapbooks and those of two other writers? Would you like to give a copy of that chapbook to every member of the class, and a few days later discuss it over coffee?

Do you often have a different interpretation of the work being discussed, possibly rooted in Freudian theory or any psychology named after a dead Slav?

Do you make sounds that people think indicate you are about to speak, but you are in fact just signaling agreement or a blocked sinus?

Have you ever started a comment with, “Well, this may be a little far afield, but this just puts me in mind of Wittgenstein, when he says…” and ended that comment four hundred words later with “does anyone else get that?” Were you discussing a humorous parenting memoir?

Have you come to a class where the guideline is five pages and indicated that your twelve pages of 1.5-spaced, 10-point sans-serif is “really a pretty quick read”? Is there an explicit sex scene on page 9? Does it have anal? Do you need to discuss how anal sex symbolically represents your relationship with the patriarchy/your creative muse/your mother?

Look at the body language of the person on your right: is that writer scooted to the extreme other edge of their chair, tilting toward the teacher as far as possible without falling off? Are you sure the chair-legs are uneven?

Have you ever said, “I know we’re not really workshopping today but perhaps we could just talk through my pages sentence-by-sentence?”

Are you disturbed by the number of questions you’re answering yes to? Are you just trying to help? Have you noticed other writers angling their notebooks towards each other, scribbling what can only be pictographs of the deep emotional reaction they can barely contain in response to your work? All is not lost!

First, take your pages for today’s reading. When you get to page six, rip it off and any following pages and throw them in the recycle bin. Trust that your lengthy story summary prior to reading will cover it. If there are any chapbooks in your bag, remove them. Have you smoked pot yet today? Skip it. If that horse is already out of the barn, maybe consider taking a sick day and coming to class next week instead. Or smoking later today, especially if it’s a 10AM class. Now remove your jewelry. Select a single pen and one additional backup pen, leaving your pen-bag aside. Check your manicure. Once in class, open your writing notebook. Every time you think of something to say, write it down. Make a tick mark by anything you thought that anyone else says. Now you don’t have to say it. Of every five remaining un-ticked comments, speak one of them. Then bask in your Buddha-like silence and smile wisely.

And don’t ever quote Wittgenstein again.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’s been That Writer at least once. Find her on Twitter @guerillamemoir.

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