August 3, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Morgan Baker
Imagine a head piece like a crown encircling your head, with a plastic shield attached with Velcro hanging down covering your face – the kind healthcare providers wear to protect themselves from COVID-19 when they’re working with sick patients. The patients are in beds, spewing, breathing and coughing droplets that are potentially contagious and can contaminate the people caring for them.
Imagine a mask – the kind you have been wearing to protect yourself and others from the virus as you walk and shop, and sometimes visit with friends and family. Some of these masks are homemade cotton with ties and elastics. You have used yards of material for your loved ones. The fabrics have been selected with each wearer in mind. Cheery, multi colored dog fabric for the dog lover, darker checked fabric for the men in the family; fabric with airplanes for the man who worked in aviation for 15 years; sheep for the daughter who likes animals; and orange for the son-in-law who loves that color.
Now imagine a classroom full of students. There are 16 of them. Once upon a time, they were in a small, intimate seminar room, sitting shoulder to shoulder, in a circle discussing their ideas for writing projects, and then sharing their work so their peers and you could mark up photocopies with suggestions on how to improve the work. Maybe the work needed more quotes, or better transitions. Maybe the story’s opening wasn’t catchy enough. Maybe the theme didn’t carry through. Students passed the papers along one after the other until there was a pile in front of each person ready to critique. In the small classroom, you and the students got to know and trust each other. You cracked jokes and laughed with the students as they gained more and more confidence in their work.
Take that classroom and stretch it. Now you will be teaching the same number of students but in a much larger space. Perhaps an auditorium or a performing arts space. The 16 students are spaced apart, six feet between each of them, all facing front – some won’t be able to see others. They are all masked. Some are wearing custom made masks; others are wearing paper masks ordered online. The one thing that is consistent – you can only see their eyes. You have no idea what their faces look like, except from the little out-of-focus pictures you get on the registration page on your computer.
You stand in front of this group, with your mask and shield on. Perhaps the school has given you a microphone to help project your voice across the auditorium you are unaccustomed to teaching in. If you don’t have a mic, you’re one of the lucky ones, you have a loud voice, you’ve been told by family and friends, so it should carry. Either way, your voice bounces off the walls of the mostly empty room, and you feel self-conscious with this new technology and garbed in protective gear.
Imagine critiquing the students’ papers in class. No more paper to pass along. No more pens. Only computers, behind which each masked face disappears as they read the work for the day and mark up their peers work online. To comment, students raise their hands to talk. You call on each of them, hoping you get their names right as it’s hard to distinguish them from their eyes. Do they know each other? The students share their thoughts, pushing their words through the masks covering their mouths. There is less room for spontaneity and joy. You are there to get a job done.
Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket (thebucket.com). Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.
July 30, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Beth Morrow
I made a new acquaintance recently who, in his days before three kids, a job in administration, and a divorce, had been an active and productive writer. He lauded me each evening for having sat down during this pandemic to flesh out the essays in my head with a Bic pen in my spiral notebook.
I couldn’t understand why he, as a person who’d felt the pull and power of writing himself, wasn’t doing the same. I thought that’s what writing was for: to internalize and digest the suppositional inanities of the external world into concrete and rational observations. To use our words to transmute the unease and anger and hatred and uncertainty into a story with tangible relevance. Writing has been the only way I have been able to convert the painful and potentially destructive events of my life into a series of stepping stones since I was nine. It has brought me through both my brother’s and husband’s deaths when family and friends failed, clinical depression when no one listened, and panic when leadership had cowered.
Wasn’t that why other writers sat down to the page?
Sure, he said, but it was impossible to get to the point of being able to write again with all the distractions that conspire to consume his days. Besides, he added, the rejections he’d suffered in his submitting days were evidence that he probably wasn’t meant to pick up a pen and keep going.
I disagreed. To me, these were the clearest indications of why he–and we–must continue writing.
Lack of time and focus, fear of rejection, unpredictability, worry. These shadow elements, in differing proportions, conflict in the creative mind to make the path to writing in times of chaos seem insurmountable and irrelevant. When each dawn reveals a new catastrophe or devastating loss, it’s easy to believe that putting more words into the world won’t make anything better. There are too many things going wrong, too many wars waging, too little quiet, too much outrage. The virus. So little makes sense, so much is frightening.
All of these are the reasons we must dedicate ourselves to putting pen to paper. Just as the military analyst has decades of familiarity interpreting complex battle plans to the civilian and the educator possesses the gift of compelling the learner to explore uninspiring content, the writer exists to experience, filter, funnel, and transform abstract feelings and emotions into words to light the way for others. If we can name our joys and gratitude, so too can our readers. If we can grapple with our invisible dread and illuminate anxiety on the page, we can share them. If we can admit the shortcomings of our own human experience with grace, we can spark introspection in a way that fuels hope, change, and growth.
The truth of the matter is that the act of writing allows us to cement the universe’s upheaval to the human condition–the wishes and dreams, fears and failures for the future we all hold–in a way that helps others to process the changing landscape, to face the overwhelm, grief, and sadness inherent in such a time, and emerge with the knowing that no matter the struggle, beauty prevails.
Examining the pain of life through the pandemic, Civil Rights, gender equity, and other crises through words is the writer’s way to absorb the collective energy and focus it through our uniquely beautiful and personal story lens to metamorphose us all forward.
When my friend asked last night about what writing I’d done, I told him I’d drafted a few paragraphs about the importance of writing through big challenges, and how writing is the first step in healing what feels like a life spinning out of control in a world we are struggling to recognize.
“I suppose that’s your way of telling me to get back to writing?” he chuckled.
“I suppose it is,” I confirmed.
Beth Morrow is a writer and teacher from Grove City, Ohio. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and blogs on health, summer camp, language acquisition, and, of course, writing. Visit her on Twitter @Buckeye_BethM and at http://www.BethMorrow.blog
July 14, 2020 § 9 Comments
Let’s talk about description. Readers need to know what places and settings look like, but if an author goes on too long describing them down to the smallest nail head in the wall, our attention tends to wander, because we care about people, not things—and we like conflict between people most of all.
The biggest problem with description is we usually get too much, too soon. This is true for all exposition (yes, description is expository, since it’s “intended to explain or describe”). In Chapter One, you’d be just fine describing people and places that are going to pertain to Chapter Two or Three. What you don’t need to describe at length are places and people we won’t encounter again in the book; you also needn’t go into detail about a place we don’t visit again until much later. If your grandfather only appears in Chapter One, then some very simple description is fine for him. He’s tall and thin with a wispy gray beard, perhaps, and that is enough. A workplace might be described simply as “a field of uniform white cubicles” if we are not setting a major scene there.
You probably already know to pick specific details rather than generalities. For example, we often label places “run-down,” but what does that mean visually? What is the clue that—in looking at a house or a gas station—would lead you to call it run-down? Pick that specific thing and show us, instead of using the same tired description. When you go back to that location, show us another dirty, worn image: the screen door hanging from one rusty hinge, the peeling, weathered porch-boards, and the bare, weedy lawn to help us to construct a mental image of the place.
And don’t describe your main character from head to toe in the early pages in that adjective-loaded bad-romance-novel way (“her auburn hair tumbled down over the neckline of her green silk shantung sheath, revealing her creamy ivory décolletage”). Instead show a characteristic—a way of dressing, walking, or talking that reveals something key. After all, we do this every day. We see a person ahead of us on the sidewalk, and start assembling pieces of their look, actions, and behavior that let us know whether they’re going to ask for money, pitch us a religion, say hi, or just ignore us. If they act too eager to connect with us, we may take out our phone or refuse to look them in the eye.
When I did the content edit on the manuscript of Fourteen: A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing, and Survival (She Writes Press, Oct 2015) by Leslie Johansen Nack, Chapter One began with her family living on a rundown ranch when Leslie was much younger than the title age. There was great writing there—a lot of good description of the setting of the property and of Leslie and her sisters and her parents. The writing was excellent, but it threw off the structure by focusing on the family’s early life, which is not what the book is about.
I encouraged her to begin much later—in 1973, when she was a preteen—moving quickly to some of the early, troubled sailing scenes with her family on the sailboat they eventually take to the South Seas. The opening pages would then show how her father bonded with her over sailing on day one (his unhealthy attention to his daughter, which eventually drove a wedge between him and her mother, is hinted at) and also let the reader know what sort of book it is (see subtitle). I assured her that she could show some of the early scenes in “flashbacks” later on.
Fourteen includes a dysfunctional, abusive family dynamic that was established early in her life, but the book needed to begin with a truer sense of what the majority of the story entailed: sailing and her strained relationship with her father. Showing the whole family interacting on the boat let the author describe them in visual, active ways that revealed their characters, not just their characteristics. For example, the first sailing scene shows the mom and sister getting seasick and Leslie feeling fine, which results in her father’s approval of her, specifically.
Leslie jumped right back in and went to work on the opening chapters and some other trouble spots—for example, we decided that the book should end when the voyage ended. (The effort she went through in cutting those early chapters and restructuring the manuscript was worth it: Fourteen is the recipient of 5 independent book awards, and the book gets 4.5 stars with 700 ratings on Goodreads.)
We have all heard we must “kill our darlings,” but with description and exposition, it’s hard for authors to know which ones to kill and which to simply move later or sprinkle throughout the book. The best advice I can give is to consider your genre, and refer to the book’s one-paragraph pitch or “log line” and see if every chapter—especially the early ones—support or advance your story line.
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, specializing in memoir and nonfiction adventure travel. She has worked on books including The Dining Car by Eric Peterson, Wheels Up: a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel, and Soil-Man by Oz Monroe. Find out more about “Jenny Redbug” and her work at jennyredbug.com.
July 8, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Levy
For the past 20 years or so I was a critic—a critic with some ambition, but no desire to reveal myself separately from my thoughts. I started reviewing books as a sideline when I was in an English PhD program and then I discovered I liked my side gig better than my main one. I got more actual readers, as opposed to what I would have publishing academic papers, where nine of your friends-rivals who are also studying Gertrude Stein would read your essay (or pretend to have read it). Plus, I had an abiding interest in criticism, and as I studied the canonical writers most of them had a bent for criticism too: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot. When I was a critic I was incorporeal, a creature concerned only with judging a book (it was usually a book, sometimes two, or sometimes music or a TV show) as objectively as possible. I was an aspiring 21st century secular version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, an image I studied in grad school which has haunted me ever since: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
So—God thing aside—I reveled in being a critic, in judgment, in writing as if my thoughts were incontrovertible truths. I let some of myself slip in, like my favorite critics did—Susan Sontag, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum—but I guarded the part of myself that could be hurt not if someone did not like my writing but if someone disliked my writing so much that they disliked me. I’ve never asked other writers if they also suffer from this slippage between writer and work, if they feel rejected when their work is ignored or badmouthed, if they can’t help but want to know the writers they admire and to demean the ones they dislike, whether for personal or professional reasons. I was expert at the latter. I kept a list of writers in my head who had gotten assignments I coveted, or who had written something I liked so much I immediately detested the brain that birthed it. The stakes are so low in writing, the plumb assignments so rare, that to indulge in this kind of behavior is pure petulance—but a writer’s ego is a fragile thing.
My struggle with low with self-esteem curtailed my professional ambitions. I didn’t try to submit my work to the best places, and I didn’t really think about why. My insecurity was so ingrained I wondered if I’d ever make it to the next level, the one where the glossy magazines come to you, the one where editors took you to lunch and asked you if you had any ideas, or they emailed urgently to secure you to review the book everyone was buzzing about. Your piece would be on the cover of the magazine, of course, your name in twenty-four-point font.
Now I hope you are not expecting some magical advice about how to escape the most common writer’s traps: low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, extreme bitterness, and death by comparison. The way I did it was simple: I wrote more, and I wrote differently. I burst out of my critical mode, silenced the voices that told me I was too ambitious, too pretentious, and not worthy of critiquing writing because mine was subpar.
For me, the way out of the critical conundrum was to do what comes naturally: to think more about myself, and how I could be more of a presence in my writing. In transforming into the transparent eyeball my graduate school training had stolen the I from me. Seizing the first-person enabled me to make assertions not just as the voice of a publication, or of some free-floating critical entity, I gained confidence. At first I used my new voice sparingly, but as I did it more I started to listen and I liked how it sounded. I started writing personal essays, leaving other writers out of my pieces, and they turned out okay, and then better than okay. I published them, and people responded.
Don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t suddenly land a bushel of personal essay assignments just because I published a few, one of which got a fairly large audience because it was about my migraines and sick people love to read about their own illness. Yet publishing a few was exactly what I needed to feel legitimate, like I didn’t have to lean on the ideas and the voices of other writers. I had learned to redirect my critical voice so it wasn’t dismembering a book—or me—but something in the world I needed to break down, turn over, and discuss with some urgency, like my chronic migraines; my sad and comic dating history; or my love affair with vintage dresses. I worried I would come off as shallow, or pathetic, or deluded. But I didn’t. I wrote personal essays with charisma, with a bit of arrogance, with humor among moments of despair.
In short, I wrote like a human being, like someone who doubts and who believes, who loves and hates, who marches headfirst into the future and who quivers at the idea of the unknown. I wrote like a person terrified of change and eager for experience. I wasn’t just a critic anymore. I was a person, and I wrote like one.
Lisa Levy has been a freelance writer and editor for almost 20 years, focusing on essays, criticism, feminism, and self-fashioning. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Millions, the Rumpus, TLS, Boulevard, Hazlitt, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Crime Reads and is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College. A longtime New Yorker now based in Toronto, she has work forthcoming in Assay, Narratively, the Missouri Review, and Guernica.
July 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dana Shavin
A few years ago, I went to a writing conference in Arkansas. It was a thrilling week that put me in the same room as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, William Whitworth, editor emeritus of the Atlantic, and authors Pico Iyer, Tom Franklin, Kevin Brockmeier, Heidi Julavits, and Wells Tower, to name just a few. My days were structured around 7 a.m. Pilates on a bluff, an hour of culinary demonstrations, two hours of panel discussions with authors and editors, and four hours of writing classes. In those four daily hours we discussed our manuscripts-in-progress: everything from the mechanics to the art of writing.
I went to the conference with a heavy heart: lacking only two chapters to finish my book, I had decided, with the clarity of mind specific to writers in the throes of major depression, that it was a failed enterprise. Ten minutes into our first class, our teacher referenced the “crying fetal position” that writers assume at alternating intervals throughout the writing of their books. We all laughed. And apropos of the kind of comfort you can only get from fellow desolate souls, I felt better.
One of the more mundane discussions we had was about grammar and word choice. “Never use exclamation points in your writing,” our teacher said. We were to use muscular words instead. “And never, ever liken clouds to cotton candy, even if they have a paper cone sticking out of them.”
I am happy to say I do not use exclamation points in my writing, nor was mine the manuscript with the deadly candy reference. I had, however, misused the word “sentinel.” Also, someone helpfully pointed out that, as a memoirist, I might not want to pepper my manuscript with so many allusions to my terrible memory. All excellent suggestions. However it was the “no exclamation points” rule that got me thinking. And not just about writing, but about the aforementioned heaviness of heart.
Our teacher wasn’t advising against excitement, passion, delight, or sorrow; he was making the case for their eloquent expression. Unfortunately, when I look back over the course of my life, including my writing life, what I see is a vast landscape of exclamation points, punctuating—with no eloquence whatsoever—a vast landscape of misery. I have not lived poorly or for want of anything, and yet there is almost nothing but exclamations to the contrary in the fifty-odd journals lining my bookcase that tell the story of my life from age twelve to yesterday. Along with my teacher’s apt visual of the crying fetal position, a line from Joan Didions’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem stayed with me from the conference: “…I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor…”. My sentiments exactly. Misery might love company, but it’s also enthralled with itself.
I am happy to report that, thanks to the generous feedback of students and teacher alike, I left the conference invigorated, and with my book’s heart beating strongly again in my chest. I read back over the pages I’d been struggling with before I left home, and discovered not weak words thrown together by an unstudied mind—what I called them in the departing hours before the conference—but the carefully spun threads of a real story. How grateful I was for that.
And yet I was aware that I had come to no truly altered place. That there is a false and temporary high that is the result of being in the company of others who understand what you’re going through, whether it’s childbirth or book birth. So although I felt better in that moment, I knew I’d merely exited one roller-coaster and leapt aboard another just starting to gather speed.
In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion said someone suggested to her that, as an antidote to crying, she put her head in a paper bag. The bag regulates oxygen intake, Didion explained, which alone exerts a calming influence. But as she also pointed out, it’s difficult to maintain “any kind of swoon” when you are wearing a bag.
Which is exactly the lesson of the exclamation point, I think. Strong emotions aren’t the enemy: injudiciousness of expression is. This is where I would like to grab myself by the shoulders and shake vigorously, and tell myself in no uncertain terms to get a grip. That no life—and especially no writing life—is dismal, no joy compromised, no sorrow unrelieved, except inasmuch as we sound the wail of misery’s monotone siren, and fail to see the nuances of things.
Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, Psychology Today, The Sun, Bark, The Writer, Fourth Genre, Parade.com, and others. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and her memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career, was published in 2014. A complete list of publications is at Danashavin.com.
July 2, 2020 § 26 Comments
By Erica Goss
My favorite rejections start with “Dear Erica” and end with “sincerely.”
They explain that regretfully, unfortunately, after close review, even though it was lovely, even though it sparked interest, even though they were impressed, even though they enjoyed reading it, even though there was much to admire, even though it stood out from the rest, even though they appreciated the opportunity to read it, my work does not fit their needs.
They often seem disappointed. After all, they read my work with care, with pleasure, with interest, with gratitude, and with the closest attention. I almost feel sorry for them. I certainly feel sorry for myself.
Once in a while, the rejection comes with the explanation that they received so much high quality work it made their selection process extremely difficult. This is hard. I understand. I assume, of course, that my submission was part of the high quality work they refer to.
There is often a fee for rejection. This is also called a reading fee.
After I receive my rejection I’m frequently asked to buy something else. I’m invited to make a donation, buy a subscription, enter a contest, contribute to a tip jar, and recommend that others do as well.
Of course, due to the volume of submissions, they cannot respond personally.
It makes me happy when I’m asked to submit again, even if it requires another reading fee.
I keep track of my rejections. No rejection is ever forgotten. It lives forever as an entry in my spreadsheet.
I don’t like to see the word “rejected” in my spreadsheet. I prefer “declined.” It’s easier to see “declined” over and over, page after page, year after year.
I look back at my spreadsheet. I calculate my acceptance rate. From my figures, it seems I have mastered this rejection thing.
When I’m bored, I’ll see if the rejection email from a particular journal has changed. Some journals have sent me the same rejection email, word for word, for years.
There’s a thing called a “tiered” rejection. From a menu of rejection emails, the journal chooses one based on how much they liked your submission. From the rejection emails I have received, I can see that I’ve gotten rejections that range from terse to encouraging and back to terse again, from the same journals. This is true of journals that have accepted my work, as well as the ones that have rejected me over and over.
I try not to send my work to a journal that stipulates, in words similar to these, “If we haven’t responded in x number of months, consider yourself unchosen.” I want an actual, emailed rejection to seal the deal.
However, for reasons that aren’t always clear, those rejections might not come. Fairly often, the journal goes under and fails to inform the writers. When that happens, it’s hard to know what to put in my spreadsheet. “Never heard back?” “Ghosted?” “Crickets?”
I’m never sure if I should consider my work rejected if I haven’t heard back in a year. You’d be surprised how often a year goes by before you hear from a journal.
Sometimes, like curses or wise men, rejections come in threes, on the same day, in the same hour. Sometimes, this is how the day starts.
Rejections have a special look to them. The subject line almost always starts with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”
I’m an editor as well as a submitter, and much of the above applies to me when I receive submissions of other people’s writing. If I have to decline a submission, I try to inform the writer as soon as possible, and in as kind a tone as possible. If I liked their work, I invite them to submit again.
Every time I send a rejection, I remember how it feels to get those emails that start with “RE: Your Submission to our literary journal.”
My rejection might be that writer’s third in one day.
Some days are like that.
Erica Goss is a poet and freelance writer. She served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. Her essays, reviews and poems appear widely, including in Lake Effect, Atticus Review, Contrary, Convergence, Spillway, Cider Press Review, Eclectica, The Tishman Review, Tinderbox, The Red Wheelbarrow, and Main Street Rag, among others. She is the founder of Girls’ Voices Matter, an arts education program for teen girls.
June 29, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Josh Sippie
You’d be surprised what people say. I know I was. When I took my first memoir class at Gotham Writers Workshop, the third week of class was designated to dialogue and the homework assignment was to go eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it to share in class the following week.
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical. What could people actually say? But I did my due diligence, headed to Union Square, sat on a bench and stared blankly at my book, focusing my ears like antennas to pick up a conversation that I could then write into a page of dialogue for class.
There, I heard two women talking about how they were sick of pho because it was too widespread. They liked the Vietnamese soup back when it was unique and hard to find.
It may seem pointless. Who cares about the popularity of pho (other than these two women)? But it’s not about the subject matter. It’s the passion, the context, the subtext, the dialects, the manner in in which they speak. The woman who I heard the most from was incredibly impassioned about pho and being a frontierswoman of the great pho wilderness, while the other woman mostly just nodded consent and agreed with her. Though even without looking, I could tell that she probably enjoyed pho just as much as she used to.
Hence, subtext. On the surface, it’s just two women agreeing that pho has become too popular and thus the taste suffers. But when you actually break down the dialogue, it looked like this (what these women actually said, by the way):
“Can you believe that there are four pho places in Union Square now? I don’t even want to go anymore because everyone goes now. Y’know what I mean?”
“I mean, it’s ridiculous. I remember when you actually had to look for pho.”
So yes, these two women are agreeing about the prevalence of pho. But is the other woman really agreeing, or just actively listening? And what does she think about pho? Is she annoyed with her friend? Because it seems so. Maybe there’s something elsewhere. Does she suspect her friend of doing something unsavory? Are they up for the same promotion at work?
When you read dialogue, if it’s written in such a way to reflect how human beings actually talk, you don’t have to overstate. You don’t have to tell your reader how to read it. They’ll hear it.
Using context and the actual conversation, the reader knows what that “Sure” means. And maybe it also cues up how you might have done things differently. Would you have gone along with the conversation, or would you have taken a different approach? By letting your dialogue outside of its comfort zone, you are opening it up to improvement. The kind of improvement you don’t often get from talking to your television screen or cat. It’s actually a hard thing to listen to yourself talk in a natural, human voice. That’s what other people are for.
Dialogue is at its peak when it is truly human, but you’re not going to get it human through guesswork and writing it according to the Chicago Manual of Style. People don’t pattern their everyday speech based on a manual, they pattern it based on emotion and impulse. If you want your narrative nonfiction to reflect the humanity of the situation, then there better be some actually humanity in it.
Hearing how actual people talk will let your mind start piecing together your own dialogue the way you have heard actual people talk. And it all starts with having open ears. So take out your headphones on the subway and just listen. Maybe you’ll hear something that triggers your imagination, or reminds you of a conversation you had. It doesn’t have to be about pho either (thankfully).
Remember, there is nothing that you overhear someone saying that can then become “unrealistic” dialogue, or an unrealistic way to speak. It’s as real as it gets. And while it’s unlikely that you can just pluck a conversation from your walk to the grocery store and plop it in your essay, actual human voices will be floating through your head, not just words on a page. You’ll hear the inflection of voices, the subtext obtained through simple, curt responses, accents, dialects, made-up words, made-up words said in funny dialects. Every day is an opportunity to improve your dialogue writing if you just put yourself in a position to actively listen.
And what better way to try to cure writer’s block then by sitting yourself in the middle of someone else’s story and hearing the way they tell it? The world is full of voices; you just have to be willing to listen to them.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
June 19, 2020 § 21 Comments
By Melissa Hart
My mother was a professional writer as I am now, and when I was young, she created an office with a thrift store desk and a bookshelf in her garage. She wrote at dawn before my siblings and I woke up, the door thrown open to birdsong and backyard cats, a table lamp illuminating the page tucked into her electric typewriter.
When I woke, I brought her coffee spiked with cinnamon and slipped away to read whatever kids’ novel captivated me at the time. But the details of a writer’s life—the purr of the typewriter in its circle of light, the coffee, breeze blowing in through the door and cats winding around her ankles—made an impression, and I could think of no more fulfilling career to pursue than the creation of stories where there’d been only blankness before.
My mother desperately needed that hour to refresh and heal, to fight off the wild dogs of depression. My father had abused her for years until she fled with her kids to a girlfriend’s house and came out as a lesbian. In 1979, the judicial system regarded homosexuality as mental illness. The divorce judge ordered us to live with our father so we wouldn’t be tainted by our mother’s love for a woman.
Those mornings I brought her coffee and left her alone to write came few and far between; we were only allowed to visit her every other weekend. Her writing represented both financial and emotional survival. For money, she edited a small newspaper and freelanced articles. For solace, she wrote stories at dawn. Some were published, and some weren’t. Publishing wasn’t the point.
This is the part of the writer’s life that has nothing to do with rejection or promotion. It’s not about building platform or networking or attending conferences. This is the part that’s about focus and creation. It’s about donning metaphorical blinders and earplugs in order to concentrate, whether that means waking up before the kids or installing distraction-blocking software or turning a corner of the garage into an office with a desk and a lamp. It’s about respecting yourself and your work enough to provide tools so that both can survive.
I’ve been thinking about my mother and her writing a lot. She passed away a year ago of cancer at age 73, leaving file cabinets of rough drafts, magazine articles, the murder mystery she’d published in her sixties. Her other love was psychology; a PhD scholar, she knew the necessity of developing a habit and a reward system as a writer.
Every day for 39 years, she showed up at the same desk at dawn. The electric typewriter gave way to a word processor, and then a PC. Cats died, and she adopted new ones to wind around her ankles. She sold one house and bought another. Regardless, she woke up and sat down with her cup of coffee and honored her need for solitude and story.
A similar hour has sustained me for decades, as well–as a teen spending nights at a friend’s house after police showed up at my father’s door to cite him for domestic disturbance, through my tumultuous first marriage and my own cancer diagnosis, and last year, the death of the woman most important to me in the world.
My mother was also a runner, as I am now. At a certain point in a workout—Mile Six for me—there’s euphoria, the “runner’s high.” It’s an endorphin flood, a feeling of well-being, a sense that everything in that moment is aligned and joyful no matter what’s happening in the world. That’s the feeling I chase as a writer, as well–a sense of being in the zone, of breathing in contentment for an hour in the midst of chaos.
In the midst of pandemic, of heat waves and police brutality and job insecurity, I’ve been up early each morning to write. My daughter, home from middle school, wakes up later and pads barefoot to my backyard office. I watch her beautiful brown eyes absorb my thrift store desk, sunlight streaming through the open window, the cat curled beside my computer.
I hope I’m showing her what resiliency looks like. She’s been struggling with her history as an infant relinquished by her biological mother and adopted from foster care. As a Black biracial teen, she’s been grappling with news stories, and also with the loss of friends, of teachers, and her dance studio.
This morning, I left my office to help her with algebra, and found her on the couch, laptop open and brow furrowed as her hunt-and-peck fingers found the keys.
“What are you working on?” I asked her, anticipated Spanish verbs or emails to friends.
She looked up, eyes misty with concentration and calm, focused joy. And then she said the words that let me know that she would be okay in this unpredictable and tumultuous and brutally unfair world.
“I’m writing a story,” she said.
Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). www.melissahart.com
June 17, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Mimi Jones Hedwig
When I was working as an editorial assistant in my first job at Viking Press, an eminent book publisher, one of my tasks was to handle the slush pile – the unsolicited manuscripts that arrived as actual pages, wrapped in brown paper and twine, in those quaint days before the personal computer. It was so certain that they would be rejected that I was expected not even to read them.
But I was curious and idealistic. Day after day I would browse the pages of the manuscripts that weren’t obviously amateurish or deranged, hoping for that electric surge up my spine that compelled me to keep reading.
It took two full years for that to happen. One day in 1976 I opened a package and began reading, and, unable to stop, brought the book home with me that night, and the next day gave it to my supervising editor and said, “You have to read this.” The book, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, was the first manuscript to be published from Viking’s slush pile in twenty-seven years and became a blockbuster bestseller and a multiple Academy Award-winning movie, Robert Redford’s directorial debut.
But during the two years leading up to that happy discovery, after a few minutes’ perusal I would pack each manuscript up for mailing back to the author, including an ivory colored card printed with the publisher’s colophon and the brief message: “The Viking Press thanks you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We regret that it is not quite suited to our present needs. With best wishes, The Editors.”
If the author had not included return postage, the archaic courtesy that still prevailed back then required that I type up an envelope and send the rejection slip that way. Even that neutrally polite form letter sometimes provoked wrathful reactions; once I opened a letter to find the rejection card inside, smeared with some suspicious brown matter and the scrawled words: “Take a taste of your own sweet medicine.”
Nevertheless, authors knew at least that their manuscripts had been received, opened, and seen by someone. They were given the respect of a response and could cling to the hope that their work might “suit another publisher’s present needs.”
Publishing has changed greatly since then. There is no longer any hope for an author of being plucked from the slush pile of a major or midsize publisher; these companies do not consider or respond to unsolicited manuscripts, but rely on literary agents to be the gatekeepers. Thus, agents are besieged by hopeful authors. Now that computers have taken much of the toil and expense out of producing a book-length manuscript – no more typing, white-out or correction tape, retyping, photocopying, packing up, and mailing – everyone can relatively easily act on their certainty that they have a story or a theory or a self-help formula that the world is waiting for.
Most of the time the only way to present your work to an agent is a one page query letter, sometimes with a permissible inclusion of a few pages of the manuscript. Agents get hundreds of these letters each week – and somewhere along the line many of them, out of self-defense, adopted the policy of “no reply means rejection.” In other words, in response to their submissions most writers can expect to experience complete, invalidating silence.
The frustration of the querying process drives many people to writers’ conferences where, for an extra fee over and above the conference registration cost, they can meet one on one with agents to make a ten-minute case for their projects. Many authors line up sessions with as many agents as their budget and schedule will permit. If the agent is interested in your description (or, possibly, if he or she wants to avoid the awkwardness of declining the project on the spot), you will be invited to submit some or all of your book.
Filled with hope, you rush home and send each agent what they have requested, in the various forms they require. And then, you wait. And as the waiting goes on into the months, you begin to suspect that you have been – in the current parlance – ghosted, that is, treated as if you and your project were a mere waft of vapor dissipating into the chill mist of utter oblivion.
I think a lot of writers get disheartened, both by the submission process and the new requirement that they come to an agent with an established, robust social media following and a body of short work published in periodicals ranging from the obscure to the major. Also, with our vivid, writerly imaginations, we may speculate that the reasons behind those mute dismissals or pro forma responses are all the criticisms and deprecations that, in our worst moments, we level at ourselves and our work.
The end result of all this is that we may begin to doubt that there’s any point in trying to get published, or, perhaps, continuing to write at all. In effect, we reject ourselves.
Here are the steps I have resolved to take to avoid engineering my own failure and becoming one of the literary ghosts doomed to hover forever on the outside of the publishing world, looking in with haunted, yearning eyes:
- Write daily, always probing for what moves or excites or holds risk, my own truth, the kinds of stories I want to read.
- Seek every day to renew my passion for the process, because I believe that is the writer’s best and surest reward, no matter how little or much worldly success we achieve.
- Repel the sense of futility that discourages me from beginning a new writing project, knowing the huge amount of work it will require and the likelihood of rejection.
- Formulate a publishing strategy: for me, now, a tiered process, starting with querying every agent who handles the genres I’m writing in; moving on, if necessary, to independent publishers who don’t require agents or monetary contributions by the author; and, if no success with those, considering a financial partnership with a carefully vetted hybrid publisher.
- Compartmentalize this process as if, when undertaking it, I commute to a separate room, a bright, efficient, and emotion-free office that is not even in the same building as the sanctuary (solitary, hushed, low lit, mysterious) that shelters and nurtures my creative work.
- Believe in the possibility that someday my work will come before a curious, idealistic publishing professional — who, scrolling through my pages, will sit up straighter at the electric surge that compels them to keep reading and then to tell someone else, “You have to read this!”
After three decades as an editor at Viking Press and Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines, Mimi Jones Hedwig is working full-time on four novels and a memoir.
June 12, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Sorcha Trant
I had misgivings about the concept at first. To me, it seemed a kind of scavenging, a form of literary eavesdropping in which I was embedding myself like an email-worm into the intimate correspondence between another writer and the blank page. But as soon as I began, I realised that Martin Dyar was teaching me to write in the same way that Sr. Kathleen had taught me to knit.
Sr. Kathleen plucked a ball of yarn from the new, cushion-padded bag my mother had bought me and bridged about an inch of the pink wool to her wooden needle before looping it around in a slip-knot. After several more minutes of bridging and looping, Sr. Kathleen had aligned a series of twenty of the same knots in a neat row. I gripped my grey-plastic needle like a pencil in my right hand as she took it in hers and guided it through the first slip-knot with the rhyme: In the bunny-hole. Stretch. Round the bunny-tree. Catch. Through the bunny hole – and off goes she. I repeated the pattern, reciting the rhyme until all of the knots had been transferred from Sr. Kathleen’s needle to mine.
Martin was doing the same thing when he instructed us to emulate Ted Hughes’ “The Thought-Fox.” First, he pointed out the narrative spine he had bridged and looped to his own stylus while studying the poem. He then set us burrowing through the bunny-holes within each vertebra: the sense of immediacy of the present tense; the attesting to a perceptual power with ‘I imagine’; the use of colons to give pace and rhythm; the short, succinct nouns that made an extraordinary experience ordinary. Several rounds of draft-emulations later, I had absorbed Hughes’ technique into my fingers just as I had done at seven years old with Sr. Kathleen.
I have been emulating since Jack-and-Jill-went-up-the-hill. It is not an invasion of other writers’ work but rather a thread-exchange from their hands to mine, a nod to the wisdom and craft of those who have gone before and the thirst to stake a claim over it.
After weeks with Sr. Kathleen, I knew her bunny-rhyme by heart and, getting a particular thrill out of the clinking sound the needles made when transferring a knot from one to the other, I made my own contribution to the poem: In the bunny-hole. Stretch. Round the bunny-tree. Catch. Through the bunny-hole. CLICK, and off goes she.
And just like that, the page is printed. The scarf is knitted.
Sorcha Trant completed an MA in Creative Writing in the University of Limerick in 2019. She operates under many guises. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, you may meet her as a dentist, a harpist or a writer.