August 26, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Michèle Dawson Haber
Three weeks away from the terrifying milestone of putting my draft memoir in the hands of a developmental editor, I started to question the wisdom of registering for Hippocamp, the annual conference for creative nonfiction writers sponsored by Hippocampus magazine. I was in the final stretch of getting the manuscript in as good a shape as possible and attending the conference would mean five days off task at a time when I could least afford to get sidetracked.
But I was stuck in a self-hating rut, weary of chapters and sentences that led nowhere, scenes dark and serious, and reflections so shallow not even a snorkel was required. The few remaining “[xxx]”s where more research was needed only paralyzed me further. I needed a break—I needed to stand on my tippy toes, reach my hands to the sky, wriggle my fingers, and lift my face to the warmth of the sun.
To draw up (one’s body) from a cramped or stooping position
And so, I left the house, boarded a plane, and took myself to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once at the hotel, I wandered the maze of halls, weaving between wedding parties, bodybuilders, and young parents attempting to lift the spirits of travel-weary children. Revolving glass doors, four fluffy white pillows, endless escalators, mac and cheese with pepper jam, phantom elevator bells, herb and flower market scents, and giving in-person hugs for the first time to all my zoom writer friends—how good it was to get away from my keyboard!
But changing scenery by itself wasn’t going to alleviate the guilt I felt about not working on my revisions. Would the content of the conference sessions help me overcome my inertia?
To reach out (extend)
Opening the conference menu of deliverances, I scanned the options, my subconscious looking for comfort and safety—sessions that would affirm I was on the right path. What was I thinking? This was a writers’ conference, hadn’t I come to challenge myself? The session choices were all a stretch, each representing an alternative approach to my well-worn perspective: Second person POV, writing about religion, writing like a musician, the art of the interview, writing about trauma, recognizing implicit bias, adding humor to your writing, choosing your voice, or structuring your memoir like a novel. They all excited me, I wanted to attend all these and more. The offerings promised to extend my writerly comfort zone and that was exactly what I needed.
Over the next two days I knocked off as many sessions as my attention and energy allowed. The presenters of these sessions gave me fact-checking and research tips to help me fill in knowledge gaps, awareness of implicit biases that may worm themselves into my writing, strategies to lighten up my more serious chapters, and ideas on employing different voices to heighten the realism of my narrative. Other sessions provided me tips on querying, networking, editing, and getting my essays into literary magazines. There was such a variety in the presentations that no emerging writer’s questions went unanswered.
To go as far as or past the usual limit of something
Attending a writing conference involves a kind of stretching—I reached beyond my comfort zone and opened myself up to new ways of thinking, learning, and doing. Supported by the friendliness and generosity of the presenters and my fellow attendees, I was reminded that progress and growth are possible. Nothing underscored that conclusion better than the keynote address by Carmen Maria Machado. I didn’t expect that hearing this brilliant writer’s experience of writing her memoir, In the Dream House might increase my confidence, but when she talked about her struggles with processing, structuring, and revising, I felt I could make peace with my own floundering. All writers wrestle with similar things—struggle does not equal failure. As she said to a rapt audience, “Writing a memoir isn’t simply recording what happened—that’s called a diary—writing a memoir is fundamentally an act of shaping real life into a meaningful, beautiful, interesting story. And that is fucking hard.” In the moment I needed it most, Carmen Maria Machado validated my effort and my art.
I could have stayed home and had five days more with my manuscript (well, maybe a bit more if you add the time it took to write this essay), but I’m certain it wouldn’t have had the same impact as attending the Hippocamp conference. It wasn’t just the acquisition of knowledge that I gained—being and learning in a community of writers gave me the clarity and inspiration to come back home and attack my work-in-progress with fresh vigor. I have new strategies to call upon now and clearer insight into what needs fixing. Will I finish revising by my deadline? Who knows—but I’m more ready than ever to work hard and lean into that stretch called writing.
Michèle Dawson Haber is a writer, potter, and proud Canadian who currently resides in Toronto. She is working on a memoir about step-adoption, family secrets, and identity. Her writing has appeared in Salon.com and The New York Times. More at www.micheledhaber.com.
July 5, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Eileen Vorbach Collins
Let’s go to this! I typed, along with a link to HippoCamp21’s website. Within minutes, Anne said, okay.
An impromptu decision to attend a nonfiction writers’ conference made late one night on a Messenger chat. But I wasn’t serious. Not really. It cost money, and there’d be airports and there’s a pandemic, and well, I’m not a real actual author…
This was not the first time Anne had nurtured my impulsivity. One day near the end of our years at the Baltimore Experimental High School, Anne stood up at a hall meeting and asked if anyone wanted to join her hitching around Europe. Hell yeah. I sold most of my belongings: the guitar I was never good at playing, some books and records, odds and ends. We were seventeen and ready for adventure. It was the days of bogus charter flights, when unscrupulous travel agents provided clients with counterfeit credentials for membership in an ever-increasing list of imaginary “affinity groups.” We joined our esteemed colleagues on a packed flight, all of us card-carrying chiropodists.
Now we were at it again, our HippoCamp nametags displayed on lanyards, much as our chiropodist credentials were on that long-ago flight. I was feeling good about my stack of published essays (a bigger stack unpublished); a couple of exciting, ego-boosting awards; two Pushcart nominations. But look at this table of books for sale! Books with actual cover designs and narrative arcs. Books with titles I’d seen many times over the past year.
And here were all those amazing writers I’d met online. As if I were Miss Nancy on Romper Room: I see Allison and Ashleigh, I see Jeannine and Lilly. There’s Lisa. And Irene and Brian and Ellen. There’s Casey and Mimi and Barbie, and by some miracle there are even a few extra Eileens. And there’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty W. Moore.
Everyone is so friendly. I’ll just go and say hello.
But no. I don’t do that.
I don’t say gracefully, “Hello Dinty, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I’ve enjoyed your webinars.”
Of course I don’t say that. It would be too normal. Not something a person like me, born without that filter keeping embarrassing comments trapped behind the glottis (where they can’t vibrate vocal cords) would ever say. Instead, I gush and blush and I’m my 12-year-old self, meeting Paul McCartney, turning the other two members of my critique group into clichés. Oh, Dear Goddess, did I really just tell Dinty W. Moore that my friends are green with envy that I get to be in the same room as his famous, revered self? He smiles a humble, uncomfortable smile and I escape to the veggie table to distract myself with loud celery crunching.
And I’m not Miss Nancy—not the grownup pixel-person looking through the TV screen at all the real children in their homes. I’m the kid she never sees, jumping up and down on the worn linoleum, waving at her, I’m here! Say Eileen! I’m here!
But that’s all going to change. Because the night before my flight to that conference, I’d followed the virtual advice of a virtual friend and made some business cards with my five-year-old headshot and all my social media handles and had them printed on cheap floppy cardstock at Office Depot. That’s all. But maybe next year, instead of the old headshot, there’ll be a picture of my book cover. And I’ll have Miss Nancy to thank. Because she never saw me in her magic mirror, I learned to jump up and down and wave. I had to.
At last year’s conference, I learned one thing from all my new writerly friends, both virtual and fleshy: you have to believe yourself real. You have to know that your words matter. To take risks, to stand up and wave, to feel your face flush with embarrassment but go back and do it again, to turn cartwheels across the floor if that’s what it takes to see your reflection in that coveted magic mirror of published authors.
The 2022 Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference is August 12-14 in Lancaster, PA.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide. Follow her on Twitter here.
February 21, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Laura Johnsrude
I love workshopping creative nonfiction pieces with other writers, around a small table, in a small room. (Ah, remember those small rooms?) I enjoy focusing on craft and style and I’m delighted when revision choices slap me in the face.
Nothing will annoy me so quickly, though, as around-the-circle workshop commentary being derailed by an earnest participant’s “you’re so brave,” or “I admire your honesty.” No matter that the speaker is heartfelt, moved by the power of the piece, the statements about the author—instead of the work—risk diverting the conversation to personal anecdotes and echoed praise around the room. Digressions about similar experiences can suck up a large slice of the author’s allotted critique time.
I’m not dissing such conversations. One of my favorite activities is meeting writer-friends at coffeeshops to discuss essays-in-progress, to bemoan the limits of memory, and to exchange story ideas.
But this essay is about constructive commentary of a piece of creative nonfiction writing.
Before paying for a writing workshop, I’ve always looked for cues that the experience will be fruitful, will include productive criticism guided by an experienced author and/or educator. I look for descriptions about how the commentary experience will run, whether the plan includes language that is both useful and kind: what works well for me; what works less well for me; I am unclear about. I feel fortunate because most of my paid workshop leaders controlled the conversations expertly, redirecting wayward discussions.
But I remember uneasy moments. I recall the look on my friend’s face—a friend with a chronic illness—when a reader told her she was brave, as feedback to my friend’s essay about some singular bodily discomfort, some daily hardship. My friend’s face froze, hardened, as we hung there waiting for our workshop leader to redirect the room, which she did. The author’s bravery (or cowardice) was immaterial to the craft assessment of her piece. Placing value on an author’s “good” character—her strength—is a fraught rubric. What if the author’s piece is about something repugnant, undignified, disturbing? What if the content or craft choice of the essay involves evasion, or the narrator’s helplessness, or shame? My guess is the reader would have said, “I admire your honesty.” Only a slight pivot, still focused on the author, not the language.
And there’s another rub—that an essay reveals personal and intimate details does not mean that it is well-written. Many of us have read raw and unguarded essays not yet revised beyond a first draft, but the author might merit the adjectives “brave” and “honest.”
No way to know.
Workshop feedback complimenting an author’s bravery and honesty implies an elevated relative worth of such unveiling, over essays revolving around the ordinary, the everyday.
Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a delightful essay around his habit of chewing gum, “Letter of Recommendation: Gum,” by shaping his images and language into a tight, compelling story.
I admire Knausgaard’s microscopic attention to sensory detail and use of scene to reflect on a moment when his habit made him feel small.
And that brings me to another argument against using the word “honest,” regarding the writer, in a venue designed to comment on the writing, either in a workshop or even in a book review (which is published criticism). I hadn’t considered that “honest” might be a loaded word in a creative nonfiction book review until I found myself stumbling over it, recently, as it implies some unlikely insider knowledge about whether the author has revealed everything, held nothing back, and it places a preferred value on doing so. Unlike “accuracy,” in evaluation of straight nonfiction writing, “honesty” is neither here, nor there, as creative nonfiction literary criticism. We can employ more appropriate terminology to admire how writers shape language to share painful and intimate details, or to portray habits, routines, or the microscopic analysis of a body part—a belly button, a hammertoe, a tattooed broken ankle.
No creative nonfiction writer reveals everything. We all choose what to include in a piece, select words and phrases that sound best, depict the memories that are most powerful. We vary sentence length to convey tone, or control pacing, or to end the last paragraph with a punch. We shape the story to suit the goal. We dip in and out of the present to bring in threads from long ago, and we employ metaphorical songs or images—the ones we decide will serve the piece. We intentionally shave the sections that don’t work, the tangents that swerve too far off course. The boring bits. We don’t tell the truth about which family member was unhelpful during our recovery because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t reveal our misgivings about a neighbor, even though the wariness is pertinent. We don’t interview everyone who was there, at the bedside, when our mother died, or when our daughter had a seizure. We tell our truth in whatever way we choose to do so, revising and rearranging the paragraphs until the essay lands, thump, as a finished whole.
We write creative nonfiction, not nonfiction, you see.
When you read my essay, please tell me what works best for you, what doesn’t work so well for you, and tell me what bits are unclear. Tell me when the voice is inconsistent, or the tense changes are distracting, or the pace slows down so much that your mind wanders. Tell me if my piece lacks depth, or if my reflections seem unexplored. Tell me which sensory details made you sigh, which lines you won’t forget, which metaphors are fresh and exciting.
But during workshop, please don’t tell me I’m brave. And don’t tell me I’m honest. Honesty is too high a bar for me. My focus is on the language, crafted to tell a truth, or many truths.
But not every truth.
Laura Johnsrude is a retired pediatrician living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her piece, “Drawing Blood,” was published in the spring 2018 issue of Bellevue Literary Review and won Honorable Mention for the Fel Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, and in The Boom Project anthology, and her book reviews have been published in Good River Review. Publication of her piece, “Losing Flesh,” in Under the Gum Tree is forthcoming. Find her on Twitter: @LauraJohnsrude
February 7, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Karen Traub
It’s June of 2018, and I am sitting at a table in the basement of a classroom building in Newport, Rhode Island, eating a turkey sandwich and getting to know my MFA cohort.
As I pop open my can of lime soda, Katie Moulton and Edgar Kuntz introduce themselves. Katie is a freelance music writer and Edgar is a poet who will be teaching at the Salve Regina University residency this week. Katie has the prettiest dark eyes and a smile so bright and friendly I feel like I’ve known her forever. We talk about the residency and then she asks “so, what are you writing?”
Well, if I could put it into words, I’d be home writing it, but I do my best to answer. “It’s going to be a memoir. My mom died and I tried to help build a library in my town. There was a tie vote, everybody was fighting, and we had to forfeit a grant. Also, I belly dance with my snake, a royal python named Chloe.”
Katie says “Wow. That reminds me of my friend Tessa Fontaine’s book The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts. She joined a circus sideshow while her mom was dying.”
I won’t forget a title like that! I can’t wait to read it.
Katie asks what I will share at the student reading. I have no idea. “Pretty much the only thing I’ve written is the story of a young woman in my town who was murdered by her husband in 1880. I read about it in an old newspaper clipping and it stuck with me as something worth re-telling. I wrote it as a ballad, but I don’t sing.”
Katie says, “Then that would be a death-defying act.” Edgar agrees “Like being the electric woman.”
“Death-defying.” I like the sound of it. After all, wasn’t it fairly courageous to decide to become a writer now that my kids are grown?
The words come back to me throughout the week of workshops, readings and craft talks. I can’t believe I’m really back in school at my age; eating in the cafeteria, sleeping in the dorm, hanging out in the student lounge. Every day, between classes, I stroll along the cliff walk overlooking the ocean with crashing waves on one side and the famous Newport mansions on the other.
By the end of the week, I’ve decided I will sing the ballad. I volunteer to go first so I don’t have time to chicken out. I figure I’m doing my fellow students a favor by setting the bar low. I walk up to the podium in the ballroom of the Young mansion which was built as a rich person’s summer cottage. There are mirrors reflecting the crystal chandeliers, all carved wood and elegance, knowing I am about to humiliate myself. I look out at the audience and see the attentive face of Program Director Ann Hood whom I so admire and want for all the world to like me. Katie and Edgar sit side by side, smiling. Sara gives me the thumbs up and Brooksie leans forward in her seat with a slight nod when our eyes meet. They are telegraphing “You got this.”
As my shaky voice squeaks into the microphone, I renew my resolve to be death-defying and launch in. “My name is Sadie Grover, my story sad and true.” I have no pretentions that this is good. I know it’s bad. When I look up, I see surprise and sympathy on the faces of the students and faculty. I stand straight and tall, knowing that if I can do this, I can do just about anything. I’m not sure I’ll ever write worth a darn, but I know I’ve got passion and audacity. I stumble through it, survive, then take my seat and relax and enjoy listening to the other students read. Afterward, we take selfies and congratulate each other. People tell me how brave I was.
When I get home from the residency I can’t wait to dive into my readings. Tessa Fontaine’s book is dazzling. I can’t put it down. It’s exactly the inspiration I need. The book is about facing fear, finding courage and your life’s adventure. A line that resonates with me is “The only way to do it is to do it. There is no trick.”
I need to tell my story, so I will keep writing. Even if I can’t find the right words. Even if it comes out in a shaky, squeaking voice.
Karen Traub, a 2021 graduate of the Newport MFA and natural-born troublemaker, has published poetry and prose in the Brevity blog, Multiplicity Magazine, and Quabbin Quills Anthologies. Follow her as @hadamadance
January 3, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Kelsey Cleveland
My finger hovered frozen over the register button for my first writer’s conference as perfectionism, otherwise known as fear, struck. Should I postpone attending until next year, when both my manuscript and book proposal were more polished? Maybe I could focus on craft and skip the agent meetings? I took a deep breath. What if I attended the conference with a playful sense of curiosity about what I could learn and whom I could meet? I clicked purchase and used the conference dates as a milestone to plan the revision schedule of my travel memoir.
Nerves returned in the week leading up to the big event. I fought back by over-preparing, which is a tendency among perfectionists. First, I researched speakers, sessions, tips on attending conferences, pitching, and book proposals. Based on my research, I drafted an overview of my memoir, chapter summaries, and information on comparative titles to prepare for my two pitch sessions with agents.
Months later, my body vibrated with a mixture of excitement and nerves as I entered the room for a pre-conference master class to learn about publishing from an agent. I felt calm and less alone by day’s end after connecting with fifteen other writers. Now, some friendly faces among the crowd would greet me when the conference began tomorrow. Plus, I had already met one agent I planned to pitch.
Instead of going home, a classmate convinced me to stay for the pitch fest that evening. I sat in the back, ready to observe and learn from the panelists’ feedback to other aspiring authors. I found one-on-one agent meetings seemed intimidating. Pitching in front of dozens of people felt next to impossible.
The moderator pulled the first name from the bucket. A woman handed her five dollars, strode to the front of the conference room, and pitched her non-fiction project as if presenting a two-minute dramatic monologue. I assumed she and every other writer taking part needed a complete and polished manuscript ready for submission. The three panelists offered each writer praise and areas of improvement.
I both envied and admired the writers who followed for their bravery. You couldn’t drag me up there. Some nervously clutched notes as they spoke; others presented with confidence about projects in various states of readiness.
The qualities of the pitches and projects varied. Yet, the supportive panel always offered compliments and suggestions because they wanted the writers to succeed. I regretted not putting my name in the hat when I realized they needed us, and we needed them. An aspiring author is like an Egyptian Plover flying into the mouth of a Nile Crocodile to clean its teeth. Or like a pilot fish cleaning parasites from a shark. Yes, both the shark and crocodile could eat the smaller creatures, but they won’t because they have a symbiotic relationship where both parties benefit.
When the moderator pulled the last name, I sighed with disappointment because I’d missed my chance. Wait! Wasn’t there still time left? I put five dollars in the pocket of my skirt and raised my hand high. Could they please squeeze in one more person? I held my breath with nothing to lose. The moderator consulted with the panel, who agreed.
I walked up to the front with my notes clasped in my sweaty hands. Of course, I was nervous, but I tried to lower the stakes by viewing the entire conference, including this pitch fest, as a learning experience. I focused my attention on the panelists instead of the attendees. The two minutes flew by. I survived and now had my first pitch under my belt. For the cost of a cup of high-priced coffee, I received insightful feedback on my memoir pitch, which would also help me revise my manuscript. I had done it, and my one-on-one pitch appointments the next day would seem easy in comparison.
My conversations with a literary agent and an editor flowed like conversations with helpful mentors offering advice and feedback during the conference. A volunteer handed me a sticker shaped like a baseball after leaving the ballroom where the pitches were held. It stated, “I got 99 problems, but a pitch ain’t one.”
My identity as a writer won’t change whether or not I get published. A speaker confirmed I am a writer because I feel guilty when not writing. The conference cost less than the cost of the therapy I’d need if I denied my desire to write and have my voice heard.
Kelsey Cleveland is a writer, who after studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan. Her personal essay “Listen to the Waves” received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition. Several of her tiny truths have won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests and been published in In Case You Missed It Monthly. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Press Pause, Monologging, Hippocampus Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She is currently working on Waving Hello, Bowing Goodbye: A Dual Love Story with Japan and a Man, a travel memoir about navigating conflicting desires to pursue a childhood dream to live in Japan. She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where her passport is safely stowed for now. Find her at kelseycleveland.com or connect with her on Twitter @kerushi_san.
October 12, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Adelle Purdham
The first time I organized a writer’s retreat I did it because, as a mother to three young kids, I wanted the time and space to write. A word to the wise: if you want time and space to write, don’t organize a writing retreat and facilitate it yourself.
Renting a space meant I had to do all the grunt work. I was preparing lunches and bringing in yoga instructors and providing feedback on writers’ work. With a clump of memoir writers, I was faced with participants in tears and traumas that risked repeating themselves, skipping from body to body like a virus to a host. How to manage it all, in my new-found role of hostess, chef, therapist, teacher, while still making space for my own emotions and work? In truth, I didn’t, I could not.
I resigned myself to giving the time and space to other women to write, and when I did that I encountered a truth greater than the value of that writing time I was giving up. Hosting the retreat was a time for me to teach, and to help other women find their story, their voice, and share it with the world. There are times to write and there are times to learn. Teaching is the highest form of learning. And it’s not that I necessarily learn directly from the writing of the writers I’m working with, though often I do, but I learn from their bravery; I learn from their curiosity and courage. I learn from their open hearts. And in return, I offer them mine.
Tips for organizing your own writer’s retreat:
- Know your why. I thought I was getting into organizing writing retreats because I love to write, but it turns out I also love to teach and facilitating The Write Retreat has been a perfect marriage of these skills. Empowering and supporting women writers is deeply gratifying work.
- Know your audience. I’ve heard of a doctor who runs writing retreats for other doctors. Find your niche by considering what specifically you have to offer. With an MFA in creative nonfiction writing, I attend to attract more memoir/ personal narrative writers to my retreats.
- Create a sustainable business model. Consider partnering with other writers and other businesses that can add value to the service you are providing. For example, working with a venue that can manage administrative tasks for you, such as registration, saves time and energy that can then be put back into the retreat, while inviting guest speakers brings in expertise to support the work you are doing.
- Put your heart into it. Your participants are counting on you to deliver quality programming. Are you able to meet as many of the group’s needs as possible? Consider setting up Zoom meetings beforehand to get to know participants and find out what those needs are. Send out a questionnaire afterwards and reassess how each session went and learn what you can do better for next time. Let your passion shine through.
- Create a safe space. As writers, we know how vulnerable it can feel to share our work, especially work that’s newly formed. Create parameters around how work is shared and how feedback is provided. Focus on what works in the piece and celebrate loudly.
Tips when deciding if a writing retreat is right for you:
- What do you hope to get out of it? Are you seeking comradery and community or solace and space? Do you want intensive feedback, one-on-one time, or time to play on the page? Each writing retreat is going to offer a balance of these things—a coming together and time apart. Feedback and inspiration. Find the retreat that offers the balance that’s right for you.
- Does it add value? Is there a guest author you want to meet or a writer you really want to workshop with? Is the location ideal? Is the timing right given the stage of your project, or during the period when you want to get a new project going? Is it the chance to relax and inspiration that you need? The retreat needs to bring value to you and your work.
- Does it feel right? Often, we know in our gut if something is right for us or not. Read the fine print. Does the idea of sharing a room with a stranger put you off? Are your food requirements able to be met? Is the retreat space accessible for your mobility needs? Are you attracted to everything on offer? If not, wait for the next one.
- Are your friends interested? While attending a retreat on our own is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and make connections with other writers, there’s a level of comfort that comes with bringing a friend along. Also, reading past participants’ testimonials can be a great indicator of what you may be in for.
- When in doubt, reach out. My expectation is that if a business wants my patronage, they should be willing to answer any questions I may have. If you’re at all unsure, reach out with any questions and an organized facilitator will be happy to answer them.
After facilitating my latest retreat, feelings of wellbeing and gratitude washed over me. I spent the weekend as one of fifteen women sharing stories, with catered food and a team of other professionals to share the load of running the weekend. I’ve learned a few things about how to run a retreat as the years have gone by and I continue to learn. I drove home alone along the open stretch of road, rows of pines waving at me as I passed by, and I knew I had experienced something with these writers so seldom granted to women, and especially mothers: freedom.
Adelle Purdham is a writer, speaker and parent disability advocate. She holds an honours degree in French literature and is a certified teacher. She earned a graduate certificate from Humber College’s Creative Writing by Correspondence program where she wrote her memoir Here We Are, Happy. Her essay, “The Giving Tree” will appear in the anthology, Good Mom on Paper (Book*hug Press, spring 2022). Adelle’s work has also appeared in The Toronto Star, The Mighty, Broadview Magazine, and she’s a regular contributor to 3.21: Canada’s Down Syndrome Magazine. Adelle is the founder of The Write Retreat, facilitating wellness, workshops, time and space for women writers to create. She is currently completing her MFA in creative nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College and writing her next book, I Don’t Do Disability and Other Lies I’ve Told Myself, an ensemble of first-person essays through memoir. Visit her online adellepurdham.ca
Visit RebirthYourBook.com for information on upcoming retreats, intensives and special events. Coming in 2023: Rebirth Your Book in Costa Rica, plus Rebirth Your Writing virtual retreats in January and May.
September 29, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Margaret Moore
“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”
I sat in my living room as U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo recited these words during the virtual 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference keynote address. I was engaged in the event, drinking up the magnificent art of Harjo’s lines as they mixed with melodies played by her band in Tulsa, Oklahoma. With the long work week catching up to me, my mind faded in its attention to detail, though, listening to the poetry as something relaxing.
“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”
I jumped when Harjo posed these questions, sitting back up from the slightly reclined position I had been lounging in my motorized wheelchair.
Harjo was describing the troubled state of the world. I’m sure her lines were intended to ponder the wisdom that will emerge from the pandemic and current societal tensions. I couldn’t help but take these words more literally, though, considering how they describe my writing process.
I have been writing my first memoir for thirteen or fourteen years.
I am 24 years old now.
Yes, I started writing my book as a fourth grader.
I still have some drafts from my early youth. With misspelled words like ‘delishus,’ lines like “Lois made me chocolate pudding and it was yummy,” and attempts to depict every detail of my school day, every friendship I had, and every story that my teachers told about the goofy stuff in their home lives—something I’m sure they would (not) appreciate—they make me laugh and inspire me on days when writing seems impossible.
I was pegged as a writer in second grade, when my teacher recognized my talents. Having almost lost my life at birth due to a prolapsed umbilical cord, I grew up as a physically disabled child with a wheelchair and communication device. My father died of cancer when I was a baby, and my brothers and I were raised by a single mother. Because of my mom’s initiatives to find the best school system and assistive technology, I have succeeded in academics and extracurricular activities. My teacher thought my story could inspire others and suggested that I write a memoir. I had loved writing since I composed my very first story in her class. Her vision became my dream.
Knowing my strengths and desire to pursue a writing career, my high school guidance counselor put me in a senior creative writing class as a freshman. I also took an advanced creative writing independent study as a senior, where my project was to draft my memoir.
“I know why this is important to you—I’ve seen you live it for three-going-on-four years,” my teacher said each time he reviewed a chapter. “But you need to show readers that don’t know you why it is. Why is it significant that you played soccer in your walker on a team and did Girl Scouts with your able-bodied friends? What is your ‘so what?’”
I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I was told that I was partaking in activities typically labeled ‘off-limits’ to people with disabilities and that I should share my experiences so others may find their way to similar endeavors. I wanted my book to help people. That’s all I knew.
Part of me wondered whether I would ever be able to adequately depict my intended ‘so what’ and that, if I was not able to, my memoir would merely seem like a collection of interesting anecdotes.
Now pursuing my MFA in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, I’m rewriting the scenes that remain major fixtures of my story—those that show me participating in activities alongside my abled-bodied peers.
One of the most influential gems I have gained from the program is that I need to provide vivid descriptions of what it physically and emotionally feels like when I move my tight muscles and use assistive equipment. I’ve learned to dissect the actions that my family, school staff, and I take to make activities accessible, giving readers an in-depth look at these accommodations.
I recently rewrote a scene in which I joined Girl Scouts at five years old. I describe how I did not have the muscle coordination to form the three-fingered Girl Scout sign and how, to compensate, my mother guided my hand into position and held it like that at every event. I intended for this scene simply to show my physical experience of scouting, but, after rereading it, the themes at the heart of my memoir leapt out. There were the concepts of inclusion that made all the difference in my life. There was my mother bridging the gap between my abilities and the requirements of able-bodied activities. I suddenly found my ‘so what’—that individuals coping with disabilities and adversity can overcome barriers to participate in life’s ordinary and extraordinary activities.
My scenes, I realized, needed to be just like this Girl Scout one, magnifying actions that my family, my school, and I have taken to ensure inclusion. They must have layers showing what it felt like to physically move while supported by others or assistive technology and how it felt emotionally to navigate obstacles.
My book is by no means a guide possessing all the answers for how inclusion must be implemented for every disabled person in the world, but I hope it can be a source of inspiration that offers ideas on overcoming challenges.
“What will we know when this page is done?” Joy Harjo asks. “Who will we be?”
If we delve deeply into details of our physical and emotional experiences, we will find ourselves discovering who we are as writers. At the end of the page, we will be warriors who have successfully weathered life’s most grueling terrain. We will be fierce advocates for inclusion, justice, and peace. We will be leaders guiding others to a more accessible and compassionate world.
Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.
September 23, 2021 § 10 Comments
By M. Betsy Smith
In 2017 I applied for a writing residency held on an island. I had retired as an insurance professional the year before, and only then declared my second career would be as a writer—a long-held dream. I was a hot mess at the time, and my application was a train wreck.
My application didn’t focus on the writing; it was more about my personal struggles with a homeless alcoholic son and a depressed husband. I wanted to write creative nonfiction essays about my journey as the mother of a brilliant but tortured adult child. I was at the beginning of my writing efforts with one published essay, high aspirations and little to back them up. I was desperate for some time off the grid and saw the residency as my escape. And it was free. I had things I wanted to write, but what I wanted more was time alone. Not exactly what the decision makers wanted to hear.
My application was too personal. I was too needy. I was too green.
Although I didn’t see the letters from the women who were my references, I can assume they too addressed my mental health more than my writing ability, especially my Al-Anon sponsor who knew very little about me or my writing goals. What the hell was I thinking?
I did not get the residency; I was crestfallen and took the rejection personally. Four years later, with some solid writing success and a large dose of humility, I reapplied for the same residency. I got this response from the Executive Director:
OMG, this is the most beautiful application I’ve ever seen. Listing your references, separate supporting documents…I’d like you to do a training session for all our applicants!”
Her enthusiasm prompted me to share some Do’s and Don’ts of Applying for a Writing Residency
First, make sure the residency is a good match. Do your research and create a list. Do your objectives and the residency’s align? Is your project specific enough to match the criteria? Is the location accessible? What are the costs, if any? What is the duration, and can you be away for the time offered? You get the gist.
For example, Jental is a fabulous residency offering in Wyoming. Jentel offers a generous stipend for weekly expenses, wonderful accommodations, and inspiring vistas. I would love to apply…but the location and the duration are deterrents at this time in my life. The need to fly, rent a car, plan my meals, and be gone from home for a month put this one in the future-possibility pile. Jentel, like several others, is a prestigious and competitive residency, so be sure you have the chops to do it before applying. Explore the bios and projects of prior recipients. Can you compete? Is your work of the same artistic caliber? Or, could your work grow to be the same caliber if given a chance?
Note that 2022-2023 is especially competitive, because many programs are planning to honor residencies offered for 2020-2021, but canceled due to the pandemic. Watch the dates as part of your research.
Once you have identified a potential residency or retreat, checked all of the boxes on your logistics list, and are ready to apply, do the following:
1. Be thorough. A sloppy or incomplete application does not impress no matter how good your writing is. The gatekeeper initially reviewing your application is not likely the same person who will evaluate your project and/or your creative work for residency consideration. Don’t let your app be put on the bottom of the pile.
2. Know your purpose for applying. Don’t waffle. If you pass the initial application review, you may be interviewed and asked for more information. Provide concrete details about what you hope to do with the time you are allotted. Share your commitment to your work. Will you pursue your goals with or without the residency?
3. Your project should represent full-time work plus. Let the judges know the residency will be well utilized to accomplish the stated goal(s). That doesn’t mean you can’t take time to explore new and unfamiliar surroundings, and in fact most residencies never check your actual output, but a productive plan is important to residency sponsors.
4. Select appropriate and objective references who can knowledgeably speak to your work and your work ethic. They should like you, but it’s not a requirement.
5. Demonstrate your passion! If you are blasé about your project, don’t bother submitting an application. Believe in what you are doing and it will show in how you present yourself.
6. Be patient, grasshopper. Success, like art, takes time. If a residency will help you to achieve or propel an idea, don’t give up.
I know if I am not awarded the applied-for residency in any given round it is not because of me or my application; it’s because the competition is stiff. Just like submitting pieces of my writing, rejection is a part of the process. I won’t stop trying; nor should you.
M. Betsy embarked on a career as a writer five years ago after retiring from her job as an insurance underwriter. Her work has been published by Refinery29, The Write Launch, Entropy, Brevity, and the WriteAngles Journal. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading, a hot cup of British tea, and petting all the neighborhood dogs.
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.