March 25, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Kristen Dalli
As an MFA student in the midst of writing a thesis, I’m always looking for more time to write. When classes, meetings, and assignments all migrated online in the last week, I thought having more time at home would mean more time to write. This was the perfect excuse for me to finish my thesis.
I should’ve known it wouldn’t be as easy as that. Writing is hard enough without the general anxiety about the state of the world interrupting motivation that is already hard to come by. Regardless, I spent the better part of the last week beating myself up over not getting enough work done, not making enough progress, and feeling the looming panic of how quickly my next deadline is approaching.
Sleep, too, has been hard to come by. As I was lying awake in bed recently, tossing and turning and talking myself out of panic, I thought back to the conversations I’ve had with friends in my MFA program. I certainly wasn’t alone in my feeling; we all were struggling to sit down, focus, and write.
The longer I lay there not sleeping, the more I thought about the things that have helped me – and the things that have definitely not helped me try to get words on the page. And how in these times of uncertainty, it’s important to find comfort in the things we hold dear. So, my fellow MFAers, here are some “do’s and don’ts” that could help make writing from home during these uncertain times even a little bit easier.
Do: Anticipate that writing will be hard. And that it’s hard for everyone.
As an MFA student, there is always a deadline – or three – looming. Despite everything going on in the world, I was treating my writing the same as it’s always been. I was mentally calculating how many days I had left until I had to submit more work, and weighing the pros and cons of skipping a day or two of writing. I also assumed I was the only one feeling the weight of these uncertain times in my writing practice.
As my friends made clear, I am not alone in my struggles. We all were having a hard time. In a low-residency program, self-motivation and focus are crucial, and both have been incredibly hard to come by recently. This is normal. Expect some bumps in the road.
Don’t: Deprive yourself of breaks.
I’m always worried that I’m not doing enough for my thesis. I’m not writing enough, editing enough, reading enough. It’s hard giving myself space and distance, and it’s even harder when self-quarantining has given me a seemingly endless amount of time. Last week, I wrote three pages. Every day that I couldn’t do more than edit a few paragraphs, I grew increasingly more frustrated with myself. I should be doing more, I kept thinking.
That line of thinking wasn’t helping. It was making me more anxious. After I gave myself a few days of absolutely no thesis-related work, I was able to reopen the document and actually do work I felt good about. I’m still not firing off pages, but I feel better equipped to make incremental progress day after day. Give yourself some space to breathe. To bake. To read something that inspires you. To watch a new show on Netflix. To take a walk. To color. And then come back to writing.
Do: Reach out to your friends and faculty members.
We’re all in this together. We’re all trying to figure out how to incorporate writing into the rest of our new indoor routines. No one knows what it’s like to doubt your work, your routine – all of it – better than other writers. My group chat of MFA friends has been an endless stream of support, shared worries, and distracting memes to get us all through the day.
While we’re all social distancing, it can be hard to feel connected to people – especially those we’re used to seeing and talking with on a regular basis. Writing is a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Stay in touch. Check in regularly. It makes all the difference.
Don’t: Give up.
Writing is always hard. Being an MFA student is always hard. There have been several times over the last week where I’ve thought about how inconsequential it all feels in the face of a global pandemic. I couldn’t see the point in sitting in front my laptop and watching my cursor blink back and forth, taunting me for an hour, while the whole time I’m so anxious about everything else going on in the world.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how silly it felt to even be writing what I’m writing, or writing at all, for that matter. Given the state of the world, everything has felt so trivial and unimportant.
I don’t think it is, though. Celebrate every new word, sentence, paragraph, and page. Big or small, what you’re doing counts. We always need stories. We always need art. Hang in there. Don’t give up.
Kristen Dalli is an emerging writer from New York. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor’s degree in English, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University, where she serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of CausewayLit, and as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe and For Women Who Roar.
March 18, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Brenda Ridley
Assuming that you are up and about during the COVID-19 pandemic, you could view this period of social distancing as an unexpected gift to your writing life. That’s the attitude I’ve adopted as I decide how to use my time while exiled from my job for two weeks.
Last week, Pennsylvania’s governor ordered schools state-wide closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The small independent school where I double as admissions coordinator and office manager complied. While the risk to our students of COVID-19 exposure is probably low, we could not in good conscience remain open while 99% of the schools in Philadelphia shut down. Ours is a very small school but, luckily, one with digital resources that teachers can use for online instruction. Most of my work time is spent on the phone, making sure that teachers have the resources they need, the office runs smoothly, and performing first aid in the absence of a school nurse. I have some online tools that I can use, but only a couple projects that I think I can finish at home. That leaves some open time periods during the day that I don’t usually have for writing. Here is my plan for writing while quarantined with some suggestions that you might find helpful:
1) Keep a schedule. It is so tempting to sleep in when you get up before six o’clock every weekday morning and now don’t have to. But if you don’t set up a schedule for the week, you’ll wonder where the time went and why that essay you started three months ago still isn’t finished. I’ll set my alarm for 7 a.m. and plan to start writing at 9, after exercise, breakfast, and kitty time. I have better focus in the morning, but you should create a schedule that works for you; just schedule your writing time no matter what.
2) Limit socializing. Life as I’ve known it has temporarily shifted. Everything is closed: my yoga studio, the public library, my writing group is on hiatus, even my church is practicing social distancing. Of course you can call, text, or email friends and family, but don’t do it all day. Your pen or keyboard needs you to propel it. Block out a social hour or two when you can catch up and commiserate with everyone each day.
3) Reconnect with your partner, your kids, or your pets. I rush out of the house early on workdays and don’t usually come home until almost six. I see the kitties briefly when I feed them breakfast, but there’s no time for cuddles and chatfests. My partner is still asleep when I leave. While my schedule is more flexible I can carve out some time for canoodling when I’m not drifting off to sleep and muttering incoherently. Imagine the boost some quality time can give to our relationships.
4) Eat well and rest. I enjoy cooking but don’t like to spend all day at it. When home for the day I usually prep dinner early so that at dinner time there is less to do. Doing most of the work early in the day makes it more likely that you’ll eat better instead of grabbing fast food or ordering a pizza. And set a reasonable bedtime that ensures you get enough sleep. A poorly-fed, sleep-deprived writer might produce something, but is it something you really want others to read?
5) Get outdoors at least every other day. There is plenty of evidence that walking outdoors, forest bathing, hiking and other activities make you feel better. My attitude improves considerably when I’ve returned from a brisk walk.
6) Turn off your television. Too much news is not a good thing, and a lot of conjecture by pundits and talk show hosts isn’t news. All of the chatter about COVID-19 is increasing people’s anxiety. If you must know what’s happening with the virus on a daily basis, choose one reliable news source and limit yourself to 30 minutes of “information” per day. Your nervous system will thank you.
7) Put your writing house in order. I know I have two weeks before I return to work or am told to stay at home a little longer. I’m a writing newbie and don’t have tons of projects to work on, but I have at least three essays I’ve not been able to finish. My modest goal is to finish at least one of them and to develop a strategy for completing the other two. If I stick to the schedule I’ve set for myself, I think I can accomplish what I’ve set out to do.
8) Read. No need to say more.
9) Stay open and flexible. COVID-19 has made a fast and furious impact on everyone I know, even though none of my friends or family members have contracted it. All of the twists and turns science is taking in order to get a handle on this virus require us to think about how what we do impacts someone else. Stay flexible enough to shift with the tide of events and follow the lead of experts who know what they are talking about.
10) Finally, breathe and write; breathe and write some more. I came to writing as a late bloomer but quickly found it to be a practice that I can pour almost any emotion into. Some of those scribbles are just for me, not an audience, but writing helps me to clarify my thoughts and emotions so that I can get the junk out of the way and focus on what I want to say. So, breathe and write your way through if you’re quarantined. Appreciate the gift you’ve been given.
Brenda Ridley is a Philadelphia writer who is always looking for ways to fit writing around her job and other obligations. This essay is her first submission for publication.
January 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
It’s a formidable challenge to convey the loss born from divorce in a flash piece, but this is precisely what Maggie Smith does in Ghost Story. She describes how divorce disjoints, how it defines life by a before and after, and how it forever haunts all involved. Smith assures us that divorce is unlike death, but it still leaves ghosts and grief in its wake. Here is an excerpt from her searing essay in Brevity’s January 2020 issue:
When people ask how the children are doing, I tell them fine. It’s mostly true. I tell them I’m grateful at least that the children didn’t lose anyone. They still have their parents, and they have each other.
What I don’t say is when I lost my family, I lost someone, too. The person I’d called my person. In this way, my house is haunted.
January 20, 2020 § 2 Comments
Our newest issue, Issue 63, is out this morning, featuring crisp, provocative essays from Maggie Smith, Lara Lillibridge, Joanna Brichetto, Natalie Rose, B.J. Hollars, Kelly Shire, Marcia Aldrich, Robert Julius, Natalia Rachel Singer, Amie Whittemore, Margo Steines, Matt Donovan, Mary Zelinka, Doug Lawson, and Jill Kolongowski and her Spring 2019 creative writing class. All of these, along with stunning photos by Mike McKniff.
Also new today, in our Craft Section, Jen Corrigan, Jennifer McGaha, Mary Ann McSweeny, and Sonja Livingston discuss impatience and restlessness in writing, the art of discovery, the role of compassion in nonfiction, and how to bring Nancy Drew into your essaying.
Meanwhile, we are still accepting submissions for Brevity’s upcoming special issue, “Experiences of Disability,” to be published in September 2020. We are also still actively seeking some financial support to make this issue possible, and even small amounts go a long way. Thanks to those of you who have already contributed, and to anyone who can help as we go forward.
October 1, 2019 § 8 Comments
Submissions are now being accepted for Brevity’s upcoming special issue, “Experiences of Disability,” to be published in September 2020. You can submit your flash essays here.
For this issue, we invite brief nonfiction submissions (750 words or fewer) that consider all aspects of illness and disability: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of disability is changing. We want essays that explore how disability is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of disability shapes the way we experience ourselves and others. We are looking for flash essays that explore the lived experience of illness and disability, as well as encounters with ableism, and that show readers a new way to understand the familiar or give voice to underrepresented experiences.
The “Experiences of Disability” issue will be guest edited by Sonya Huber, Keah Brown, and Sarah Fawn Montgomery (shown above). Huber is the author of five books, including the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Brown is a journalist and author of the essay collection The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture & Other Reasons To Fall In Love With Me. Montgomery is the author of the recent memoir Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir.
Our anchor author, Esmé Weijun Wang, is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), for which she won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018.
Submissions will be accepted through Brevity’s Submittable page until March 1, 2020. Those for whom Submittable is not accessible or for whom the reading fee of $3 would be prohibitive can email their submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject formatted as SUBMISSION: (Title) by (Name).
Editors gladly accept donations on the GoFundMe for the Experiences of Disability issue, which has a $1,800 goal for the special Brevity issue. This will pay authors and provide honoraria for anchor authors. Any additional money above this amount will be contributed to Brevity, to help with web-hosting fees and other ongoing expenses.