February 22, 2019 § 13 Comments
by Jan Priddy
In his 1943 novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner blames the life struggles of Bo Mason on the drag of his responsibilities for his wife and children. Without them, Bo might have become a great man.
Can anyone expect to make a life in the arts while simultaneously supporting themselves and a family?
The short answer is: probably not.
Through my undergrad years at the University of Washington, I won scholarships, but mostly I worked at least eighteen hours a week, thirty hours when I could get them. I lived at home and then in absolute squalor. It was a long while ago, and both minimum wages and tuition were lower, but even in the 1970s and 80s people graduated with debt or had parents able to pay support them. I expected to become a full-time artist.
Early on, I was advised to marry money. Instead, I found a day job.
My first post-college job was teaching visual arts part-time at the second-lowest-paying school in the State of Washington. At that time, my husband and I were both working, both pursuing personal goals. When we left Seattle to live in my great grand-aunt’s house, our plan was to start a family. My husband was the primary breadwinner when our children were first born, and I was the primary breadwinner for a long time after that. My husband and I always worked.
John Gardner, in one of his books about writing, warns the would-be writer against choosing to teach as a means of support and especially warns not to teach writing. Creative energy and teaching energy come from the same place, he wrote, and it is better to choose a mindless day job as a means of support. I recall reading that advice and knowing he was right. But I did it anyway. I became a high school English teacher, and I could not go back and change that, because teaching is also the reason I turned from visual arts to writing. I became a writer because I was teaching writing.
Teaching is exhausting and meaningful and interesting work. I never had the time I thought I would outside my obligations as a teacher—time for my art. That fabled “three months in the summer.” There was no leisure time early on as a visual artist teaching Art, and certainly not later as a mother teaching English. I went to graduate school and worked those ten summer weeks. It was hard, but our sons earned college degrees with modest debt (theirs, ours not-so modest), and we had frugal habits. We live in a beautiful place we could never afford to buy, but if we’d stayed in Seattle in the house we could afford, we would likely have been better off financially as employment opportunities were better. We might not have had children. We made choices. We raised our children.
Most of the full-time writers I know have or had a spouse who supported them—both men and women—or some other means of financial support. Most recognize they are lucky. Some others demonstrate little understanding of my struggle to stay afloat without outside help or a trust fund. I have worked with writers who have never worked, or never needed to work for pay.
A visual artist visited me after the birth of my first child, a friend from college who asked, “How does it feel to have given it all up?” The assumption was that as a mother, I had abandoned my goals as an artist. I was still in my twenties and I cried for days after that friend drove away.
Years later, in conversation with a writer friend, I complained about the challenge of finding free time, genuinely free time as a mother. My friend said, “We make sacrifices for our art, if it matters to us.” That person had a private income, and I resented the reproach.
I have always believed that I could accomplish a great deal, that I could not have everything I wanted, but a lot even if I could not have it all at once.
My MFA was something I had promised myself for after our sons graduated from college. I kept that promise. I had been writing seriously for years—whole novels and hundreds of stories—before I began the program at the age of 52. Perhaps it was already too late to accomplish what I might have had I jettisoned marriage and children, had I the leisure or financial support to be a full-time creator in my younger years. I developed habits of hurry and compromise and that impact my work even now. Perhaps my publications came too late for a “career.” Well, of course it is too late. Too late to have a first book by age 40 as I might have. If things were different. In another life.
We all make choices. I was not born with money, and I did not marry it or inherit it. I chose to have children, and I chose a creatively taxing occupation to support myself. We all have regrets, but living and working here and marrying the man I love and raising my children are not among my regrets.
Stegner blamed the wife and children for his character’s failures. Stegner, who borrowed liberally from the memoirs and journals of wives and mothers in more than one of his novels, can stuff it. So can Ray Carver, another man who off-loaded the burden of wife and children.
I might have done what they did. Anyone might have planned better or at least differently. I might have chosen writing as an undergraduate goal rather than turning to it twenty years later. I might have ridden that flying wish-horse.
That is not what I chose. Writing is what I do. It is not all that I am.
Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Pushcart nomination, MFA, and publication in journals such as Brevity Magazine, CALYX, The Humanist, Liminal Stories, North American Review, and nonfiction anthologies on running and race. She is still struggling with a utopian science fiction story and nonfiction structured like a sonnet.
February 21, 2019 § 5 Comments
- I give you, a non-writer, exclusive, insider access to the writer’s mind, free of charge. On our shared family iPhone calendar, I add ideas for essays daily. For example, today I typed: “IndiAn map crossword.” I may not remember what it means, but the joy of writing is in its mystery.
- I ghostwrite responses to your annual employment review. The bullet points I craft about your achievements are concise and—I’ll say it—artisanal. I incorporate action verbs, cure your passive voice and take your boss all the way to the denouement of your heroic work ethic, which concludes in a raise. (Your annual review has been shortlisted for a Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The $12,000 in winnings will come in handy—submission fees aren’t getting any cheaper.)
- I turn our parent/teacher meetings with Ms. Rivera into elegant craft discussions. When she criticizes our third-grade daughter’s penmanship, she loves it when I ask, “Have you heard of a story arc?”
- At tax time, when I’m especially conscious of all the money J.K. Rowling makes, and that I do not (yet) make, I keep you grounded by reminding you that yes, J.K. Rowling is worth $900 million and has a mansion in Tasmania, but YA is not my genre.
- When you tell me about your ideas, I listen, and give you honest and constructive feedback. Like, “Don’t quit your day job.” (Please don’t.)
- I call the exterminator and provide excellent sensory descriptions of whatever creature has been scratching at that place in the wall behind our headboard. An ordinary person might report, “I think it’s a squirrel.” As a writer, I tell pest control: “So the thing scratching in that wall? It sounds bigger than a mouse but smaller than a horse. I fear it is dining on our electrical wires as if they are fettuccine.” I doubt a non-writer could bring to life the gnashing of tiny incisors in such vivid detail. By the time I’m done describing the invader, the pest control guy thinks he smells an electrical fire.
- I meet you at the door enthusiastically. Since I rarely leave the house except for bus-stop runs with our daughter, my hunger for human contact may come across as more alarming than our mystery vermin. Also, I may not always hear you arrive because I suddenly got a great idea for an essay and I’m living inside a paragraph, trying to front-load my sentences because my teacher, Alex, taught me, “the end is where sentences go to die.”
- I correct our family’s grammar, spelling and usage. It’s called an apostrophe. It’s not a curly decoration. Please use it. I’m always there to erase your mistakes, like a human “delete” key. When your aphasic tendencies flare, and you call dessert “tiramoosu,” I remind you gently, “It’s ‘tiramisu.’” I call these “teaching moments,” not “grounds for divorce,” as you do.
- I deal with the gas-powered furnace when our collapsing aluminum chimney liner blocks the vent and practically asphyxiates us and we have to turn off the furnace during a cold snap. I get the chimney sweep to come the same day as the HVAC guy, so while one examines the collapsed liner, the other can clean out our savings account.
- I offer you a mirror. I can write intensely personal things about you that you couldn’t have imagined me sharing with another human being, let alone an audience of thousands of online viewers. Don’t worry: by the time it’s published years from now, your friends and family will probably be significantly visually impaired.
I ask for nothing in return for my eternal devotion and love. Well, maybe don’t retire just yet. Perhaps wait until my literary memoir about mice or Modern Love essay about correcting your grammar goes viral. After all, we need to pay the exterminator and the HVAC and chimney guys. I’m sure going viral won’t take long. Perhaps a month. Or 24 of them.
Happy Anniversary, sweetheart!
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recently attended a live performance of “Modern Love: The Podcast” and was disappointed that Daniel Jones didn’t ask audience members for essays. She has written 4,537 drafts of her latest essay and considers this progress. You can find her @kpnwriter and kristenscarousel.com.
February 13, 2019 § 10 Comments
By Ellen Birkett Morris
Step One: Write
I’ve been a writer my entire life. I still have a story penned on lined paper bound by ribbon. I’ve long since thrown away scraps of paper with bad poems, the kind of poems you need to write before you can write good poems. I wrote for my school paper and took poetry workshops in college.
When it was time to get a real job, I summarized newspaper articles for a research database before starting to freelance for my local daily, the business paper, and a women’s magazine. The work was wide ranging: I filled in for a home and garden columnist, did restaurant reviews, covered crime news, and had a column on health and another on local attractions. I took every opportunity I could find to write.
Step Two: Find Your Ground
As I wrote I got a better sense of what was important to me. When I joined the staff of the business paper, I did my best to broaden their coverage by profiling the head of a feminist women’s foundation, penning a controversial column in support of a local fairness law supporting LGBTQ rights, and writing an award-winning story on women in depression.
As I wrote my skills got sharper and what mattered most to me, social justice and making the unseen seen, became clearer. I enjoyed the buzz of having a byline appear each week. It felt productive, even if the newspaper pages might end up lining someone’s birdcage.
Step Three: Have the Courage to Follow Your Dreams
Despite the rewards of being a freelancer something was missing. I wanted to get back to where I started and write creatively, but I was afraid I’d suck at it. I was 32 when I decided to give it a real go. I started writing poems, joined a writers’ group. and began the process of honing my skills. I wrote lots of bad poems. I started reading to get a better sense of what a good poem required—the play of language, the crystalline images, and the accumulation of meaning. I submitted my work, got some published and eventually developed a chapbook, Surrender, which explores the loss of my father and coming to terms with growing older.
Step Four: Educate Yourself
When I felt strong enough, I took my writing out into the world and looked to deepen my knowledge. I attended workshops and earned an MFA, developing techniques, anchoring myself in the canon, learning about innovators, and getting feedback on my own work. I explored short stories, expanding my view to include scenes and dialog, drama, and catharsis. I trod my ground working over themes of seeing and being seen, the power of kindness and the cruelty of fate, and what we as humans can do in face of the beauty and horror that is life. I missed the thrill of a daily byline, but it was replaced with the sense that as the words filled the page, I was accumulating a greater sense of mastery over the work itself and my ability to articulate what it means to be human.
Step Five: Take Joy in the Process
I gradually succumbed to the realization that everything about writing (and life) is process. Joy is found in front of my computer in the act of writing. In the doing and redoing. In the vision and revision. There are no perfect pages, no perfect stories. Still I write. I’m working on a novel now, a task so daunting I never imagined I would take it on. I am world building, letter by letter, word by word, bird by bird (Bless you, Anne Lamott). There is no guarantee of an eventual byline. The challenges are endless and the rewards scanty. But this is my path. The only thing I’m sure of is that I will make the most of the journey.
Ellen Birkett Morris’s essays have appeared in Brevity Blog, The Butter, The Writing Group Book, The Girls’ Book of Love, The Common, The Fem and South Loop Review and on public radio. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, Inscape, and Upstreet. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press), a poetry chapbook.
February 4, 2019 § 11 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
In my job as a Nonprofit Development Director (a professional fundraiser, for those not intimate with the lingo), I write all the time. Grant proposals, grant reports, direct mail appeals, email appeals, newsletters — the list goes on. (And on.)
I have done this work for years, but it was never as interesting as while I was making my way through my 3-year MFA program. In class, whether poetry or nonfiction, I heard the same thing over and over: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t summarize the fight you had with your friend – put your reader in the room, let them feel your heart pounding in your chest, let them sit uncomfortably in the silence that stretches on after a cutting insult. It’s something writing students learn and relearn, find loopholes around, get schooled on.
What I didn’t realize, as I shuttled back and forth from campus to my office, was that this advice would prove useful to me whether I was sitting in workshop or sitting at my desk, eating stale bagels leftover from the morning staff meeting.
When I tell the story of my nonprofit’s impact, I have to do it in a small amount of space. Some grant making organizations (whom I affectionately call “the funders”) only give me 500 characters (INCLUDING spaces, which is just cruel) to explain something complicated and nuanced like, oh, I don’t know – the impact that our organization’s work has on our students’ lives.
As anyone who’s ever published in Brevity or River Teeth‘s Beautiful Things, or who’s had a particularly passionate point to make on Twitter can tell you — 500 characters, including spaces, goes by in a flash. (Literally.)
I find myself pressured to squeeze as much relevant info into an unfairly short container — We did this program and made this change and initiated this partnership, and oh, wait wait! We also did surveys and a demographic analysis and finished next year’s budg–
What I realize, time and again, as I write these reports and requests, is that sometimes a single story — a moment of showing — can do a better job at communicating impact than all the telling I can muster.
Take the one document anyone can recognize — the end-of-year fundraising appeal. If you’ve ever given a cent to a nonprofit, chances are you receive dozens of post-Thanksgiving letters imploring you to give NOW, to give TODAY, to give IMMEDIATELY, before the year is over. Every nonprofit is jockeying for your attention (and your dollars), so each one has to try and stand out from the crowd.
Often, in documents like these, I’m forced to make difficult cuts. The limited space makes me re-prioritize over and over again. When I’m telling this story, what is really important?
Could I write a letter detailing the numerous successful programs we implemented this year? The establishment of our core values? The fundraising totals from our spring gala? The high-level partnerships we initiated with other organizations? Sure. That’s all true. And it’s all important — to someone.
But I could also tell you the story of one third grade student who started the year off as a shy, reserved student, someone who wouldn’t dream of raising their hand — and ended the year as a group leader who couldn’t wait to share their opinions with the class.
When that document is out of my hands, and it’s just about my reader’s perception of it, that one person who’s deciding which organization to mail their $50 check to this Christmas, what is really important? To them?
A lot of it (okay, all of it) has to do with audience, of course. Some funders just want their heartstrings tugged, while others want hard data and little else. Some individual donors, like that person deciding where to send their check, fall along similar lines.
But here again — I remember those late nights spent in workshop, talking about our invisible audiences, the hordes of people who would someday read our novels and essays. Who were they? What was important to them? What was absolutely essential for them to know about us, and our lives, and our impact? How could we get everything across to them that we wanted to? How could we be sure that what’s important to us is also important to them?
In the professional world, I have the advantage of knowing exactly what my audience wants from me. In fact, my success as a Development Director hinges on my ability to read guidelines and questions so carefully and closely that I end up understanding the funder’s priorities better than they themselves do.
But this practice — the truffle-hunt of essential information — will help me no matter what I’m writing. Personally, I can’t wait to use my research skills to summarize comps for my literary agent, once we’re ready to shop my collection of essays around. (Seriously — cannot WAIT.)
The point is this — it’s easy to dismiss an MFA as a degree that’s only tactically useful if you’re teaching comp or creative writing, or if you’ve somehow finagled yourself a career as a working writer. Some days, I feel conflicted about the fact that I have to qualify my three-part answer to the question, “What do you do?” Because my business card doesn’t say “Writer.” Even though it’s part of my job, it’s far from the only one.
What I can rest easy with is the knowledge that every day, I use my degree and my creative writing skills in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And for my money, I couldn’t ask for a better story of impact.
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 r.kv.r.y. quarterly, 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 the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.
January 3, 2019 § 51 Comments
By Christina Consolino
They say it takes a village to grow a child, and I’d argue that it takes a village to grow a manuscript too. That village is made up of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom play an integral role in seeing a book come to life. Those people should be acknowledged, but since I’ve never been one to dwell on the positive . . .
The literary agents: For rejecting my work over the years. I’d love to mention each of you by name, but I’m only here to disparage a select few. My most memorable rejection arrived from BB, who used the remarkable wording: “Not for nus.” (That’s right. A typo from a literary agent. I wouldn’t want my book handled by someone who couldn’t use spell check anyway, right?) Just know that you—nameless or not—have made me better than I was before. Better . . . stronger . . . faster.
The editors: For reading my manuscript from top to bottom and sending me feedback that made so little sense, it quickly became apparent that you’d either switched my manuscript with someone else’s, or you’d been reading my manuscript while watching Better Call Saul. I have neither a stripper pole nor a mosque in this narrative.
The informal teachers: For scoffing at my projects. “That premise will never fly,” one said. (He didn’t think sparkly vampires would, either.) Another piped in, “How can you write a manuscript and raise four kids at the same time?” (Ever heard of Danielle Steele?) And, “What training do you have to write a book?” (I’m pretty sure that some of the most well-respected authors don’t have degrees in creative writing.) Every time you uttered a phrase like that, I straightened my spine. And now? With the completion of this book, I’m sending you the biggest fucking bird I can muster.
The numerous agencies and organizations I contacted: For not returning my calls when I asked for help with research. The doctor and dentist and hygienist who blew me and my laptop off after having offered to speak with me? I’ve killed you off and told all my friends about you. The therapist who never followed-up with me? Dead too. You had one job to do. One job.
The alpha readers: For dropping the ball, even though you said, “Yes, I’ll read the manuscript.” You neither read it nor provided any feedback as to why you didn’t (or couldn’t) read it. You’ve opened my eyes to the ways of the world and taught me to choose wisely when it comes to readers. The true readers will indeed, bring life, and the false? They will take it from you.
The so-called literary citizens: For never sharing my work, ever (even though I share yours). Despite your congratulatory comments, your “Thanks for being a fabulous literary citizen!” emails, your tiny fucking heart and thumbs up emojis when I post something. It’s been a real pleasure knowing that you have not and will not share my work. Your lack of response has taught me what the real world is all about: me. (Well, you, really.) It’s clear that the “Me generation” is alive and well, even in the literary world.
The colleagues: For never taking me seriously. “That’s a cute hobby you have there,” she said. And this zinger from an old boss: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing trying to write a book?” he said. “You’re a fucking science teacher!” (I know what you’re thinking: what boss would use an F-bomb at work? That one. But he also got fired for “fraternizing” with his boss. Wink, wink.)
The librarian: For your lack of encouragement or support and for stating that I’d never find a home for my manuscript in this world, then tearing it from my hands and tossing it into the trash. Only later did a friend find it in the employee restroom, annotated from cover to cover, although the acknowledgments had been used as some makeshift toilet paper. Little did that librarian know that the scene would make it into the final draft of my current work-in-progress.
The veterinarian: For healing my old, cantankerous cat, the one who always pushed the delete button on my keyboard and scratched at the draft, ate the draft, and then vomited the draft. Without you, dear doctor, I’d be cat-less, but I’d have more intact manuscripts in hand. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)
My dog: For taking the manuscript between her jaws, running out the door, and burying it behind the compost pile. Her valiant actions prompted me to begin anew, thus finding my true, authentic voice, again leading me to be better . . . stronger . . . faster.
My children: For not being able to stay awake—not one of them!—while I read the draft aloud. (If you don’t actually hear the words, my dear progeny, they cannot count toward any reading minutes.)
And last but not least, my husband, the true love of my life: For not reading my work because women-centered narratives are “not his thing,” despite finding him glued to movies on the Lifetime channel. Asshole.
Christina Consolino is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan and has had work featured in HuffPost, Short Fiction Break, Flights: The Literary Journal of Sinclair Community College, Tribe Magazine, and Literary Mama, where she serves as Senior and Profiles Editor. She also serves on the board of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop at University of Dayton and as a writing instructor at a local writing center. Along with writing and editing, Christina currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology at Sinclair Community College.
January 1, 2019 § 58 Comments
It’s midnight in New York but I’m already twelve hours into 2019, because I’m in India. Last night I ate Chinese food and passed the leftovers through a taxi window, saying to the beggar, “It’s non-veg, OK?” Last night my taxi driver pulled over by the side of the road so he could pee against a wall. Last night I was already in bed and mostly asleep by midnight, waking only to type a little bit on a book-in-progress, because my personal superstition is that whatever I’m doing on New Year’s, that’s what my year will be like.
Last week I had almost no WiFi, power or heat, and crashed my computer moments before getting on a plane to a part of north India with no Apple Store. Mostly, it was exhilarating, and good to be off social media. It was also a pain in the ass, making it difficult to return editing projects or even work on them. In one of the few moments of cell reception, I instinctively checked my email.
Of course there was a rejection, a painful one. I’d tied a lot of hope into that submission, and the rejection was kind and thoughtful and had a bit of feedback. But for the first time I had the feeling I’ve heard other writers describe but hadn’t personally felt: I wasn’t a writer any more. This was it. I didn’t want to write anything again, ever. Sure, I’d probably edit some people’s work for money, but writing wasn’t for me, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t a world I belonged in. I was wasting my time. Part of my brain was gently reminding me, You tell writers all the time that one rejection doesn’t mean anything, it only means your work wasn’t the right fit for that person at that time. But I cried myself to sleep as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t wake my husband, and I’m crying as I write this now, because it still sucks.
That’s the missing piece for most of us as writers. We believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s a place for us where writing doesn’t suck. Where we’re happy with our quality of work, we’re getting published enough in the places we want that rejection still stings a little but doesn’t debilitate us. Where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel’s long.
That’s writing’s nasty little secret. That’s the horrible underbelly of great art, the Achilles’ heel of incredible physical prowess, the flip side of being good at anything.
Being good doesn’t lift you out of failure.
In fact, the better you get, the more awful failure feels, because you can’t let it go with “Oh, I wasn’t ready,” or “Yeah, that magazine is just really hard to get into.” You start to feel like you’ve paid your dues, you’ve put your time in, and when is success going to show up please, because it’s getting late?
Olympic gymnasts still break bones. Olympic hopefuls don’t get on the team because someone they beat in practice ran faster than them today. Movie stars don’t get cast because the producers aren’t sure how they’ll do in the Asian market. Writers don’t get published because their book doesn’t land on the right person’s desk at the right time. Or because they aren’t ready. Or because they suck.
All of those situations feel the same on the other end. They all feel like “I suck,” and “I suck” is a hard feeling to climb out of.
As writers, we are told over and over again, it’s hard work. Just keep doing it. We try our hardest to believe that, while still hoping it’s not true. While hoping the feeling of writing something wonderful, something we’re really proud of, will carry us through rejection and writer’s block and ennui, and sometimes it does.
The day after the Olympic trials, the gymnast who failed has two choices: Quit, or go back to the gym. It sucks to go back to push-ups and flip drills and conditioning when you know your friends are training for the big time. But it’s easier to condition than to create new choreography from the depths of heartbreak. It’s easier to embrace the routine.
Right now, what I’d really like to do is get on a plane and fly across time zones until I’m back when the rejection hadn’t happened yet. What I’d like to do is quit.
What I’m actually doing is writing a blog post in a hotel lobby, after working a little on a novel and a lot on a writing craft book. Trying to practice what I preach about showing up when it’s not fun. Putting together my writing goals for 2019: Finish another novel, finish the craft book, write another play. Say yes to enough editing to make money. Say no to enough editing to have time to write. Show up for my fellow literary citizens. Show up for Brevity readers. Show up for the writers whose work is going well and for the writers who feel like they suck. Show up to the page. Show up, show up, show up.
See you there.
According to my superstition, my 2019 will have low-key charity, unexpected public urination, and writing whether I suck or not, because I’m committed to the routine.
What will your writing year bring?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and truly sorry for being such a downer today. Why not leave your 2019 writing goals in the comments, and we’ll check back in six months?