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.
June 9, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
I am a writer. Combining words to forge meaning makes me feel whole, alive, as if I matter.
The global pandemic and quarantine measures to slow its spread changed the way we live, on a granular level, perhaps irrevocably. For me, as I imagine for many others, time seemed suspended. Connections to the world beyond the walls of my home and the tree-lined streets of my suburban neighborhood, were severed. Untethered from accustomed routines and obligations, I floated in a bubble. One day became another, then another, indistinguishable, unhinged from any broader context, meaning or purpose.
As the monotone days mounted, it became increasingly implausible to presume that anything I might write, or not write, do or not do, mattered. I wandered without a compass to orient myself, on the page, or in life. Suspended in time, I whined and worried over the loss of my creative spark. I took naps and consumed massive quantities of processed carbohydrates, all because the words wouldn’t come.
The brutal murder of George Floyd ended my quarantine limbo, jolted me back to reality, to the state of this nation.
I am a writer. I have long pictured nirvana as a secluded mountaintop cabin, a writing desk with an expansive forested view, my mind unfettered, free as an eagle to swoop and soar. Months of quarantine have convinced me seclusion isn’t the key ingredient, and that, though I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I am also connected, part of a community, a country, and the wider world. Absent those connections, relevance, significance and context are thwarted, minimized by self-absorption.
What happened to one black man in Minneapolis, and so many other black men and women, matters. This is our nation, our society. One where hatred and divisiveness, disparities between rich and poor, homed and homeless, black and white, have mushroomed in plain sight. One where truth is fast losing any meaning or importance, facts are considered opinions, and civility, decency and respect are belittled. One where privilege is so ingrained in white America, it’s hard to see, easy not to try, easier to enjoy and benefit from the rights and privileges that under the law should be afforded all Americans.
This latest unprovoked killing of a black man can’t be undone.
I miss President Obama. I miss believing we are on a path to a better, more equitable life for all Americans. I miss believing that what is good and right and fair will prevail in the end. I miss believing that there is an American dream, a dream any man, woman or child, anywhere in the world, can aspire to. I miss believing there is justice and liberty for all.
America, as one nation, undivided, never was. We are north and south, east and west. An agglomeration of territories wrested from the indigenous Native Americans. Stamped with the identities of conquering European nations. England. France. Spain. Enriched by waves of immigrants from every continent. A mix of languages, religions, ethnicities and cultures. We are the melting pot, the tossed salad, the seething cauldron. We are brutal crimes against humanity and moments of light, of wisdom and grace. We are welcoming arms and border walls, inclusion and bigotry, brave laws and surging white supremacy.
I am an American. Which means what? That I was born here, first generation on my Philippine-born father’s side, more deeply-rooted on my mother’s. My DNA may be mixed, but based on physical appearance, I am white, and on that basis alone, I enjoy the benefits of passing and blending, of not having to consider race, skin color, ethnicity or religion when I go about my business. No policeman, authority figure, gatekeeper or garden-variety bigot, is going to see me as distinct from the background. Just another white woman.
I am a writer. I work at combining words in ways that show me something I hadn’t realized before, that amuse, teach, reveal, deepen, touch and heal. I am responsible for the wrongs I lament, the optimistic, brightening world-view I miss so much. My words must do better, be better. I must do better, be better, at stepping outside my protective cone of white privilege and working, speaking, acting, writing towards solutions, towards equity and the elusive American dream.
Our words and actions matter. Both can hurt or heal, build bridges or widen the gap.
Black lives matter.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60 from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. She now works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit, and co-directs Stories on Stage Sacramento, a literary performance series. For more information visit dorothyriceauthor.com.
June 5, 2020 § 5 Comments
By Carole Duff
I sit among workshop attendees in Leslie Leyland Fields’ living room at Harvester Island, Alaska. Although never actually having been there, I hear fishing boats puttering by outside her house. Fields reaches for a blue marker and writes a prompt in cursive on the whiteboard: For once, I want to tell the truth about when I lied.
Now, in my own living room, I set Fields’ book aside and search my memory. In a past living room of nearly thirty years ago, I see and hear myself say, “I love you,” to a man on the other end of the phone. A lie. The truth: I didn’t love him anymore, and given how much pain had passed between us, it was hard to remember when I had.
Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life by Leslie Leyland Fields is a product of Fields’ three decades of teaching and writing. What sets her craft book apart from others is its spiritual focus. Fields calls us to remember, as the Jewish people were called in the Old Testament, to seek the truth and bring language to the silence, and to teach others.
…do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Deuteronomy 4:9 (NIV)
Fields’ book is a practical guide to writing narrative nonfiction. She weaves her own journey as a memoir writer with scenes from teaching and also offers her students’ work through chapters about mapping, creating scenes knitted together with summary and reflection, gathering stories, discovering their outer and inner arcs, editing, structuring, and sharing. Each chapter ends with “Your Turn!” exercises and examples.
As Fields’ writes: “Every time we lock up a person, an event, even an entire decade in the Closet of Forgetting and Denial, we’re robbing ourselves of the strength and wisdom that can come from those experiences.” And when we unlock ourselves, we pull off our masks and discover opportunities to transform. Transformation memoirs are for me the most meaningful.
Back in Fields’ living room on Harvester Island, she asks, “What was the lie that you told? Where and when did you tell it? Why did you tell it?” Hunched over my laptop, I recall the where and the when of my lie. And the why: Because I wanted “I love you” to be true; because I wanted to hear him say, I love you, too; because I’m not above manipulation to get what I want.
The Closet of Forgetting and Denial opens. By unmasking myself, I find the truth, write the truth, and begin to live the truth. And share it.
Fields: “We cannot be the heroes of our stories because these stories aren’t actually about us. We’re not studying our lives simply to know ourselves better (though this will happen). Or to offer up to the world our own guttural howl and yelp to the moon. (Though occasionally that is just what is needed.) We are not writing to justify or defend or ennoble ourselves. We are far more ambitious. We’re after growth, however painful. We’re after truth, however hard. We’re hoping our words will serve others.”
As you sit in your living room during these strange days of isolation, remember what your eyes have seen and your heart knows. Teach this wisdom to your children and their children after them. Honor the ancient calling, because as Leslie Leyland Fields says, Your Story Matters.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Faith, Love, and Forgiveness. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large, overly-friendly shelter dogs plus a new shelter puppy, who’s learning that living rooms are not for piddling.
June 3, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Michael Lewis
There is a fine line between just enough and too much information. The trouble begins with the simple urge to over-explain—just a few details here, one metaphor too many there. This slippery slope ends when the reader discovers you are not giving them credit to figure things out on their own. Once the bond of trust between you and your reader starts to decay, it’s all over. Your story loses its wheels and ends up abandoned on the side of the road.
E. L. Doctorow famously wrote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The analogy is meant to inspire the writer who may not know exactly where their story is headed. I think it also serves nicely as a reminder of just how much to share with the reader.
Let’s stay with the road analogy.
The reader assumes the road of our story will traverse some flat land, mountains and valleys, and hopefully encounter some hidden turns or dead ends along the way. There will be intersections in the narrative and the reader will need enough information to guess whether to turn right, left, or keep going straight. Sometimes either direction will get the reader to the same point, though one route might take less time, the other perhaps more scenic. These are our artistic choices to make and, done properly, will nudge different readers in different directions. Some will keep right on going and not even consider turning. All of these options are viable as long as everyone ends up at Point B. This is one of the joys of writing—to hint at what lies ahead so the reader has something to which they may look forward. Provide the essential information but parcel it out. Think of it as shrewd generosity.
Let your readers make connections on their own and try not to beat them over the head with your cleverness. Be subtle. Even if your writing is delicate, delicacy is not always subtlety. Don’t advertise your prowess. In a novel, advertisements of this sort take up precious space that could otherwise be used for something interesting or useful. In Travels With Charlie: In Search of America, Steinbeck quips about the phenomenon of billboards and highways, writing, “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” Learn to couch your cleverness. Let the reader’s light bulb go on a sentence or two after you give them the hint. If they miss the turn they can always circle back.
Another way to think about it.
Imagine the reader is in the car with you. Or better yet, give them their own car. Do that in the first chapter. Give them the keys, fill it up with gas, and make that contract with them that will become their road map. It has sketchy details at first, but the further they travel the more information they will mentally input onto their map. They may or may not know they are driving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They only know they are heading north and west to begin with. This is enough to get them started. Maybe give them an idea how long the trip might be so they can begin to plan. Who is riding with them? Always good to know.
A paragraph is its own concise set of directions with opportunities to engage the reader on every page—the sentence, tighter yet. It is easy to get so caught up in the way a sentence or paragraph sounds, how they make us feel, i.e., style, tone, that we completely forget to give the reader space to interpret. Remember, our readers have brought things with them on this trip—a cooler full of ideas, preconceptions, comparisons, reasoning skills, bias, not to mention their needs and desires as a reader, their demands. And sometimes they want to reach into that cooler and be surprised. Trust your reader and be good to them. This is probably not their first time behind the wheel and they have taken road trips before.
One hazard to look out for is repetition. It makes the reader want to nod off and who knows where they will end up. Look over your paragraphs and sentences. Are there phrases that can be cut? Beginning writers will frequently describe something a couple different ways, often within the same sentence, simply because they like the way it sounds. I have certainly been guilty of this. The reader doesn’t need both. Choose one, then write the other one down in your notebook in a section called Analogies, or Nice Phrases, or whatever. That’s where it belongs. You can even group them by subject or character. Be creative…and organized. You can use it down the road with no strings attached.
Rules of the road.
Travel light. If you’re not sure you need it, you probably don’t.
Trust your instincts.
Act on your instincts!
Don’t get sidetracked by all the pretty little things.
Pay attention. Always.
Don’t leave your reader stranded for long. They will find another ride and hang with you if you are lucky, but they may just as easily turn around and go home. You have invited them on this journey and are asking them, in Doctorow’s words, to make the whole trip with you. So pay attention and for the most part, keep the car on the road.
Happy writing and don’t forget to turn your lights on.
Michael Lewis daydreams and writes from his home in Indiana where he finds inspiration walking the open fields and low hills of the Wabash River Valley. He is currently at work on his first novel.
May 25, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Josh Sippie
It’s hard to argue that the whole “you only get one chance to make a first impression” logic doesn’t also apply to writing. The first line of a narrative is the first foray into the voice of the author, the creativeness, the style, the everything. If that isn’t on par with what you, the reader, are looking for, then what’s leading you to believe that the rest of the narrative will change? For that matter, why should you give it the chance to change when there are so many other options out there to consume?
So what makes an interesting first line? Let’s take a look.
Take, for instance, the first line of The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls.
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”
Simple, but enticing, no? There is no throat clearing, no preamble, no walk-up, nothing hokey about it. The story begins in the very first sentence. If you plant their feet in the story in the first line then the only reason they will leave before the next sentence is if they just don’t like your voice, your style, your story. And you know what they say—don’t write for everyone. Because you’ll never please them all.
Give your reader the story immediately. If that means starting in the middle of action, like watching your mom root through a dumpster, great. Start there. The story is already in motion and the reader is now part of it. They’re asking themselves all kinds of questions: What was Jeanette doing that evening? Why was her mother in the dumpster? What was she looking for?
Or, if you don’t want to start in the middle of the action, try introducing conflict. Take Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find for example.
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
Why not? What grandmother? Why doesn’t she have a name?
Or try intrigue, like in I’m The One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell.
“Susannah was murdered just before Christmas but I didn’t find out until after New Year’s.”
Who is Susannah? How was she murdered? Why didn’t Andrea know?
What do all of these beginnings have in common? The reader is asking questions. If they are asking questions after the first line, they will be curious enough to try the second. If you force them to ask questions—good questions, mind you—they will seek out the answers.
That’s not the only method, though it’s a great place to start. You might also try poking their emotions. You only have one sentence, so don’t try to drop the weight of the world on their shoulders all in one fell swoop, but giving them a prod to make them smile or worry or feel empathy towards the protagonist is another way to ensure that the first line does its job.
One of the best examples comes from Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind Of Girl.
“When I was nine, I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it.”
Are you smiling? Because I am, and this isn’t the first time I’ve read that line. If you can get a genuine smile from the reader with one line, they are going to trust you for more smiles in the lines and pages to come.
Maybe you’re not writing a smiley piece, though. Cory Taylor wasn’t in his Memoir (and the title should give the tone away) Dying: A Memoir. But his first line does the trick:
“About two years ago I bought a euthanasia drug online from China.”
Worried yet? (It also makes them ask questions, but we’re past that part.)
Both Dunham and Taylor accomplished the same thing in their first line with very different tactics. They poke the reader’s emotions. And since both stories are marketed to the right audience, that effective poke is what made their entire story so effective.
The tried and true method, no matter the approach, is to think like the reader. When you go to read an essay, or pick up a memoir, or a poem, or an article—what do you look for? You look for intrigue, emotion, adventure. You want to ask questions and have them answered. You want your emotions to be poked and prodded and taken for a ride.
Do the same for your readers. Get them to ask questions that they then seek the answer to, or get them to feel something that they want more of—that’s how to ensure they get to sentence No. 2.
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.
May 20, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Anna Rumin
For the past five years I have been designing and teaching memoir-based writing courses at our local university. Once a week, for a period of five weeks, participants arrive with a memoir based story that they have prepared to share with the group. During the week, they commit to writing for 15-20 minutes a day using prompts.
Writing is a lot like anything else – the more you do it, the stronger and more comfortable you become as a writer. In the final week, participants arrive with a story of up to 1000 words that they want to share with friends or family or a publication – it is the one and only class in which I ask them to think about giving and sharing their story as a gift, as a piece of writing that plays tribute to what we don’t want to forget.
My focus as a teacher is to give the participants enough prompts and enough writing exercises that they are never without a story to write. And let me assure you, that almost every single participant who has sat around that table has had a story that we have carried with us long after the class is over.
We write to taste life twice ~ Anais Nin
We’re cocooning now. If you have a quiet place to write, be it on paper or on a computer, you too can begin recording and collecting the stories from your life. To get you going here are some prompts – remember, write with abandon, don’t stop to edit and don’t overthink anything.
- Make a list of the things you have learned to do: tie your shoes, dive, break into a car, drive standard while smoking a cigarette and drinking a coffee, milk a cow, ski, bake a cake, play the violin, build an outhouse, ice-fish, make bread, make wine, make beer, speak a third language, sew, knot pearls, build a stair-case, sail, skin a fish, catch a fish, train a dog, train a toddler, pluck a chicken, get along with an in-law – now write the story.
- How about all the stuff in your house that has a story but nobody wants? Take photos of the teeth-marks on the dining room table, the Royal Doulton figurines your mother collected, the paintings your great Aunt Margaret gave you, the stamp collection left to you by your grandfather, the maroon velvet footstool found in the attic of your house, the collection of beer bottles, the old clock… What is the story of that table and who has sat around it, and what are its happiest memories? Write the story – and even if nobody wants that old table, tell the story of what you know from having kept it for so long.
- How about your clothes and jewelry? Tell us about your scarf collection and why you have so many shoes and why you insist on keeping that damn bathrobe? What are the stories hidden there?
- Put a photo of your mother in front of you. Make a list of the things your mother held in her hands – choose one thing each day from the list and write the story. Do the same for your father, for yourself.
- What animals have played a role in your life? What do you know from having had a pet that you didn’t know before? What do you know from having watched wild animals – write about that raccoon you found hiding under the kitchen sink, the fox that waited outside your door, the crows that wake you up every moving.
- Where and from whom did you hide when you were little? When were you most scared? Most excited? Most in love?
- Have a look at your library – the one you have and had – what are the books that have played a role in our life?
- Make a list of strangers you have encountered. Now write the story.
- Look out the window, go down memory lane and write about the first time your heart was broken.
- Look out another window, go down memory lane and write about the first time you experienced loss.
The key is to recognize that even the smallest of things can carry huge stories; things like the stuffed animal you still have, the letters from your first love, and the wooden spoon your grandmother used to stir the applesauce in the years before she forgot what applesauce was. If you’re cocooning and thinking about writing, just start and remember: keep everything, honour every single story you write. And remember to pay attention to the stories that you want to give as gifts – gifts that you created during that time Mother Nature demanded us all to cocoon.
Anna Rumin is a native Montrealer whose identity has been shaped by the political landscape of her home province, her Russian roots, a passion for life-long learning that has been woven both formally in academia and informally through travel, voracious reading and writing, and a love for the stories hidden in our natural world. Her interest in narrative inquiry stems from her belief that not only do we all have a story to tell, but that our stories help us to better understand who we were, who we are and who we are becoming. She has now designed twelve memoir-based writing courses that invite participants to think of themselves as the narrators of their life as seen and written through a particular lens. Regardless of who she is working with, Anna is committed to supporting those she leads, by providing them with opportunities to set and meet their goals. In her spare time Anna writes short fiction and has been the recipient of numerous awards.