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.
October 17, 2019 § 18 Comments
I inherited hundreds of uncaptioned photos from my parents.
Though I have no desire to archive every moment of their lives, I do wish that some of those photos had been annotated to provide context, dimension, and color. Even something as simple as this would have been great:
July 16, 1976—Grandpa loved to fish. Sometimes it drove Grandma nuts. On this beautiful summer day in Seattle, she grabbed the pole to make fun of his style. He didn’t smoke, so the cigarette clenched in her teeth was all her. Shortly after this fishing expedition they went to a bicentennial celebration downtown—1976 was the two-hundred-year anniversary of our country, after all.
A caption like this may have lain in wait for years until someone opened the scrapbook, but it would have still been there, inked into history—a date, a setting, a personal glimpse. I can’t go back in time and magically inscribe such captions but there are ways to start now to capture memories as a gift for future generations.
Some may believe that we are already doing that with Instagram or Facebook. However, those posts tend to be quick entries aimed at our immediate and intimate audience. They already know a great deal about us so there is no need to provide any background information. For instance, if you were posting a current photo like the grandparent-fishing caper, you wouldn’t usually notate that Grandma smokes and Grandpa doesn’t—current family and friends don’t need to be reminded. But when considering generations to come, such details become relevant nuances we don’t want to leave out.
As I played with this idea of saving moments of history, I stumbled upon an easy and satisfying way to share them with others today and to preserve them for tomorrow: I keep a running blog of “Flash-Memoirs”—short social-media entries describing a photo, a clipping, or even just a memory based on an image I like.
With this practice I have preserved such stories as:
- the time my mom nearly stole an ashtray from the Korean De-Militarized Zone (she ultimately bought it)
- the way my pioneer ancestors patrolled their Idaho ranch on horseback
- how my father, despite his long CIA career, believed that in the end, “it is the common people who call the shots.”
I would like to encourage you to take up this simple and streamlined way to preserve your family history. Here is my method in three steps:
- Choose a photo or a memory
- Write a short essay (200-400 words) including date and time, people inside and outside the immediate scene, setting, and some historical context if possible, e.g., it was the year of the bicentennial celebration.
- Upload to Instagram to be enjoyed by friends and family today…
- …and to Tumblr to archive for future generations.
It is easy to post to both places at the same time because Instagram has a “push” feature that can simultaneously post to the blogging site Tumblr. (This feature also allows you to post to Facebook and Twitter, if you so desire.)
In case you are not familiar with it, Tumblr (pronounced “tumbler”) is a social networking site for microblogging—short posts that can include text, images, video, audio, and links to other articles or sites. A Tumblr account can be public or kept private, a nice feature for those just wishing to archive and not to create additional social media interactions. My intention using Tumblr is not to attract more current readers, and I send only those flash-memoir posts to Tumblr because I want that “blog” to contain only my historical stories.
The advantages of posting my flash-memoirs to Instagram and Tumblr at the same time:
- Instagram allows for 400 words or less, so I must keep my entries succinct. Quite a discipline!
- By only archiving specific posts, I can go to my Tumblr site to scroll through family-history entries only—an easy walk down memory lane.
- Eventually I will use a service such as BlookUp or Blog2Print to transform my Tumblr into a printed book.
I love the idea that one day those bits of history I have captured will be available for my family to peruse on real live paper. If you heed my encouragement and save some history in this way too, we may just inspire some real old-fashioned social media interaction.
Kat Fitzpatrick, M.F.A, is a New York-based writer and artist who works with memoir, particularly her family history in Vietnam. Her work includes the The Fight to Write: What the Vietnam War Taught Me About Truth & Writing, and the humorous novel, Kat Manudu’s Holistic Advertising Agency. See her flash-memoir collection at www.tumblr.com/blog/flashmemoir or follow her on Instagram at kat_adventures22.
August 28, 2019 § 7 Comments
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed memoirist Vivian Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works.
Part 3: Modes of Writing and the Art of Structure
JONES: A lot has changed in the world of writing since you published The Situation and The Story in 2001…
GORNICK: Really?? No kidding? That went right by me. (Laughs)
JONES: Oh, c’mon.
GORNICK: Well, what do you mean by that?
JONES: I’m just thinking about the explosion of the internet, the development of other arenas for writing, whatever you think of them, blogs, other forms of instant writing. I wonder what effect you think this has had on literary nonfiction, if anything?
GORNICK: Well, that’s something even I think about a lot, by which I mean, I’m completely out of the world of the internet. Totally. I don’t do anything. I’m not on any of these social media outlets. I don’t read blogs. I don’t do anything. However, even I have become aware of, as you say, this explosion of intensely immediate—I don’t really look upon it as writing—it’s an intensely immediate form of expressiveness through words. I look on it mostly as venting more than anything else.
Sometimes a blog is called to my attention and I read it and I think, this person is just free-associating here on the page. And it can go on and on and on because they’re not really writing, they’re waiting to figure out what they think themselves. Then again, there are times when I have to look something up myself and then I will stumble on these thousands of reviews of a book that I was looking for or wanting some more information about, and I’m amazed by how intelligent and thoughtful so many of them are. They’re usually short reviews.
For instance, I was writing a piece on Elizabeth Bowen some time ago and I looked something up on the internet about one of her books, a piece of information, and I stumbled on a variety of reviews, peoples responses. Elizabeth Bowen is a hard writer to truck with; her syntax is extremely demanding and, because her sentences are so convoluted, many people are put off. But there was so much smart, thoughtful responsiveness and often from people who said, ‘I’m not much of a reader but I stumbled on her and this is what she made me feel.’ But this is not writing. None of this is about writing.
It reminds me of the fact that, you know, children have all kinds of minor talents, a child can suddenly produce a poetic sentence. I remember a teacher once did a study in which he made all these 6 and 7 year old kids write something about some subject and one of these kids wrote, and I still can remember this, ‘I am so sad that my tears go around the corner before they come out of my eyes.’ So now, I’m sure his mother put that sentence up on the refrigerator and announced, ‘My kid is a genius and he’s going to be a writer.’ Well, he wasn’t a genius and he wasn’t going to be a writer. And in all the years of teaching, there’s never been a single student who didn’t have one piece in them. But this is not writing.
JONES: Well, some blogs are different. Brevity’s blog has a blog of very focused essays, usually by teachers of writing for other writers about some element of craft, and they’re edited.
GORNICK: OK. Oh, well that’s different. Then that resembles the world of print. The old world of print.
JONES: Exactly, so in a sense what I’m saying….
GORNICK: So that hasn’t changed…
JONES: No; there’s a shift where what you would call writing has another venue for being circulated.
GORNICK: Yes, yes, right. So it’s electronic now instead of print.
JONES: In books too, there’s the potential for even the form of the book to be exploded again. The way we moved from the illuminated manuscripts to the printing press…
GORNICK: Yeah (quizzically).
JONES: Now, with this electronic form, there’s the possibility for layers to be added.
JONES: Visual, aural…I have a friend who’s a poet who experimented with different ways of integrating forms of visual and aural creativity into a set of poems about a river.
GORNICK: You mean you’d be reading a book on your computer and suddenly it would speak to you?
JONES: No, it wouldn’t speak to you, but the possibility would be there for visual images and sound to be pulled up, to explore other dimensions about what’s been written.
GORNICK: None of that means anything to me. (Laughs) I will live and die a very conventional reader. What I require from writing is structure, and language, and development that is conscious. What can I tell you.
JONES: Because other modes would be distracting?
JONES: Pulling you out of the flow of the writing, you’re pulled out of the story?
GORNICK: RIGHT! Exactly, you are pulled out of the story.
JONES: Let’s talk a little about structure in relation to The Odd Woman and the City. How did you discover the structure for this?
JONES: I read it the first time all the way through. Having just reread it, I see how you’re making quite substantial leaps from one thing to another, your conversations with Leonard then on to something else.
GORNICK: I wrote it 50 times.
JONES: 50 times?
GORNICK: I put this thing together differently 50 times until it felt right. I can’t really say anything more than that. For years, I wanted to write about Leonard and me because I thought we were a paradigmatic friendship. Between the two of us, the things we said to each other over these 20-25 years, were really sufficiently indicative of a generation, of what we were all living through. And I couldn’t find a way; I didn’t know how to do it.
Then I discovered what I always knew about my relationship of walking through the streets of the city and I thought, ah, I can do it that way, if I can figure out how to write about walking in the street and the adventures that I have with people and then using Leonard and me, not as the main characters, but like a Greek chorus. So that was the first part. I got that and I knew that was right.
And then…well that was it, there were so many other things I wanted to fit in and I didn’t know how to do it until I did it. The style I adopted over many books is collage and collage depends on your intuition for what goes with what. And I can’t explain that, when the transition feels right and when it feels strained and when it doesn’t. When does one thing lead naturally to another? I can’t tell until it feels right. And also, before I wrote the book, I had about 30 pages of this stuff and I sent it to a friend of mine, then the editor of the Paris Review, and he loved it and said, I’d like to publish this, if you’ll allow me to fool around; I don’t think it’s in the right order. And he had a little bit of genius. So he changed the order of things and once he did, I saw it differently myself, and saw he was right, and I took my lead from that. I was able to think more clearly about what should go where. But there are essentially two things: the incidents in the street, and me and Leonard.
JONES: But then that is refracted through many other things, other friendships. With Emma for instance.
GORNICK: And literary stuff, little bits and nuggets of literary history, and life that I just throw in. It all began to feel right, once it did feel right. I can’t really tell you how.
JONES: What are you reading now and what are you writing now, and how are the two connected?
GORNICK: Well, I just finished writing, but I can’t seem to finish it. For two years now, I’ve been writing a book about rereading—rereading books I loved as a young woman. So it’s that hybrid form of memoir and criticism, in which I describe myself at various stages, reading different books. I start with Sons and Lovers, a book I read three times between the ages of 20 and 35, and each time, identified with another character, and I show why and how. It’s a very short book, really like a book-length essay. But I can’t seem to bring it to conclusion. I’m having a hard time.
JONES: You recently wrote about Doris Lessing in the New York Review of Books.
GORNICK: That’s right, the cats. Actually, that little story about Lessing and the cats was written in one of my low points in this book. I did that for comic relief, to amuse myself.
JONES: Yeah, but you had these insights about yourself. What you got from reading Doris Lessing at this point in your life. What you heard in her that might have attracted you before, but now repelled you. Her lack of compassion.
GORNICK: Right. Her inability to stop protecting herself. I have to explain that better. I have to rewrite that part.
JONES: I read the D. H. Lawrence excerpt in Harpers.
GORNICK: That’s the first piece in the book. And then I do Collette and Marguerite Duras, Elizabeth Bowen, Natalia Ginsburg, a lot of women. Delmore Schwartz, Thomas Hardy, all very short. Whole thing is 120 pages. And I can’t finish it. I am so exhausted. This past week I swore I would make all the changes by Thanksgiving. But I got this cold and my head is in a fog. So I am torturing myself because I think I should sit down at the desk every day…By Christmas it will be finished.
JONES: What else are you reading?
GORNICK: When I am in this mood I’m reading three things at once. Actually what I read to calm myself when I’m feeling rattled is George Orwell.
JONES: (Laughs) You find Homage to Catalonia or 1984 calming?
GORNICK: Not those books…There’s a four-volume work of all his journalism, written during the Second World War, with a huge amount of literary work, book reviews, essays. A lot on literature. He wrote as an English socialist, and critic of socialism, but as an intensely political man. He wrote because of the politicalness of life. He was really extraordinarily educated. In one long piece, an excerpt from a book he was writing about the English people, there are parts where he’s trying to pull apart the English language grammatically to shed light on the English people. And he’s so brilliant and knows so much. I don’t know anywhere near enough to process this grammatical essay. During the Second World War, for two years, he wrote a column called ‘As I Please’ for a newspaper called Tribune in England. You would be amazed at the things he wrote—a nice cup of tea, the perfect pub, American soldiers on the street—and I read these things, they’re small gems. His voice is so clear, so direct, you would think it was yesterday. He’s writing from 1942, I feel like he just wrote it yesterday. It calms me.
There was a time, in every culture I think, when the culture was in trouble, people read. And it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s happening now.
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.