On Making Art: Quietly, then Loudly, for Personal Comfort

May 16, 2022 § 11 Comments

Negotiations Have Failed, Nina Gaby

By Nina Gaby

There’s so much to do, “real” stuff, the endless “real” stuff of life that we feel we have to finish before we can go do the unreal stuff. Before maybe a stroll, or writing an observation about that stroll, or scribbling a color found on that stroll. Whatever. We put all that aside so we can finish the vacuuming or the taxes or the real stuff of the day job. Maybe because we feel lucky that we have a day job or a floor to vacuum, we pay penance and we disregard the stroll and the scribbles even though we know they’re important for our health. Then we even pay penance for our health.

And yet today I succumb to the pull of my studio to continue an old series of artwork for my own personal comfort. I don’t even take the time to justify this (after all I’ve had six months of medical tests that included a needle to my head and January’s Covid and February’s GI Flu and March’s Upper Respiratory Flu) so I could have excused myself for my own personal comfort. For a day.

A spate of stinging rejections has left me in front of the TV watching the news with bags of Skinny Pop strewn at my feet, thrilling the dog who licks up the wayward kernels so I don’t have to drag out the damn vacuum cleaner. I simultaneously scroll Instagram for images of others; others who probably don’t have that spate of rejection. I watch them cavort at AWP, which I could have of course gone to, but why.

I finally jump up and announce to the dog, “I’m going to the studio.”

I sit at the table my grandfather made for my grandmother a hundred years ago, in front of the scattered mess I left months ago. The dried up glue, the X-acto uncapped, gorgeous rolls of imported paper unfurling, the blade of the trimmer left upright. So much to get back to.

I tell myself, “You don’t have to listen to the news, you don’t have to witness everything.” So no news while I’m working, just old singer-songwriter playlists with words about Christopher Robin and two cats in the yard, ghosts and empty sockets. No paragraphs, just sentences that I like from old paragraphs maybe in that pile of rejections, in old notebooks, on old artwork that didn’t sell. I think of Sarah Manguso’s comment on the back cover of her 300 Arguments –“Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” And I laugh. Maybe I’ll use no words at all.

I smear some gesso and burn the edges of the tiny Italian cards that I’ll use for pages, sticking them, accordion style, in vintage mini-envelopes from the basement of a dead neighbor, and give myself a hint of migraine from the blending stick I use to do a design transfer. Little books emerge from the mess.

Before I know it I’m singing my heart out to “Graceland.” Yelling a bit, maybe. I love it all so. Again.

___

Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist and psychiatric nurse practitioner who has contributed often to the Brevity blog. In June she will be displaying her little artist  books and mixed media collage with Abigail Thomas and Beth Kephart in a pop-up exhibition — Writers as Artists: Showcasing the Handwork of Abigail Thomas, Beth Kephart, Nina Gaby, and Friends — in Woodstock, NY, at Nancy’s of Woodstock Artisanal Creamery, Friday, June 10th, 12 PM to 4 PM.

The Power of the Prompt

March 28, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Colleen Kinder

I’m one of those writing teachers who swears by prompts. Narrative directives like, “Write about a childhood memory, set in a car.” or “Begin every single sentence with ‘I remember.’” (Hat tip, Joe Brainard). “Write an apology letter to a place.” 500 words, tops. Ready-set-go.

Usually, the more specific the prompt, the more magnificent the outcome. Students I would not have called exceptional writers burst out with essayettes I’ll remember for years. In ten minutes, they slide under the spell of voices so unmistakably their own, grounded in the radiant particulars of their lives. Again and again, it astonishes me: how writing students churn out their finest, most strident work when forced to create inside what seems like a box. All I have to do is design the walls of the container, then flip over the egg timer. Go.

I know teachers who take these constraint principles even further, assigning lipograms—essays or poems in which only one vowel is fair game—and pushing students to the point of exasperation, to the sense of handicap, which only disarms them for amazement at what they improbably produce.

“I’m jealous of your prompts!” I’ve joked many times to my students, because I’m one of those writers who chronically craves more time, more space. When I start a writing project, I easily get lost in it for years, paying zero heed to my snow-balling word count let alone the modest figures in my bank account. In short: I’ve always known, deep down, that the very creative limits I dole out to pupils would do me good.

Seven years ago, I finally acted on that hunch. What if “the prompt” wasn’t such a rudimentary tool, exclusively impactful in the classroom? Perhaps other writers also stood to benefit from some creative straightjacketing. When I asked around, my peers responded to these questions and theories with some version of “Amen,” or “yes, please.” With their help, I co-founded a literary magazine, Off Assignment, whose every column is rooted in a specific prompt.

Of all our early columns, “Letter to a Stranger” was the mightiest, the most universally generative. Write a letter to someone you’ve met in passing but still think about, we challenged writers. Write it in letter form, in the second person. 800-1200 words was the sweet spot, we said, setting a deadline that was arbitrary, but a deadline nonetheless.

Leslie Jamison was the first writer to submit a “Letter to a Stranger” essay. “Immediately, I knew the stranger I would write about: a one-legged traveling magician I’d crossed paths with several times when I lived in Nicaragua,” Jamison writes in the Foreword to Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, March 2022), a collection inspired by this flagship column. Like so many writers I’ve by now worked with on “Letter to a Stranger” essays, Leslie didn’t have to mull the prompt over—not for a month, or a day. Memory had done the work of distilling the scene, casting a strobe light on that one, glinting figure.

“Honestly I didn’t really know what [my letter] would be about,” Jamison goes on. “I just knew it would be a letter to him. And when I wrote it, several weeks later, it came out dark and gleaming and alive, as if it had already existed inside of me, fully formed. A secret stowaway. It just needed a home. The invitation of a letter had given it a home. This invitation said: Write to this man, even if you don’t know why you want to. It said: Write into that mystery.”

Another letter, from Lavinia Spalding, rolled in shortly after—a focused and searing account of a dalliance on a Thai beach. As for journalist Ted Conover, he sort of already had a “Letter to a Stranger” in progress, a side-story jotted down while on a New Yorker assignment in Rwanda almost twenty years earlier.

These seminal letters, published in the inaugural batch of essays in Off Assignment’s “Letter to a Stranger” column, opened the floodgates for hundreds more missives. Stories about missed connections and near-death scrapes; stories featuring gamblers and widows and DHL drivers; scenes set in the northern reaches of Norway, the rainstorms of Benin, Caracas at night, the South Pacific at age 22. 

The letter, it turned out, was the perfect vessel for these particular tales: a form brief and intimate, one keen on collapsing distance. What electrified Off Assignment early on was the sense that we’d found a literary shape that corresponded with a species of story already alive inside the writer. The letter form works like a whispered summons, coaxing out the long-dormant story. Come out. Here’s your place. Come, ghost: fill this nook out here in the world. If you’re going to haunt so persistently, then haunt us all. 

I no longer worry that we might exhaust the form of the “Letter to a Stranger,” thanks to the endless parade of writers who have since walloped me with surprises, bending our prompt in fresh ways. Writers like Anna Vodicka, who wrote not to one stranger, but to a room full of them at a Bolivian hostel; and Rachel Yoder, who penned a letter to the man who stalked her in high school, a fuming missive that felt destined for our collection, and yet entirely unforeseen.

I learned so much from editing the 65 essays that comprise Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us: namely, that any nagging ghost makes for a glorious muse; that memory goes to work on the rough drafts of our pasts like a ruthless editor, whittling them down until all we see clearly are the scenes that glint with significance; and that there’s a great kingdom of narrative at the terminus of a simple, specific question: “Who haunts you?”

I’m convinced now that we “seasoned professionals” often need a dose of the medicine we prescribe to our apprentices. When our students amaze us with their output and their focus, their sudden lyricism and the singularity of their sentences, we’re wise to pay heed to what triggered it: those narrow instructions that sent them right on their way.

_____

Colleen Kinder is an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, National Geographic Traveler, Virginia Quarterly Review, AFAR, Salon.com, Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, A Public Space, and The Best American Travel Writing. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, 2022), and the co-founder of the nonprofit magazine Off Assignment. A former Fulbright scholar and MacDowell fellow, Kinder has taught writing at Yale University, the Chautauqua Institution, and Semester at Sea.

Of Book Burning, Nostalgia, and Little Women: An interview with Jennifer Niesslein

March 23, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Brooke Champagne

How does a self-proclaimed nostalgic square her affection for the past with progressive politics?  How can one remain a nostalgic American when others use that sentiment for ill intent?  Jennifer Niesslein, editor of Full Grown People, addresses these and other issues in her exciting new collection Dreadful Sorry: Essays on an American Nostalgia.  She spoke with me about race, class, family, humor, and Little Women for the Brevity blog.

Brooke Champagne:  Jennifer, I loved this book, and want to thank you for writing it.  Dreadful Sorry could not have been more prescient for this moment in American culture.  I was curious if there was an event or essay or epiphany that created the impetus for this themed collection on nostalgia.  How/when/why was the first idea for this born?

Jennifer Niesslein: Thanks, Brooke! Like most writers, I have my themes I return to again and again. Over the years, I’d been writing essays: The one about my boot-legging great-great-grandmother. The one where I visit my childhood hometown—during an eclipse—for the first time since we left. The one where I talk to a psychic medium. They all start out with some degree of nostalgia, and I didn’t realize this because I’m a nostalgic, through and through. The theme was invisible to me for a while.

At some point I realized that the more regressive people in the country were using nostalgia as a tool for evil. (I live in Charlottesville. I’m not using “evil” lightly.) I wanted to explore how nostalgia—a source of comfort to me—could also create such devastation.

BC: This book feels like a crucial examination of White identity in a way that’s feared in politically-conservative circles.  What role do you think nostalgia plays in the current right-wing preoccupation with banning books dealing with a difficult, complicated American past? 

Jennifer Niesslein

JN: The book banning in schools is part of conservatives’ efforts to undermine public education, no different from the anti-intellectual actions designed to undermine other professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to understanding policy and medicine and justice, etc. If you don’t trust anyone but the people encouraging you to distrust, you can only put your trust in their authoritarian regime.

I can’t really speak for the conservatives, but I suspect that they use nostalgia to appeal to a time when White people—White men, in particular—were considered the neutral standard and everyone else was an aberration. Are you Black, Indigenous, AAPI, Hispanic, Latino, or normal? Are you a woman or are you normal? Do you have a disability or are you normal? I mean, holy hell, Archie Bunker has been off the air for forty years.

Speaking for myself, once I realized that a White perspective is an actual perspective, it opened the door to my becoming a more just person.

BC: I so appreciated how you spoke so openly about class in these essays.  In your essay “Respect,” you note how in college, you learned much about historic female trailblazers, but little about the American working-class women who made you, and built this country.  As not just a writer but an editor, I was wondering how you think this translates into the publishing industry today.  Do you see a particular privilege or pedigree in much of what we see lionized in publishing?

JN:  I don’t know. I can only see from my little corner of publishing. At Full Grown People, I’m definitely partial to essays about class. But I’ve always been struck by what Deesha Philyaw said about publishing rewarding the dominant narrative: writing that reinforces the status quo gets the attention. Class-wise, we definitely saw that with Hillbilly Elegy. And did you see Tara Westover’s piece in the NY Times, “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream”? She’s definitely pushing against the idea that, with enough gumption, anyone can achieve what she did.

Brooke Champagne

I think it’s hard to write about class especially in the big squishy middle (where everyone imagines themselves) because there are such different forms of status symbols. Take my son: he’s a highly skilled musician with a breadth and depth of musical genres that’s rare. But we were talking about a recipe I sent him, and he didn’t know that if the recipe calls for broth, you can just pop a bouillon cube and water in the pot. After we hung up, I thought, “Shit. I forgot to teach him how to be poor.”

BC: There’s such a fun, dry wit in the book that comes from the most surprising places.  Are you intentional about how and where you employ humor?  Is it a way for the medicine (of discussing difficult subjects like race and class) to go down easier?

JN: At this point in my career, the humor is just a reflex. It’s not so much a literary device as it is a life skill for me, so it comes out in my writing.

That said, some passages didn’t make it into the book. When the funny distracts from critical thinking, it doesn’t work.

BC:  In your essay “Little Women,” there’s a reference to your childhood couch having been used on the set of the 1994 movie version.  I’m deeply nostalgic for the Susan Sarandon of that time, before I unfairly blamed her (and many, many others) for the Democratic loss of 2016.  Can you share the story of how your couch made it to 1994’s Little Women?

JN:  Without giving too much away about the essay, I think the couch stands in for a truth my mom knew but we sisters didn’t realize yet.

Part of my identity, though, is rooted in being one of four sisters, and Little Women, both the book and movie adaptations, are the go-to for the four-sister-and-mother archetype. I love any mention of it because I love us. I reread the book not too long ago, and I had to laugh at how preachy it was. There’s one point when Marmee tells Amy that, essentially, Beth is a better person than Amy is. Jesus, Amy, just try. No. Harder.
___

Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for her piece ‘Exercises,’ which was published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019. Her writing has appeared in many print and online journals, most recently in Under the Sun, Barrelhouse, and Hunger Mountain. She is seeking publication for her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face.

AWP Thursday Event: Flash (Nonfiction) to the Future

March 22, 2022 § 3 Comments


If you are attending AWP this week, please drop by Flash (Nonfiction) to the Future: A Speculative Brevity Reading on Thursday morning at 10:35 am, in Room 124 of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Deesha Philyaw, Natalie Lima, Ander Monson and Ira Sukrungruang will discuss future possibilities for the flash nonfiction form and genre hybrids just now emerging, along with brief readings and audience discussion. Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore will moderate.

With the popularity of flash rocketing forward, it is a good time to explore what’s next for this incredibly rich genre, why it is so perfect for the classroom, how it helps us write about trauma and other difficult subjects, the overlap with poetry, and the growing body of memoirs in flash.

Following the panel/discussion, authors from The Best of Brevity anthology wll be signing copies of the book at the Rose Metal Press Table in the Bookfair, Table 550. The signing should start around noon (depending on how long it takes us to walk over.)

See you in Philly!

What We’re Looking For: Michael Steinberg Essay Prizes

January 24, 2022 § Leave a comment

Mary Cappello, Steinberg Essay Prize Judge

From Patrick Madden and Joey Franklin

This winter marks the third Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize , since it was named in honor of Fourth Genre’s founding editor, who died at the end of 2019. It’s also our third year as editors, and the second year we’re also holding a Multimedia Essay Contest. All this has us taking stock of the curious responsibility that falls every year, not only to our guest judges, but also to us as editors. Looking back through the archives, we see two decades of preoccupation with similar questions: What constitutes creative nonfiction? What makes up a memoir? What passes as a personal essay? Since the journal’s first issue, whether it be in roundtable discussions, craft essays, or editorial notes, the directors and contributors of Fourth Genre have attempted to describe, define, and delimit the boundaries of the personal essay. 

We thought it might be useful to any of Brevity’s readers who are working toward their own understanding of the genre for us to briefly highlight some of those ideas from the past 20 years. And we hope it might also give interested readers a glimpse of “what we’re looking for” as we accept submissions for our two contests. 

First, a little wisdom from our personal essay contest namesake, Michael Steinberg:

  • “Most of my memoirs grow out of a need to interrogate my own thoughts and feelings in the hope of discovering something about myself that I couldn’t have found out any other way.”
  • “I also write memoirs because the form suits my temperament and disposition . . . I have a predilection for self-scrutiny and rumination, as well as for self-disclosure.”
  • “I believe that the artfully crafted personal essay or memoir is uniquely suited for our times. I say this because today our need to pay attention to the singular, idiosyncratic human voice is perhaps more urgent than ever before.”
  • “A lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the ‘inner story’; that is, the story of their thinking.”
  • “The mind never stops searching for connections and asking questions. And that’s the thinking/feeling self I’d like to see more of in the personal narratives I read, both as a teacher and as an editor.”
  • “When we’re reading manuscripts, we’re always hoping to encounter a fully present narrator and a curious, idiosyncratic mind and imagination in the act of thinking things out on the page.”

And here are a few gems from this year’s Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize judge, Mary Cappello, author most recently of Lecture (Transit Books, 2020):“In order to write or make art one must be in love, not with an individual per se, but with life itself.”  

  • “Have you noticed that literary nonfiction is getting more and more wisp-like these days? I’m happy for an alternative robustness. The license for a work to morph, to exceed its placement, forgetful of itself, for a spell, even if, in the end, words insist on returning to the airy nothing from whence they spring.”
  • “It’s a problem that I have with finding pretty much everything interesting. It might be pathological. Or it might be what makes me an essayist.”

And finally, from Wayne Koestenbaum , this year’s judge for the Multimedia Essay Contest and author, recently, of Figure It Out (Soft Skull Press, 2020).

  • “What no one taught me is that to write I must sink away from one form of conscious navigation and surrender to what language decrees. I must dwell firmly enough within the language-net to feel that my experiences in the moment of writing are a consequence of the words and not simply their catalyst.”
  • “I believe in the persistence of play. All my writing is grounded in the practice of reckless verbal improvisation. I think it’s Winnicott who says somewhere that health is the ability to play.”
  • “I listen to what language tells me; I instigate the process, but once the language commences its relentless hum, punctuated by doldrum and silence and distraction and Instagram and anxiety, then I occupy the position of the cook who has been given the lamb and the milk and the lettuce but didn’t create them. … I can’t make myself known to you without this rule-governed armature, whose wendings and reprisals must take precedence over my ideas, even if language’s caparisoned marauders need the mulch of my ideation in order to have a ground to trample.”

“What we’re looking for” has never had a straightforward answer at Fourth Genre (nor likely at any other literary journal). We are all looking for good writing, and for those of us on the hunt for the best of the personal essay, we’re also looking for good thinking, expressed artfully.

We hope you find these few quotes to be helpful and inspiring, and if you’ve got a project in your files that you think might fit, we hope you’ll consider sending it to one of our contests by the March 15 deadline.

Brevity’s January 2022 Issue Available Now

January 18, 2022 § 3 Comments

We had to chip away at the ice to make it happen, but our newest issue is live, featuring exceptional flash essays from Beth Kephart, Kerry Neville, Aracelis González Asendorf, B.J. Hollars, Grace Bauer, Sarah M. Wells, Keema Waterfield, Caitlin Scarano, Deb Werrlein, Troy Pancake, Hannah Grieco, and Nels P. Highberg.

Also, three useful and brilliant craft essays: Sonja Livingston reflects on trauma and the writing of actress Meg Tilly, Emilio Williams offers “Queering the Fragment,” and Lesh Karan reviews the importance of form in writing lyric essay.

Thanks to our writers, and to those who have generously donated to make it possible

BREVITY 69 / January 2022

Memoirists: Worried Your Story “Isn’t Interesting Enough”?

January 17, 2022 § 8 Comments

You have a memoir idea, maybe even a first draft, have poured your heart and soul into the project yet the insecure voice that asks “Who will even care?” refuses to quiet itself. When you read what you have on the page, the emotions swell up in your own heart, but you wonder if the words will come alive this same way for a reader.

These are basic concerns facing all writers of memoir. Though our stories – the truth of our pain, our struggles, our progress, our redemption – reverberate on a personal level, we don’t write for ourselves, we write for others. So, how do our personal stories become universal, resonating with readers who don’t know us?

How, as Jeannine Ouellette asks, can we write “the kind of truth that makes somebody else’s heart beat faster with recognition?”

I’ll be offering a 75-minute Webinar in conjunction with Jane Friedman later this month exploring the difference between a Personal Story and a Public Story, and highlighting specific craft choices that help stories resound deeply with potential readers.

Remember this: though writing remains a solitary pursuit, we aren’t alone. Our potential readers are an audience of living, breathing, curious people on the other side of the page. Only by focusing on these readers, by acknowledging that we are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence, will we find a way to truly reach our audience.

I sincerely hope you can join me. The details are here:

Even if you can’t attend live, everyone who registers will get access to the recording. 

Fifteen Fabulous Flash Essays

September 15, 2021 § 1 Comment

Brevity’s 68th issue launches this morning, with brilliant new essays from Kimiko Hahn, Sven Birkerts, Ryan Van Meter, Richard Robbins, Suzanne Roberts, Kathleen Rooney, Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, Sarah Cedeño, Laurie Easter, Gary Fincke, Charles Jensen, Kathryn Nuernberger, Mary Ann O’Gorman, Katerina Ivanov Prado, and Alyssa Sorresso.

In our Craft Section, Abigail Thomas reminds us that vulnerability is a memoirist’s strength, Kim Pittaway examines what we can learn from visual artists about self-portraiture, Heather Durham discusses changes in how we portray animals, and Tarn Wilson details the power of noticing. 

Plus stunning photography by Amy Selwyn.

Please take the time to read our brilliant September issue.

Diversion, Delight and Pleasance: Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany

September 13, 2021 § 2 Comments

In 1348, Boccaccio writes in the Decameron, Florence was gripped by plague. Seven young women and three young men (about the ratio of most writing events) meet on a Tuesday morning in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Living in the city right now sucks, they agree, and so they’ll  

betake ourselves quietly to our places in the country…and there take such diversion, such delight and such pleasance as we may, without anywise overpassing the bounds of reason. There may we hear the small birds sing, there may we see the hills and plains clad all in green and the fields full of corn wave even as doth the sea; there may we see trees, a thousand sorts, and there is the face of heaven more open to view…

In an isolated hilltop castle, the characters set up quite a life. Servants make their beds with fragrant sheets, bring meals and wine, put flowers on the table. In the afternoons, the ten relax in a shady meadow, but rather than spend their minds on gambling, they decide that every day for ten days, each one of them shall tell a story. Those hundred stories form Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Writers, too, need diversion, delight and pleasance in their surroundings. With retreats, the setting is often as important as the work done there. Bringing ourselves to a new location allows focus and stimulation—and a surprising amount of creative power is unleashed when someone else handles meals.

Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams are leading an October retreat in Boccaccio’s hometown, Certaldo. In a small hilltop castle, on a terrace overlooking Tuscan fields, we’ll help ten writers create their stories every day.

Is it…responsible…to travel overseas right now? Is it risky?

ALLISON: I spent July in Tuscany, went to the USA, and was in Florence again last week. I needed negative PCR tests to board international flights and showed proof of vaccination to enter Italy, to dine inside, and to enter public indoor spaces. Tuscany has half the lowest per-capita Covid rate of any US state, has a fully-vaccinated rate of 63% and climbing, and masking indoors is required and mostly followed. I felt much safer there than in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

Much like Boccaccio’s storytellers, we’ll be largely keeping to ourselves, with private airport transfers and our own dining areas and lodging in a small, family hotel. We’ll also be testing before returning home.

What’s the difference between a workshop and a retreat?

DINTY: A Workshop is primarily designed for feedback, where we look at draft pages around a table and ‘critique’ what is working and what is not quite coming across. Our Tuscany experience is instead a Retreat, aimed at both freeing up time to expand the writing and freeing up the necessary head space to think holistically about a large writing project. We will “retreat” from the burdens and distractions of our regular lives, to aim our attention on the joys and struggles of putting words on the page and turning pages into completed books.

What exactly will Allison and Dinty do all week?

DINTY: Some days have formal classes to help get the wheels spinning, and as Retreat leaders, we’ll be sitting down with everyone individually to work through manuscript problems (and opportunities). But we will be available as coaches at every step along the way, to discuss small issues in the text or larger concerns about sustaining your writing project. Plus, we will steer you to some lovely Tuscan destinations when the time comes to relax.

ALLISON: I truly love being “at the table.” When a writer hits a tough spot, we can step out and talk through the challenge, getting them back to the page. We’ll meet with each writer via Zoom before the retreat to make a clear plan for what they want to accomplish (writers can bring an idea, a full draft, or anything in between), and meet again after returning home, to sustain the momentum.

Also, gelato. I will be eating a lot of gelato. Some of it onion-flavored. (It’s a local thing, and way better than it sounds!)

DINTY: I may not be eating the onion gelato. But I’ll be eating gelato for sure!

I’m not ready for this.

ALLISON: That’s OK! We might see you virtually in January, in Costa Rica in Feb/March, or next year in Tuscany! This is not your only chance to retreat with us. Meanwhile, please make time for your work when you can. Check into a local AirBnB for a weekend, or train your family that Wednesday afternoons are sacred. Or focus the emotional power you have on keeping yourself and your family safe in this weird time. Writing will always be there when you come back.

DINTY: These are difficult times. I admit some initial hesitancy about travel right now, but I researched how airlines are enforcing masking and safety and how Italy looks right now and I feel confident, especially given the precautions we will all be taking. A trip like this is just what I need. Maybe it is for you too, but if not, stay safe. We’ll see you another time.

I’m totally ready for this.

DINTY: We still have spots for two writers and we’d love for you to join us. Here are the full details including cost, daily itinerary, FAQ, and photos from the 2019 Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany. Get in touch through the contact form with questions.

At the end of their retreat, one of Boccaccio’s young men says,

I have seen and felt here a continual decency, an unbroken concord and a constant fraternal familiarity… I hold it meet, if it be your pleasure, that we now return whence we came…

That’s what we hope our writers will return with, too.

Getting Together Again

August 17, 2021 § 9 Comments

I’m going to a writers’ conference! With workshops and panels and book sales and a lot of strangers and oh dear god what if none of them like me? What if all the workshops are too advanced, or too basic, and I have no idea what the Liminal Space Outside the Academy: A Feminist Perspective Through The Work of Dickinson and Gay As Realized In Graphic Novels panel is talking about? Am I too old? Am I too young? What if I haven’t had anything published yet?

Good news: we’re all welcome. Conferences, both online and in real life, are a great chance to meet and talk with writers of all ages and stages. Most conferences have purple-haired college kids, silver-haired seniors, and a variety of pantsuits, piercings, ties and tattoos in between.

I’m just about to teach at the Woodhall Writers Conference this Saturday, and I’ve just taught at the HippoCamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA. There were/are some terrific panels (none of them use the word ‘liminal’) on publishing, researching, writing, promoting and a lot more. (It turns out the key to getting ahead as an author is pretty much the key to everything else–work hard, be nice to people, and don’t tweet “Buy My Book!” every hour because everyone else will mute you.)

Some thoughts on how to make the most of attending a writing conference.

Before you go:

1a) For a virtual conference, set up a reasonably private space and brief your family that you won’t be answering calls or texts unless someone’s on fire. Have your water and coffee handy. Maybe make some meals in advance so you can enjoy thoughtful breaks rather than rushing to your kitchen. Consider starting your day with yoga or a walk, even if you don’t usually, to energize the morning.

1b) Going live? Decide whether to stay onsite. Conference hotels are often expensive, but when your day starts at 8AM and the last reading finishes at 11PM, it’s nice to have a last glass of wine and hit the elevator instead of the pavement. If budget’s an issue, see if you can get a roommate–most conferences have a message board to share rides and rooms. Or, if you’re more of a hermit, retreating to an offsite AirBnB might be your jam. I’ve been fortunate to be in a sunny, plant-filled studio this week, and it was worth it to book a few extra days on each side of the conference for personal writing time.

2) If you have an author website, update it. Make sure your links aren’t broken and that your most current work is represented. If you have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, check your page from a friend’s account and see what shows up first. Any embarrassing pictures? Is your top post a rant? You’ll be friend-ing/following a bunch of new people, and you want to give a strong first impression. What if an agent loves your query in a workshop and clicks over during a break? Be you online, but be the best you.

3a) Check your virtual space: does anything look like it’s growing out of your head? Is your background over-bright or distracting? If you’ve got a book out, display it on a shelf behind you!

3b) For live conferences, pack comfy shoes, layers and a jacket. Most convention centers and big hotels are freezing, especially first thing in the morning. Dress code at most conferences is Casual Friday–professional but comfortable, often a little quirky.

4) Get on Twitter. Specifically Twitter. Find out what the conference hashtag is and follow it. Even if you never tweet again, Twitter is where people are commenting on the panels, making dinner plans, and announcing schedule updates. It’s worth it to be in the loop. If you’re virtual, chances are there’s some backchannel messaging going on, too, and it’s a great way to connect with fellow attendees.

At the conference:


1) Go to everything. It’s worth getting up early, it’s worth staying out late. Sleep when you go home. That said,

2) Don’t be afraid to bail. If you’re exhausted and can’t focus, slip upstairs to your hotel room or turn your camera off and take a power nap.

3) Make the first move. As the Victorians said about fellow houseguests, “The roof constitutes an introduction.” It’s OK to sidle up to a conversation in progress, make some smiley eye contact and start listening. Find people on social media and see what they’re up to. Like what someone just read? Send a private chat message. When in doubt, start with “How were your workshops today?” And the best follow-up question ever: “What do you write?”

4) Volunteer. If there’s a chance to be read or heard, jump on it. There’s always a pause before the first person volunteers–fill that pause. After the first person it will be a scrimmage and not everyone will get a turn.

Corollary: Ask good questions. Before popping up to the mic or raising your hand during the Q&A, ask yourself, “Will this be relevant to at least half the room?” If your question is “I’m writing a memoir about my mother, do you want to buy it?” phrase it as, “What topics are you seeing in memoir right now, and what are you looking for? Are there a lot of parent-child stories?”

When you get home:

1) Follow up. Everyone whose card you took, send them an email saying how nice it was to meet them, and/or connect through your preferred social media. If you’ve got free time, send out a few links to articles you think would interest specific people. Start building your literary citizenship by being useful and kind.

2) Keep the energy going. Register the domain for that blog idea you talked about. Query that agent who seemed really nice. Ask someone to be your writing buddy.

And of course, write write write.

See you at the Woodhall Press Writers Conference this Saturday! I’ll be giving a keynote address; there are small-group workshops, a pitch panel and more. Register here.

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Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.

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