June 4, 2019 § 27 Comments
I’ve been reading my dearest friend’s journals. Spiral-bound notebooks, cloth-covered hardbacks, loose-leaf paper in three-ring binders. Sorting out teenage angst and adult story notes, false starts and full pages. Some of the words are casual, some inspiring, some sad.
I’m also digging through her computer. Looking at old story outlines and half-drafts of essays. Working on breaking into her phone.
I’m not snooping.
I’m her executor.
My friend wasn’t especially organized, but two other close friends and I found what we could after her death, tried to piece together what was worth keeping, what would be a beautiful memory and what was garbage. It was good for the three of us to read her old journals. We threw away the teenage angst and kept some of her adult musings. We pulled some of her unfinished writing from her old laptop and put it in a Dropbox so we could all look at it and feel a little less bereft.
Poking and prying and talking about her. My friend might not have wanted this. She might have been very angry that we’re reading her private thoughts, looking at rough drafts not ready for prime time. But she didn’t tell us, so we get to make that choice for her.
Stieg Larsson, writer of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, died without a will. His partner of 24 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was left in the cold. Larsson’s estranged father and his brother got everything. The estate is still in court 15 years later. It’s not only the millions of dollars: Gabrielsson contends Larsson’s work isn’t being presented to the world the way the late author wanted. But he didn’t write those wishes down.
Many “big deal” authors have literary trusts, where chosen trustees work with the author during their lifetime to establish how their work should be treated, and set up procedures to continue selling rights and allowing research after their death.
Most of us don’t need an elaborate trust to guard our posthumous literary interests. But as someone left behind, sorting through grief and papers while guessing what your dead person wanted sucks.
Who is going to deal with your literary legacy, and what do you want done?
- Journals. Do you want them read? Burned? Photocopied and passed around the family? Placed in an archive?
- Family photos and genealogical research for your memoir. Are they labeled, or at least in a labeled folder or envelope? Will anyone else know who these people are? Does anyone want to store physical papers?
- Story notes. Manuscripts. Half-finished drafts. Should anyone try to finish them? Should anyone even read them?
- Published work. Who do you want to have the copyrights? What do you want them to do with them? Do you want any royalty income to go to charity? Should the same person get the rights and the money?
- Not technically literary, but treasured mementos from previous generations have the same problem as writing notes and unpublished work. Those left behind don’t know how to value them. If you have knickknacks, jewelry, scrapbooks, have you explained their meaning to your heirs? (If you haven’t, are they really worth keeping? Because someone has to agonize over your grandparents’ 50th anniversary album while standing over a garbage can. Just sayin’.)
- Do you want your social media wiped or memorialized? Have you listed a legacy contact on Facebook? Any online-only friends who should be notified of your death?
- What passwords and account numbers will someone need to wrap up your affairs?
- Speaking of affairs, what should be deleted before your child or significant other finds it? The essay you didn’t publish to avoid hurting feelings? That chapter you decided was too personal to share? Who should go through your devices and do that?
You have the right to privacy after death. But unless you’re specific about what’s private, someone else will make those choices for you. Even if you don’t formally appoint a literary executor, write your wishes down. Use this simple writer’s will form from Neil Gaiman as a guide. Here’s more information about literary estate planning.
Share your feelings with whoever will likely clean out your stuff (and one other person in case you’re both hit by the same bus). If you want your devices wiped, say so. If you want your electronics explored, share the passwords with a trusted friend who doesn’t have physical access to your computer. If you don’t have a friend you trust that much, split it up: one friend gets the first half of each password and another friend gets the second half.
I’m still digging through my friend’s stuff. At the funeral, a woman I’d never met gave me a key to my friend’s safety-deposit box I hadn’t known existed. I’m waiting for paperwork from AOL to take over her email so I can get into her phone. Maybe there’s a letter or important bank information on her new laptop, maybe I’m supposed to figure it out like a puzzle. Maybe it would have been better to reformat and donate the electronics to needy children.
I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. So curiosity wins.
I hope I’m doing what’s right. But it is comforting to read her words. As it happens, I like one of her story outlines a lot, and maybe I’ll turn it into a book.
That, I know for sure she’d like. Because we talked about it.
May 29, 2019 § 7 Comments
by Grace Campbell
A well-known writer and good friend once quipped that, if I wanted to be successful, I needed to stop attending my correspondence so diligently. You give too many shits, was the short of it, a sentiment whose reduplications are not in short supply. And whose tenor I have found to be, if I am allowed to wax reductive: a rather male way of behaving. Which is neither to say I refute that notion or endorse it. Which is also to say that I am using the word ‘male’ to reflect an arbitrary but historically enforced set of behavioral modes that codify and centralize dominance: a pattern rather than a person, so calm down with your not all men refrains.
Caring less is a thumbtack ridden slope. Of course you can reframe it as prioritizing more but one doesn’t usually happen without riding tandem alongside the other. These would-be nuggets wanting to crystallize into axioms are usually not to my liking, mostly because they require another kind of gymnastics. That tiresome and culturally invisible place where I reckon with my own female conditioning in order to unleash their potential. This act itself takes up so much time. Suggestions don’t become cultural or even personally felt aphorisms without untold hours of emotional weightlifting, hours, days, months, even, fraught in guilt, shame and self doubt: a lovely cocktail that, at the least, whittles down your capacity to write effectively and at the worst, mires you in feeling very much without the drive to write at all. That we should possess the fortitude to shut off these feelings and apply well-intended but generic nuggets-o-wisdom, and further, that this kind of ability is a valuable trait I find highly suspect.
Both caring less and prioritizing more sound delicious but what I’m more interested in chewing on is a hearty conversation around the societal (and by this I mean both the outward and the internalized) dictates and norms that mark the creation and sustaining of an effective writing practice wholly different enterprises for women than men, white folk than nonwhite folk.
Another writer recently lamented, in an essay, that an experience of sexual harassment had not only made it impossible for her to focus on her writing projects in its wake, but had fomented into an impasse where she had to write about the harassment first, in order to move through it and then, hopefully, have the capacity to return to her earlier projects. This is precisely what we need made more visible. That ignored space where the fabric of marginalization creates a swallowing eddy. Where writing gets interrupted. A space we would rather believe is the product of our own failure at achieving a male-centric atrium of productivity. Whether we write about those traumas that interfere with our chosen projects is not the point; they take up a heft of space inside us either way.
If the conditioning we receive is qualitatively different along the axis of gender (male/female/nonbinary/trans) and race, then the way we come at our practice is, as well, and we need to be honest about this. We need to stop talking about the writing practice as a set of neutral principles and skills applicable to anyone in an identical fashion and within the same proximal reach, so long as we try hard enough. We need to understand that women/nonbinary/trans/nonwhite people have vastly different constructions of space and the entitlement to claim it than do cis white dudes. If we can start to have cogent discussions about what the writing life of marginalized people looks like, and what factors inform it, then we can much more succinctly and creatively address ways to make that space effective, nourishing and productive.
Not long ago, I was the victim of a stalker. The experience ripped the entire seam-work of my identity into disaster-shaped scraps that upended every single facet of my life. I wanted to write about it as a kind of self-preservational documentation, and as an exposition on what being stalked does to a woman. To close friends I confided my fear that if I wrote about it openly, my stalker would kill me. This permanently stained my reaction to the normal Facebook flood of craft essays extolling the virtues of write what you know, and its other manifold iterations, like the fondly dismissive if people wanted you to say nice things about them, they should have treated you better or even the self-help-soaked write your truth. The fact that I could have resorted to writing about my trauma under a pseudonym rested at my center like a partially softened anvil: I felt it critical to have my own name attached to my own, lived experience. I could not right myself, despite the feed of one-size-fits-all advice, into any position that would not end in something awful. I have not written about it in its entirety because the men and women involved in it are abusers who can damage my career and/or much more to the point, leave my children motherless. Yet if scraping clean the need to write about it is my only solution, I find myself at the threshold of that same act I have been trying to excommunicate from my gendered conditioning, and there I am again, inside the destructive choreography of erasure.
My experience germinates along a vast trajectory that encompasses all the anxieties that prevent marginalized people from writing about what we know. And those which prevent or complicate our capacity to write anything, at all. Maybe it is because we want so badly to believe in a meritocracy of time and space that we doggedly adhere to generic, self-help sounding slogans. But the more we impress their raceless, classless, genderless intaglios onto marginalized bodies, the more we erase the contexts by which these bodies arrive at and experience the space of writing. This is not to say that we need to throw all our extant craft suggestions into a burn pile. It is, rather, incumbent on us to cease gliding along a pull-up-your-boot-straps ethos, one that is conveniently and invisibly cis white-dude-ish, and to, in turn, interrogate how these long-held truths about writing enforce modalities of erasure.
If we value the writing of the non-dominant among us, we must first acknowledge that the discussion of writing practice has atrophied along its adherence to so-called universal aphorisms of discipline and productivity. Without engaging in this long overdue discourse, we are merely co-signing a legacy that continues to ignore the current of emotional weight-bearing as nothing other than a mere distraction. We are insisting on pretending that all writers occupy a falsely equal space. We must de-colonize our rhetoric. We are, in our discomfort, conveniently ignoring the realities that complicate the act of sitting down, willing everything away and making the words happen. Certainly I would like to live in such a world. But more than this, I would like to tell you what my world actually looks like.
Grace Campbell is the founding editor and head writer at Black River Press. She is the fiction editor at 5×5 Magazine. Her work has been included in Best Small Fictions 2019 and has appeared widely, in such journals as New Flash Fiction Review, Gravel, Joyland, Big Other and elsewhere.
May 20, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
Whenever I give a reading or a workshop, I’m usually asked this question: What advice do you have for new writers? I always offer the same answer. The first thing I say is that to be a writer you must be a reader. And I usually quote Samuel Johnson, who says, “’The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man (or a woman) will turn over half a library to make one book.” The second thing I say is to get into a great writing group, which can be more difficult than picking up a book and reading. I know this because I’ve been in some disastrous groups. I’m also currently in the best writing group in the world (not to brag … okay, I’ll brag). We call ourselves The Wordy Girls. I have thought about how we found each other and how we make it work, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
- Limit your numbers. My current group has three members, and because it’s the right three people, it works. I would say no more than four or five. Any more than that, and you will get too much conflicting feedback on your work. My group is comprised of teachers, writers, and editors, and we are already reading and commenting on lots of pages. Reading too many pieces will make your writing group feel like work. Also, because we are all busy, scheduling meetings. even with just three of us, is sometimes challenging. And if you do what we do—give each other presents for meeting our writing goals—you will have to spend way too much money on gifts if there are too many people in your group. More on this later.
- Choose people whose work you want to read but also who you want to see. When the pages come in before we meet, I can’t wait to sit down and read them because the writing is so good. Choose writers whose work you want to read. Also, I love the people in my group, so I look forward to spending time with them at our meetings and retreats. This is another reason to limit your numbers; it’s not hard to find two people you like whose work you admire. It would be much harder to find six or eight such people. Once I was in a group with two women—one was ethereal and cerebral, the other was, shall we say, hedonistic. The hedonist wanted more body, more sensuality, more sex. The cerebral one wanted to stay on the philosophical level of everything—writing and life. Both were good writers; both had something to say. Truth be told, the hedonist was the more fun person; the cerebral one, the more careful reader. But in the end, they were terrible readers for each other; they couldn’t cross the divide to really see each other’s work. I sat on the sidelines, watching the wreckage. That little group didn’t last long. The moral of the story is that great writers, and even great people, don’t always make a great group. Some of it’s alchemy, but keep trying until you get it right, because it’s worth it.
Once you find your people, give your group a name and establish traditions. As I mentioned, we are The Wordy Girls, and one of our traditions is to set goals at the end of each meeting; these goals pertain to writing, revising, or sending out work. At the next meeting, we begin with our previous month’s goals, and if met them, we get presents from the rest of the group. We give small gifts like funny socks or journals, but you never want to come to a meeting and admit that you don’t deserve a present. By establishing traditions, you’re treating your writing group like the sacred space that it is. Once you create the right group, you will learn each other’s themes, obsessions, and writerly tics that hold you back, things you may not be able to see on your own, and that is the greatest gift of all.
- Set clear and reasonable expectations. Because of our busy schedules, meeting once a month works best for us. We limit submissions to 20 pages, with a one-week window to read each other’s work. We sometimes ask the group if we can send additional work for feedback between meetings, which is super helpful, especially when we are on deadline. Also, be sure every member of the group has something important to contribute at the meetings and retreats beyond feedback and critique. One of our Wordy Girls is excellent cook (her gluten-free lobster macaroni and cheese is to die for); the other is an amazing bartender, who can whip up a craft cocktail like nobody’s business. I do my best to be worthy of the group. When I let my writing group read this, as I do everything I am about to put out into the world, they assured me that I am worthy. They said that I keep everyone on track (I am the keeper of the goals), make everyone laugh, take photographs, and motivate everyone to write and send out work. One Wordy Girls told me, “The motivational factor for me is huge. I want to meet deadlines for you, and I want to write better for you.” The same is true for me: my writing group makes me want to be a better writer, and so I am.
- Find people who are in the same place with their writing as you are. As I said before, everyone in my group has a graduate degree, we have all taught college writing classes, and we have all completed multiple book manuscripts. We are all in similar places in our writing lives, and we have similar goals, which is to say, we are all serious working writers. Find people who are in roughly the same place as you are. If you just finished your MFA, find writers in the same place as you are. If you are just starting out, attend local writing workshops or classes and scan the room for people you might like to meet with. And then stalk them, but nicely. There are at least three writing groups in my town that were born from my community college writing classes. If I had more time, I would create a Grindr for writers, but I don’t, so you will have to do this part on your own.
- Avoid the Drama Queen and the Green Monster: These two writers—I know you know them—are toxic for your writing group. There is no place in your writing group for drama or worse, jealousy. If someone in your writing group is interrupting the critique process because she needs to call her drug dealer, it doesn’t matter how great a writer or careful reader she is of your prose. She has to go until she deals with the drug dealer and the drug problem. If not, she will hijack your meetings. The other member of your group, who might be as brilliant as can be, but who must go, is the jealous writer. You will have to hide your successes, diminish yourself, and in the end, you won’t be able to trust her, even though she is brilliant. Trust me on this one. This person is even worse for your writing than the woman who is trying to score cocaine between stories. These are people who deserve your compassion and maybe even your friendship, but they should not be allowed into the safe space of your writing group. “All writers,” you might say, “are dysfunctional,” to which I answer you this: Not true! I should mention that the woman trying to score drugs has since stopped using, which has enabled her to finish her wonderful book, so timing could also be everything.
The writerly camaraderie of the Wordy Girls has sustained me and my writing life over the last 15 years. I hope you’re able to find your own wonderful group of writers who will celebrate your successes, lament your rejections, and feed your writing life. And if you have another tip for creating and maintaining the perfect writing group, please add it in the comments.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Brevity, National Geographic’s Traveler, CNN, The Rumpus, Longreads, and The Normal School, among others. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, teaches in the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College, and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. For more information, see her website at www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram at suzanneroberts28.
May 6, 2019 § 18 Comments
By LaRue Cook
I’m a cisgender, heterosexual white man who was raised in the South, a tick below middle class and near the second notch of the Bible Belt. Don’t worry. There is no but. I just think more people like me ought to own their privilege up front, outright. That’s kinda what my debut collection of essays is about: owning up to privilege as opposed to ignoring it or—worse still—apologizing.
Man in the (Rearview) Mirror is about leaving my job as a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine in Connecticut and moving back to my native Tennessee to become a full-time driver for Uber. All of this began in January of 2016, when I was thirty and had no idea that Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. So, yeah, it’s about that, too—how my silence and ignorance borne out of privilege renders me as culpable as anybody for this current American predicament, to put it lightly.
Three book readings in, and I’ve introduced myself this same way—more or less—to an audience of mostly white people, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Portland, Oregon, the latter at an off-site event during my first-ever AWP conference. The following day I spent an hour signing books at my press’s booth as part of AWP’s humbling-ly massive book fair. To help funnel potential buyers to the table, my editor greeted people with a short pitch. (He’s a naturalized citizen from Trinidad, for the record.) Meanwhile, I was busy with my own PR song-and-dance when I overheard him say, “No, that’s the author. Wouldn’t you love to meet him?” I turned to see a young woman of color, whose seeming interest quickly drained from her face, upon seeing me. She said, “I’m sorry. I don’t buy books by white men.” Then she smiled and continued down the aisle. Nothing malicious. Very polite, in fact.
For the rest of my stint in Portland and since returning to Atlanta, where I’m a PhD student at Georgia State University, I’ve recounted that anecdote to fellow writers—of all identities. Some have scoffed, even rolled their eyes at the reductive logic. Most of the eye-rollers, admittedly, have been men. As for me, I’m not offended, didn’t even roll my eyes. Hell, first thing I thought: Now that’s an essay! Besides, I knew about this trend in theory, just had yet to experience it in practice. Which is why I’d like to consider seriously the implications of what that young woman said.
This is a blog called Brevity, so I hope you’ll excuse my lack of an exhaustive history on gender and racial inequality in literature, other than to cite a stat by essayist Sonya Huber, who is also the director of Fairfield University’s low-res MFA, of which I am an alum. Since 2000, only two of The Best American Essays have featured more women than men: 2011 and 2017. In ’07, ’08, ’10, and ’12, less than thirty percent of the writers were women. However, those numbers don’t take into account race or ethnicity, or how each individual woman identifies their gender. But I’m not certain those numbers alone can truly contextualize the lack of institutional inclusion in our industry: That series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is run by a guy named John “Jack” Lynch, a man who looks an awful lot like me. Same as Brian Murray (HarperCollins) and Markus Dohle (Penguin Random House) and John Sargent (Macmillan) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). My point isn’t lost on you, I’m sure. Just as I’m sure you understand that it’s damn near impossible–if you’d like to sell even a couple hundred books as an indie author—to outrun the shadows of Jeff Bezos and Leonard Riggio. I can’t help but wonder if those men would consider their positions products of privilege, or of bootstraps being pulled up.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to that young woman, to ask her if she only buys books published by Simon & Schuster, which is headed by Carolyn Reidy (a white woman, for the record). I would’ve liked to know that young woman’s thoughts on how we reconcile these white men and me, a person who simply enjoys telling stories, as I’m sure she probably does too. I imagine the ultimate question is: Should I be writing at all, or just reading and listening? How do white people write about privilege if their very words hold that privilege?
These questions loom large and are virtually unanswerable, but to censor them from being asked in these forums by the people who hold the power is to risk confining them to eye rolls or to echo chambers, where we can “unfriend” or “unfollow” those who might challenge us. And, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, once we’ve done that, then, as writers, we’re finished, we’ve lost. Because we actually believe we’ve figured out the world.
So, later that day in Portland, after that young woman had said what she said, I visited the famous Powell’s Books. I bought a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I’m ashamed to say, at thirty-four years old, I have not yet read. But I will this summer, as well as C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides. And I’d say if there is anything remotely resembling an answer to the question of how I confront my white male privilege, then it is that, to personally seek out the experiences that are not mine and to bring them into the classroom.
LaRue Cook is the author of the essay collection Man in the (Rearview) Mirror and a PhD student in creative writing at Georgia State University, where he teaches composition and intro to fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in such publications as ESPN The Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and The Bitter Southerner, while his fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review and Barely South Review, among other places. Find him at laruecook.com or on Twitter at @larue_cook or on Instagram at @cook.larue.
May 3, 2019 § 15 Comments
By Kathy Ewing
“You can always just pretend to be writing,” my friends said when I told them about my upcoming adventure.
To celebrate November, National Novel Writing Month, Appletree Books in my hometown of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, invited writers to sit inside the display window and write. I accepted the invitation.
“You’ll be on your computer, won’t you?” one of them said. “So you can go online when you get bored.”
The friends continued. “Nobody’s going to be checking on you, right? They’ll let you get up, right? There’s a Starbucks down the street.”
“Or, you know, I could just write,” I said sheepishly. I wondered, do they think I can’t write for two hours straight?
Now, at 10:00 am, an extremely bright sun shines into my tiny alcove in Appletree’s window. People pass by on the sidewalk, but no one stops to read my little sign: “Kathy Ewing: writing an essay in a bookstore window about writing an essay in a bookstore window.” I thought it might make someone smile, but that would require a passer-by to notice it.
Inside the cozy store, conversations about books attract my attention. Writing at home, I’m distracted by my dog, severe coffee cravings, and a compelling need to dust the woodwork in my bedroom. That is, anything besides writing. So the chatting itself is not especially troublesome, but it does bother me that they’re talking about books I hope to read someday.
“What’s it about?” someone asks about a new novel I’m interested in. As the other someone launches into a detailed plot description, I try to cover my ears and type at the same time, which is very difficult. I realize that bookstore employees are a captive audience to garrulous customers bent on ruining the plots of brand-new novels.
The blinding sun is another problem I didn’t anticipate. The glare on my computer screen forces me to climb out of my tiny alcove to locate the cursor. At home, of course, I can move away from a window, but today my being in the window is the whole point. Snow is forecast for the weekend, and I remind myself to feel grateful for one last warm day. The sunshine is also highlighting how dirty my keyboard is, so I suddenly feel relieved that no one has stopped by to greet me.
Soon, another distraction arises, in the form of a familiar worry. My suburb’s parking meters are notorious for accepting only quarters, of which I had exactly one when I arrived. (Another concern I don’t have when I’m home at my desk and my car is in my driveway.) Because I forgot my watch, I have to lean down to the floor and grab my phone, which tells me it’s now 10:36. I get change at the register and dash out to feed the meter.
As I climb back into my chair, Starbucks coffee in hand, I consider my friends’ certainty that I would feel conspicuous sitting in a storefront window. Instead, hardly anyone even glances at me. It reminds me of leaving my children’s belongings on the stairs to take up to their rooms: those steps immediately became a Bermuda Triangle of invisibility. The kids’ belongings could sit there for weeks. That’s me, right now, invisible to any and all sidewalk pedestrians.
Whenever I glance up from my keyboard, brand spanking new books are calling for me to pick them up and read them. My phone tells me I have 50 minutes to go, and the words haven’t stopped coming, but my filthy computer is getting hot, and I’m getting hungry. I keep typing, until at last, as my shift is drawing to a close, my friends stop in to take me to lunch. They snap pictures of me. Finally, some attention from the public!
At the very last second, a young woman out on the sidewalk reads my sign, waves, and says, “That’s cool.”
A few minutes before noon, I hear a gentleman asking the bookstore owner about Some Writer, Melissa Sweet’s book about author E.B. White. The lovely title derives from “Some Pig,” a phrase the spider Charlotte weaves into her web to save the life of Wilbur the pig. How fitting to hear about my favorite book at this moment and about the spider who writes. In Charlotte’s Web, as in many books I love, the writer was writing about writing. And here I am, sitting in a bookstore window, surrounded by books, writing an essay about writing.
Kathy Ewing’s work has appeared in America, The Millions, The Bark, Belt, the delinquent, and other publications. Her memoir, Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother (Red Giant Books), appeared in 2016.
April 25, 2019 § 10 Comments
By Jennifer Case
When I was in high school, ready for my first part-time job, I remember walking into grocery stores, or through the hallway of the indoor mall, willing store managers to notice me. I fantasized that I wouldn’t have to go up to the guest services counter and do the humiliating task of asking for a job application. Instead, something in my eyes and my open, receptive face would hone them in. I could just stand there, fluorescent light shining on my head, and they’d say, “Hey! We need a new garden clerk/barista/baker, and you look perfect. Would you like a job?!”
No manager, of course, ever approached me. In the end, I had to ask the customer service representatives for applications and make sweaty, follow-up calls, but this, in many ways, is how I also felt about book promotion. I wanted the end result—decent sales and the right kind of readers—but the means of obtaining that attention…? I was a high school student all over again, staring at a list of emails I needed to write, cold calls I should make, and people I should have been networking with six months ago rather than now. I sat there, frozen, not so much with fear, but something heavier and more stone-like.
The irony of the publishing industry doesn’t escape me. Writers tend to be introverted. They spend years observing the world, sitting alone, writing and rewriting their manuscripts, and yet that first year after a book is published, they are supposed to metamorphose—suddenly and completely—into sparkly, bedecked extroverts, fully capable of contacting all the important media outlets and confidently, but unassumingly, convincing others that this excerpt/interview/craft piece/reading is worth attention. As Sarah Fawn Montgomery wrote in her post on this blog, there’s a madness to book marketing, and it can be brutal.
As well-documented by many:
- A tendency to stop responding to emails. Or to respond with over-enthusiasm and too many exclamation points.
- Sheer exhaustion, often leading to hermitism or the reclusion of oneself in backwoods cabins, teaching jobs, or volunteer work.
- A shrill rise in the voice that others interpret as—and may in fact be—desperation.
- Overuse of social media.
- Accusations of shamelessness and subsequent loss of friends (especially on social media).
- Humility, whether reactionary or innate, potentially leading to a book that falls into the great void.
- Paralyzing self-doubt.
Usually nothing more than bed rest, long walks outdoors, and plenty of (nonalcoholic) fluids. In severe cases, and when privilege and means allow: a publicist. Most cases, however, will resolve with the following home remedy:
- After each painfully arranged reading you give at an independent bookstore, purchase a book. Let them form an ever-increasing stack on your nightstand. Then, in moments of self-doubt, set aside your own work, your own hopes for your work, and simply relish the work of others’.
- Read more in the next year than you did in the two years before. Read books that have nothing to do with your own projects and do not help you understand your market or competition. Read the award-winners but also books by smaller presses. Read books written by writers with very different lives from your own.
- Allow yourself to get caught up in these books. Stay up late, turning their pages. At times, shorten your own workday to instead simply read. Memoirs, essay collections, novels, poetry: try them all.
- Let these books remind you of what made you want to write in the first place. That there is a purpose for their existence beyond sales figures and self-promotion. A purpose that has nothing to do with the egos of writers, but with something larger: The joy of reading words on a page. Of digging into complex truths. Of appreciating the lives of those around us. Of simply being a reader.
- Repeat as many times as necessary. Bank account/work obligations/dependent children non-withstanding, there is no risk of overdose.
Jennifer Case is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). Her essays have appeared in journals such as Orion, Michigan Quarterly Review, Literary Mama, Fourth River, Sycamore Review, and Zone 3. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and serves as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org. You can find her at www.jenniferlcase.com.
April 18, 2019 § 10 Comments
Many of us have sat in the classic writing workshop: the class reads a piece, a discussion happens, the writer keeps their head down and doesn’t talk. At the end of the conversation, the author might get to ask a couple of questions for clarification, or perhaps say something about their intention in writing the piece.
This can be useful—it’s good for writers to learn to listen to critique without defending against it, or pushing back with “what I meant to say was…” because if it’s not on the page, we didn’t say it. It can also be traumatic, especially if the class misinterprets a point in the story and spends the whole time arguing about a meaning that doesn’t matter.
In playwriting, authors often have help. The “dramaturg” is a writing coach/researcher/helper/challenger who assists the playwright. In post-performance discussions, or after rewrites in rehearsal, the dramaturg often leads the discussion, making sure the author’s concerns are addressed. The dramaturg asks follow-up questions, gets audience members and actors to clarify points, redirects the discussion if “how you should write this” starts bubbling up, and afterward, helps the writer process and apply the feedback that’s most helpful to their work.
Writing teachers do some of the same work leading workshop, but often, their job is focused on keeping the workshop moving as a whole, rather than being an individual writer’s advocate. Sometimes, workshops go off the rails or turn into a pile-on, leaving the writer bruised and defensive, or questioning their writing ability rather than the impact of a specific essay. Without an active mediator, it’s hard to truly receive feedback and weed out what’s helpful from what was a tangent in the discussion.
Perhaps it’s time—way past time—to rethink how we workshop. To make it less a test of endurance and more a space of open discussion. Perhaps it’s time to undo the silence of workshop, to let students be part of conversations about their work rather than mere witnesses.
When she began teaching nonfiction, she discovered a key issue. The space of discussing memoir and essay is even harder, because in critiquing the work, there is always some element of talking about the author. Nguyen points out that with cultural and racial context missing between writers and readers, this can be a terrible experience for the author, particularly for underrepresented students.
I was also tired of workshop spending so much time talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended. So one day I did just that: started asking the writer what they meant. And the entire workshop shifted. The mood lifted. The writer and the rest of the workshop could talk about intention—what carried through and what didn’t. The writer could engage in process during workshop.
When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.
The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.
When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing. Almost always, they reveal information that they’d been holding back. In other words, their talking within workshop, rather than at the end of it, helped them process their own process.
In her classes, Nguyen further incorporated the writers’ agency (and the role of the dramaturg) by encouraging students to set the tone of the discussion they wanted to have. Her writers submitted their work for discussion with an added statement of what they hoped to cover, including areas in their work of particular concern in this draft. And,
On workshop day, the writer who was “up” began discussion by talking about how they wrote the story. Where ideas came from, why they wrote it, what they were trying to do. They got to set the stage for their own workshop.
Nguyen writes about how this method sometimes blends with classic “author-doesn’t-talk” workshop style, and what benefits she’s seen in her students work, and her own, from opening up the discussion to include the author. Many of us seeing frustration in our students—and ourselves—can benefit from talking more in workshop.
Read Beth Nguyen’s whole essay at LitHub.
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