May 6, 2021 § 22 Comments
My MFA taught me a lot about writing. It didn’t teach me jack about publishing. Yet somehow, I published. I queried. I got an agent. I’m publishing again. And through all that, I became someone who gets paid to teach people how to write and publish. I can tell authors how to write a query, when to send it and to whom. I can say why a manuscript is too short, what can be cut if it’s too long, and how to save a thousand dollars on editing with fixes you can do yourself in a (very intense) weekend. I can even make you like social media—and discover why you don’t really need quite so much of it.
I acquired this information long after I finished my MFA, and I got most of it for free. Two years before my first round of querying, I began reading 8 different agent blogs, going back in the archives a couple posts at a time until I’d read their entire blogs. In the process, I saw how publishing evolved 1998-2010, and learned whose taste (and advice) had been proven right. Since then, I’ve broadened my sources, keeping current with publishing news, platform-building trends, and writing techniques so I can share what I know with you.
Unless you’re also planning on becoming an editor/coach of both fiction and memoir, you don’t need to know everything I know. But you do need to know a lot. Fortunately, most of what you need is already available online, where you can access a wealth of writing, editing, platform and publishing information at your convenience, in your pajamas, for (mostly) free.
Sources I recommend:
Writer Beware! the Blog covers publishing bad practices and scams, and they aren’t afraid to name names with documentation. Read as far back in the archives as you can, and you’ll know how to avoid existing scams and recognize new ones.
The #Amwriting podcast gives useful and specific information about the writing process, publishing and marketing from a literary agent, two authors, and a variety of special guests. Lively and fun listening!
While Query Shark (dormant, but excellent archives) focuses on fiction queries, watching how queries evolve from terrible to “send now!” and seeing common mistakes will teach you to improve your own.
Kate McKean’s Agents and Books newsletter has both free and paid versions ($5/month). Past newsletters include advice on querying, the parts of a book contract, and what to do when there’s a mistake in your book’s online listing.
Want writing assignments to magically appear in your inbox? Here they come! The Story and Spark newsletter offers biweekly craft lessons with a short story and a writing prompt. Matt Bell’s newsletter offers monthly writing exercises with wonderful context.
Jane Friedman offers frequent, inexpensive webinars (usually $25) focusing on different aspects of writing and publishing, with handouts, recordings, and Q&A. (My next one, Memoir From Memory, is May 27)
Creative Nonfiction magazine offers inexpensive webinars (usually $15-25) on writing and publishing, especially for those with a more literary bent. Upcoming topics include daily writing practice, incorporating details, and my own Writing Powerful Sentences.
It’ll take more of your time, but volunteer as a reader for your favorite literary magazine (just email them and ask when/if they need readers). Nothing will teach you more about the submission process, and what makes engaging writing, than seeing what actually arrives in a literary inbox.
The weekly Virtual Author & Writer Events newsletter lists free and paid readings, classes, workshops, talks and author interviews. (You can list your own events, too!)
The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, biweekly on Zoom, covers publishing, self-promotion and writing better, and includes networking time with other writers, and a lively chat box each episode. The May 11 episode will focus on querying.
The gentle, Canadian podcast And She Looked Up Creative Hour, aimed at visual artists, has process, selling, and writing-life advice. Start with Episode 18: How to Get a Book Deal when Nobody Knows Who You Are.
Jane Friedman’s Sunday Business Sermons: Part of her service to the community, Jane’s a publishing expert sharing what’s made her successful, from mailing lists to online courses to how she gets everything done. Watch the replays on Facebook.
People who want to sell you something: Very often, experts and coaches offer free introductory webinars—usually about 30-45 minutes of information and another 20-25 minutes of “buy my services.” Social posting apps like Tailwind and Preview send regular newsletters with tips and tricks for using and enjoying Instagram. You might want their services eventually, but you can access the free information now. Websearch [topic I want to know about] + “free webinar” or “free training” and you’ll be amazed what pops up.
You can start reading/watching/listening casually, or plan a curriculum for yourself with regular times to learn, do additional research, and blog or write from your new information. However you do it, work self-education into your routine. I listen to Jane Friedman while I do the dishes; literary podcasts in the car. I bought a seated exercise bike so I can pedal while catching up on social media and newsletters (sorry, Peleton-eers).
Whether or not you have an MFA, educating yourself about publishing is a largely self-driven process. The truth is out there. It’s (mostly) free. And it’s up to you to find it.
Tell us in the comments who you love for writing and publishing info!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to learn what she knows? Writing, editing, publishing and platform consultations can be booked here.
May 4, 2021 § 29 Comments
By Morgan Baker
The world is slowly opening, and we’re all trying to figure out what’s safe to do. I’ve started seeing notices and ads announcing writing retreats coming up in different locales – Italy, Florida, Cuba and Newfoundland – and notices about residencies to which a writer can apply to work in solitude and join others for meals.
I, for one, am not going to a movie theater any time soon, let alone any residencies, retreats or workshops in far-off lands. I have always looked at those writing havens with envy. I live outside of Boston and fantasize about warmer climates where I could write and converse with other writers. But, I can’t afford them, nor could I really leave my teaching job to go write in Costa Rica. But while we were all locked in our houses and everyone took to the internet, this pandemic gave me a writing community – something I’ve never really had, and I’ve been at this work for a while. I am not a big self-promoter and I’m not particularly good at inserting myself in others’ lives.
Not only did I zoom with my stepfather and my coffee group in the past twelve months, I have taken more writing classes and gone to more workshops and seminars than ever before. I took classes with instructors I had only dreamed of working with. I signed on to the Writers’ Bridge “platform chat” and every two weeks listened to what Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard had to share with the writers there – more than 200 of us – about social media, getting blurbs for your book, how to be a good literary citizen, and how to write effective social posts. I am in a bi-monthly Zoom workshop with a teacher I’ve worked with in asynchronous classes, but I’d never seen her face. She’d had in-person workshops in the Pacific Northwest or Hawaii, to which I could not go. Now I discuss my writing projects with her and a few other writers in kitchens and home offices. We have become friends and critical readers.
I have learned from a literary agent’s seminar to concentrate on one of my writing projects. I worked on a piece about my pandemic quilting with a teacher in New York City, and placed the essay later. I wrote yet another piece comparing quilting to writing that also found a home, here. In yet another workshop, I was encouraged to write with humor. So far I’ve failed at that.
I met more writers through Instagram and workshops. I don’t know any of them in “real” life, but I am connected to them through their writing, and their books have illuminated new stories and deepened my understanding of the world.
I joined Facebook groups, where I stalk and read, but rarely post. I created a mini writing group that meets every three weeks. We live in Massachusetts, Ohio and Montreal. I joined another group that meets most Fridays as a drop-in session. In January I closed the door to my home office keeping my husband, daughter and dog out so I could focus, committing myself to a virtual retreat all day for 5 days. It was so successful, I’ve signed up for another one. While we weren’t all lounging on a Costa Rican patio, we were in each others’ homes. One writer’s background was a pile of packing boxes, others sat in bedrooms and kitchens. Some had home offices that looked tidier than mine. These “visits” are probably the closest I’ll get to sitting in a warm climate, staring at a view of mountains or the sea.
Before the pandemic, I offered private writing workshops in my house, in addition to my college teaching. I engaged with the writers who drank tea and discussed their work at my dining room table where my dog came to say hi every meeting. Then the world stopped, and I moved my workshops from my table to my Zoom account. I’ve had participants from California, Rhode Island and Cambodia. I will continue these even when we’re all back to hugging one another.
While the world shrank and slowed down, I’ve been busier than ever with my writing. I’m in my sunny yellow home office all the time. I’m either teaching my college classes, writing, editing for the web magazine I work for, or connecting with other writers.
I hate the pandemic, don’t get me wrong. My father-in-law died from Covid, I don’t see my friends, and I haven’t seen my father in over a year. Recently, I was able to hug my stepfather. He and his partner have been holed up in their home, going for lots of walks, playing the recorder, and futzing on the computer, but isolated. Now all vaccinated, we sat at their dining room table for dinner and talked. It felt so right and so weird.
I’m glad the CDC has said I don’t have to wear a mask all the time, but I probably will until I can trust that those unvaccinated are still wearing theirs. But when writers start drifting away from their computers to fly to glamorous in-person retreats, I will wish them well – and wave them on from the ground.
Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket. Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.
April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments
Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:
Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…
Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…
Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…
“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?
And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?
Set clear ground rules.
Ask writers what they need.
Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.
Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”
Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?
Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.
Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”
If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:
I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?
Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?
Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.
Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.
Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!
Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.
Approach it like an assignment:
This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?
I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.
Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.
Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?
Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!
On Continuing to Love and Support My Favorite Literary Journals That Have Rejected Me and Knowing When It’s Time to Cancel
April 7, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Melody Heide
The short essay took several years, dozens of drafts, and multiple peer critiques but finally, finally, it felt ready—the last image, the last metaphor clicked into place to make the whole thing come together in what felt like, to me, a satisfying read.
I sent it out to my top four literary journals—the ones I subscribe to, the ones I read cover to cover, the ones I felt might be a good home for this little essay. Four literary journals is my own personal magic number right now; it is what I have the time and resources for and this past year I decided to try and only submit to the literary journals I regularly read and support.
Rejections came quickly from three of them; I was sad and disappointed but also, if I’m honest, angry. I’ve financially supported these journals for years! I bought gift subscriptions! I talked them up on social media! I even went to journal sponsored conferences! I felt that dangerous You owe me.
I dwelled in this cocktail of hurt feelings for over a week. I thought, I’ll show you! I’ll stop subscribing, I’ll stop reading, I’ll stop sharing. But when I toyed with this decision a wave of grief came —I truly love these journals.
These journals have enlivened my interior life; they’ve given me poems and stories that I’ve returned to over and over, that I’ve shared with friends and with students. They’ve provided opportunities through conferences and workshops for time and space to work on my own writing, to work with brilliant writers and thinkers. In those places and spaces I’ve made life-long friends.
I do not subscribe and support these journals solely because if I do so they’ll publish my work (though of course I hope they will); first and foremost I subscribe and support because they give to the world beauty, thoughtfulness, and a diversity of voices and perspectives. I’ll continue honing my work—I’d still like to see my writing in their pages—but, at least through a cycle of three rejections, I’ll also continue reading, sharing, supporting, and attending conferences and classes.
Yes, a cycle of three rejections. I have given myself another rule because I believe boundaries are important, I believe it’s essential to protect time and resources, and I believe in believing your own work is good and worthy of publication—after the third rejection from each journal, I re-evaluate. Perhaps the things I’m writing do not fit with the aesthetic of the journal, perhaps it’s time to start looking elsewhere, perhaps it’s time to discover a new journal, a new world, a new place for my writing to hopefully call home.
The relationship between a writer and a literary journal is a strange one. Who owes who what? Literary journals can’t survive without subscriptions and support and it’s hard for writers, who generally aren’t getting paid, to survive, to grow, without validation and encouragement. You owe me feels icky—an internalized, Americanized type of transactional relationship. But writers want and need to publish and literary journals want and need subscribers. Even though the literary journal can’t survive without its subscribers, it still holds most of the power.
And that’s why my rules for submitting, subscribing, and knowing when it’s time to cancel and start discovering other literary journals makes sense for me right now. I don’t want to unsubscribe out of anger or even out of a flex for power; I want to say thank you for what you’ve given me, maybe it’s time for me to discover something new.
Melody Heide’s writing has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Switchback Magazine, and the anthology Love & Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise, and Intense Tales of Teenage Life. She lives in Minnesota and teaches writing classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
February 26, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Anandi Mishra
Growing up 400 kilometers from the capital of India, Delhi, in an erstwhile industrial town Kanpur, I barely had any access to books that were out of my school syllabus. This was the early- and mid-nineties and all I had access to was a massive school library, its walls lined with books by legendary British writers. These, bequeathed to us by our colonial heritage, were a universe that kept me engaged for an entire decade. I relished in the works of authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling because I did not know any other authors. With age we were supposed to move forward to reading Mills and Boon or the novels of Danielle Steel. Discovering any titles other than these would have to happen on our own time, in a different set of circumstances and perhaps with access to a different library.
After a certain age, we were just not supposed to read books. There was no time to be wasted in honor of a creative impulse. If you were seen with a novel in hand you would be berated for wasting time.
When Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things, it caused a tiny stirring. I was barely six years old at the time, probably reading Wordsworth and Eliot during our hour-long weekly library classes in school. Little did I know that when I would encounter the book about a decade later, it would positively change my world.
Every time I try to recall the moment when I first wished to be a writer, it’s a blur. By the age of 17, I was reading one book or another every week, buying them from expensive franchise bookstores in a mall in the university city where I now lived. Clueless about the things to read, with no one to guide I would end up buying not so scintillating titles like Conversations with God. During a vacation in the south Indian coastal town of Kanyakumari in 2008, I remember ambling alone by the beach and coming across a vendor selling two or three different books from the Chicken Soup for the Soul section. They cost a meagre INR20 each. I bought them all and polished them off during my few days there. After this, I would graduate to reading all of Paulo Coelho’s books. Within a few months, I was through with all these fancy foreign titles, but the thirst within remained unquenched. That is when I was gifted a secondhand, cheap reprint copy of The God of Small Things by an uncle. I was 19 or 20 years old then and I remember inhaling the book in a couple of days. It gave me confidence that the kind of writing I wanted to do was possible and that there were writers I could look up to.
None of what I read before and after came even remotely close to the magic of visual imagery painted by Roy. As much as I wanted to read other writers like her, there were not many easily available. That is not to say that good books were not being written by Indians in English language. There just existed a yawning gap between them and the readers in provincial small-town India. With the advent of literary festivals, book fairs, and book talks, I expected new avenues and important resources to open for readers like me. Instead, with the proliferation of the internet, these worlds continue to exist on farther ends of the spectrum, with literary activity limited to big cities, and certain books exclusively for journalists and people with access to travel.
Cashing on this lag, opportunistic writers with MBAs, engineering degrees and finance brothers, make merry. They write simple, basic novels about banal things in the lives of people in small towns in India and market them through social media, so that these titles are eventually sold everywhere, from online stores to makeshift roadside stalls, to railway stations and newspaper stalls. They sell between INR100 and INR200, which would be less than $2 U.S., and make for comfortable reads. They sell in vast numbers and then go on to be adapted as movies. While these books thrive, there is little or no criticism of their quality. Mainstream English language book critics sit tight, waiting for the next Salman Rushdie title to drop. There is no barometer against which those writers should be measured, and so, they continue to thrive despite what is sometimes utterly below average writing.
The more famous, big publishing house authors who do care about the craft continue to write books that have no way of reaching readers. They move overseas, teach in universities, look to make life better for themselves, leaving little or nothing for their readers here. Their absence contributes to the existing lack of nonfiction and fiction workshops, classes, fellowships, mentorships and other such helpful and vital resources in the Indian literary ecosystem. Any budding writer looking to understand how to make it as a writer, or even where to start off, is faced with a vacuum. As a result of extreme apathy, general callousness and selfishness, there is a lack of a true literary community that could otherwise protect and support a writer. Most novelists are heavily online but continue to stay out of reach. To be able to even secure a famous writer’s email address one has to juggle through contacts and connections.
Earlier this month this tweet by Indian journalist and writer Annie Zaidi found me hapless. I agree with her on the fact that there is a serious lack of literary magazines in India. In my last ten months of publishing, whatever little I have interacted with Indian literary magazines, my experience has been shoddy. Most of them don’t pay, don’t edit, heck, don’t even inform when your article is up on their website. They call their magazines “a labor of love” using that as an excuse for unprofessionalism. Since a lot of readers don’t know about these almost anonymous magazines, the editors continue to exploit earnest writers for cheap labor. As writer and literary critic Kalyan Raman replied to Zaidi’s tweet, “Perhaps tangential, but we need literary zines in English to build a more participatory literary culture and to engender a critical discourse that is unafraid of the gatekeeping establishment. In other words, to show up our own entrenched mediocrities and make space for the new.”
As much as I agree with Raman, there is something to be said for the shoddiness of the existing literary culture in India. As a nation we are enmeshed in the beautiful culture of reading and writing, and a lot of kids continue to aspire and dream to be writers in a third world country like ours. Instead of making it seem like an unattainable goal or punishing them for harboring dreams, the existing literati should focus on creating a space that fosters the minds of young and existing readers and writers. A reading population is a thinking population, and is needed all the more now, in a world that is rapidly going to right-wing hell.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. She tweets at @anandi010. You can read more of her writing here.
February 23, 2021 § 17 Comments
By Judith Colp Rubin
Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop in an exotic foreign country co-taught by two well-known female American writers. Billed as a retreat suitable for prose beginners and veterans, it promised to motivate people to write. It turned out to do the opposite.
The first day, when everyone had assembled outside in a circle, the air smelling of orchids and roasted coffee, the main instructor began workshopping the first piece. The instructor’s tone quickly grew negative as she pointed out the flaws in the piece, which certainly needed some work. But for the entire half-hour critique, the instructor didn’t praise a single aspect of the participant’s deeply personal words and suggested a top to bottom rewrite. As the days unfolded, both instructors tore into other participants’ work, including mine. I had written about finding a memoir written by my estranged grandfather, an experience that had affected me deeply. There’s nothing interesting about finding a family memoir, the main instructor said. Afterwards, I cried for a long time in my lovely bungalow, feeling that although I had made a living as a reporter, I was a terrible writer.
To make matters worse, both instructors praised the work of some of the participants. These writers formed a clique of teachers’ pets who, together with the instructors, sat together in the dining room and stayed up late drinking at night. I felt I was revisiting my darkest days of high school. And so it continued throughout the retreat’s 10 days. Those of us who’d been slammed returned home feeling we needed a good hug and another vacation. The first participant to be workshopped decided to give up writing altogether. I strongly considered doing so.
As this was my first adult writing workshop, I had no idea whether such harsh treatment was par for the course. With trepidation, I signed up for an Introduction to Fiction class at my local writers’ center. But the teacher fulsomely praised everyone. He told me that my short story, the first I’d written in over 40 years, reminded him of Tobias Wolfe. I knew he was exaggerating — I mean, really — but the compliment gave me the motivation to continue writing fiction and even eventually to get back to creative non-fiction.
I have since taken about 50 writing classes in person and online and attended other writing retreats. I never again experienced what happened at that first retreat; if I had I probably wouldn’t have written another word. Instead, I received excellent advice on how to rework my pieces, but all within the context of pointing out what I’d done right.
Recently, I participated in an online Flash Fiction class taught by Kathy Fish. It took me four tries to get into this class which always booked up immediately when it was made available on a first come first serve basis. After having her server crash, Kathy switched to a lottery system. When I started the class, I hoped not only to learn about this genre but also to understand why this class was so popular. The teacher was excellent as were the exercises she provided. But there was, I think, another crucial factor. Kathy made clear she would only allow positive feedback to be given about all the pieces. Any piece can be better edited, she explained, but in her experience, positivity brought out the best writing in participants. By the interest in her classes, it seems to be working.
At times I’ve wondered whether the excessive praise was too much. I’ve read pieces whose authors might have benefited from some tough love and total rewrites. But I’ve seen how some positive feedback can give a writer dignity and enable them to focus on their weaknesses.
It’s been almost 50 years since I received my first encouraging words as a writer, but the incident remains clear in my mind. My third-grade teacher had underlined a phrase I had written in a story: “The cat’s eyes were gleaming,” and had written “excellent!” underneath. That one word probably more than anything made a writer out of me.
Judith Colp Rubin is a writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.
February 22, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Graev Lipson
After my son was born, I emailed my college writing teacher to share the news, eager to bring her along with me into this new life stage. Once, she’d been the notoriously intimidating professor whose name got passed around among Cornell’s English majors. But after three semesters in her classroom, over nearly two decades of emails that ebbed and flowed, through my own writing and teaching career, she’d become to me, simply, Lydia: mentor, voice of conscience, distant lighthouse. It’d been almost a year since our last contact, and this milestone had left me searching for my coordinates.
When I first met Lydia Fakundiny, my world had turned, without warning, to confusion. My parents’ marriage imploded, and they wouldn’t say why. I gained twenty pounds, watching my body swell into rolling hills. And then I lost forty, watching it shrink into skeletal valleys. I took secret gulps of cinnamon liqueur before leaving my room, certain I was unfit for the world without them. I didn’t know what was happening—just that the person I once was had disappeared.
In this state, I found myself in Lydia’s course The Art of the Essay, gathered at a table with eleven classmates. There was the notorious professor on the first day, seated before a stack of books. Her dark hair fell at an angle to her chin; her forehead was creased by years of thought. She didn’t smile—not quite. “I have no syllabus,” she said. “We’ll need to invent this path together.”
I’d always known the “essay” as something five paragraphs long that I wrote to prove to teachers what they wanted proven. Lydia showed us what an essay could be: the journey of the mind pushing, on paper, through uncertainty. She read to us from the masters—Baldwin, Woolf, Didion, Walker—and their words passing through her took on profound urgency. I listened closer than I’d known one could listen, hitching my way on these words to a place where things made sense.
Meaning, I learned, had an architecture. A sentence, depending how it was built, could crack the heart open like a cathedral door, or leave it numb as a concrete cell. Tentative, I wrote my first essay. Lydia returned my ten pages with two pages of typed comments, and I discovered the exhilaration of being taken seriously. I wrote another essay, and then another. A sliver of path opened. I saw I was in the middle of a living paragraph—one that I could write my way out of.
When fear stopped me from registering for her higher-level course, Lydia called demanding to know why I wasn’t on her roster. When my grandparents went missing at my graduation, she slipped off in her regalia to track down the campus police. When I told her I’d landed an interview at a New York City magazine, she gestured toward my gingham dress: “I hope,” she said, “that you won’t be wearing that.” I heard this not as judgment, but devotion.
Years later, I sat at seminar tables with my own English students, discussing essays I’d discussed with Lydia, assigning them her assignments. “Read it like it matters!” I urged them before they shared work aloud, just as she once urged me. Teach them like they matter, I told myself, advice she’d never actually uttered because she didn’t need to.
Late at night, I saw that my email to Lydia had bounced back. Maybe her address had changed? I Googled her. What appeared was impossible to absorb: her name, so familiar and indelible, hovering in bold letters above an obituary. Survived by her brothers. In lieu of flowers. My heart stumbled over the phrases.
I had missed her by one month. While I’d been sleeping, sorting mail, wandering the grocery aisles, she had been ill, and then dying, and then gone. There were no calls in the middle of the night, no relatives mobilizing in my kitchen, no guests to welcome to a shiva. There was just me on my couch, shame over my oblivion, grief over all I’d taken and never given back.
I thought of tracking down her brothers, or writing a testimonial on the funeral home’s comment wall. But neither of these felt right. Instead, my infant son blinking beside me, I wrote her one last email, thanking her for helping me understand, through the art of writing, the art of living. I pressed “send” and watched it disappear, a burst of pixels swirling away like dust.
My son’s fist was a curled seashell. His tiny chest rose and fell. I promised him a lifetime of mattering, in honor and memory of her.
Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, The Hudson Review, Hippocampus, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays about motherhood. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.
February 12, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Debra Moffitt
It’s easier than you think to romance a writer. A writer wants what any intimate partner wants, with just a few edits. Here’s how it’s done:
1. Send a saucy text.
Invite your writer to an unforgettable night in a text that leaves everything to the imagination. She’ll suspend belief. She’s been doing it all week! But before sending, check for grammatical and spelling errors like you’re wooing Ben Dreyer or Mary Norris.
2. Remove distractions.
Ship the kids to grandma’s. Clean up the house and clear the clutter — except for the writer’s clutter. That flotsam and jetsam (squibs of paper, exhausted notebooks, folded-over news clippings and stacks of books) must remain undisturbed in its mystical order. Do not return the writer’s books to the library.
3. Set the mood.
Draw the bath, lower the lights, set the candles ablaze. Let the wine breathe. Build a world where she can unspool her nagging, writerly thoughts. (Would this how-to be better in first person? Does “saucy” really do the job above?) Shhhh. Tell her to let it all go, let the words disappear, hide the whole alphabet under the bed, just for tonight.
4.Overwhelm the senses.
Look your best. Set her ablaze by flooding the bedroom with the sultry scent of warm vanilla and sensuous jasmine. Teasing the writer’s olfactory nodes, hotwired to the limbic system, sets up the rising action. Drop a chocolate-covered strawberry on her tongue. Avoid madeleines. Read her a poem, but not by anyone who underwhelmed her at a writer’s conference or whose oeuvre eluded her in college or whose “distilled, lyrical genius” makes her peevish with envy.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Any seduction how-to will tell you to ask your partner what she wants. But YOU can kick it up a notch by asking and then really listening. Give her a close read on this one. Do it right and you’re guaranteed a mention in tomorrow’s daily journaling exercise.
6. Prepare to have your mind blown.
Remember, she likes her endings both inevitable and surprising. Pause to savor the climactic moment as it approaches. You built the suspense – and pushed your love coaster all the way up the hill. Before the two of you tip the car over the edge together, go ahead and do that thing you know she really wants.
Just go. Exit the room and depart the home quickly and quietly. What she really wants is to get some writing done. Return in approximately six hours. Bring food and your appetite for promising first drafts.
Debra Moffitt is a Delaware-based writer whose essays have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Farmer-ish and Garden Rant. She authored a middle grade book series about puberty called The Pink Locker Society (St. Martin’s). Find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Happiest_Writer .
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.