Fixing Bad Writing in Creative Nonfiction is Not Politically Correct, it’s Essential

January 4, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Kristin Gallagher

I recently completed a memoir writing workshop with a well-known urban writing center. During our multi-week class, we did the things writers do—we provided feedback on one another’s work and discussed the craft of writing.

As with people in real life, the characters that appeared in our drafts were complicated. They made mistakes. They failed at some endeavors and excelled at others. Some committed crimes, told lies, broke bonds with loved ones. They said terrible things. This is the raw material that makes for great stories.

How readers imagine the characters in a piece of writing is dependent on the writer’s portrayal and there is no writer who can separate completely his/her/their experience from the writing itself. How we as writers experience the world seeps into our work at the granular level. Sometimes, this means repeating messages that have been absorbed and internalized that are not healthy or accurate, including stereotypes based on race, sexuality, and gender. These are the overdone tropes that often appear in popular culture and mass media. Oftentimes, privilege prevents us from even realizing our level of participation in perpetuating these messages.

So what happens when we see our fellow writers falling back on these racist and sexist depictions to describe people in their works? We must provide the constructive critiques necessary, not because we believe it to be the politically correct thing to do, but because it is our responsibility to prompt one another to become better writers, not writers who rely on tired and lazy tropes when attempting to bring characters to life on the page.

In this workshop, we had discussions about the use of a pejorative to describe a person with an intellectual disability, how equating Blackness to evil is racist, and how to write about characters’ sexuality in ways that are not exploitative. On these occasions, it was not the character’s actions or words that were in question—many great works of nonfiction contain terrible characters who are based off of terrible people-—but rather, the focus was on the writer’s inability to write past blind spots to develop the characters. This type of feedback is important work that all writers in workshop must engage in so that we can all grow as storytellers by digging deeper and creating authentic characters that go beyond stereotypes.

After the class finished, the student receiving this feedback used the writing center’s email list to defend her language choices, most curiously by sending a photo of a person she wrote about, presumably to wave about like a flag to proclaim her innocence. We’ve all seen this by now: “I am excused from all racist language because I once ate dinner with a Black person.” “I am not homophobic because I have a gay cousin.” “I am not ableist even though I will continue to call people retarded when they make mistakes.” The student also let it be known that it was a pleasure working with some of us. Presumably excluded from that list were the people who pointed out the shortcomings in her writing.

The silence of the instructor implicitly legitimized this student’s actions. The inaction of the writing center-—a center that does not even have community guidelines to deal with this type of situation and that lacks diversity in its leadership and instructors—is a failure to the entire student body. Students who provide valid critiques that challenge their peers to become better writers must be protected from retaliation for such critiques. Otherwise, we have all failed.

It may feel that we are being asked to do more during a time when many of us do not feel we have more to give, but we are really only being called upon to do what writers in workshop have always been asked to do: to provide feedback to make the writing better. This includes having conversations about the ways in which we fail one another when we write stereotypical characters into our work.

On the business end, slapping a Black Lives Matter page up on a business website is not enough. Writing centers must exhibit a real commitment to eliminating the structural barriers that traditionally have excluded marginalized voices and must have clear community guidelines that are enforced and that do not tolerate bullies who attempt to silence those in the writing community who are doing the necessary work to stop this form of bad writing.
___

Kristin Gallagher is a Miami-based writer and the assistant managing editor of Gulf Stream. Her personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qu, The Real Story, and Anti-Heroin Chic.

Inter-Office Memo: Good Work, Writers!

January 1, 2021 § 8 Comments

To: Self-Employed Writer

From: The CHFO (Chief High-Five Officer)

Date: January 1, 2021

Subject: You’ve Earned Employee of the Year! Again!

I am writing to congratulate you on the commendable efforts and energy you put into delivering on your 2020 production quota. Nobody here wrote more words on more pages than you. You wrote and rewrote. You edited and edited again. Yes, you really did type this year.

Your ability to keep the volume of rejection letters organized was exemplary. Each one that came in the door was noted and filed, then cancelled out by another submission. Another swing at the piñata. You swatted so many times this past year that your arm has grown thick and strong. There’s new work out there because of it and more to come if you keep at it. Note for 2021: swing with your left for a while to even out the situation.

Thanks especially for your dedication and commitment to attendance. This past year coughed up more challenges than most. You could have sat in the corner, curled in a ball, rocking and humming, but you showed up on a somewhat regular basis instead. For your year of diligent service, I applaud you. I applaud all of the writers out there. You deserve a raise!
____

Windy Lynn Harris writes personal essays, short stories, flash, nonfiction, and novels from her desk in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. Her work has been published in The Literary Review, JMWW, Pithead Chapel, The Sunlight Press, and many other journals. Find her at www.windylynnharris.com.

Barry Lopez: On Art and Living Well

December 28, 2020 § 8 Comments

The author Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, and we will truly miss him. His sentences were beautiful, and he was as well: setting an example as an artist, a citizen, and a human being.

Thankfully, he left us with so much of his wisdom and heart, including this passage, on the subject of hope and why we make art:

“In conversations over the years with other writers and artists about what we’re actually supposed to be doing, I’ve been struck by how often, deep down, the talk becomes a quest for the same mysterious thing. Underneath the particular image in question, the particular short story or musical composition, we’re looking for a source of hope. When a conversation about each other’s work doesn’t pivot on professional jargon or drift toward the logistics of career management, when it’s instead deferential and accommodating, we’re sometimes able to locate a kind of Rosetta Stone, a key to living well with the vexing and intractable nature of human life. If any wisdom emerges in these conversations, it offers sudden clarification. It’s the Grail shimmer. You feel it, and you can’t wait to get to work.”

Take the Giveaway4Good Challenge

December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments

By Lisa Ellison

During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.

One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.

But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.

After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”

A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.

Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
Agoraphobia.

At ten, I absorbed her lesson.

It took several decades to unlearn it.

Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.

A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
Economic turmoil.
Increasing inequity.
Tragic deaths.
Health crises.
Election drama.
More COVID cases.

And yet, even now, I have desires.

I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.

I want to send it to agents.

I want to believe this story will help someone.

When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.

While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.

Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.

In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.

During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.

It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.

As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.

I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.  

My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.

Here are the details for this week’s challenge:

  1. Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
  2. Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
    1. Subscribe to Brevity’s blog (If you’re reading online, the subscribe button is in the sidebar on the right)
    2. Read and share any Brevity blog post on social media
    3. Follow Brevity on Instagram @Brevitymag
  3. Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.

The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn. 

This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class

You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.

To participate in this challenge, send an email to lisa.cooper.ellison@gmail.com. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.

If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.

_____________________________________

Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary MagazineKenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison. 

A Memoir Is a Turkey

November 26, 2020 § 14 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 friends can gasp in admiration (via Zoom, this year!) 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 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 rough year, 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 money 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

Facebook Author Pages Are Useless. Make One Anyway.

November 11, 2020 § 11 Comments

A writer asked me, “Should I start a Facebook Author Page? My book is coming out next week, but I want to keep my personal profile private and just get everyone to like my author page.”

What I heard: I don’t want to share my real self or genuinely connect, but I want people to sign up for my commercials.

Because yes, we share our blog links and promote our friends’ books, too, but these are all commercial activities. Read me. Buy me. Buy this other thing.

Nobody wants to be your customer. They want to be your friend.

Facebook already knows this. That’s why Facebook feeds you a steady stream of news from family and acquaintances, posts from interest groups you’re part of, and a very occasional post from that author page you liked a long time ago because your friend asked you to.

Even when you like and follow a business or author page, Facebook rarely delivers their posts. You have to specifically visit the page. For that author, only 10-15% of the people who clicked “follow”—who signed up on purpose!—will see their posts. Mathematical algorithms weigh a page’s popularity and interest to the public, because what Facebook wants is for people to spend more time on Facebook. If a page has thousands of followers, Facebook shows the posts more widely and more often. Famous people get more famous. Viral content goes viral-er.

Social media algorithms aren’t looking for “quality” or “this author deserves a boost!” so if you want anyone to see posts from your author page, you’ll have to pay for advertising. Do you have a product to sell? Your beautiful book, or maybe a course you’re teaching? Run $20 worth of well-targeted ads. No product yet? Don’t bother.

Because Facebook Author Pages don’t attract their own traffic, they don’t usefully separate professional from personal. You will always get far more engagement on your personal page. (Try posting the same link or post or picture to your author page and your profile and see who shows up where.)

No-one wants to be your customer. They want to be your friend.

Even if they see your post in both places, commenting on a friend’s post feels “real” and “connected” in a way that commenting on their low-traffic author page doesn’t.

For a useful compromise, join some interest groups on Facebook. There are plenty of writing groups in all genres, and whether you write about boating or genealogy or special-needs parenting or hot-air ballooning, your topic almost certainly has groups, too. Lurk for a while until you understand how the group functions. Comment when you can help, or congratulate, or encourage. Almost zero groups allow direct “buy my product” advertising. But if you gain a reputation for being helpful and kind, people will ask you about your book.

Administrating an author page is a little more difficult than updating a personal profile. They don’t get traffic, they feel fake even to your friends, and you’ll feel weird constantly advertising yourself.

Make a Facebook Author Page anyway.

Here’s why: One day, you’re going to publish that book, or that second book, or offer a workshop or a course, and you’re going to want to spread the word. You can only buy Facebook advertising for posts on a page, not your personal or group posts.

Here’s why else: if you’re writing a book that will benefit from a social media platform (that’s not all memoirs!) agents and publishers will care how many followers you have on Facebook personally, and on your page. They’ll also care about how many members your groups have, and how active you are in the groups. Pumping up those numbers from scratch at the last minute doesn’t create genuine connections. A long, slow process builds bridges between your writing and reading communities.

  • Set up an automatic feed to post to your author page whenever you write something new on Instagram/Twitter/your blog (I use IFTTT, it’s free).
  • Share non-private posts from your personal profile to your page, so your fans see some of the personal you.
  • Once or twice a week, find a helpful or well-written blog or article you didn’t write. Say why you liked it or found it thought-provoking, and quote something intriguing or counter-intuitive. Post that to your author page (and Twitter, if you have it). Tag the original author. Sharing their work connects you to them a little more, and their fans may discover your work, too.

Sharing your work on your personal profile, among the genuine moments of your life, will always be more rewarding and gain more readers. “We had a picnic!” “So excited about my publishing deal!” and “Wow, these fall leaves!” are far more engaging than “Buy my book,” “Review my book,” “Tell your friends about my book.” Instead of asking friends to watch a commercial, your work sits amidst the many things you mutually find interesting. But a Facebook Author Page has advertising and platform benefits you’re going to need one day—so start gently building your following now.

____________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story December 16th (replay will be available). Click here to find out more and grab your spot!

Election Day Reads for a Better America (please add to the list…)

November 3, 2020 § 1 Comment

Justin Hackworth Photography

By Joey Franklin

If the past several years of political rancor have demonstrated anything, it is that Americans are not often at our best when talking politics (I know I’m not).  There seems to be so little room for compassion, nuance, or even a basic acknowledgment of a common humanity outside our own tribal boundaries.

Tania Israel, author of Beyond your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, writes: “If we cannot survive outside of our bubbles, if we cannot tolerate listening to our friends and families and neighbors, if we cannot see beyond our own perspectives; if we view our fellow citizens as enemies, how can we sustain our relationships, our communities, our country?”

And if you are anything like me, you read those questions, and you imagined friends and family that you sometimes can’t tolerate listening to; and you probably imagined people you know who have trouble seeing beyond their own perspectives (and you probably didn’t count yourself among them). But these are essential questions to ask ourselves at the peak of one of the most contentious and significant presidential races in modern history. No matter which candidate prevails, the health of our nation will depend a great deal on our ability to speak across socio-political boundaries, to recognize our own blind spots, to accept one another as fellow human beings, and speak clearly and powerfully about what it is to live in this strained and divided country.

Given this imperative, I offer here five essays that demonstrate the kind of poignant, challenging, socially conscious invitation to empathy that is so essential to the health of a diverse citizenry. Change comes as we learn to see one another more clearly, when we reclaim patriotism in the spirit of the essay—not a flag-waving zeal based on myth and convenient narratives, but a skeptical hope in the power of individual experience to lift us toward our loftier ideals. 

Election Day Reads for a Better America:

“It’s bad to lie your way through life. But this is easier, better. What’s worse is how it keeps happening. We build it—our lives, a city, a home—we break it down. Over and over.”

Azzam’s stunning lyric essay captures the way racism, fear, and a desire for belonging can complicate allegiances and life for immigrant families in the United States. 

“I just don’t think Americans fully realize how terrorizing it is to black males when we are falsely suspected as violent criminals. All Americans seem to be thinking about is their fear of us—not our fear of their fear.”

Kendi examines the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the irrational white fear that led to his death and that continues to threaten people of color across the country.

“If we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then?” 

Before Brian Doyle died, he came to BYU and read this essay about the heroes of the Sandy Hook school shooting. He passed out copies and told the audience: “Walk out of here with ‘Dawn and Mary’ in your pocket. Then read it as you like, and then copy it a hundred times and give it to everybody you know.”

“No matter what we write, white people can turn our stories into weapons, an excuse to be paternalistic . . .No matter what we do, we’re still Indian, and often we don’t get to speak for ourselves.”

Mailhot reflects on the long history of white culture appropriating, denying, exoticizing, erasing, and demonizing native cultures, and expresses a desire to speak on her own terms.

“After September 11, I saw for the first time that the flag—along with all its red, white, and blue collateral relations—is what a semiotician would call ‘polysemous’: it has multiple meanings.”

Fadiman considers the roots of her bias against flag waving, and reconsiders the possibilities of patriotism and the nature of her own belonging in a post 9/11 America.

On this election day, as the frenetic energy of the campaigns come to an end, and we sit in what we hope is the calm after, and not before the storm, it is good to read something that challenges us to be better Americans. These essays here are just a primer, and I hope in the comments below you’ll share titles, and maybe links to essays that inspire you on this election day. Heaven knows we all could use a little of that.

*And a quick note of thanks:  To Dinty for inviting me to inhabit the Brevity Blog over these past few days, and to the Brevity community at large for taking the time to read, think, comment, and share. It has been a pleasure. Happy reading. Now go vote!).
___

Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
___

Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

Lofty Promises: An Election Eve Tribute to the American Essay

November 2, 2020 § 10 Comments

By Joey Franklin

In the twenty-plus years that I have been eligible to vote, I’ve moved more than twelve times, which means I’ve rarely cast a ballot in the same place more than twice. Elementary school cafeterias in Oregon, the city offices in Athens, Ohio, and a Catholic church in Lubbock, Texas. I’ve caucused inside an 80-year-old middle school, cast an absentee ballot from Japan, and voted by mail during a pandemic (don’t tell the president).

A part of me loves election season—the way a community opens itself up every year to make room for this grand civic experiment, the communal queuing up to cast our votes, the elderly matrons of democracy who run the polling stations, and the polling stations themselves as little bastions of non-partisan volunteerism. It can feel utterly patriotic, and every year the part of me that grew up a Boy Scout reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and lionizing the founding fathers fills with hope in the lofty promises of America.

But every year, there is another part of me that feels nauseated by the entire process—the incessant partisan spin on cable news, the angry churn of social media, the pandering to party extremes, and all that wasted money ($14 Billion this cycle, and still counting), not to mention the struggle to live up to our own highest ideals.

And this year, more so than in years past (except maybe 2016), it has been hard to focus on those ideals (and in turn on how to reach them) because the rhetoric has been so vitriolic, superficial, and base. Take the first presidential debate of 2020 as a case in point—with Donald Trump talking over his opponent and the moderator incessantly, repeating dozens of falsehoods, and calling his opponent “stupid,” and Joe Biden referring to Trump as a “clown,” a “liar” and, channeling the sentiment of so many viewers, telling the President to ‘shut up.”

The fact that NBC’s Lester Holt referred to this debate as “a low point in American political discourse,” is perhaps more prescient than he may have intended. While the rhetorical history of American politics is rife with Trump’s brand of ego-driven intimidation, racist dog-whistles, and self-serving partisan narratives, the rhetorical history of American progress is marked by a brand of rhetoric much more befitting those national ideals we have such a hard time living up to. Voices of reason wielding the double-edged sword of literary precision and intimate personal experience have played essential roles in every pivotal moment in the story of our country.

Not to exaggerate the role of the personal essay in American progress—for no amount of thoughtful rhetoric means anything unless we act—but it has so often been the “I” of the essay giving testament to the individual iterations of the American experience that has helped to shift national opinion and strengthen what Lincoln called “The mystic chords of memory,” that bind us together as a country. It has so often been the essay that has pointed us toward “the better angels of our nature.” 

Scholar Brian Norman calls this genre the “American Protest Essay.” A genre in which “writers bring the experiences of those lacking full social status into the public arena.” The genre is an expression of the personal essay’s promise manifested on a national scale—to show, as Rebecca Solnit writes, “how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure.”

In fear and humility, and knowing the inadequacy of what follows, I offer a brief, incomplete list of essayists and essayistic thinkers who’ve reminded Americans of the intrinsic relationship between “the personal and the public,” and encouraged us to discover the “secret kinships” of our shared national identity.

Revolutionary essayists such as Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton who helped form our first notion of what it meant to be American. Abolitionist writers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs whose narratives asserted the humanity of four million slaves. Advocates for women’s suffrage such as Susan B. Anthony; indigenous writers such as Zitkála-Šá whose vivid journalism helped expose mistreatment of native peoples; the fireside chats of Franklin D. Roosevelt that helped give America the courage to enter World War II; the voices of John Muir and later Rachel Carson on behalf of the environment; writers of the civil rights movement—James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and so many others whose essays on being black in America continue to shape the way we envision race; Larry Kramer’s AIDS and LGBTQ advocacy, Gloria Anzaldúa’s voice for Chicanx culture, Barbara Ehrenreich’s voice for the poor, and on and on to the many stellar civic-minded writers of today: Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Skloot, J.D. Vance, Terry Tempest Williams, Rebecca Solnit, and Saeed Jones, to name just a few.

In 1961 James Baldwin wrote, “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.” Against the backdrop of so much failed humanity in our current political rhetoric, it is good to remember the role of eloquent protest—on the streets, in the halls of government, and in the words we read. When we essay America, we resist easy narratives. We affirm the public value of individual experience. We acknowledge the potential for empathy in our neighbors. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we assert a common civic identity that rises above partisanship towards something else—an expansive vision of our national potential that begins to feel like the slow fulfillment of a very old American promise.

___
Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
___

Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

Tone Deaf

October 27, 2020 § 4 Comments

I’m not writing this for you. You already know better. I’m writing this so you can forward it to that friend of yours. You know. The one who keeps tagging you in social media posts about her book? The author who, every time you mention you’re looking for something new to read, offers an Amazon link? Who responds to every question even remotely related to her topic with “I wrote a book about that!” blatting away like a lone trumpet in the middle of a string quartet.

Yes, marketing statistics show that people have to hear about your book seven times, in seven different places, before they decide to buy it. But tone-deaf self-promotion does not create a pleasant memory of Oh I should purchase this book. Repeated advertising in social settings creates resentment and irritation, and as I wrote here a while ago, irritation doesn’t sell anything.

Yes, we should be proactive. Yes we should be unafraid to share the news—the wonderful news!—that we have published a book and wouldn’t our friends love to support us? Our friends do want to support us. They just don’t want to do it every day.

Here is how much marketing support you can reasonably expect from your friends:

One retweet.

Two mentions to their real-life friends that you have written a book and it is nifty.

From your extra-best awesome writer-friends: one retweet, one Instagram post, one book review written to Amazon and copy-pasted to Goodreads. More than that is doing God’s work.

From close relatives, and from people who would like to have sex with you: physically walking into a bookstore and ordering one, even two copies of your book.

From your local newspaper: a brief mention of your reading at a local bookstore. Because “Hey, I wrote a book” just isn’t all that newsworthy.

For the press, consider writing PR (or having your insanely expensive publicist write PR) that expresses how your book ties into popular culture right now. Or the problem many people have that your book solves or addresses. Maybe even your unique story about writing the book, if you triumphed over adversity or accomplished a life goal. Not just about your book.

But you can’t send a press release to all your friends. Not even an advertisement disguised as a Facebook comment.

The two best ways to get people interested in your recently published book are to make yourself look like an expert, and show them how your topic is directly relevant to their lives. You do this by offering assistance. For example, if your Facebook friend has a problem that you know how to solve and that is also related to your book, answer their question. Solve their problem. Direct them to another resource that is not your book for more information. At the end of all that assistance, note somewhat self-effacingly, I also wrote a book about this, and here’s the link in case you want to look it up. The product is an afterthought in your service to your friend.

Author Karen DeBonis has a great technique for talking about your topic without talking about your book every time. She has set a Google alert for one of the topics of her book, “people-pleasing.” When she sees a quality article related to people-pleasing, she can tweet or post the link, with a quote from the article and some commentary from Karen about why this information is useful, or how she identifies with it. (Here’s how to set up a Google Alert)

This is double literary citizenship! You’re promoting the writer of the article you’re linking to, and increasing interest in your own topic. You’re helping establish your own expertise, or that you are at least a clearinghouse for this information. When someone has a people-pleasing-related question, they’ll remember, Gosh, I bet Karen knows the answer, and come to her. Then she can answer their immediate question, and gently direct them towards her book. If her book is not out yet, she has incurred gratitude. She has made a deposit in the Bank of Goodwill, which can be redeemed when the time comes to purchase, review or post about her book.

None of this is “being clever on Twitter,” though that can help. It’s not “have a million Insta followers,” though that can help, too. This is doing service you already know how to do, to genuinely connect with people affected by a topic about which you care deeply enough to have written a book.

Self promotion is not self service. Yes, fanfare the news of your new book from the rooftops. But also gently play the symphony of support, solutions, and expertise for your grateful listeners.

______________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Ashleigh Renard for The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A on Zoom. This Thursday at 1PM Eastern is the Ask Us Anything Halloween Party—costumes optional, bring your burning questions about platform, promotion and social media. If you’re on the list, you’ll get the link, or sign up here!

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

October 6, 2020 § 23 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

I met them at a writer’s conference, my first ever. They have become my muses. The people I go to for inspiration, validation, celebration.

There were 12 of us in a memoir workshop led by Ann Hood. Each of our 25-page submissions were dispatched by group email weeks ahead of time, providing ample opportunity for intimidation. I read bios filled with MFAs, published books, impressive university teaching credentials and a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts. I looked for a reason not to go. There was the cost. Then I won an award for an essay that covered it and decided it was fate. I’d go, be humiliated, and finally give up this writing that’s taken too much of my time. My garden, choked by weeds, applauded this idea.

To trust another person—much less a group of 12 strangers—with your writing is practically a sacred act. Much of my writing is about my fifteen-year-old daughter’s suicide. It’s hard to write and harder to share. In a memoir workshop you can’t help but forge some relationships while strangers read and discuss the words you hemorrhaged and sweated, cried, laughed, and scrabbled onto a manuscript that somehow got you in.

I kept in touch with two women who’d stayed at the same hotel. Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask one if she’d like to share our work, one excerpt a week, for feedback.

At first, I thought of it as a temporary substitute for my local writing group, no longer able to meet due to the pandemic. When we started, we were cautious, not wanting to offend. There were a lot of “I like…” and “So powerful” comments. To make it easier, we started using LT! (love this) and SP (So powerful). We began to email outside our Sunday Google Doc, sharing writing we’d come across. Things we loved, some that we hated. We invited another woman we’d both gotten to know from the workshop and hotel. She joined us and quickly became an essential member of our little group, offering astute observations, gentle suggestions and years of experience in academia. We share submission opportunities. We champion one another’s successes on our tiny social media platforms. Every few weeks, we Zoom.

As our trust in one another grew, we came to incorporate IMHO (in my humble opinion) and “I’m channeling Ann here.” We all signed up for Dinty Moore’s webinar, The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay , For the next few weeks we referenced his “Invisible Magnetic River” metaphor. “Take me to the river.” “I’m not seeing the river.” “Should I toss this one in the river?”

Recently, I sent an essay that was very difficult to write. They picked at it. Looking back at the first draft, I count twenty comments. “I think this moves too fast.” “IMHO it’s more than one essay.” “Need to go deeper here.”

Oh, hell no, you sadistic bitches! I’m not going deeper. Just that much scraped my skin off. I can’t look at that any closer, it will affect my heart. My spleen. My liver.

I put that one on a back burner. Nevertheless, they persisted. I revised and re-sent. Still, they weren’t satisfied. The hell with them. What do they know? I left it to fester and roil for another couple of weeks. Then, I took ten giant steps backward and reread their comments. I made a few more revisions. IMHO, it turned into my best piece yet.

My muses agreed.

Before that memoir workshop, before I found my muses, my essays tended to have Hallmark endings. I wanted to fix things. But what I needed to write wasn’t fixable. I didn’t want to sound whiny. I didn’t want sympathy. But there were no happy endings to be tied up in a pretty bow. Because I learned to trust these women, my writing has improved and I am not so much afraid of putting it out into the world—even when it’s ugly.

Despite the isolation of the pandemic, and also because of it, there are many opportunities for writers to make connections. Find your tribe, even if it’s a tribe of one. Send out that smoke signal. Put that message in the bottle. Scroll through Tweets and posts until you find your kindred and reach out to them. Search for the support you need to write the things that need to be written. The stories that it hurts to tell. Be that support for other writers. Get by with a little help from your friends.

_______________________________
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Literary Citizenship category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: