The Decorations of a Writer’s Home

December 4, 2019 § 5 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson
zz_kathy
The classic 1902 edition of The Decoration of Houses, by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman begins, “Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.”

Well, if my home is a living organism (which I believe it is – it protects me, but also reflects me so well that any stranger who walked in would immediately know much about me based solely on its “decorations”) then that organism is obviously sustained by one thing: books, and all things related to books, writing, and reading.

No matter where I am in my house, there will be a tchotchke, a bookcase, a shelf or wall art that reminds me – in the background of my life – that I am a reader and a writer. Being surrounded by tangible reminders of the reading and writing life nourishes me in a way that most belongings don’t. I could easily give up any number of personal effects and most of my shoes, but my complete set of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1913, Eleventh Edition, found at an antiques fair) in its handsome Arts & Crafts style bookcase will be with me until I die. (Although that might be the first thing to go in the giant garage sale my children will have when I pass on…)

I’m trying to think back to when I first started decorating whatever space I was living in with a writer’s accouterments. I’m sixty-seven, so it’s a long think back. Bookcases, of course, and a writing space – table or desk – there have been so many versions of those. But at some point, I also started to surround my living space with other writerly objects. Was my collection of paintings and posters and wall and shelf art just “stuff,” there merely to remind myself that I am a writer?

Take my collection of literary-themed plates (please, take them…). Although I guess five doesn’t really count as a collection. Only because I was able to stop myself before I went on the hunt for more. I bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a literary-themed, dinner-sized plate. Of course these are not to eat dinner on – these are to display on special wall hangers just for this purpose. I have three Shakespeare motifs, one Mark Twain, and a House of the Seven Gables.

Do you see the slippery slope here? These items (and more…) were purchased at random antique shows and shops over the years. I have never bought any of my treasures online or on Amazon. For me, it’s been the thrill of the random discovery. Anyone can go online and get this stuff in ten minutes. Although I’d like to meet the delivery guy who could lift the ancient Remington manual typewriter I found at a garage sale years ago. I had to have it – twenty bucks!

Having a writer for a mom or a spouse or a friend makes gift-giving easy. On an office shelf I have a small ceramic typewriter, an antique tortoiseshell magnifying glass (for making print bigger), and framed postcards of famous writers’ homes, gifts from friends and family.

You’ll notice that I haven’t even mentioned books themselves, or the bookcases that contain them. My husband knows I don’t want jewelry. The best gift he ever got me was a tall antique bookcase with a beveled glass front, where I could store my collectible books. Of course I have collectible books! But that’s for another, much longer essay.

zz IMG_1819At some point in my life, long ago, I bought a painting of a woman reading. Right off the wall of an indie bookstore in New Jersey. There wasn’t a price sticker on it, but I got dizzy when I saw it, and I asked the bookstore owner if it was for sale. She named a reasonable price, and I walked right out the door with it. It reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting, and I have even harbored a private fantasy that it is a long-lost Edward Hopper painting. The signature is illegible. I even took it to a friend who is an art appraiser/sleuth, and she was stumped. It remains a mystery, and I remain intrigued.

It has been my husband who has gifted me with paintings of women reading over the years. I told him once that I don’t like jewelry, and I am pretty low maintenance. So, we see it as an investment that rewards us with both immediate and long-term gratification. It makes a house a home. Our home. A home where a woman reads and writes.

French poet and novelist Remy de Gourmont wrote, “Aesthetic emotion puts man in a state favorable to the reception of erotic emotion. Art is the accomplice of love. Take love away and there is no longer art.”

I didn’t set out to design a life with decorations, like Edith Wharton. There was no grand plan. Like much of life, it just kind of happened.
__

Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, The Same, Tishman Review and – of course – the Brevity Blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College, and lives north of Chicago. She posts links to published work at www.kathystevenson.com and tweets @k_stevenson01

Irritation Doesn’t Sell Anything

December 3, 2019 § 7 Comments

Back when I was a professional circus performer, most of my shows were at “busker festivals”—large community events where a street or streets are closed to traffic, and shows happen throughout downtown.

(Not seeing it? Here’s an uplifting two-minute montage of the busker festival in Ontario I now direct, check out the flip at :52!)

A tradition at busker festivals is the Group Show, a closing performance with all the acts presenting 3-5 minutes each. Group Shows are fun for the performers as well as the audience—buskers bring out new material, tricks too difficult or dangerous for their regular shows, or they combine acts with other artists.

Sometimes there’s an inside joke. At a festival in Canada, performers swapped costumes and did bits of each others’ acts. Funniest of all was emcee Sharon, a not-contortionist dressed as a contortionist, running around shouting “I’m Suzie Splits! Buy my merchandise!” As she introduced each act, she added the slogan: “Next up, the amazing Aerial Angels! Did I mention you could buy my merchandise?” or “Wasn’t that juggling terrific! Buy my merchandise!”

We all loved Suzie Splits (not her real name). But what we remembered from her show was not her amazing bendy skills, but her constant merchandise pitching.

You may not be hawking souvenir t-shirts, bumper stickers or can cozies, but you might be selling something else. Workshops. Editorial services. Coaching. Writing retreats. Chances are, you’re also part of some pretty great writing communities. Which means you’ve seen the equivalent of Suzie Splits, tweeting about her book (now available on Amazon!), Instagramming about her retreat (look how pretty!), or posting about her great new service in a Facebook group (discounts for members!).

When you need that service, or have been meaning to buy that book, those announcements can be great. But most of the time, let’s face it, they’re kind of irritating. And irritation doesn’t sell books—or anything else.

How can you connect your services with your audience, without alienating the very clients you’re seeking? Some best practices:

1) Revise your bio. Every time someone sees you or your writing online, your bio should contain a clickable link to the most important thing you’re selling right now. If your website isn’t selling anything NOW, send people to the social media you enjoy the most, or a recent publication. Update Twitter/Instagram bios regularly to highlight your current work, whether that’s a new essay published or a service you’re offering.

2) Use your email signature. An automatic email signature saves time and reaches people outside your writing community. Responding to your lawn service? Maybe their daughter’s getting her MFA, or the main mower has a deep love of reading you don’t know about.

3) Promote one thing at a time. When I add my bio to a Brevity blog, I rotate what I’m pitching. Some weeks it’s “follow me on Instagram” or “join my newsletter.” Sometimes I’ll mention a conference I’m speaking at, or a workshop I’m teaching. But if I listed my whole calendar, readers would get lost in a mass of information.

4) Promote your friends…one at a time. Twitter feeds full of retweets of books for sale are worse than no promotion at all, because people mute or ignore spammy accounts. If I’m promoting a friend’s event or service, I skip promoting myself for a couple of days before and after, because I want the information to stick.

5) Ask your friends to promote you. When a friend mentions you in their newsletter, or on social media, that’s an endorsement, far more valuable than self-promotion. People want advice from their trusted friends more than an ad from you.

6) Guest blog. Writing a post for a blog with a substantial following raises your profile. Look for leaders in the writing community, like Jane Friedman, and browse their blogs. What can you write for that audience? Can you angle that topic to establish your own expertise or mention your service in the context of valuable information?

7) Most important of all: timing. At least 10 “gives” for every “ask.” This establishes you as a valuable, contributing member of the community, rather than a drive-by using the group as a captive audience. Gives can be sharing links or information, answering questions you have expertise or even just an opinion on, posting thoughtful questions for discussion, sharing funny/meaningful/frustrating/triumphant moments from your own writing process, making jokes or participating in Twitter threads.

The very best self-promotion is offering something people already want and are delighted to discover that you sell, because they already like you. They trust you. Because you’ve shown you want their community, not just their cash.

I once explained how street performers make money to a reality-show investor: “We do the very best show we can, for free. At the end of the show, people like us so much, they joyfully give us money, even though they could easily just walk away. Our job is to make them thrilled they have the opportunity to pay us.”

As creatives, that’s our job. Hang our paintings on the gallery wall for everyone to see until a buyer walks in. Donate our time and information to groups who need it, as we can afford to give it. Establish our skills and knowledge and ethos so clearly that when we do (finally!) announce a product, our audience is excited we’re letting them buy.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Rebirth Your Book retreat in Costa Rica with Allison and Dinty W. Moore coming May 2020 (please buy our merchandise).

Unified Theory of Ned

November 11, 2019 § 5 Comments

nedBy Paul Haney

Ned Stuckey-French was an essayist and a scholar of the essay, a book-review editor and an anthologist. He was an author, an English professor at Florida State University, a generous reader, a connection-maker, an advocate for anyone attempting what he termed “this queer little hybrid thing,” the essay. A tallish, lanky fellow with thick glasses and a runner’s build, Ned was political, and he was personable. He was a wise-ass, he was a warm soul. He was Ned, and he was on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook every day,” Ned confessed at AWP in 2011. The name of his talk: “My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict.” To Ned, Facebook was a meeting place abuzz with opinions and gossip and news of the day. It was a tool of democracy, a forum for hashing out political disagreements and plying rivals with logic and facts and more reasonable truths. It was a digital dynamo of discourse, a sprawling harbor of humanity, a portal for engaging the world.

Ned poured words, millions of words, onto that medium. Even when classes were in session, or when he was traveling, he posted articles supporting unions, and universal healthcare, protections for the marginalized and dispossessed. In sharing these pieces and welcoming discussion, Ned fashioned himself a champion of the left. He never backed down from his “fundamentalist, right-wing brother-in-law,” as he called him, who swooped in to decry liberal idiocy and hypocrisy. He didn’t back down from that brother-in-law’s friends, either, tagged and recruited to the debate. Back and forth, paragraph after paragraph. “I enjoy butting heads with them,” Ned said. “It’s a way to be in touch with a group of people I might not otherwise be in touch with.” Hard-line conservatives, that is. Staunch Republicans.

On-lookers didn’t know who these people were–Ned himself hardly knew. They were Facebook addicts as well. Some brave progressives jumped into the fray and Ned engaged them, too, pleading for humanity while sizing up their logic and dishing out sources, good ones. A daunting task–to take so many stances, to mount so many arguments. To return day after day and articulate an evolving set of positions. Ned qualified his allies and refuted his opponents, always trying to figure out exactly where he stood. He was developing a platform, a worldview. He was forging a unified theory of Ned.

The threads were epic, endless, always growing, an expanding universe of discourse. The replies grew by the dozens, sometimes reaching triple digits. Trump’s political ponzi scheme. The virtues of Black Lives Matter. When did Ned teach? When did he sleep? The posts and comments, likes and shares kept coming. Politics, sure–no one was a bigger fan of Jimmy Carter, as evidenced by the family photo he’d taken with the former president and himself, his wife, and his two daughters, all beaming in the Georgia sun. But every new track & field record, the latest amazing golf shot, scores of great new essays. His voice was eager as he cheered on his students and colleagues writing their own lives. “Onward!” he cried, and “Go get ‘em!”

“We are in the age of Facebook,” Ned said in 2011. “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Even then, Ned admitted the platform was a timesuck that played on our pettiest instincts. But he also marveled at the site’s ability to memorialize those who pass away. What would he say about the outpouring on his own wall since he passed? A thousand things, no doubt. Just as he did each year on his birthday, he would’ve left a thoughtful, personal, wise-cracky comment on each post. He would’ve engaged.

Over the years Ned learned alongside everyone else Facebook’s deeper dangers, the misinformation, the polarization, the true customers: the advertisers. Yet Ned was on there all the same. He was on there for the people, for the conversations. He was on there precisely because Facebook is democratic, in the worst and best senses of the word, and Ned believed in public discourse. Ned never took a break, never needed a cleanse. Ned was on there, posting and sharing and liking and loving and thinking and rebutting and becoming. Till the very end, Ned was on Facebook.
___

Paul Haney was a student of Ned Stuckey-French’s, a friend, and a golf partner. His work has appeared a few times in Ned’s book review section of Fourth Genre, as well as Slate, Boston Globe Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Sweet, and elsewhere. He serves as Managing Editor of Dylan Review. Follow him @paulhaney.

With a Little Help from My Friends

October 29, 2019 § 13 Comments

By Dorothy Rice

For some, writing is a solitary act, best done in the privacy of a room with a door. Others lack that luxury and find their muse on a favorite couch corner or in a coffee shop. You may require utter silence or prefer the murmur of voices, music and the hiss of espresso machines. While the setting and circumstances vary, it’s still a private conversation between your mind and the page. Alone, we grapple with ideas, wrestling them into shape.

Sharing our writing is the other side of the coin. Our thoughts, transformed in that magical, creative space, become part of a broader conversation.

Eight years ago, when I began to pursue my belated writing dream in earnest, I’d recently retired from a 35-year career in environmental protection. With what I now see as blind, beginners’ luck, I located a journal (thank you Duotrope) that accepted reprints of previously published work. An essay of mine (first published in a community college journal, American River Review) was reprinted in the Winter 2013 issue of the Still Point Arts Quarterly.

The Quarterly’s Editor, Christine Brooks Cote, also the founder/publisher at Shanti Arts, became interested in my father’s art (the subject of the essay). The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015) a full-color art book/memoir, became my first published book.

A book about an unknown artist by an unknown author, published by an independent press in an atypical format, was never destined to appeal to a wide audience. Yet thanks to the encouragement and support of colleagues I’d met taking classes and joining writing groups in my community, I was able to participate in half a dozen readings and events and share my father’s artistic legacy.

In the four years since, I’ve become enmeshed in my home town Sacramento’s literary community. One friend says of me that I, “write around,” a joking reference to my promiscuity in searching out opportunities to write and share with others. I’ve participated in workshops, classes and writing circles, convened submissions parties in my home, and provided comments on countless stories, essays and manuscripts for friends and colleagues.

Whenever I can, I attend readings and events to support other authors. I also read for literary magazines—beginning with Narrative, where I volunteered as an Assistant Editor for several years, and now as a member of the Hippocampus Reading Panel. Reading for journals is a rewarding way to give back to the journals we love; reading hundreds of submissions sharpens my internal editor.

As one outcome of my growing literary community, the launch for my second book, Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) was a vastly different experience than my first time out.

916 Ink, the literary nonprofit where I now work part-time facilitating writing workshops for area youth, hosted the event in their “Imaginarium”—an inspiring space filled with prompts, empty birdcages and whimsical clocks. Sacramento-based press River Rock Books, sold their recent releases alongside mine and 916 Ink staff were on hand to recruit volunteers and spread the word about the importance of creative writing in children’s lives.

Jan Haag, a friend and author who trained me in the Amherst Writers & Artists Method (AWA) and welcomed me into her AWA-style writing group years ago, introduced me. A handful of critique partners and fellow authors joined me in “acting out” scenes from Gray Is the New Black. Joey Garcia, critique partner, author, and founder of the Belize Writers Conference led an informal Q&A. One sister served up literary-themed cocktails, another dished out black-and-white snacks (I couldn’t come up with any appetizing gray foods!). The launch was a party, a celebration, not only of my new book, but of Sacramento’s vibrant and growing literary community.

The “then and now” contrasts continue: I forged enduring writing friendships at the first conferences and workshops I participated in five years ago, including One Story’s Summer Writers Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Napa Valley Writers Conference. Though we are spread around the globe, the writers I met continue to cheer one another on via Twitter, Facebook and on-line writing communities.

Journals that have published my work have been generous in spreading the word about my new book. Longridge Review interviewed me about Gray Is the New Black on their blog. Thanks to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, I’ve connected with dozens of creative nonfiction writers and readers over the past three years.

Writing, even when it flows, can be lonely work. Sharing, whether one-on-one, online, in writing groups or via publication, closes the circle. Finding visible, tangible proof of this widening circle has been one of the most gratifying outcomes associated with the publication of my second book.

Four years of forging connections has transformed my life as writer and author. The Beatles, then Joe Cocker, sang about getting by with a little help from their friends. I’m singing from that same songbook, with a lot of help from my friends.

___________________________

Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance and The Reluctant Artist. Her essays and stories have been widely published in journals and magazines, including Hippocampus, the Rumpus, Brevity‘s blog, and Longridge Review. A perennially-blooming author, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Find her at www.dorothyriceauthor.com and on twitter @dorothyrowena.

Losing Louise, Finding Joy: The Death of a Mentor and the Afterlife of Her Legacy

October 25, 2019 § 11 Comments

steeleby Cassie Premo Steele

I was young when I wrote the letter. I had finished my Ph.D. and had revised the dissertation and was hoping to publish it when I heard that Louise DeSalvo was coming to a nearby university as a visiting professor for a semester.

I wrote her a letter, telling her about my work, and asking if she’d like to help me get it published since our work—hers on Virginia Woolf and child sexual abuse, mine on multicultural women poets and the legacies of trauma in their lives and work—were similar.

And then I waited.

One Friday morning, the phone rang. It was Louise—her voice, a strong, determined pitch with a pinch of New Jersey despite the years of research in British literary scenes— saying, “Yes. The world needs this book.”

I did not know it then, but with that phone call, she put in motion the rest of my career—not the book itself which became We Heal From Memory: Sexton, Lorde, Anzaldúa and The Poetry of Witness—but the importance of the sentence itself as I gradually moved away from academia and into my own creative writing and writing coaching.

I learned to tell myself: The world needs this book.

I learned to tell others: The world needs this book.

Louise helped me in so many ways—by believing in me, by giving me foundational writing advice, and by modeling a life of balance.

desalvo and steele“You’re the real thing,” she said to me during a visit with her husband, Ernie, to their home in the Hamptons.

I know there are hundreds of other young writers who heard this from her, but at that moment with the Atlantic coast beside us, it felt like she’d offered me a whole ocean of faith in myself.

She also told me something that would forever change how I wrote and how I advised other writers.

“Virginia Woolf wrote for two hours a day,” she said. “And that might have been too much for her.”

It was a revelation that one of the greatest writers in world history only wrote for two hours a day.

I started adopting this practice. And indeed, I found that two hours of focused, uninterrupted, flowing writing is infinitely better than hours and hours of sitting, procrastinating, and distracting oneself.

(This was before the advent of the internet, and this two-hour rule is even more crucial now.)

I advise my clients to stick to this limit, and they tell me it changes everything, not only about their writing, but about their feelings about work and home and family.

Which brings me to the third lesson Louise taught me: a life of balance is not only preferable, it is necessary for good writing.

If we don’t want to follow (literally) in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps into the water, it is important to put self-care, time with family, and activities that nurture our minds, bodies and souls at the forefront of each day.

Whether it’s baking bread or shopping for eggplant, painting a dreamscape or kayaking or knitting, Louise modeled for me what a truly great writer does: she stays healthy, happy, and balanced.

When I heard that Louise had cancer, I reached out to her by email. I wanted to tell her what she’d meant to me.

Our last conversation was about knitting. I told her that I’d recently learned but I feared I wasn’t very good, and she encouraged me to try the Brooklyn tweed scarf. I did—in the muted colors of the stone and brick homes of northern New Jersey that always made me think of her.

The morning after I heard she had passed away, I woke before sunrise to make bread.

It was November—the Days of the Dead—and the house was dark and cold. But the oven and the memories of the warmth Louise had given me were a balm to my mourning.

Recently, my wife and I were visiting my poetry publisher, Annmarie Lockhart, who lives near where Louise used to live, and I mentioned that I was reading Louise’s posthumous memoir, The House of Early Sorrows, so she was on my mind.

Always a Jersey Italian go-getter, Annmarie exclaimed, “Let’s go!” and drove us around until we located the house.

I jumped out and took a quick picture. The home was exactly how I remembered it but smaller. I thought of Virginia Woolf’s “angel in the house,” the spirit that encourages women to neglect their creative lives for housework and domestic activities, and it felt as if a different angel had taken residence in Louise’s old house – and in mine.

It was an angel who spoke quickly. An angel who loved being a wife and mother and did it with the same fierceness she brought to everything. Who cooked and ate with the conviction that good, healthy food held magic. Whose writing was as sharp and truth-telling as she was in real life.

And an angel with a wicked sense of humor.

As I turned from the house and went to get back in the car, an alarm went off.

It seems that Annmarie had gone to the end of the street to turn around and I’d tried to get in someone else’s car.

We laughed hysterically once I realized the mistake—and hightailed it out of there.

“Holy moly,” I said to Annmarie. “Now I can’t write about this!”

“Oh, yes, you can!” she said. “This is exactly what the world needs!”

And the joy Louise had taught me in convincing me that it was perfectly fine to believe in my work and live a happy life came back to me fully then.

I couldn’t wait to pick up the pen.
___

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is the author of 16 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and lives with her wife in South Carolina where she coaches writing clients from around the world and offers an audio writing coaching series called JOYWORK. Her website is www.cassiepremosteele.com and she’s on Twitter at https://twitter.com/PremoSteele

 

 

 

 

 

Failure, a Re-Vision

October 22, 2019 § 21 Comments

By Jenny Currier

When I submitted my master’s thesis in 2011, for creative nonfiction, my advisor returned it with only one line of feedback:

“Be more reflective.”

She didn’t explain what she meant, didn’t offer advice, didn’t bother telling me what, if anything, was working in my 130 pages. The only thing she indicated was that I needed to start over and change everything, including my voice. Her disdain for my writing felt like disdain for me as a person.

My tennis coach once told me, “You have to allow yourself to fail. It’s the only way to improve.” This, ironically, was the subject of my thesis and a lesson I’d grappled with on and off the tennis courts for years—losing relationships, losing my job—but failure here seemed worse; writing, unlike tennis, was my skill, my sanctuary from my other failures, and now, suddenly, this too was inferior.

So I stopped writing. My classmates graduated, and I enjoyed the New England summer. The only writing I did was in my journal, which I kept by hand, refusing to open my laptop for months.

Then one day, for no real reason, I began writing an essay that became the foundation for a collection of personal essays that were, in essence, a revision of my original work. One year after sending my advisor the first draft of my thesis, I mailed her my second.

I went into our meeting with dread, a bundle of Kleenex in my pocket.

“This is an improvement,” she said.

“Really?” I said, with such astonishment she was taken aback.

“Yes. It’s much different from the first.” She told me I showed insight, made connections, and sometimes the writing was funny, where it didn’t fall flat. After a few minutes of discussion, she tilted her head. “You seem to have lost all confidence in yourself as a writer. Why is that?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t. Even now, I have moments in which I feel as if I’m sitting in her office, my sense of worth as a writer completely diminished, trying to pretend her opinion of my work didn’t matter. Through my thesis I learned to abandon what comes naturally, to guess what my literary audience is looking for, and to mold my voice to fit that model. It’s the opposite of good practice.

Then, four years ago, I participated in a writing workshop in Greece, led by a travel writer and poet. One woman in our group submitted a poem that was so terrible I thought a third grader had written it. Trite, rhyming, shallow—even I knew this was a disaster. How will our workshop leader handle this? I wondered. Would he say what all of us were thinking?

Instead, without a trace of disingenuousness, he found magic within her work. He pointed to its depth, gave it value, and offered helpful—not overwhelming—suggestions. My friend and I looked at each other, stunned. “The man has a gift,” he whispered.

Two weeks later, on our last night in Greece, this woman presented her poem at the final reading. It was the most memorable piece of the night because I never expected such a transformation. The original poem was unrecognizable—no more kitschy rhymes or trite observations—but details, beautifully worded and specific, that captured our island setting; a turn of phrase that evoked emotion, even laughter; a lingering sense that these words were pulled from her soul and laid bare on the page.

I honestly thought she plagiarized it. Maybe our teacher wrote it for her? I couldn’t believe the same person whose first draft we read wrote such a remarkable poem.

And that, I believe, is the most meaningful lesson I’ve learned in writing.

Both this woman and I transformed our work. My advisor wasn’t wrong to push me to recreate it; the final product was much better than the first. But the way in which she delivered the message, and the way in which the workshop leader in Greece delivered his message, were as different as our first and last drafts.

As a workshop leader myself, I want to empower my writers. This doesn’t mean I stick with flowery praise and avoid criticism, but I demonstrate belief in their talent, their story, and their strength. Even though they “failed,” it is failure seen through a different lens.

The best formula I’ve found for directing conversation is

what’s working

what are my questions or what brought me out of the piece

what suggestions do I have

in that order.

Sometimes I ask, “What does this piece want to be?” Writers can get stuck in ill-suited formats without realizing it, such as the woman in Greece who needed to liberate herself from an AABB rhyme scheme; such as my master’s thesis that needed to abandon the diary format and become a collection of essays; such as the woman in my writing group who needed to compose her story as a memoir instead of a novel.

Sometimes we just need to hear, “You are a good writer. This piece was necessary for your process—now let’s talk about the next step.” If we can frame it as a revision, which is, after all, a re-vision—a new way of seeing the piece—we no longer have to see our work, or ourselves, as failures.

____________________________________

Jenny Currier is a full-time Grecophile and a freelance writer. She regularly contributes to Rhode Island publications, such as Motif Magazine, Providence Monthly, and East Side Monthly, and her stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Sunlight Press, and Vagabond Magazine. Her current aim is to finish a book about Greece through Rebirth Your Book. Follow her on Instagram @travelingfoodwriter and Twitter @jennycurrier.

 

The Cost of Kindness

October 3, 2019 § 24 Comments

“I’m so excited about your new draft,” I say to my dear writer friend.

“Could you just look over my pages?” she asks.

I am delighted to help. She’s a good writer, I like reading her work, she’s read my work and she’ll read it again. I dive into the document and realize there’s a problem—not with her writing, which is solid, but with the dramatic structure. The book starts in the wrong place. I work through the first couple chapters, commenting as I go, editing a few errant sentences along the way, then think through ideas and questions and put them in an order I think will best help her. Everything gets typed up and emailed back.

In my inbox are four people who need information or a connection. I like them all, they all deserve my time. Send-send-send-send.

My husband asks if I’ll tape a voiceover for his company’s training video. No pay. The company has an office in a co-working space, and they have generously invited me to use the co-working space any time I want for free, so this is a no-brainer. I’m grateful to be able to return a favor.

And then it’s 1PM. Still on my list: the due-today manuscript for a paying client, the due-yesterday pages for a paying client, the due-tomorrow pages for a paying client. A workshop to plan. My own book to write. Kindness has cost me the entire morning.

Literary citizenship is important. It’s also time-consuming. If I work from home, I have 7 hours of working day, and I usually do laundry or vacuum in there somewhere (running up and down the stairs is also good for my terrible writing posture). If I’m in the co-working space, I lose another hour to the commute. Roughly half my workday is spent on my wonderful clients’ manuscripts and another quarter on the business of being a writer: website maintenance, social media, blog posts. The last couple hours are the time I have for my own work, which I habitually (unwisely!) put last unless I’m on a deadline. If the deadline is for a client, I don’t do my own writing at all.

I’m not quite at the stage of No I Don’t Want to Read Your Manuscript, but I did add a category to my time tracker: “Kindness.” I’ve started hitting the button to see how long I’m actually “just looking something over for a friend.”

I believe in literary citizenship, and I believe in generosity (I’m a Friday’s Child). I also believe in making deposits into the Bank of Good Will against the day I’ll need to make a withdrawal. But I’ve also started thinking about how to keep doing the kindnesses I value without sacrificing too much of my own time.

  1. Do Less Stuff. I’m an overachiever. But when my writer friend asks for a beta read, they probably don’t want line editing. In fact, too much critique can be worse than too little. Ask before committing: “What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you in the process?”
  2. Do Stuff Faster. Which for me is also, do it more confidently. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t trust my skill/opinion/voice-over ability, so I don’t need to check every step of the way if I’m doing it right. Stop second-guessing every comment. Trust my friends are grown-ups and they know my brand is “Unkind Editor,” so if some of my sentences are phrased less elegantly than I would for a paying client, they’re gonna be OK.
  3. Don’t Do All The Stuff. Just because I’d be good at teaching that class/responding to those pages/critiquing that website doesn’t mean it has to be my job. When someone asks if I have time, it’s OK to say “No, I’m in the middle of another project.” It’s not even my job to direct them to someone else. They have agency, too. I’m not their only friend.
  4. Ask For Stuff. Remember that Bank of Good Will? It’s not an immediate quid pro quo. Literary favors have a long lifespan. When I needed beta readers for my last novel, some of them were people whose book I read 10 years ago. When I needed someone with good social media to promote my writing retreat, I was glad I’d promoted that person’s work for years.

Literary citizenship runs in cycles. We spend a long time helping our friends, then one day the book deal comes and it’s our turn to ask for their eyes, their email lists or their presence at our launch party. Do favors when you have time, say you can’t when you don’t. Your writing friends will understand—just as you would for them.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore at the Rebirth Your Book finish-your-manuscript retreat in Costa Rica, May 2020.

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