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.
June 20, 2019 § 14 Comments
Sure, we don’t pay to subscribe to Twitter, there’s no cost-per-click to view our friends’ news on Facebook. But there’s still a price, and what we’re paying is time and privacy.
What do we get in return? Genuine connection. Relationships with people we’ve met briefly but who share our interests. Family news that needn’t be shared one paper letter at a time. And as writers, we build our readership and promote our work.
That’s not free.
I’ve seen several writers wondering if they should start a Facebook author page, because their book is coming out next week. How can they keep their profile private and get everyone to like their author page instead?
Let’s break that down: I’m not going to share my real self with you, but I’d like you to view and share my advertising as often as possible.
Because that’s what an author page is. A commercial. Yes, we share book news and promote our friends and link free articles. But fundamentally, an author page’s purpose is to entice people to enjoy our words enough to shell out $12.99 to read more.
That’s not free either.
Even when someone likes and follows your page, Facebook doesn’t automatically deliver your news. Only 10-15% of your followers will see each post. You’ve heard of “the algorithm”? Fancy math weighing a person’s popularity and their topic’s interest to the general public. Social media companies’ number-one priority is keeping people online. If you’re interesting and fun and have lots of followers, Twitter ranks your tweets more highly. Instagram puts you on the Explore page. Facebook drops your announcements into your friends’ newsfeeds. You’re paying for eyeballs by donating your popularity. Algorithms make famous people more famous and viral news more viral. But math doesn’t discriminate on quality or worth (sorry, America!), so if you want people to see your book news from your author page, you will have to purchase advertising.
Facebook and Instagram advertising do actually work. (Presumably also Twitter, but I haven’t bought any ads there.) Ads take time and care to make attractive visuals and reach your intended demographic, but they aren’t that expensive. I’ve gained followers, event guests, and course attendees because they saw a promoted post. I’ve never spent more than $20 to run an ad for a couple of days, as a final push after I’ve been talking about my event for several weeks. Most of the people who attended Instagram For Writers already knew me, in person or online, but about 25% clicked through an ad that reminded them they meant to sign up.
Separating your personal and professional life online costs more time. Maintaining two accounts per platform is a drag when you want—need!—to focus on writing. I find it challenging enough to write “real” micro-essays on Instagram, clever/helpful writing tips on Twitter, and check in with my cousins on Facebook, plus remembering to text my mom. Administrating an author page is a little more difficult than updating a personal profile.
If you’re dead set on keeping literary and personal separate, that doesn’t have to mean two accounts. If something is truly private, don’t put it on the internet. And our privacy is far more valuable to us than violating it is to anyone else, until we become famous enough to hire bodyguards, and then we can also hire a social media manager.
Using your personal profile as your professional page lets you include your work among the genuine moments shared with your friends. “Look, Rashid’s walking!” “So excited about my new cover!” and “I had a great hike last week!” are far more engaging than “Buy my book,” “Review my book,” “Tell your friends about my book.” Instead of asking friends to watch a commercial, your work sits amidst the many things you mutually find interesting.
If a separate author page is still best for you, ease your way:
- Set up an automatic feed to post to your Facebook page whenever you write something new on Instagram/Twitter/your blog (I use IFTTT, it’s free).
- Share non-private posts from your personal profile to your page, so your fans see some of the personal you.
- Use a feed planner like Preview or A Color Story to set up your Instagram pipeline, and a hashtag through IFTTT to selectively post Instagrams to your author page. (Yes, we’re behind on the Brevity Instagram, good stuff coming in July!)
Promoting a book and guarding one’s privacy are not 100% exclusive, but it’s worth keeping in mind that if you’re writing nonfiction, you will at some point lose control of how much you’re willing to share. Someone’s going to walk up to you at a family event and strongly disagree with how you described a scene from your own truth. Don’t negotiate or pacify—just smile and say, “I can understand how your view would be different. I hope you write that story someday.”
Not engaging with a troll in person? Now that’s protecting your privacy.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Why yes, she’s on Instagram.
June 4, 2019 § 27 Comments
I’ve been reading my dearest friend’s journals. Spiral-bound notebooks, cloth-covered hardbacks, loose-leaf paper in three-ring binders. Sorting out teenage angst and adult story notes, false starts and full pages. Some of the words are casual, some inspiring, some sad.
I’m also digging through her computer. Looking at old story outlines and half-drafts of essays. Working on breaking into her phone.
I’m not snooping.
I’m her executor.
My friend wasn’t especially organized, but two other close friends and I found what we could after her death, tried to piece together what was worth keeping, what would be a beautiful memory and what was garbage. It was good for the three of us to read her old journals. We threw away the teenage angst and kept some of her adult musings. We pulled some of her unfinished writing from her old laptop and put it in a Dropbox so we could all look at it and feel a little less bereft.
Poking and prying and talking about her. My friend might not have wanted this. She might have been very angry that we’re reading her private thoughts, looking at rough drafts not ready for prime time. But she didn’t tell us, so we get to make that choice for her.
Stieg Larsson, writer of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, died without a will. His partner of 24 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was left in the cold. Larsson’s estranged father and his brother got everything. The estate is still in court 15 years later. It’s not only the millions of dollars: Gabrielsson contends Larsson’s work isn’t being presented to the world the way the late author wanted. But he didn’t write those wishes down.
Many “big deal” authors have literary trusts, where chosen trustees work with the author during their lifetime to establish how their work should be treated, and set up procedures to continue selling rights and allowing research after their death.
Most of us don’t need an elaborate trust to guard our posthumous literary interests. But as someone left behind, sorting through grief and papers while guessing what your dead person wanted sucks.
Who is going to deal with your literary legacy, and what do you want done?
- Journals. Do you want them read? Burned? Photocopied and passed around the family? Placed in an archive?
- Family photos and genealogical research for your memoir. Are they labeled, or at least in a labeled folder or envelope? Will anyone else know who these people are? Does anyone want to store physical papers?
- Story notes. Manuscripts. Half-finished drafts. Should anyone try to finish them? Should anyone even read them?
- Published work. Who do you want to have the copyrights? What do you want them to do with them? Do you want any royalty income to go to charity? Should the same person get the rights and the money?
- Not technically literary, but treasured mementos from previous generations have the same problem as writing notes and unpublished work. Those left behind don’t know how to value them. If you have knickknacks, jewelry, scrapbooks, have you explained their meaning to your heirs? (If you haven’t, are they really worth keeping? Because someone has to agonize over your grandparents’ 50th anniversary album while standing over a garbage can. Just sayin’.)
- Do you want your social media wiped or memorialized? Have you listed a legacy contact on Facebook? Any online-only friends who should be notified of your death?
- What passwords and account numbers will someone need to wrap up your affairs?
- Speaking of affairs, what should be deleted before your child or significant other finds it? The essay you didn’t publish to avoid hurting feelings? That chapter you decided was too personal to share? Who should go through your devices and do that?
You have the right to privacy after death. But unless you’re specific about what’s private, someone else will make those choices for you. Even if you don’t formally appoint a literary executor, write your wishes down. Use this simple writer’s will form from Neil Gaiman as a guide. Here’s more information about literary estate planning.
Share your feelings with whoever will likely clean out your stuff (and one other person in case you’re both hit by the same bus). If you want your devices wiped, say so. If you want your electronics explored, share the passwords with a trusted friend who doesn’t have physical access to your computer. If you don’t have a friend you trust that much, split it up: one friend gets the first half of each password and another friend gets the second half.
I’m still digging through my friend’s stuff. At the funeral, a woman I’d never met gave me a key to my friend’s safety-deposit box I hadn’t known existed. I’m waiting for paperwork from AOL to take over her email so I can get into her phone. Maybe there’s a letter or important bank information on her new laptop, maybe I’m supposed to figure it out like a puzzle. Maybe it would have been better to reformat and donate the electronics to needy children.
I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. So curiosity wins.
I hope I’m doing what’s right. But it is comforting to read her words. As it happens, I like one of her story outlines a lot, and maybe I’ll turn it into a book.
That, I know for sure she’d like. Because we talked about it.