August 17, 2021 § 9 Comments
I’m going to a writers’ conference! With workshops and panels and book sales and a lot of strangers and oh dear god what if none of them like me? What if all the workshops are too advanced, or too basic, and I have no idea what the Liminal Space Outside the Academy: A Feminist Perspective Through The Work of Dickinson and Gay As Realized In Graphic Novels panel is talking about? Am I too old? Am I too young? What if I haven’t had anything published yet?
Good news: we’re all welcome. Conferences, both online and in real life, are a great chance to meet and talk with writers of all ages and stages. Most conferences have purple-haired college kids, silver-haired seniors, and a variety of pantsuits, piercings, ties and tattoos in between.
I’m just about to teach at the Woodhall Writers Conference this Saturday, and I’ve just taught at the HippoCamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA. There were/are some terrific panels (none of them use the word ‘liminal’) on publishing, researching, writing, promoting and a lot more. (It turns out the key to getting ahead as an author is pretty much the key to everything else–work hard, be nice to people, and don’t tweet “Buy My Book!” every hour because everyone else will mute you.)
Some thoughts on how to make the most of attending a writing conference.
Before you go:
1a) For a virtual conference, set up a reasonably private space and brief your family that you won’t be answering calls or texts unless someone’s on fire. Have your water and coffee handy. Maybe make some meals in advance so you can enjoy thoughtful breaks rather than rushing to your kitchen. Consider starting your day with yoga or a walk, even if you don’t usually, to energize the morning.
1b) Going live? Decide whether to stay onsite. Conference hotels are often expensive, but when your day starts at 8AM and the last reading finishes at 11PM, it’s nice to have a last glass of wine and hit the elevator instead of the pavement. If budget’s an issue, see if you can get a roommate–most conferences have a message board to share rides and rooms. Or, if you’re more of a hermit, retreating to an offsite AirBnB might be your jam. I’ve been fortunate to be in a sunny, plant-filled studio this week, and it was worth it to book a few extra days on each side of the conference for personal writing time.
2) If you have an author website, update it. Make sure your links aren’t broken and that your most current work is represented. If you have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, check your page from a friend’s account and see what shows up first. Any embarrassing pictures? Is your top post a rant? You’ll be friend-ing/following a bunch of new people, and you want to give a strong first impression. What if an agent loves your query in a workshop and clicks over during a break? Be you online, but be the best you.
3a) Check your virtual space: does anything look like it’s growing out of your head? Is your background over-bright or distracting? If you’ve got a book out, display it on a shelf behind you!
3b) For live conferences, pack comfy shoes, layers and a jacket. Most convention centers and big hotels are freezing, especially first thing in the morning. Dress code at most conferences is Casual Friday–professional but comfortable, often a little quirky.
4) Get on Twitter. Specifically Twitter. Find out what the conference hashtag is and follow it. Even if you never tweet again, Twitter is where people are commenting on the panels, making dinner plans, and announcing schedule updates. It’s worth it to be in the loop. If you’re virtual, chances are there’s some backchannel messaging going on, too, and it’s a great way to connect with fellow attendees.
At the conference:
1) Go to everything. It’s worth getting up early, it’s worth staying out late. Sleep when you go home. That said,
2) Don’t be afraid to bail. If you’re exhausted and can’t focus, slip upstairs to your hotel room or turn your camera off and take a power nap.
3) Make the first move. As the Victorians said about fellow houseguests, “The roof constitutes an introduction.” It’s OK to sidle up to a conversation in progress, make some smiley eye contact and start listening. Find people on social media and see what they’re up to. Like what someone just read? Send a private chat message. When in doubt, start with “How were your workshops today?” And the best follow-up question ever: “What do you write?”
4) Volunteer. If there’s a chance to be read or heard, jump on it. There’s always a pause before the first person volunteers–fill that pause. After the first person it will be a scrimmage and not everyone will get a turn.
Corollary: Ask good questions. Before popping up to the mic or raising your hand during the Q&A, ask yourself, “Will this be relevant to at least half the room?” If your question is “I’m writing a memoir about my mother, do you want to buy it?” phrase it as, “What topics are you seeing in memoir right now, and what are you looking for? Are there a lot of parent-child stories?”
When you get home:
1) Follow up. Everyone whose card you took, send them an email saying how nice it was to meet them, and/or connect through your preferred social media. If you’ve got free time, send out a few links to articles you think would interest specific people. Start building your literary citizenship by being useful and kind.
2) Keep the energy going. Register the domain for that blog idea you talked about. Query that agent who seemed really nice. Ask someone to be your writing buddy.
And of course, write write write.
See you at the Woodhall Press Writers Conference this Saturday! I’ll be giving a keynote address; there are small-group workshops, a pitch panel and more. Register here.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
August 9, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Marian Rogers
I can still feel the catch in my throat when I saw my name on the reading schedule that week at the workshop. I had just gotten all my things into the dorm room and was sitting on the bed going through the informational folder. It was my first writing workshop, and I didn’t know what to expect. The absolute last thing I expected was that I would have to do a reading before the assembled mass of writers of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The sample I submitted when I applied was the first writing I had done in decades. The workshop was generative, so new writing would emerge, but from where exactly and how, I had no idea. As I looked again at the reading schedule, I took heart that my name was on the list for the final evening.
I learned more that night at the welcome gathering in the hall where the readings would take place. Fellows and instructors would read the first two nights. Evenings for the rest of the week would be devoted to readings by workshop participants. Studying the room’s logistics, I was relieved to spot what looked like a miniature microphone suspended in front of the podium. I’m soft-spoken, and in normal conversation people will ask me, sometimes even command me, to speak up. Just as I was settling into the comfort of what I thought I saw, we were told there was no microphone. If we projected our voices, the room itself, with its tiers of seats, wraparound paneling, low windows at the back, would provide the necessary acoustics. A grand piano stood to the side of the stage in silent agreement. This room is perfect, it seemed to say, even for a concert of words.
A few days later it was my turn to read in our nonfiction group. The assignment: 600 words including a list. The list—a select catalogue of items my parents had to leave behind when we moved them to the retirement community—was not the hard part. It was the story of the family gathering before that, the four of us children traveling in from out of state overnight and in the early morning to help Dad convince Mom, who was slipping down the slope of dementia, that it was the right decision to go. As I read, my voice quavered, then stopped, and I went over the falls and began to cry. I felt the woman next to me place her hand on mine. I heard the instructor ask if I would like her to finish reading for me. As I composed myself, she said she was surprised it had taken that long for someone in the group to cry. That kind truth helped me finish in my own voice.
Over the next days, I gathered tips for my reading the final night:
- Pare your piece down to fit the time limit: in this case, 3 minutes, so 400 words maximum.
- Step away from the podium to the edge of the stage, to connect and be heard.
- Anchor your pages with a folder underneath so that if your hands shake, your pages won’t.
- Remember the audience is friendly. Look for your instructor and workshop members around the room, your fellow in the back row giving you a thumbs-up.
- If the going gets tough, find a right angle somewhere in the room and fasten yourself to it.
The last is a tip my brother gave me once. He said fixing on a right angle when speaking can steady you and help you ride out fear or sadness. Those five tips helped me through my first reading, and others after.
More recently, of course, readings have not been in person. Yet that hasn’t made reading any less daunting and or any of us less vulnerable to emotion. If anything, over the past long year of isolation, loss, and grief, the grip of emotion seemed tighter, harder to loose, as many things that once steadied us vanished from the horizon. In early spring in a Zoom meeting of a writers group, I read a piece about my father, who died in 2019. As I read I could only see the page before me on the computer, not my audience, the faces that had become so familiar, supportive, reassuring. As I reached the final sentence, I felt a clutch in my throat, I stammered and stumbled as tears began to gather at the corners of my eyes. The right angles of the screen, of the page, of the paragraph, on their own, without the faces in my audience were not enough to steady me. When I finished, I looked out the window beyond my laptop. I saw hills and valleys, rises and dips, the lake not far in the distance topping out almost to overflow with winter thaw and first rain—mirroring everything I felt as I read. And then there they were again, my audience of writer friends, aligned so squarely on the screen, each framed by right angles, smiling, nodding, clapping, bringing me back.
Marian Rogers is an alumna of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Rebirth Your Writing retreat. She owes an immense debt of gratitude to Cedar Ridge Writers. Marian holds a PhD in classics from Brown University and is a longtime editor of scholarly nonfiction. Find her on Twitter @Rogers_Marian and on Instagram @marathena75.
July 29, 2021 § 14 Comments
You may not be ready to step into the world yet. Or plan travel. Or be around groups of people. And that’s just fine. The Delta variant, angry political arguments, the idea that wanting to protect your own health and others is somehow not a universal given, all of these are frightening.
In this past span of 18+ months we’re sort of calling “a year,” virtual teaching and online workshops have flourished. Suddenly, we’re all able to cater to people who can’t leave their houses for reasons physical or emotional or financial or just because. And it turns out there are great ways to teach online, to interact with students and help students interact with each other.
Yet, many of us still miss personal, human connection without a mediating screen. Gentle crosstalk without a Zoom delay. The warm presence of writerly bodies across a table. Hugs.
Fortunately, whether you’re a staying-home-still or a stepping-into-the-world person, on a budget or ready to spend your accumulated vacation funds, there are upcoming events for you! You might enjoy:
August 13-15 (live) Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This three-day writing conference features 50+ notable speakers including Athena Dixon, Lilly Dancyger and Marian Winik; engaging sessions focused on writing, publishing, networking and writing life, interactive all-conference panels, author and attendee readings, social activities, networking opps, meals, and optional, intimate pre-conference workshops. Cost is $489 and 8 places remain. More information/register here.
August 21 (virtual) Woodhall Writers Conference. This first-time conference includes small-group workshops with top-notch instructors, enlightening panels on the Future of Publishing and Book Pitches, keynote speeches by inspiring writers, and networking interactions that will help you expand your artistic community. Workshops include: Introduction to Short Forms with Tom Hazuka and Darien Gee, Poetry with Charles Rafferty and Prose Writing with Eugenia Kim. Cost is $175 with a workshop, or $95 for keynotes and panels only. More information/register here.
October 10-17 (live) Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany. Truly excited to travel and write, but want some guidance? Or maybe you just want to write in a castle? Join Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor (me!) Allison K Williams for personal coaching, editorial feedback on up to 75 pages, seminars on writing and publishing, live-editing, great food and inspiring scenery, all in a tiny town in the hills outside Florence. Cost is $3250, payment plans available. More information here.
Ongoing (virtual) Low on cash but want to better the business aspect of your work? Enjoy Jane Friedman’s free Sunday Business Sermons. Jane’s frank, friendly style gets to the nuts and bolts of publishing and process. You can watch live upcoming sessions on Using Discord and Better Slide Presentations, or enjoy the recordings of past sessions at Jane’s YouTube channel, including Branding Tips&Tricks and How I Get So Much Done. FREE, no registration needed. Topics list and dates here.
Ongoing (virtual) Creative Nonfiction Magazine offers webinars, live and asynchronous courses, and self-guided courses to generate new writing, stay focused, and create your best work. Upcoming webinars include Byline Boot Camp: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Short Nonfiction Published with Melissa Petro, and Mind Music: Writing the Lyric Essay with Amy Hassinger. Most webinars are $15 early bird/$25 regular; course prices vary. Find out more/register here.
What are YOU teaching or learning, and when and where and how much? We invite you to share your upcoming events—and events you’re excited about!—in comments.
June 16, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Aimee Christian
This spring, I attended my first writing conference, and it was almost embarrassingly life-changing.
For a long time, I wondered how people just sit down and write a book and send it off to an agent and then get it published. Where do they find the discipline? How do they know it’s any good? How do they know when it’s done? And then wait, when we study craft, are we saying these writers did these things intentionally? They didn’t just sit down and dash off sheer brilliance? They knew what they were doing?! So many questions!
I am forty-eight and now I finally know. They don’t just sit down and write perfection. They too had to learn it from somewhere.
For the past year I have been taking the class to end all writing classes. A year long memoir incubator. That name should say it all. A year ago, I had little more than a folder full of bits and pieces of creative nonfiction from fits and starts at writing. I applied to the class with 50 not-terrible pages. They were premature, and I had more ideas, all in desperate need of incubating. So for a year, I wrote. Through the pandemic. Through a change of jobs, remote school for a disabled kid (read: no school) and another kid (read: not enough school), getting and surviving COVID, losing my father, and more. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And in the process, I learned more about writing and about myself in this year than ever before.
In this class, we also read. We read each other’s half-baked manuscripts, we read excellent memoirs, we read craft books and essays. We picked pieces apart, we studied craft, we learned to give feedback and make edits both developmental and line by painstaking line.
As the third trimester of the class began to near its end, our brilliant and patient teacher prepared us for the conference. Her process was well thought out. We prepped as though we were querying: writing synopses of our manuscripts, picking out agents we might want to meet with, practicing our pitches.
That I was even able to follow the lingo in the conference: prompt, comps, query, proposals, prologues, revisions, writer vs author, memoir vs autobiography, and more, just shows how much I learned in a year. I didn’t know any of that a year ago.
Overall, the conference was humbling. The content was both about writing and about all the steps that come after it, and because it was virtual, we didn’t have to choose one session over another. They were all recorded, so we were able to see one and then go back and watch the others later. It was a lot of information, all varying degrees of useful, all of them leading me to one (long) conclusion, which is my new mantra:
I am not quite done with my manuscript, I have a community of writers around me, I have lots of resources, I need to avail myself of them, and when I am ready to query I will know it, and I will be successful even if it takes me a very long time and success doesn’t look the way I think it should right now.
But most of all, I WROTE A BOOK. And I know it’s gonna be a good one, too, because now I have help I didn’t have before. My friends and I read each other’s work and we can see easy improvements in each other’s pieces that we can’t see in our own. I can move paragraphs or sentences around in someone else’s essay in minutes but hang on to pages and pages in my own manuscript for dear life that a fellow writer can take a quick red pen to and say “this has to go” and when she does, I know immediately that she’s right. Or she can offer a pointed “Like what?” or “How?” to a sentence which makes the story I’m trying to tell so much clearer.
I know I am late to the party here. You probably know all this. But now I know, too. I won’t go it alone anymore because I don’t have to. This is how writers learn and grow. It makes us better writers, better editors, and overall better members of the writing community. Count me in, for however long it takes.
Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.
May 29, 2021 § 2 Comments
HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers is happening this year, and they’re offering several full scholarships, including a Writers of Color Scholarship and the Jean Snow Memorial Scholarship for a writer of color who will also be a first-time conference attendee.
Here is a link to the scholarship page for more details: https://hippocamp21.hippocampusmagazine.com/about/scholarships
March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Stephanie Hunt
“I walk into a large white room,” begins Twyla Tharp in her lithe arabesque of a book, The Creative Habit. In this large white room there are wall-to-wall mirrors, a boom box, skid marks on an otherwise clean white floor, and that’s it. Tharp describes how this vacuous blank space ignites her imaginative muscle, and despite its daunting void, how she begins every day by slowly moving into it, deliberately filling it with physical poetry, her limbs arching into verse, her body a refrain of the music. She enters this space with playful openness and intention, and through some alchemy of mystery and madness (and absurdly limber muscles), creativity emerges into form, shape and energy—a dance.
This spare image, this pristine white-room canvas of space, was on my mind as I walked into the immensely grandiose ballroom of the Chicago Hilton for my inaugural AWP conference. The “room” was more like two city blocks with walls boxed around them, paneled in huge mirrors and heavy velvet curtains, topped with a ridiculously gilded lid. Four chandeliers the size of hot-air balloons descended from mega-ceiling medallions. I fully expected Louis XIV to prance in at any minute. This ballroom was the gaudy antithesis of Tharp’s minimalist studio, and there I was, in obvious pre-pandemic days, crowded in with some 8,000 other writers, all of us seeking the same thing Tharp seeks in her barebones white room: inspiration, imaginative juju, magic.
Gilded ballrooms aside, the massiveness of AWP is something to behold. The conference planners might consider placing a warning label on the registration form: “Agoraphobia Caution” or “Not for the Timid Ego.” I went for a perfectly valid reason—everybody else I knew via my writing and publishing circles was going, and they evidently had been for years. AWP is a right of passage for would-be writers, and I was yet to be initiated. So I bought a cheap airplane ticket, talked my husband into a literary, mid-winter romantic Chicago Tundra getaway, and registered, following the lead of my more experienced colleagues. The ones who knew how to propose panel topics and become a speaker; knew which cocktail parties were not to be missed; which publishing house booth in the vast conference underworld otherwise known as the Bookfair (i.e., miles and miles of table-clothed displays) had the best candy bowl.
And I drank it all in, chugging inspiration like a college freshman at a keg party. The AWP schedule is an invitation to gluttony, filled dawn to dusk with keynote addresses and panel discussions featuring genre giants and more laureates than you can find wreathes for—even amidst the ballrooms’ enormous flower arrangements. It was both affirming to be among such a mass of creative souls and fellow lovers of language, and overwhelming. Especially since the vast majority of those around me were current or recent MFA students, which means I could have easily been their mom. But I squeezed in the rows alongside them nonetheless, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, listening to literary luminaries—those who have won Pulitzers and lesser prizes, those who have been anointed by Kirkus and The New York Times, those who knew what royalties are, in these ballrooms decked out for royalty. And I’m guessing I was far from the only one in this small city of writers in this large metropolis of a hotel dreaming that maybe one day I’ll be discovered, that one day I could be keynoting AWP.
During one particularly long poetry reading, my mind began wandering and wondering how the Muse navigates such a huge, unwieldy affair. Does she get lost in the shuffle between the various ballrooms? Sidetracked by the endless supply of Twix, M&M’s and chapbooks down at the Bookfair? Is she exhausted and frustrated by so many gasping, needy souls dragging her around from panel discussion to panel discussion, desperate for assistance in fortifying blah characters, energizing flailing plots, adding zip to limp verse? If I was the Muse, I’d count the hours until the crowded ballrooms emptied out so I could text Twyla Tharp and say, “now, darling, finally, shall we simply dance.”
This year as AWP shifts to a virtual platform, I wonder what might get lost in transition from an en masse experience to one privatized on our individual screens. And what might be gained? Maybe the Muse will enjoy a break from the crowd-sourced mayhem. Perhaps she’ll be able to zoom exactly where she needs to go, whispering in our earbuds what each of us, thirsty for inspiration and affirmation, needs to hear. Perhaps our computer screens will be less like the overly ornate and vast ballroom and more like Tharp’s pared-down studio—clean, spare, inviting, ready.
Maybe this year, instead of hurrying down hallways of bad hotel carpet between sessions, I can turn on some music and let my imagination sway and twirl. I’ll invite my fingers to an ad-lib pas-de-deux on my keyboard; affirm my own small place in the universe of writers. Maybe the Muse will happily meet me there, and you as well. Shall we dance?
Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, SC-based freelancer whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Veranda, Coastal Living, Orion.org, and Charleston Magazine, where she is editor-at-large, among other outlets. More at www.stephaniehuntwrites.com or @stephhuntwrites.
March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
The AWP Conference is virtual this year, and most current and former members are rather curious what that will look like and how that will go. No hotel bar? No hotel lobby stress-attacks? No book fair chocolates? Nonetheless, U of Nebraska Press has arranged for an author “meet and greet” to mark the release this week of my hellish new memoir To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno, and I hope someone, anyone, shows up.
You have to be registered for the conference already, so if not, you have an easy out here. But those of you who are registered, the event is Friday, from 11 am to noon EST, at this link: Dinty Meet & Greet Hell Book AWP 2021. We can chat. I can sign the air. You only need to stay for a moment or two.
It is a tough year to launch a book, as many of you know. The marketing folks are working from home, pandemic bookselling is a mess, and January itself had a hellish quality. But here we are:
To Hell With It is part memoir/part spiritual essay, asking what would our world be like if eternal damnation was not hanging constantly over our sheepish heads, stoking our self-loathing and making so many of us vaguely miserable? To Hell with It pokes fun at Dante’s ambitious poem, Divine Comedy, and explores the ways in which the poet’s gruesome imagination, helped along by shady theologians, shaped western culture and made us all a little more miserable than we need to be.
The more I read about early religion, the more I came to understand how much of Catholic and Christian theology was clearly man-made, and designed to manipulate rather than to inspire spiritual awakening. Plus, I love poking fun at silliness, and Dante’s long poem is a rather bizarre and ridiculous mix of horror-movie imagery and revenge fantasy.
Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, generously says of the book: “I don’t dare say that Dinty’s Inferno is better than Dante’s. But it is a hell of a lot funnier. It’s so funny that you don’t realize how smart it is until it’s too late: you’ve suffered Deep Thoughts. You realize you’ve been not only entertained but enlightened.”
If you are registered for the AWP, please join me on Friday, for five minutes or so, and we’ll chat. If not, maybe have a moment, check out the book, or ask your local library to order a copy.
Thanks so much, and stay healthy!
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity.
February 23, 2021 § 17 Comments
By Judith Colp Rubin
Several years ago, I attended a writing workshop in an exotic foreign country co-taught by two well-known female American writers. Billed as a retreat suitable for prose beginners and veterans, it promised to motivate people to write. It turned out to do the opposite.
The first day, when everyone had assembled outside in a circle, the air smelling of orchids and roasted coffee, the main instructor began workshopping the first piece. The instructor’s tone quickly grew negative as she pointed out the flaws in the piece, which certainly needed some work. But for the entire half-hour critique, the instructor didn’t praise a single aspect of the participant’s deeply personal words and suggested a top to bottom rewrite. As the days unfolded, both instructors tore into other participants’ work, including mine. I had written about finding a memoir written by my estranged grandfather, an experience that had affected me deeply. There’s nothing interesting about finding a family memoir, the main instructor said. Afterwards, I cried for a long time in my lovely bungalow, feeling that although I had made a living as a reporter, I was a terrible writer.
To make matters worse, both instructors praised the work of some of the participants. These writers formed a clique of teachers’ pets who, together with the instructors, sat together in the dining room and stayed up late drinking at night. I felt I was revisiting my darkest days of high school. And so it continued throughout the retreat’s 10 days. Those of us who’d been slammed returned home feeling we needed a good hug and another vacation. The first participant to be workshopped decided to give up writing altogether. I strongly considered doing so.
As this was my first adult writing workshop, I had no idea whether such harsh treatment was par for the course. With trepidation, I signed up for an Introduction to Fiction class at my local writers’ center. But the teacher fulsomely praised everyone. He told me that my short story, the first I’d written in over 40 years, reminded him of Tobias Wolfe. I knew he was exaggerating — I mean, really — but the compliment gave me the motivation to continue writing fiction and even eventually to get back to creative non-fiction.
I have since taken about 50 writing classes in person and online and attended other writing retreats. I never again experienced what happened at that first retreat; if I had I probably wouldn’t have written another word. Instead, I received excellent advice on how to rework my pieces, but all within the context of pointing out what I’d done right.
Recently, I participated in an online Flash Fiction class taught by Kathy Fish. It took me four tries to get into this class which always booked up immediately when it was made available on a first come first serve basis. After having her server crash, Kathy switched to a lottery system. When I started the class, I hoped not only to learn about this genre but also to understand why this class was so popular. The teacher was excellent as were the exercises she provided. But there was, I think, another crucial factor. Kathy made clear she would only allow positive feedback to be given about all the pieces. Any piece can be better edited, she explained, but in her experience, positivity brought out the best writing in participants. By the interest in her classes, it seems to be working.
At times I’ve wondered whether the excessive praise was too much. I’ve read pieces whose authors might have benefited from some tough love and total rewrites. But I’ve seen how some positive feedback can give a writer dignity and enable them to focus on their weaknesses.
It’s been almost 50 years since I received my first encouraging words as a writer, but the incident remains clear in my mind. My third-grade teacher had underlined a phrase I had written in a story: “The cat’s eyes were gleaming,” and had written “excellent!” underneath. That one word probably more than anything made a writer out of me.
Judith Colp Rubin is a writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.
September 19, 2020 § 4 Comments
Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams, author of the forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro, discuss the joys and struggles of virtual literary citizenship and how writers can build community, even via webcam and Zoom account.
Tomorrow is the final day for an Early Bird Discount on Rebirth Your Writing: a Publishing and Craft Intensive to be held in mid-October, aimed at helping us keep our writing alive despite the challenges of the current moment. (More details on schedule and registration here.).
Dinty: There are so many changes in our lives due to this pandemic and the necessity of cancelling events and staying home. For writers, that means we aren’t casually bumping into one another at readings or coffee shops, or attending weekend writing seminars at our local Literary Centers. Writing is a lonely enough activity as it is, but it feels a bit lonelier right now. Have you noticed writers building community in new ways?
Allison: I have – I’m actually phoning people to talk at length, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve done a couple of Zoom events where participants are randomly sent into breakout rooms for 6-7 minutes, and meet a couple of other people. Each time I think, “This will be awful” and each time I end up being grateful for the connection and sustaining contact with at least one of the other people. I’m also seeing more genuine conversations on Twitter, rather than just dropping cleverness bombs and running away, and on Instagram, where people are asking quite soul-searching questions and having sustained interaction in the comments. So it’s a mix of writers reaching out and hoping someone latches on, and facilitated conversations where a host metaphorically says, “Talk to Susie, you’ll love her!” and it turns out I do.
Dinty: I’ve attended a few Zoom webinars as well, but have also been teaching online, and I will add that from the teacher side of the webcam, the experience is more successful than I ever would have guessed. I was skeptical, in other words, that teaching by Zoom would be anything more than ‘sterile’ or ‘robotic,’ but it has turned out to be the exact opposite. It feels, as you say above, “genuine.” And the participants seem happy to be there, and generous with their insights and comments. Maybe one reason is that so many of us are locked down at home, and we crave more connection. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased with how well it has worked.
Allison: What I love as a teacher is what I’m learning about teaching that I’ll one day take back into the live classroom. Because eye contact doesn’t quite line up, I’m remembering to use people’s names more, and to watch for clues they’d like to talk, even if they’re not ready to signal it. We’re all waiting longer after a comment or question to see who’d like to speak next, and I think that lets each others’ words really sink in, before the next person offers their thoughts. There’s a “performative listening” that for me is translating into deeper actual listening. And both you and I want to build on that, which is why we’re including time for writers to talk to each other, both casually and intentionally, in this thing we’re about to do! Turning on the Zoom room early for “cafe time” where people can bring their coffee, leaving it on through the midday break, and having a couple of sessions where we’re facilitating small-group conversations about their work and their goals. I’m hoping writers will leave with sustained connections and a specific plan for their work. When you’ve got someone to check in on your goals with, even if it’s very low-key, it’s like having a little mastermind.
Dinty: I am ready for this pandemic era to be over, ready to push my way into a crowded restaurant, ready for the next big writers conference with a crowded, noisy lobby and maybe a late-at-night gathering in the hotel bar. But I’m guessing we’ll look back with partial fondness even at this difficult time period, because there is always something. Like you, I think the online camaraderie, the enthusiasm people have brought to these Zoom events, will remain in my memory as a small silver lining to a largely difficult time. Stay well, stay safe, and wear you mask.
More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.
September 10, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Amy Berkowitz
A few months ago, a friend told me they were watching a concert on YouTube Live when they were suddenly overwhelmed by grief. They were enjoying the music so much, and then they thought about how temporary the pleasure was: once quarantine was over, they wouldn’t be able to go to shows anymore, as most venues aren’t accessible to them.
The amount of high-quality arts programming that’s been made available online during COVID is dizzying: on any given night, I can check out a poetry reading, an artist talk, a concert, and a comedy show. But while this glut of diverse entertainment is exciting, it’s also bittersweet. For one thing, well, it’s the result of a devastating global pandemic. And on top of that, it’s only being provided now that everybody can’t go to live events. For sick and disabled people, it’s been painful to watch accommodations that have been denied to us—or even framed as impossible—for decades immediately manifest as soon as able-bodied people need them too. All of a sudden, remote work and virtual learning are the norm, and you can go to a reading without getting out of bed.
As a chronically ill writer who wrote a book about chronic illness (Tender Points, rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019), much of my experience navigating accessibility has been around literary events. Right before shelter in place started, I did two readings back to back in New York and DC that have made a lingering impact on how I think about accessibility.
I generally make an effort to read in accessible spaces, and I was particularly committed to finding one for the New York event because I was appearing in conversation with a filmmaker whose work also centers chronic illness. I emailed my disability community friends, my art friends, my publisher—do you know an accessible, large-ish space that we could use for free?
I got a lot of almost-but-not-quites: it’s accessible, but the bathroom isn’t; or it’s accessible but it’s small, so the audience will have to stand. And then my publisher put us in touch with Mara Mills, co-founder and co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies, and all of a sudden our event was being hosted by the NYU Center for Disability Studies.
The reading at NYU was the most thoughtfully accessible event I’d ever been part of. It’s not that I hadn’t been around accessible events before; in 2016, I co-organized Sick Fest, a free Oakland event that featured readings and performances by sick and disabled artists and writers. We did our best to make Sick Fest accessible, but we were winging it: we had no budget and none of us had ever organized a large event before, accessible or not, so we had to educate ourselves about what accommodations to provide and then somehow figure out how to provide them for free. While we did manage to find a wheelchair accessible space and arrange for ASL interpretation and other accommodations, some of the logistics weren’t sorted out until the last minute.
But at the Center for Disability Studies, as you’d imagine, accessibility was built in. There was plenty of space for audience members in wheelchairs; a CART captioner typed our words as we spoke and they appeared on a big screen. I’d never seen CART captioning before, and I was a bit distracted by it, in part by the narcissistic pleasure of seeing my speech appear in big green letters and in part by the joy of seeing this accommodation provided for the first time. And it hadn’t even been something I had to ask for or fight for or scrounge up funds for. The Center for Disability Studies provided it because that’s how their events are. For them, it was routine; for me, it was utopian. What if all events were CART captioned? What if accessibility was a thing you didn’t have to wrangle? What if it was always built in, assumed, part of any space?
Three days later, in DC, I appeared in conversation with a memoirist whose publisher had arranged for our reading to be held at an independent bookstore. It was a great venue, except for one thing: the event space was down two flights of stairs. I have a couple of friends in the DC area, a fiction writer and a poet. The fiction writer came to the reading; the poet, who gets around on crutches, did not. As I walked down those stairs to the event, I thought about how they were keeping my friend out and I wondered who else they were keeping out. But once the reading started, the venue’s inaccessibility fell from my thoughts, replaced by nerves and excitement about the memoirist’s book. For the two or so hours we talked and answered questions from the audience, the fact that we were in an inaccessible space didn’t cross my mind.
Remembering my reading at the bookstore helps me understand how easy it is for most people not to think about accessibility. If you’re able bodied and go to events in lots of inaccessible spaces, you might think there’s no need to have your event in an accessible space because you don’t know any wheelchair users who like poetry or film or memoirs.
And thinking about my reading at the Center for Disability Studies helps me envision exactly how beautiful access is, how it brings people together, makes everyone welcome, includes everyone in the conversation. How access is an act of love, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes.
I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about these gains in accessibility lasting any longer than able-bodied people need them, but maybe the future will prove me wrong. I don’t think we’ll have live streams of every reading and show, but I could see some arts organizations rethinking their online offerings. I do think this is a great time for everyone—including and especially (currently) able-bodied people—to be thinking and talking more about disability and access.
Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points, originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2015 and rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019. Other writing has appeared in publications including Bitch, McSweeney’s, and Jewish Currents. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she’s writing a novel.
Brevity‘s special issue on Experiences of Disability launches on September 15, 2020