February 14, 2020 § 22 Comments
By Sandra Ebejer
I was sitting on the floor of my too-cluttered office, flipping through magazines in the name of “research,” when my six-year-old walked into the room.
“What are you doing, Mommy?”
“I’m just looking at magazines.”
“Oh, right, so you can try to make them better.”
My son is enormously proud of my work. Despite having never read my writing, he is staunch in his conviction that my talent is unparalleled and it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on.
I will admit I’m an ace when it comes to bedtime stories. Our nightly routine involves him providing me with two characters, typically superheroes, and me conjuring up some tale of good overcoming evil. He makes these caped crusaders as ludicrous as possible (“The bad guy is Captain Singer, who sings horribly, and the good guy is Super Fish Man, who uses fish as his powers”), and is astounded when I instantly pull together a yarn that would make Dav Pilkey weep. (For the unfamiliar, Pilkey is the author of the Captain Underpants and Dog Man series, and perhaps the only writer my son feels could rival my artistry.)
When he leaves for school in the morning, he asks what I plan to write that day. When he returns home six hours later, he expects to find a newly-completed novel on the kitchen counter—printed, bound, and wrapped in a full-color cover with my photo on the back. So far, I’ve staved off his disappointment by telling him books take a really, really long time to write but once I’ve finished my novel, he’ll be the first to read it.
The truth, though—what I can’t bring myself to tell him—is that Mommy hasn’t started writing a book. In fact, Mommy may never start writing one because much of the time, she feels like a hack.
Most days, I rarely accomplish anything. I’m busy, but it’s an empty, hollow busy that doesn’t equate to a sense of fulfillment or achievement. I would love to share the reality of my career with my little one, but what could I possibly say?
“Honey, writing is challenging and the idea of tackling an entire book scares Mommy to death. See, Mommy has nearly 70 drafts of essays, articles, and short fiction saved on her computer, most of which will probably never be finished. While you’re reading fun chapter books at school, Mommy is spending her time submitting pitch after pitch to editors and then hitting refresh on her browser in the hopes that just one of them will respond. When they don’t, Mommy drowns her sorrows in chocolate and famous author rejection letters, telling herself that if J.K. Rowling could make it big after being snubbed hundreds of times, then dammit, she will too. Then Mommy pops on over to Twitter to share her newfound, albeit brief, spark of confidence with her fellow #WritingCommunity members, ignoring the irony of crafting a Tweet about perseverance as a way to avoid actual writing. Then Mommy repeats the process. So, see, honey? A book is a bit out of Mommy’s league right now.”
I don’t want to tell my son this is how I spend my time. I can’t tell him Mommy is racked with crippling self-doubt and a persistent fear that her work will never be published. At least not until he’s in third grade.
So, for now, I hide my truth. My son thinks Mommy is writing a book. He thinks Mommy is fixing the magazines. He thinks Mommy is, and I quote, “The best storyteller in the world.”
Why ruin that narrative? I’ll go on playing the role of full-time writer extraordinaire. I’ll continue imbuing his made-up characters with life and craft bedtime stories full of tension, rich descriptions, and as much of a narrative arc as I can muster, given the limitations of a fish-wielding superhero. I won’t shush him when he tells his friends and teachers that “Mommy’s writing is in all the newspapers,” and I’ll nod and smile when he asks how my book is coming along.
I’ll let him continue to think I’m a top-notch writer whose talents know no bounds.
Because maybe, slowly, his unconditional confidence in my abilities will rub off on me, and someday I’ll think these things, too.
Sandra Ebejer lives in upstate New York with her husband, son, and two cats who haven’t figured out how to get along. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, FLOOD Magazine, The Girlfriend from AARP, Motherfigure, Folks, 50-Word Stories, and Across the Margin. Read more of her work at www.sandraebejer.com.
February 11, 2020 § 10 Comments
Thank you for your submission. We’d like to publish your essay.
The words every writer wants to hear. And yet…
I’d submitted the essay to a contest. I’d gotten free entry to the contest by participating in a thing, because I don’t normally pay to submit my work. I had not won the contest. In fact, I hadn’t heard who’d won until I looked up the results. But now, the nonfiction editor really liked my piece and would like to publish it.
The contest first prize: $500
What the magazine paid for non-contest publication: $0
I agonized about this in a writers’ group. I felt good about the piece, proud of it. Was it better to take the offer of publication, or to give myself the obligation of submitting to other, paying markets?
Money isn’t the only reason I write, although for me, and at least some other writers, whether or not a venue pays is a primary consideration when determining where to send my work. I also don’t believe that money is a determiner of “good writing.” Many things can identify good writing: whether or not a writer publishes, whether they have the good opinion of other writers or the approval of their teachers, whether they feel good themselves about work that shows growth, that they’re proud of. But simply getting paid is not an indicator of quality writing. Nor is reaching a wide readership.
(Fifty Shades of Grey: roughly 125 million copies sold. The Empathy Exams: 80,000 copies sold.)
Even publication itself is no guarantee of quality. Some writers are published due to gumption, drive, persistence, connections, genre, subject matter, and sheer luck. It is not external validation that determines the quality of our work or anyone else’s. So why do I care whether or not I get paid?
Cash vs. Stuff.
Every job an artist takes, every piece of creative work we make, leads to cash or stuff.
Early-career writers need stuff. Resume credits. Journal titles to list as “work forthcoming in…” in cover letters and queries. Social media clicks and comments, the ego-strokes of seeing our name in print and knowing we wrote something a stranger liked—loved! Showing our mom a magazine and thinking, I did not either waste my time in college.
But mid-career artists need cash. Cash lets us spend less time working our day job, because a $200 check can cover 4-20 hours, depending on what we do. Cash lets us buy Scrivener to organize our manuscript, or upgrade to that pretty Macbook Air so we can write at little Susie’s soccer game. Cash lets us sit in Starbucks all afternoon on a $4 latte while we type-type-type away. Cash buys conferences to connect with agents, and workshops to learn from writers who are a bigger deal than ourselves.
As our work progresses, we need a balance of cash and better stuff. Publication isn’t enough—we want to move from mid-level literary journals to big names, or make the jump to mass media. We want to spend our time drafting a whole book instead of revising an essay for $50. Or if we’re revising the essay, we want it to appear where readers and social clicks are counted in the hundreds of thousands, where we might be noticed by an agent, or somewhere we could be chosen/nominated for an award.
If we’re lucky and privileged, perhaps living somewhere with a low cost of living or with a fully-employed corporate spouse, or on sabbatical, we can focus our search on better stuff, fueled by the safety of having enough cash.
As I debated whether to accept the offer of publication in the journal that didn’t pay, one of the wisest writers I know, Joanne Lozar Glenn, offered another take: Were this journal’s readers my best audience? Was this a chance to share work that would make a difference to an audience that needed to read it?
Joanne’s words helped me decide. The journal, as beautiful as it was, as much as I respected and admired their work and their aesthetic, as much as my essay harmonized with their goals, did not have the size of readership I sought for a piece I cared this strongly about. (Note: I am not that important, but I am that vain.) Giving up a sure thing, a welcome home, was worth the risk of the essay going unpublished, or the hassle of sending it out to more journals. I’d rather take a chance for more cash, or better stuff.
The value of cash vs stuff can only be calculated by the recipient. Your small potatoes may be the largest check another writer has ever received. Your prestigious journal may be someone else’s safety submission. Think about what you need, what makes you feel good, what advances your career. What will make you feel you’ve profited.
Cash, or stuff?
February 4, 2020 § 10 Comments
Around the publication, fury, backpedaling, and consistent sales of American Dirt, another issue has arisen. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to tell it first? Who gets to tell it with the support of the publishing industry?
Publishing’s whiteness is a problem. Publishing’s classism is a problem. These barriers deprive readers of color literary experiences similar to their own, as well as denying people of privilege the opportunity of discovery of other lives without burdening our friends with “please teach me to be better, person of color!” If we don’t publish, purchase and support books from marginalized communities, we are all poorer for it.
But springing from the issue of a previously-white-identifying author’s romantic thriller poorly marketed as a defining literary and cultural experience comes another problem: seeing a story like one’s own and assuming it’s been appropriated.
Responding to the American Dirt controversy, and expanding on her personal experience as a WOC publishing and marketing her memoir, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz wrote in Gay Mag:
When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal…I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to… It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.
Excavation, published in 2014, is an adult woman looking back on a five-year sexual relationship that started between her eighth-grade self and her adult English teacher, and trying to reconcile the youthful feelings of “a ‘relationship’ with a man I loved” with the adult realization that the relationship was abusive and harmful.
My Dark Vanessa, just published, is a novel about a woman who “suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?”
Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like…
Tiger Tiger (2011) describes the relationship between author Margaux Fragoso, then prepubescent, who meets a 51-year-old-man who “tunes into her likes and dislikes with exquisite enthusiasm, with the result that she comes to see him as a soul mate. The unwavering laser of his attention makes her feel wanted and alive. In a prologue to her [memoir], the adult Margaux writes that spending time with a paedophile ‘can be like a drug high.’ In her own case, it was a drug she was unable to give up.”
Huh. Oh, wait, maybe the one I’m thinking of is a movie?
In The Tale (2018) Jennifer Fox is in her 40s when her mother discovers an essay, written when Jennifer was 13, about a “relationship” with her adult coach. Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, dismisses her mother’s concern, but after re-reading the essay Jennifer looks back on her life. While she remembers herself being older and sophisticated, she discovers old photos showing how small and childlike she was. The movie is based on the director (Jennifer Fox)’s own life.
Or that other movie, An Education, based on Lynn Barbor’s 2003 essay for Granta, her 2009 essay for The Guardian and her memoir about being seduced by an older man at age 16, and shown the sparkling life of cosmopolitan London before realizing her ‘boyfriend’ was a married con man?
Or maybe the plots of all these women’s stories just ring true for me, because ten years ago, I looked back and thought, Maybe that 28-year-old dating 15-year-old me did not have my best interests at heart…but I’m still friends with the 45-year-old who dated 18-year-old me, so what’s the difference?
It’s (sadly) not uncommon to look back as an adult and realize a childhood/very-young-adulthood relationship we believed ourselves an active participant in was not as subject to our own volition as we thought. It’s not uncommon to feel that we gained some positive things from unequal and abusive relationships. It’s less common to write a whole book about it, but I still wouldn’t call four books and two movies in the space of ten years (off the top of my head) rare.
It is not sour grapes to advocate for representation, or even to point out that a memoir by a woman of color was a harder sell than a novel about the same subject, seven years later, by a white author. Those are valid, important and necessary concerns. But when we look for the reasons one book was more embraced by publishing than another, it’s usually not “somebody stole my life.”
As memoirists, we are constantly mining our own experience to find an original telling of a universal tale. It is not our life’s singularity, but the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new. A truly one-of-a-kind story might not even resonate with readers, because part of the value of memoir is seeing ourselves in someone else’s world. True stories change lives because they show, You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who felt like that. You’re not the only one that happened to.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Find her on Instagram for true stories that may be just like yours.
January 29, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Julie E. Ferris-Tillman
I’m a writer but pay the big bills with a senior leadership job in communication. I was recently laid off from said job and am now over 40 and on the job market. Friends and colleagues all expressed hope and care when saying “well now you have time to write.” True, but my writing has been dozens and dozens of cover letters, resumes and phrases engineered to meet character counts for talent management software systems. I am proof that you can exhaust “Tell us why you’re qualified in 250 characters or less” as a writing prompt.
My new narrative is my own life, but in a less interesting format than the memoir I’m crafting. I’m suddenly writing some of the most formulaic nonfiction of my life for voiceless, faceless machines on the other side of application systems. My cyborg self has embraced a new prose shaped as follows:
Dearest hiring manager,
[Please note, I searched for who might be the hiring manager for this job and spent an hour on social media hunting down executives of this company and cannot find the right one. The only email is email@example.com so I want you to know I did my due diligence and tried, but here, you get only a generic hail. Apologies.]
I write you a clever lead here about how much I love your company or connecting to some jaunty phrase in your job ad, maybe even matching your recruiter’s prose exclamation point by exclamation point. Then, per age-old form, I explain where I learned of this specific job [enter title here like a MadLib: Manager/Director/Vice President [of] Public Relations/Marketing/Storytelling/Communication].
I am of course, qualified. The reality is I’m over qualified but your job ad asked for no less than 23 bulleted skills and to address each of them, not knowing which may be your or your talent software management system’s favorite, I will try to touch briefly on my experience with each without making it clear to you you’ve asked for three distinct professionals to absorb one role. Lucky for you, I’m a generalist and have done all of these things. Managing people is also my superpower. And I’m a woman, something very good for your diversity hiring initiatives your website proclaims and a useful weapon in battling the cries of “old boys’ network” on company review sites.
Then, there’s something light I meant to tell you about my history with your company or your product. I’m sure I’ve used it or your company was something my grandpa told me about or once your product saved me in a pinch and now, in the grand circle of life, I write prostrate before you, asking to again be a part of your brand.
And, to wrap up this homage to my skills and beg for some sort of human interaction with feedback and voices and nonverbal cues so you can meet me and like me and we can talk and you can see my business professional dress and my table manners, I will add that I also have far more education than you asked for, am able to start immediately and will propose a couple of pathways for your [MadLib #2: content generation/social platforms/community engagement/news making] in the new year.
I am able to discuss this further at your earliest convenience.
Julie E. Ferris-Tillman [MadLib #3: Ph.D./ ]
Julie E. Ferris-Tillman, Ph.D., is a writer, comedian and dog rescuer who lives in Milwaukee, WI. She teaches at Marquette University and blogs at www.marytylermilwaukee.com. She’s been the writer-in-residence at the historic Pfister Hotel and has been creating content and writing copy for ad agencies for more than a decade. She’s currently an ethnographer of her neighborhood dive bar.
January 3, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
When I was 15 years old, I moved with my family from Connecticut back to the small town in Ecuador where I was born. I knew that leaving my childhood home would have a myriad of consequences, but I never imagined that one of those would be depriving me of access to a library. In my naïveté, I thought that all countries and cities had libraries like the ones I spent time in while growing up, attending art classes, going to author events, accompanying my mom to her ESL lessons, and losing myself in the book in front of me. But just like that, I got on a plane, and that privilege was gone.
Though Ecuador has libraries, very few of them allow you to borrow books. My hometown had a small municipal library with outdated, fraying books, but borrowing wasn’t an option. Instead, there were open markets by unused train tracks where you could buy books. Many of them were religious books, all in Spanish, and each priced at one or two dollars. There was no author’s name or publisher listed, just the cover and the start of the book on the first page. I had seen bootleg DVDs and CDs, but it was the first time I had ever encountered a bootleg book. My parents offered to buy me what I wanted, but I said no. I could touch them, but they weren’t real.
One of the agreements with my parents when we moved was that I would go back to Ecuador only if my dog and all my books came with us. The books arrived to the port of Guayaquil a few months after we settled in. When I opened the boxes, it felt like Christmas, my birthday, and a gift from the universe wrapped all in one to keep me sane. I reread and reread those books for the seven years I stayed in Ecuador. My personal library grew a bit every time I went to Guayaquil and purchased another book. I had to carefully pick the ones I wanted to add to the collection since I no longer had the privilege of taking ten books home and bringing them back weeks later.
In 2012, when I was 22, I moved back to Connecticut, with only one suitcase and a carry-on bag to stuff all the clothes I needed to once more start a new life in another country. There was no space for the books I took to Ecuador or for the ones that were added to my collection over the years, so I picked the one book from my collection that was a mix of English and Spanish: Buffalo Bill ha muerto by E.E. Cummings, translated by José Casas. It’s one of my favorite books, anthologizing Cumming’s poetry from 1910 to 1962 with the original English poem on one page and the Spanish translation on the other. This book would serve as a reminder of where I came from and where I was heading.
I arrived to the U.S. unemployed, but I knew I didn’t need to afford books in order to have access to them. I immediately began to take advantage of my local library just where I had left off. I had to wait until I could prove I was a resident of the town so I borrowed a family member’s library card. Then I borrowed books like I was hoarding them. I attended informational sessions on applying for health insurance at the library. I renewed my passport there. I also went to free book events while I looked for a job. I read magazines I couldn’t afford to buy. I read books that had been on my to-read list for years. For the first few months, I lived with three others in a one-bedroom apartment and the library was the only place where I could get some silence and solace.
Just a few months ago, a friend and translator reached out to me with the following question: “How do you call the borrowing system libraries have in the United States?” What an odd question. “We just call them libraries,” I said. Yes, she explained, but the translation she was working on would be intended for audiences in Ecuador, and she wanted to make it clear that this particular library was an anomaly because it in fact had a “book lending program.” The memories came rushing back, and it spurred me to donate to my local library.
I then tallied up the library events I had been part of in the last year. I was a volunteer at Love All Project’s Community Storycast event in the Norwalk Library. I took a memoir workshop at the Greenwich Library by Joan Motyka. I participated in my first poetry writing workshop this past summer at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT led by Sally Bliumis-Dunn. Some of my published essays and many of the stories in my draft folders have come from inspiration from those workshops and the people I met.
Even though now I have a collection of books stored in my home, I go to the library at least once a week. As a reader and writer, the library is not a place I will ever take for granted. Someone asked me recently what places I love the most, and I said the mountains, the beach, and the library. It might have come off as a bizarre response, but for me entering a library has always felt like coming home.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.
December 4, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
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.
At 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