June 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.
Literary Greatness at the Expense of Female Suffering: On Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop
June 6, 2018 § 23 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
On the morning Junot Diaz’s essay, “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” was published in the New Yorker, Carmen Maria Machado sent this tweet out to her followers:
Hi! Today, please meditate on how easily we accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery.
— Carmen Maria Machado (@carmenmmachado) April 10, 2018
While she made no mention of Diaz in her replies, many writers knew who she was referring to. That week, article after article would celebrate Diaz for his bravery while literary circles whispered about the possibility that his essay was actually part of a strategy to lessen the eventual blow of being outed, #MeToo style, by the women Diaz claimed to have hurt in the decades following his abuse. In just under three weeks, the same outlets who had originally praised Diaz for his candor would publish new articles reporting that several women, including Machado, had come forward and accused him of misogyny and sexual misconduct.
Machado’s tweet calls attention to the long-held belief that a man’s artistic journey is more important than the women he might hurt along the way, and that abuse is sometimes a necessary evil of the creative process—the basis of “good,” “real,” or “authentic” art.
To cite an older example, David Foster Wallace famously credited his obsession with Mary Karr as the driving force in writing Infinite Jest, stating, somewhat crudely, that the book was “a means to [Mary Karr’s] end, (as it were).” Wallace continues to be taught and celebrated today despite Karr regularly reminding us about the terrifying patterns of abuse she endured in the 1990s, including Wallace stalking Karr and her family members, violently kicking her during an argument, and, once, pushing Karr from a moving vehicle. His behavior is (under) documented in his biography, and well-known among writers contemporary with Wallace and Karr. Unlike in Diaz’s more recent case, Wallace’s abuse is not a revelation to the public, but an example of bad behavior consciously ignored. As readers, how do we reconcile love for our favorite books with the terrible acts of the men who wrote them?
This was the question still fresh in my mind when I went to see Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop at an independent movie theatre. As a composition instructor and a creative writing student, I was excited to see what looked like an excellent addition to the genre of French-language films celebrating the power of classroom community and rising above prejudice through writing—like Cantet’s previous film, The Class or Phillippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar.
**Warning, Spoilers Ahead**
The Workshop stars a writer named Olivia, who mentors a group of teenagers through writing a collaborative novel set in their town, La Ciotat. But one student, a troubled young (white) man named Antoine, continually disrupts the class, penning gratuitous murder scenes and taunting classmates with his willfully racist opinions about the Bataclan and Nice massacres. Despite Antoine’s perceptible lack of redeeming qualities, Olivia seems to have complete faith in him, citing his “potential,” and unsuccessfully attempts to unmask Antoine’s machismo façade, encouraging him to express himself to the group.
Olivia learns that La Ciotat, once defined by its now-defunct shipyard industry, has few opportunities for young people like Antoine who are looking for stable work. In this regard, one could draw parallels between La Ciotat’s empty yards and the small Appalachian towns decimated by the United States’ once thriving coal industry. The same palpable despair, misplaced anger, and directionlessness expressed by some young men in those communities are present in Antoine’s character, which serve as a kind of raison d’être—if not a justification—for his extreme beliefs and aggressive behavior.
At home, Antoine is shown to spend his free time playing computer games, watching military recruitment clips, and listening to the French equivalent of alt-right propaganda videos on his laptop. His other hobby consists of stalking his instructor, taking covert videos of Olivia swimming and reading without her consent or knowledge, and studying them later on his computer alone.
If this alarming behavior weren’t enough, the situation takes a turn for the worse when Olivia asks Antoine for an interview on the pretense of researching for a character in one of her novels, which she uses as an opportunity to grill him on his political leanings. Antoine storms out and returns later with a handgun. He forces Olivia at gunpoint to drive him to a secluded location in the dark, refusing to answer her questions about what his motives are or what he wants from her. At one point she tells him, her voice quavering, “I’m really getting afraid now.”
When they arrive at a cliff overlooking the ocean, Antoine sits on the rocks and tells Olivia, after a tense moment of silence, that she is free to leave. Once she is gone, he throws the gun into the ocean, symbolizing, perhaps, a change of heart. He arrives at the workshop the next morning (Olivia having not called the cops, apparently) and reads a letter to the group stating that even with no job, no friends, and an uncertain future, a man should still consider himself lucky to be alive. He leaves, and the film cuts to a scene some months later where Antoine is working on an ocean barge, a smile on his face.
This last scene makes The Workshop a perfect cultural example of how easily the abuse and terrorization of women becomes redeemable in service of a man’s journey to self-realization and fulfillment. Olivia, though a successful novelist, is largely a flat character, functioning as a female sounding-board for Antoine to bounce his male angst from without any real-world consequences. She always allows him to speak in class and patiently listens to his ideas, no matter how violent or vitriolic his rhetoric. She sometimes calls him out on his more racist statements, but only on the grounds that he is intentionally provoking the class and she finds it “exhausting,” rather than due to any moral objection of their content. Perhaps most pointedly, she disregards her own personal safety as well as that of her other students when she chooses not to call the police and report Antoine’s behavior.
With the support of Olivia’s character, Antoine can evolve from a bored, lonely teenager with no sense of direction to a happy, productive young man working on a boat. This outcome would be wonderful if he hadn’t subjected an entire classroom of peers to his violent outbursts and threatened to murder his teacher in order get there. Just like too many powerful abusive men in our world, the consequences of Antoine’s actions in The Workshop never seem to catch up to him. And we, the audience, are supposed to be okay with this: to excuse Antoine because he’s young, or lonely, or feels hopeless about the future. Who hasn’t felt those things at one time or another, the film seems to suggest; we are all human, and we make mistakes, do things we’re not proud of, hurt other people.
I see this same logic in those who exonerate Junot Diaz for his past behavior on the grounds that he was horrifically abused as a child, or David Foster Wallace because he struggled with mental illness for most of his life. Knowledge of these hardships provide context for the choices these men made, but it certainly does not exempt Diaz and Wallace from the consequences of making them.
Still others excuse these men on the basis of their literary genius. Could such nuanced sexist characters like Yunior and Orin Incandenza have been written if not for the abuse the women in these men’s lives suffered? Maybe not. But what do we lose in the absence of characters like these, borne of somebody else’s hurt? Some might argue that these works contribute to the greater canon of literature, but in the era of #MeToo, how much is “good” art actually worth? One woman’s trauma? Two? At what point does the value we place on the literature these men produced absolve them of the hurt they’ve caused? Of the suffering these women have endured?
We’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about “the artist versus the art,” especially in television and film with Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and so, so many more. Now the movement has come to literature, and it’s time to make a conscious choice about who we read, and why. Because the truth is that a man isn’t born into literary greatness. Greatness is ascribed by the value we readers choose to place on certain works, and the world is full of art worthy of our attention.
And while writers like Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Sherman Alexie may be some of the first men whose place in the literary canon is challenged on the basis of their character, it is important to anticipate that they will not be the last. To use Carmen Maria Machado’s words, we don’t have to accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery. As readers, we don’t have to promote the work of abusers, even well-regarded and widely-anthologized ones. We can choose instead to listen to voices whose art does not come at the expense of others’ safety and well-being. To those who have endured hardships and have chosen to rise above their trauma rather than to perpetuate the abuse they suffered. As readers, we can choose this. We should.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com or @zoebossiere
April 23, 2018 § 14 Comments
By Kirsten Fogg
It started with a lump in my throat. Actually, it started before that.
When I embarked on a project gathering stories of belonging, I tried to be witty and philosophical by quoting author Ben Okri. “Listening,” Okri had said in an interview, “is quite close to suffering.” Maybe I didn’t take Okri seriously or maybe I thought I was immune. Either way I’m embarrassed to say that I became a casualty of my own research.
In order to interview people I wouldn’t normally meet, I’d applied to become a writer in residence but no one would have me. After I recovered from the rejections, I decided to continue my research independently and called myself the Writer Out Of Residence. I was thrilled to be part of a festival and had stints with a state library, a hospital, and a hip cafe. In six months, I collected 130 interviews. I just didn’t think it would drive me to therapy.
The thing is when I asked about belonging, people told me about rape and racism – He dragged me from the car by my hair – anorexia and mental illness, attempted suicide, prison and homelessness – I cut off his hand and shoved it in his mouth.
The more I listened, the bigger that lump in my throat became but I kept ignoring it. I’m doing important work, I told myself. It’s research for my book. It wasn’t until I had trouble swallowing and speaking became painful that I remembered a friend’s father who had died of throat cancer.
My GP sent me to the ear nose and throat doctor who squirted bitter anesthetic up my right nostril and stuffed a tube in it to peer into my throat as I gagged. Two GPs, one barium swallow and a cortisol inhalant later, I was lying on a carpeted floor staring at the ceiling and repeating zz sounds.
“Your throat is unremarkable,” the speech pathologist said, reading the ENT report. The pathologist used to sing opera and he looks like he used to sing opera. “It’s called globus pharyngeus. It’s an involuntary clenching of the vocal chords. Can be caused by stress. I see it all the time. Feels like a lump in your throat.”
Ben Okri may not have been referring to vicarious trauma when he equated listening with suffering but the link was there. When I was collecting stories, people opened up to me. They talked to me as if I was a therapist rather than a writer and I had no idea how to handle it. This type of secondary trauma is associated with war correspondents, social workers, or medical and rescue personnel, not creative nonfiction writers like me. But the more we as writers delve into the lives of others, the more susceptible we become to taking on their trauma, simply by listening.
I kept going. At one all-day festival, I interviewed 19 people without stopping and then raced home to look after my children. Everywhere I went I carried those stories with me. I was beaten up about nine times by gangs. The details rolled around my head and the weight of other people’s rage and terror pulled on my limbs. I tried to kill myself. Nightmares and heart palpitations jerked me awake at 3 a.m. and during the day I wanted to crawl under my desk and hide. I ignored the restlessness that pumped through my body like a never-ending sugar high. I kept collecting stories. How could I not listen?
Even writing this, my chest is tightening, my throat clenching. I pause, exhale, and look out the library window at the muddy Brisbane River. After months with an art therapist and the speech pathologist I know more about vicarious trauma and how anxiety affects me.
In my attempt to understand other people’s search for belonging I neglected myself: I didn’t debrief after interviews, I didn’t cut down on my workload, I didn’t find a way to let the trauma out, and I didn’t ask for help. How could I whine about what I was feeling when I was only listening?
At the same time, I felt so responsible for preserving people’s stories and honoring my commitments that I stopped doing activities that would have helped me: I was too busy to run or rock climb and my flute stayed in its case.
I know I’m not the only writer who is suffering and feeling guilty about secondary trauma: Oxford University now offers workshops to students and academics researching difficult subjects and more writers are asking about how to handle this in conferences and on social media.
There is no easy answer. People talk about self-care, going for walks, or hanging out with friends, but those suggestions were too vague. I was in a position of high anxiety and I wasn’t going to stop interviewing people so I needed a long-term solution.
At a writer’s conference in Australia I bumped into Leah Kaminsky, a General Practicioner and award-winning author. If anyone could help, it had to be her: she’s written about death and The Holocaust and seems balanced and happy. Later, when we talked on the phone and I asked about vicarious trauma, her suggestion surprised me. It was, in fact, the one thing I’d been avoiding because I thought it would upset me. She insisted that reading a broad range of well-written books on traumatic subjects was key.
“It helped me focus on the craft of how to actually be the translator of pain and of trauma, rather than being the vessel for it,” Kaminsky said. “I was the translator that was carrying the language of the voiceless to the reader.”
Now I’m surrounded by memoirs and essays on topics ranging from disability to genocide. And it’s working. I’ve got a way to go before that lump disappears from my throat, but concentrating on how other writers have transformed trauma into type is helping me manage the suffering embedded in truly listening.
Kirsten Fogg is a writer and journalist who has lived in France, the U.K. and Australia. Her personals essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction (U.S.), The Malahat Review (Canada) and produced by ABC Radio National (Australia). Her essay “NanaTechnology” was the 2015 winner of the CNFC/carte-blanche contest. Her articles have appeared in international newspapers including The Chicago Tribune. She recently moved her family to Toronto, Canada and can be found — covered in dust and muddling her way through renovating an old house — at www.writeroutofresidence.com.
April 4, 2018 § 8 Comments
In lieu of a Thank You note, I should be sending you a royalty check for all the times I have printed your essay The Things I’ve Lost published in Brevity 22. Perhaps writers should team up with musicians to claim monetary compensation for their intellectual property.
Brevity will also want a piece of the take, as will state and federal entities. I don’t know about you but, I am not feeling very generous toward the government these days. As I watch your imaginary check dwindle in size, it occurs to me that cutting a check is as antiquated as placing a stamp on a letter. I feel, however, that I should publicly give credit where credit is due and since I cannot find you elsewhere this is as good a place as any to connect with you.
I work as a nurse who works with patients receiving chemotherapy, and, thanks to a generous donation, I have access to a healthy supply of notebooks and journals. Some are jeweled and bedazzled, while others have faux leather covers. I delight in selecting just the right one for my patients. I imagine I am kin to Ollivander who selects the perfect wand for fledgling wizards.
There is time to talk in the space between lab work, pre-hydration fluids, and administering the poison that may be their salvation. Shelly was interested in alternative medicine options and I discussed a body of research demonstrating improved health outcomes for people who write about their illness. Shelly said she wanted to journal during her first cancer treatment, but the chemotherapy made it difficult to clear her mind enough to write a coherent sentence. Now, on her second time around, I suggested she make a list of the things she lost. Start with: I lost my hair. I lost my fear of hospitals, I lost my virginity…. Shelly and I talked about how writing helps take you out of the moment and allows the writer to look at the totality of their experiences. It is not illness that defines us but all the other things that make up the lost and found of a life.
Illness is the door most apparent when I write with my patients, but the illness is not who they are. It is a place to start. Shelly embraced the idea and held tight to the journal I gave her — a striped journal, reminiscent of Fruit Stripe chewing gum.
As I talked with Shelly, her mother-in-law sat quietly on the sofa. She later came out to the nurse’s station and asked if we could talk. The HIPPA alarm was raging in my head since there was nothing I could discuss with her about Shelly’s care. My brain said “No” but my lips said, “Of course.” As we stepped into an empty hallway she explained that she had been listening to the conversation. She is a high school teacher and she wondered if I had heard about the shooting at her school. She said she hated going back to the school until today. She said, “For the first time, I can see a path forward. I can write with my students about what we have lost. I can help them through their grief” She thanked me and gave a sincere and tender hug.
Both the hug and thanks are yours to claim and do not belong to me.
I cannot begin to send you a royalty check to cover this exchange. Please know you are rich in good karma credits even if your 401(k) is feeling rather depleted.
With your permission, I will continue to use your essay for inspiration because even teenage boys show enthusiasm for a writing project that begins, “I lost a lot of blood.”
Your appreciative fan,
Joey Elizabeth is a mom, MFA student, and registered nurse who tries to insert biblio-therapy between rounds of chemo-therapy because healing is not the same as curing. A fellow nurse calls her an anecdotal artist. Her work can be found on the back of envelopes, via Blackboard posts, and in notebooks in the bottom desk drawer. You can find her in the kitchen making dinner or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 22, 2018 § 20 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
A rhyming title for an essay, you must wonder. Full disclaimer: I am a poet at heart; the crossover to writing and publishing a novel has been transformative, and I wanted to share some things I learned.
I won’t lie; it’s been exciting, humbling and exhausting. The release of my 12th book (but debut U.S. novel) Louisiana Catch, a story that centers around a sexual abuse survivor from New Delhi, coincides with the #MeToo movement. It’s on U.K.’s The Asian Writer’s “Books to Read in 2018” list. Frankly, I don’t know what’s in store for the book, but I do know that I have enjoyed the whole process and realized a few things along the way, specifically as it relates to publishing via a small press.
The problem is you: The lack of gratitude. I have seen writers apologize for their small press partnerships and feel small…like they are embarrassed. Stop! The fact that someone took a chance on your work and wants to publish you, means a lot. Publishing is about several permutations and combinations. Working with a small press doesn’t make you any less talented or skilled compared to a writer who has a book coming out with a Penguin/Random House or Hachette. Small press has limitations, which teaches you to become self-reliant and seek out opportunities. Once you adjust your attitude and appreciate a challenge, the journey becomes more exciting. I was out of ARCs and an opportunity arose to send a few copies of Louisiana Catch to Hollywood. My publisher—Modern History Press—sent me the copies overnight (Not cheap for a small press), and I went and made the drop at the crack-of-dawn. It was like a relay race where we kept an eye on the goal and made it happen as a team.
Own your choice—Yes, for majority of us (fair to make the assumption?), there is this dream of being represented by one of the big five publishing houses. I didn’t try the agent route, very deliberately. I consciously chose to work with a small press for this novel. My last manuscript died because my then agent hit a midlife crisis after I had spent a couple of years changing the book to fit their perception of a “good book.” We went from “blah blah (Insert name of one of the top 5 publishing houses) is buying your book to popping congratulatory champagne to “I am like not sure where my life is headed.” My book sank along with my heart. I decided that I wanted to work with a press that understood my voice and stories and wanted to represent my work. Pick your route and do not doubt your decision.
Face facts—Whether you are being published by one of the top five or a small press, the chances are that you are a small fish—majority of us fall in that space. Your grandma might throw a block party in your honor but at the publisher’s end, you are one of the many authors. You have to put in a lot of work. And working with a small press, I have had a lot of say in defining what that work means. My publisher at Modern History Press, Victor Volkman, and I developed a true partnership. He acknowledged my hard work and increased the stakes. And now we have an audiobook for Louisiana Catch in the making. It’s come to a point where my publisher leaves notes, #BeLikeAhana, after one of the early reviewers of the book started this hashtag (Based on the female protagonist in Louisiana Catch) on Instagram, on my social media posts.
Size doesn’t guarantee success—I agree; working with a big publishing house often means incredible distribution system. Your friends and family will see your books at bookstores and Target and airport spaces. Let’s be honest; I would like that too. When I saw my 1st novel in a store in India, I couldn’t believe it. But I’ve worked in the marketing department for Kellogg’s breakfast cereals and let me tell you one thing—while placement seems to be everything, it also isn’t everything. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee sales. I have a professor interested in teaching Louisiana Catch to her students. If your book becomes part of an academic course, that’s when you know X no. of copies will be sold every semester, not one season.
Innovation is the name—Remember: While the budgets are limited, the intentions and efforts aren’t because a small press cares about their authors and their stories. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I decided to partner up with organizations and brands for reviews and book release events. On April 18, Lululemon Hub Seventeen in NYC is hosting the book release party for Louisiana Catch and organizations like Exhale to Inhale have helped plan the all-female panel at this party. I have also partnered up with leading yoga studios, organizations working on women’s empowerment, and independent bookstores for book launch events in three different states. I like the idea of community, so at each of these events, I’ve invited other authors or specialists to participate. My publisher has offered to get bookmarks and posters shipped to these locations.
You aren’t forgotten—Sure, many big-name magazines might not look at books from small presses and review them. It boils down to connections and budgets and priorities and the TBR pile on the reviewers’ desk. Yes, it’s frustrating and disappointing. But it’s not the end. I once cold-pitched an essay, “Familiar Dish, Familiar Friend,” to the New York Times, and it got accepted. Louisiana Catch and I have been profiled in different countries in leading ethnic and/or feminist newspapers and magazines. Not having an in-house publishing team doing all the work for me has worked in my favor. I don’t wait for things to happen; I go out and make them happen.
Embrace your true self—Working with a small press can level you like none other. It will show you what your strengths and shortcomings are. I am a do-it-yourself author. I like being organized and in control of my book and the promotional plans. My publisher honored every timeline we decided on. I wanted the book to be out in April since it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the female protagonist, Ahana, is a sexual assault survivor; he agreed. In summer of 2017, the final edits came in. By September-October of 2017, the ARCs were ready. In October, we started mailing them out. The early reviewers have had plenty of time to review. It doesn’t mean my book will be on New York Times list or be reviewed by all the top-notch magazines; all it means is that I know that we tried our best. And, sometimes, just knowing that helps you go to bed at night.
I have been at the forefront of every decision made regarding Louisiana Catch—right from the editors to the book cover to the promotional plan to the book birthing cycle to a speaking engagement at Twitter NY. Honestly, had I not worked with a small press, I am not sure how many of these opportunities I might have pursued.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com), featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time,” is a best-selling author of 12 books, five-times Pushcart Prize nominee, mindfulness writing coach, social issues advocate, and a certified yoga & Ayurveda counselor who helps people lead creative, productive, and healthier lives. Louisiana Catch is her debut U.S. novel and featured on U.K.’s The Asian Writer’s “Books to Read in 2018.” Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States collecting and sharing stories. She writes about women, multiculturalism, wellness, and identity. Sweta, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, amongst other publications, across nine countries on three continents, is an award-winning writer and graduate of Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. You can find her in these online spaces: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta)
February 20, 2018 § 17 Comments
I’ve never been a writing group person.
1) I travel a lot (you may have noticed) and it’s hard to commit to meeting regularly with the same group.
2) It’s hard to find the right group.
Honestly, “right group” is the biggest obstacle. I would–and have–driven hours to write with the right people. I’ve extended stays in cities where good writing people live, fought down jet lag, gone through airport security twice on a layover to meet a writing pal in the landside coffee shop. Why go to the hassle when there’s plenty of Meetup groups in my hometown?
The right people are worth a lot of effort.
The wrong people, on the other hand, are a waste of writing time. Groups focused on genres I don’t write, or on self-publishing (no shade, but I need writing time, not marketing chat). If a group is way above my level, it’s hard to get good feedback–they aren’t working on the same craft issues I am. If they’re all beginners, I end up teaching people I don’t know for free. The jolly glow of literary citizenship is great, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a writing group.
Over at LitHub, Kaethe Schwehn points out why many writers are reluctant to start or join writing groups:
Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.
Schwehn also sings the praises of finding a group that’s the right fit, saying the mix of cheerleading and critique can be more effective than only picking work apart. That having a small writing community lets authors discuss craft and concepts beyond specific manuscripts, and that working in a group without an official leader allows freer exchange of ideas, without jockeying to earn the teacher’s approval for ‘best critic.’
I absolutely hear this. And I have it. Just a little differently. My writing ‘group’ is two great buddies I meet with 3 days a week when I’m home in Dubai. They haven’t met the writing buddy I sit down with when visiting my mom in Florida, or my first reader/muse I email and text and phone. Peripheral members include the blogging community I sat down with in a London co-working space, and the NaNoWriMo groups I sidled into last November. I wasn’t doing a novel in a month, but timed writing sprints among 30 people focusing in a Pret-a-Manger basement got me to my daily goal on a cold and lonely day. Sometimes, my group and I read to each other out loud or exchange work. Sometimes we set a goal at the beginning of a writing session–number of words, a blog post, number of submissions sent out or pages edited–and check in at the end on how we did (my favorite!). Sometimes we smile and say “Nice to meet you,” while packing up our laptops and forgetting each other’s name.
I wish I was a solitary genius, but I’m not. I can and do write alone, but it’s a lot more fun with other people around. The energy of showing up (and let’s face it, showing off–look, I’m still typing! Everyone else keep going!) fuels me, makes me finish that chapter I wanted to quit in the middle of–but everyone else was still going.
Your writing group might be on Meetup or the NaNoWriMo forums or online at Wattpad or Absolute Write. It might be a friend you know is typing something–anything. (I finished my chapter! You finished your expense report! Go us!) There’s no right way to do a writing group.
Yeah, sometimes people think it’s weird that I showed up once for their group meeting and came back a year later. But when I come back I’m ready to work, with whoever wants to work with me.
Read Kaethe Schwehn at LitHub on finding and keeping a great writing group. And let me know if you’re ever in Dubai–I know a great coffee shop.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a writing-group-ish-thing in India in June.
February 15, 2018 § 19 Comments
Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:
…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.
Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–
I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.
Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?
I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.
We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.
We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.
I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.
It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.
It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”
There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.