May 19, 2020 § 11 Comments
As a widely published writing coach, NYU writing professor, and assigning editor, my current and former students have been sending me pitches, op-eds and essays about why they are “breaking the rules of quarantine.” Sometimes they offer the justification that they have health, mental or emotional issues, and that’s why the rules shouldn’t apply…not to them.
In the midst of this crisis, it’s not the time for writers to grasp for splashy pieces founded on flaunting their ethical failures or illegal methods to sell their memoirs or build their platform. It will backfire.
As a writing teacher, a big part of what I do is save people from their worst instincts on what stories need to be told and how they need to tell it.
Students share their darkest moments with me and I help them craft their pain into stories that are published in top tier publications. I believe that care is a key reason I have been entrusted with training teens in journalism in NYU’s summer program.
What I don’t do is encourage them to exploit their pain to get a quick clip. Let me break it down for you:
We tell our kids with social media that once it’s up, it’s out there forever. So let’s take a slice of our own advice. If you broke the law, faced down a cop, stole money, betrayed your marital vows, or played a prank on someone that ended with tragedy, why would you want to advertise that? It can’t possibly benefit you or your family. People will get mad, and may want revenge. Whether they send your essay to the cop you proudly thwarted, testify against you in a child support hearing, or take action to have you pay what you took back to society, think twice about writing about it.
Instead: If you’ve done something that shouldn’t be publicized and you are compelled to share it with the world, write it into a novel. You will get points for imagination, even if it is the truth.
Let’s also not confuse revealing, first-person pieces with clickbait. I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing humiliating stories that never take their careers anywhere.
The reason that happens is that those clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something that happened to the writer, but offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep.
I’m all for a revealing, first-person piece and have written many of those pieces myself. But those pieces need to do something important: the reader has to relate to the writer and to do that they have to understand the emotional underpinnings of why the writer did what they did, and then some transformation or learning has to take place.
Anecdotes need to have a broader focus. Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book The Situation and the Story references the external—the logistical situation; and the internal, which is the story. The story is the heart, the part that shows the emotional underpinnings which make up the narrative arc of an essay. Without it, the essay is simply a situation, or clickbait.
Bottom line: This is a fraught time and there are people suffering, so please think twice about sending essays into the world that open you up for many legal and emotional ramifications and attacks. There is no smart way to sacrifice your integrity to get that byline. You may get notoriety—but not for your work. Just for being a jerk.
Estelle Erasmus, an award-winning journalist and writing coach, has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Week, Insider, The Independent, Parents Magazine and more. She is an adjunct writing professor at NYU and an ongoing guest editor for Narratively. She also teaches for Writer’s Digest, writes a column for Forbes and hosts/curates the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Estelle can be found giving publishing advice on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
April 27, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
I believe in keeping a journal. Daily, weekly, twice-monthly, whatever. I began to keep one regularly about seven years ago when my son was born, and I’ve mined the diary for material that made it into several essays published by well-known outlets. I also simply enjoy using it as a repository for resolutions, observations, ongoing concerns and funny comments from my second grader. It’s become an essential part of my life, and I suspect a key ingredient to my well-being.
So now that I teach writing, I always encourage my students to keep a journal – whether they are undergrads, graduate students or the kids I teach in summer camp. Write whenever you can, I say. Take your mental temperature, I tell them. The journal can be a place for observations from your daily life or a running log of ideas for future assignments, I say. The habit will reward you, I add, as they look at me with an air of disbelief. Yet I have not found a satisfactory way of checking if they are keeping the journal without invading their privacy, and I suspect many don’t bother with it beyond the first few weeks of class.
Until now that is. When my graduate memoir writing class went online because of the coronavirus epidemic, I decided I should explore some of the tools of our class’s cyberhome on Moodle. Tools that I probably would otherwise have ignored since live teaching provides so many normal points of connection. Plus, how many discrete assignments can students juggle? My course meets at night after the students have put in a full day of work.
Take the forum feature. If I want to create more work for them – more stuff to do between our weekly classes – I could post questions there about our readings. But why not just incorporate those questions into our discussions?
Yet on a whim, I wondered if using the forum tool to create a weekly diary might make sense so I inserted one during the first week of our confinement that was simply called ‘Coronavirus Journal.’ I told them they should not see it as a mandatory assignment but rather as a refuge.
I wasn’t sure how that would sound. I know when I tell students not to worry about their grade point averages but rather if they are learning, they mentally roll their eyes. Perhaps it would be the same with this new journal assignment.
I needn’t have worried. Judging by the voluminous entries some have posted, they are galvanized in this hot-house atmosphere of illness and fear. Forced suddenly to live in new ways – or in some cases, return to living in old ways, specifically with their parents! – they’ve received a jolt of inspiration paired with a desperate need to vent their frustrations. The first week, the students flooded the journal with thoughts, observations, routines, rants and intimate details of their new lives in confinement.
One student is a professional caregiver to the elderly who has remained on the job because it’s been deemed essential. She says she does not mind since working means earning a paycheck, noting wryly that it’s one of the few emergency situations whose very nature hasn’t screwed her over. She describes her work as being a well-paid granddaughter and a living life-alert button.
Another student tells us he’s keeping up his daily walks with his camera. One day, he writes about taking photos of a mobile coronavirus testing center in his town. The line of cars snakes around the corner, behind them a burst of flowering trees. The juxtaposition catches his eye.
One of his classmates writes that he is ashamed to say he initially welcomed the surplus of time quarantine would provide to tackle some projects. Instead he finds himself following his curiosity down Internet rabbit holes, and realizes the limited schedule afforded by the normal work week applies needed pressure to complete projects. He fears he is less productive.
The forum is peppered with moments of humor and abandon. One student who shares a house with a gaggle of roommates muses about the difficulty of rationing apocalypse snacks when you are staring at them all day. All. Day. Long. Maybe I am easily amused but I beamed when I saw the title of her entry on the forum: “Snacks, sweatpants and screens.” That sums up our lives right now, no? Another student muses that dogs have created this virus to squeeze more daily walks out of their owners. The humor feels necessary, almost a form of medicine.
So far, my students are capturing exactly what I imagined — the small changes, the absence of one activity or obligation creating space for something else, the repercussions of our new routines (one student fears the increased screen time from working virtually is interfering with her sleep and I would agree!).
I’ve tried to respond to every post, and other students are following suit, which is especially gratifying. Students are asking me shoot-the-breeze kind of questions like, ‘Is this the time to try to read a really long book I’ve been putting off or lots of short ones?” I relish a chance to talk about my reading life in a way that might actually sound helpful instead of pompous.
All of this to say, an unusual moment in our world has created an opening for me as a teacher to reinforce the very principles I’ve been trying to convey. Indeed, the journal-writing portion of this class will almost certainly be the highlight for me when I look back over the semester to see what went well and what needs some re-working. But I will be left with a question: how to stimulate this habit without an emergency the next time I teach? When the pandemic eases off, how will I show them the urgency of recording the little moments when we go back to our regular lives?
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers.
February 28, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Cherone Duggan
Books that should have been blogs. Blogs that should have been tweets. Tweets that should have been thoughts. Waffle-fed and fluff-padded, bloated prose waddles around every section of the written world. As does the well-worn writing advice to slim down our copy to skeletal leanness.
“Omit needless words,”
“Show don’t tell,”
“Less is more,”
“Kill your darlings,”
“Brevity is brilliance.”
Excellent advice, in theory. But rarely practiced. Because writers are economic creatures who respond to incentives. Money and attention are our sugar and fat.
From gold stars for effort for longer answers in our single-digit years, to mandatory 10-page minimums for college papers, our education system uses word count as a proxy for intellectual complexity. Length is easier to measure than merit. It’s more objective and it takes less effort to grade. And, the more serious and senior your degree, the longer your papers had to be.
Rewards for wordiness don’t end with formal schooling. As workers, the plumping incentives continue. Most desk jobs involve writing of some sort and few people are ever fired for producing fatter wads of work. Submitting padded reports and sending puffy emails help us show our bosses that we deserve our paychecks for putting in our hours and hitting our keyboards.
Professional writers are also rewarded by the word. Authors get more attention for novels than novellas. Freelancers get more money for long articles than short ones. Professors get tenure for publishing more than their peers. And copywriters get more job security for constantly churning out copy rather than finishing one project a week.
The resulting overwhelm of long-winded emails, hollow books, and deep-blog-buried online recipes isn’t surprising.
We reap what we reward. If writers are rewarded for length, we’re going to continue to ramble. And no amount of sage writing advice to trim our fat is going to change that until we change our incentive systems to match.
Yes, the current incentive system surfaces some beauties; Dickens’ rambling descriptions and thick-bound novels were born from a serialized publication format where he was paid by the word.
But most of the rest of us probably shouldn’t be.
Cherone Duggan is a User Experience Writer who designs micro-content. She’s from the Irish midlands and she lives near San Francisco. Find her on Twitter: @cheroneduggan
February 4, 2020 § 10 Comments
Around the publication, fury, backpedaling, and consistent sales of American Dirt, another issue has arisen. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to tell it first? Who gets to tell it with the support of the publishing industry?
Publishing’s whiteness is a problem. Publishing’s classism is a problem. These barriers deprive readers of color literary experiences similar to their own, as well as denying people of privilege the opportunity of discovery of other lives without burdening our friends with “please teach me to be better, person of color!” If we don’t publish, purchase and support books from marginalized communities, we are all poorer for it.
But springing from the issue of a previously-white-identifying author’s romantic thriller poorly marketed as a defining literary and cultural experience comes another problem: seeing a story like one’s own and assuming it’s been appropriated.
Responding to the American Dirt controversy, and expanding on her personal experience as a WOC publishing and marketing her memoir, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz wrote in Gay Mag:
When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal…I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to… It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.
Excavation, published in 2014, is an adult woman looking back on a five-year sexual relationship that started between her eighth-grade self and her adult English teacher, and trying to reconcile the youthful feelings of “a ‘relationship’ with a man I loved” with the adult realization that the relationship was abusive and harmful.
My Dark Vanessa, just published, is a novel about a woman who “suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?”
Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like…
Tiger Tiger (2011) describes the relationship between author Margaux Fragoso, then prepubescent, who meets a 51-year-old-man who “tunes into her likes and dislikes with exquisite enthusiasm, with the result that she comes to see him as a soul mate. The unwavering laser of his attention makes her feel wanted and alive. In a prologue to her [memoir], the adult Margaux writes that spending time with a paedophile ‘can be like a drug high.’ In her own case, it was a drug she was unable to give up.”
Huh. Oh, wait, maybe the one I’m thinking of is a movie?
In The Tale (2018) Jennifer Fox is in her 40s when her mother discovers an essay, written when Jennifer was 13, about a “relationship” with her adult coach. Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, dismisses her mother’s concern, but after re-reading the essay Jennifer looks back on her life. While she remembers herself being older and sophisticated, she discovers old photos showing how small and childlike she was. The movie is based on the director (Jennifer Fox)’s own life.
Or that other movie, An Education, based on Lynn Barbor’s 2003 essay for Granta, her 2009 essay for The Guardian and her memoir about being seduced by an older man at age 16, and shown the sparkling life of cosmopolitan London before realizing her ‘boyfriend’ was a married con man?
Or maybe the plots of all these women’s stories just ring true for me, because ten years ago, I looked back and thought, Maybe that 28-year-old dating 15-year-old me did not have my best interests at heart…but I’m still friends with the 45-year-old who dated 18-year-old me, so what’s the difference?
It’s (sadly) not uncommon to look back as an adult and realize a childhood/very-young-adulthood relationship we believed ourselves an active participant in was not as subject to our own volition as we thought. It’s not uncommon to feel that we gained some positive things from unequal and abusive relationships. It’s less common to write a whole book about it, but I still wouldn’t call four books and two movies in the space of ten years (off the top of my head) rare.
It is not sour grapes to advocate for representation, or even to point out that a memoir by a woman of color was a harder sell than a novel about the same subject, seven years later, by a white author. Those are valid, important and necessary concerns. But when we look for the reasons one book was more embraced by publishing than another, it’s usually not “somebody stole my life.”
As memoirists, we are constantly mining our own experience to find an original telling of a universal tale. It is not our life’s singularity, but the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new. A truly one-of-a-kind story might not even resonate with readers, because part of the value of memoir is seeing ourselves in someone else’s world. True stories change lives because they show, You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who felt like that. You’re not the only one that happened to.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Find her on Instagram for true stories that may be just like yours.