A Full Circle Moment Ten Years in the Making
April 7, 2023 § 19 Comments
By Melanie Brooks
Exactly a decade ago, only two months into my MFA, I attended my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I knew little to nothing about this yearly literary gathering and what it was all about, but I’d been urged by people in my program to attend, and, since it was in Boston, only forty-five minutes from my house, I went. I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like to join for three days the swarm of 13,000 writers filling the Hynes Convention Center. What it would be like to sit in the audience as writers I’d long admired delivered keynote addresses. To attend a myriad of panel presentations on topics ranging from craft elements to genre-specific themes to advice on landing an agent. To walk up and down the aisles of the massive book fair and cautiously approach the exhibitors’ tables that showcased commodities from publishers, literary journals, and writing programs. I didn’t know that being in that space would drape over me a daunting (and heavy) awareness that I was only at the start of this writing life. That I had so far to go with the painful story I’d just begun to find words for. That, more than once, I’d have to resist collapsing to the floor in an incoherent heap of uncertainty, doubt, and exhaustion. That perhaps I didn’t belong there at all.
But then, on the afternoon of the second day, I slipped into a panel presentation about writing paralyzing stories of loss, and I listened to poet and author Kim Stafford read an essay called, “How a Book Can Set You Free” that told what it was like to get in the mail the galley of his memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Memoir, about his brother’s death by suicide. He read about reaching that place on the long road to bringing what had felt like an “impossible story” to the finished page. “I had set down a difficult and awkward burden and could step forth along a new path. There was an opening ahead.” As I listened, my eyes burned and tears gathered at my lash line. I want to be able to write an essay, like that, I thought. I want to arrive at that opening and step on that new path. I reached for Stafford’s words, gathered them in my hands, and clutched them to my chest like a promise. A tiny spark ignited. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope for my own impossible story yet.
Fast-forward ten years.
I’m nestled against the arm of a leather couch near the entrance of the Seattle Convention Center at AWP 2023. It’s late in the afternoon, and most of the day’s panels have just finished. Voices hum from conversations around me, and people stream by as they head toward the escalators or out to the street. I smile up at some familiar faces in the crowd.
It’s been a busy few days. I’ve connected with friends from my MFA days and other writers I encountered in the process of writing and publishing my first book. I’ve chatted face-to-face with acquaintances who, until now, I’ve only known on social media. An hour earlier, I had a drink with a lovely poet I’d met when we shared an Uber from the airport. This morning, I spoke on a panel called “Building an Author Platform Based on Tragedy Without Sounding Perpetually Tragic” with four other writers who are putting stunning writing out into the world. Afterwards, a young woman came up to thank me for voicing some of the fears she’s been having as she tackles her own hard story on the page. As she shared her uncertainty and doubt, I heard echoes of my own.
Beside me on this couch sits Kim Stafford. He’s showing me some photos of his 100-year-old mother-in-law on his phone and describing the tender family gathering that took place around her deathbed two weeks earlier. He tells me about some of his recent work—notably a commissioned poem for the Pediatric Intensive Care Waiting Room, at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, in Portland, Oregon, where he lives. I describe the narrative medicine program I began in the fall and the ways it’s informing my work, particularly as I prepare to launch my memoir in September.
“Do you know,” I say softly, touching his arm, “that it has been exactly ten years since that first time I met you in Boston?”
He considers this. Stafford has some sense of the impact his part in that panel had on me that day. I wrote about it at length in the introduction to my first book in which I interviewed him and seventeen other memoirists about their journeys to write and publish their stories. We’ve stayed in touch, and I make a point to try to see him when AWP brings us to the same place at the same time. I hadn’t made it to the conference since before the Covid pandemic, though, so it had been a while. As it was an “anniversary” of sorts, this reunion felt particularly meaningful.
There’s a tremble in Stafford’s voice and his eyes are wet when he finally says, “When you write or read something, you never can know exactly the way your words might affect someone else. But here you are. And look at everything that’s happened for you since then!”
Stafford is not assuming responsibility for the writing career that has taken shape for me in the last decade. His genuine humility would never land on that claim. But I am not shy about giving him a share of the credit and my deepest gratitude because even if he couldn’t know the effect of his words that day in 2013, I know them. The little spark of hope that I carried with me away from that panel presentation, away from that conference, and back to my writing desk was the encouragement I needed to keep going when the going got especially tough. Grabbing hold of Stafford’s insights inspired me to gather more insights from others who were doing this difficult work so I could hear similarly sustaining stories of writing past the difficult ending and finding something new on the path ahead.
The path ahead feels closer than ever, especially when I arrive home from Seattle to an email waiting in my inbox from my publisher. Attached is the electronic galley of my memoir, a book containing a story that began almost forty years ago and took me close to ten years to write. A book that has the potential to connect me to readers who could be waiting for my words to spark their own. I open the file to the title page and feel something like a weight lifting. Maybe there’s an essay here, I think.
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). She teaches professional writing at Northeastern University and creative writing in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Massachusetts and creative writing at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast writing program. Her interviews and essays have been published in Psychology Today, the HuffPost, Yankee Magazine, the Washington Post, Ms. Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and other notable publications. Her memoir, A Hard Silence: One Daughter Remaps Family, Grief, and Faith When HIV/AIDS Changes It All, will be published in September by Vine Leaves Press. Though her Canadian roots run deep, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children (when they are home from college), and two Labs.
Why I Wasn’t Ready to Go to AWP This Year
April 5, 2023 § 3 Comments
By Zach Semel
The day before I hopped on a cheap Las Vegas flight to Seattle, I apologized to one of my creative writing students. This student had sent me a beautiful lyric essay about mental illness and belonging, and I had torn it to shreds, dotting it with highlights and comments like a vengeful graffiti artist. I had marked countless moments where rather than describing a symptom or its roots or its meaning for the narrator, my student had written a quick, vague sum-up line. But as I scrolled down the document during our Zoom meeting, I recognized that much of what I had questioned in their piece was actually working. The point of the piece was to sometimes refuse length and clarity. When my student admitted they had been a little upset by my comments, I recognized that I’d been upset writing them, had been upset writing my students’ feedback all semester.
For the past year, I’ve been writing a lyric memoir about my experiences living with PTSD in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. A few months into the project, the stakes of my work suddenly felt dire. Partially due to not seeing a therapist during this period, I was approaching my book as I would an actual therapy session: wringing out each line for its deepest possible meaning, wanting writing to be the space in my life where I regularly discover, articulate, and heal. In the shower, during my daily commutes to campus, I’d often repeat to myself: Specificity is survival. I noticed this psychological shift and didn’t try to change it. I didn’t want to lose my grip on the growing book.
Three days into the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference (AWP), sometime between chomping on a greasy $12 pizza and steadying my vertigo-riddled torso on a 4th floor escalator, I realized my writing in survival mode had led me to read in survival mode too. Each time I’d see an author I admire, I’d remember how many times that last year I’d read against the belief that deeply reflecting upon my experiences would leave me in such distress that I’d want to die. Every night after AWP, I went to bed wishing it had been appropriate to admit to these famous writers that I’d pictured myself writing my book alongside theirs, us surviving authorship together. You might’ve seen me wandering around the convention center in scuffed-up khakis, my head swiveling back and forth like the Exorcist Girl on fast forward — revved up by how many presenters I’d developed one-sided trauma bonds with, by how I could encounter any of these people any time I turned a corner or glanced into a room.
I’d like there to be a scenario in which how I was feeling towards my favorite authors wasn’t solely the result of my own therapy-deprivation and lack of boundaries. Are those imagined kinships necessary — or even natural — in a culture that often doesn’t want to hear about trauma or long-term illness? In her introduction to the craft anthology Writing Hard Stories, Melanie Brooks describes how trauma memoir made the stakes of her work — and other authors’ work — feel incredibly high. In the essay’s climax, Brooks walks up to the author Kim Stafford after a conference panel, wanting to ask (but not knowing how to ask) Stafford how he had survived writing his memoir. Each time I sprang from my seat to talk to an author, there were nearly always a dozen folks close behind me. I never asked any of them what it meant that we were all moving so fast, so urgently.
Maybe it’s unavoidable how bad it feels to be unable to ask a question like Melanie’s. It doesn’t help that survival isn’t self-evident — without asking, the reader is unsure that the author even is surviving. The author could become depressed or re-traumatized or die tomorrow because of what their writing had required them to confront. Maybe this is all a set-up, and AWP wants to be a space for people like me to flock towards writers they idolize, with whom they have overly-emotional attachments. Maybe it’s inherently too much to hear the writing and reflections of people you admire over only a few days — or maybe that’s just me and Melanie Brooks.
I know that if I am to return to AWP in a future year, I will have to soothe the tension with which I view others’ writing, as well as my own. Like the post-book question What will you write next?, I wonder with what mindset, going forward, I will try to read.
Zach Semel (he/him) is a poet and essayist pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. Some of his previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Salamander, CutBank: All Accounts & Mixture, Drunk Monkeys, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, The Nervous Breakdown, Wordgathering, FreezeRay Poetry, and other places. His hybrid chapbook Let the tides take my body was awarded the 2021 May Day Mountain Prize by Hunger Mountain.
AWP: All Writers Pining (to be there)
March 9, 2023 § 32 Comments
Another year, another AWP
By Allison K Williams
Another AWP, another year of watching AWP happen on social media. Writer friends and writer acquaintances are coordinating meet-ups and announcing their readings. Editors I admire are posting about their panels, and how their panels went. Everything is liminal. Or intersectional. Or intersectionally liminal. In a few days, countless editors, writers and journal staffers will depart the giant conference in Seattle, heading back to their home institutions with swag bags, connections and newly autographed books.
But even if we’re not meandering the aisles of the giant book fair, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with big-deal writers we admire (we don’t want to look like fangirls) or hoping the staff of the magazine that just published our work will spontaneously recognize us (because introducing ourselves might be bragging), we’re still in this together. So if like me, you’re at home watching the literary world scroll by, you can still recreate the AWP experience.
First, you’ll need wine. Pour half a plastic cup of unfortunately-sharp white, and sip politely (hide those winces!) as you pull from your shelves every literary journal, small-press book, and poetry collection. Arrange the books on your dining-room table in a pleasing display. Rearrange three times. Settle on the original arrangement—it should be about the work.
Find the last free tote bag you got from a conference, NPR funding drive, or those Girl Scouts at the Super Walmart when you bought six boxes of Thin Mints. Fill the bag with twelve bookmarks, two souvenir magnets, five pens bearing the names of businesses you don’t remember patronizing, and some sticky notes. Print out the first fifty pages of your newest manuscript, just in case, and slip it into your tote bag while reciting your elevator pitch like a mantra.
Using Google Images, download photos of Dinty W. Moore, Terese Mailhot, Sue William Silverman, Ronit Plank, Lindsay Wong, the editor of any literary magazine you’ve ever wanted to be published in, and all your writer friends on Facebook. Create a slideshow, setting the time to 1 second per photo. As the pictures flash, guess who each person is. Each time you get one right, choose a book from your pleasing display and put it in your tote bag. Each time you get one wrong, practice saying, “It’s so great to see you! How is your work going?” and estimate how many minutes of conversation it would take to identify the person you’re talking to and whether you have in fact met before.
Scroll through Twitter, liking the tweets and following anyone using the #AWP23 hashtag. Retweet anything that makes you smile wryly.
Browse the books in your pleasing display and ask yourself of each one: Do I know this author personally? If so, why did they only sign their name on the flyleaf and not something that says how great I am and how much they can’t wait to be beside me on the bestseller list?
Turn the lights down. Put on a smooth jazz playlist. Go to that YouTube video of the coffee shop sounds and turn it all the way up. Pour yourself a beverage you actually like and call a writer you met anywhere last year, on speakerphone. Count how many times one of you says, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” As you converse, look through your display for any journals in which that writer’s work appears and add them to your tote bag. When you hang up, flee to the bathroom, lock yourself in and look through your tote bag journals. Find a piece so powerful, all you can do is lean your forehead against the coolness of the wall and wish you had written it, even though you have never even contemplated making a poem in Sapphics.
The next morning, visit the nearest coffee shop and order your usual. Go to Brevity’s list of craft essays and read six of them. Every time you find the word “ruminate,” drink. Scan the coffee shop. Does anyone look like they might be a writer? See if you can work up an excuse to talk to them without looking like a doofus. If they refuse to start a conversation, slink away, then drink. If they chat enthusiastically but are not a writer after all, drink. If you can’t figure out how to end the conversation gracefully, drink. Eventually you can excuse yourself to pee.
Go back home on foot. Enjoy the blissful silence. Leaf through the last few books in your table display and just take anything you want. Look at the Acknowledgements and start writing down agent names. One of them’s gotta be right for you. Carry the tote bag around your house for the next two days until you set it down to pick up something else and forget where you’ve left it. Gently mourn.
When you trip over the bag tomorrow, find the poem you loved in the bathroom and read it again. Imagine the writer you love most in the world feeling that way about your work. Imagine AWP happening in your house, and know that it kind of is, that you are a ‘real’ writer, that you’re allowed to talk to any author you want via tweets or emails or handwritten cards, that it doesn’t matter whether or not they talk back. Know that you’re part of this world, no matter where you are.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Need a writing event at home? Join her for Memoir Proposal Bootcamp April 1-2. Skip the struggle and write most or all of your proposal in a weekend with professional guidance and group support. More info/register here.
Flash Is the Future
February 6, 2023 § 2 Comments
By Matt Weinkam
For the last two years, Literary Cleveland has been running flash fiction and flash nonfiction festivals online via Zoom. During these week-long programs, we hold panel discussions, workshops, and open mics designed to help writers learn about the genres, draft new pieces, share their work, and learn where and how to publish.
Not only have we gotten to work with some of the best flash writers in the country (Venita Blackburn, K-Ming Chang, Kathy Fish, Daisy Hernández, Lindsay Hunter, Michael Martone, Elena Passarello, Amber Sparks), we’ve also seen participants go on to publish work in Split Lip, Necessary Fiction, Fractured Lit, Tiny Molecules, Portland Review, and more.
Running these festivals and talking with panelists brought into focus what flash fiction and nonfiction have in common, what makes short form prose special, and why flash is central to the future of writing and publishing.
Engine of Innovation
During past festivals, Michael Martone, K-Ming Chang, Elena Passarello and others have spoken about flash as an engine of literary innovation, as a place where writers can experiment with new voices, forms, and tones. When you can draft a flash piece in a few days or even a few hours you are freer to take bigger risks than when you spend a few months or years working on a full-length story or essay or book. At the same time, short form prose places fewer demands on readers, allowing writers in flash fiction and flash nonfiction to try new things without overstaying their welcome.
Consider Diane Seuss’s single sentence “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” (a much loved essay often cited during our flash nonfiction festivals), or the hilarious body horror list of “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” by Amelia Gray (a personal favorite). Flash pieces like these accomplish things formally, tonally, emotionally, and politically that are harder to sustain in a longer story or essay.
At the same time, publishing at large is less receptive to experimentation than online flash journals, which are the tide pools of the literary world where strange new writing can evolve. Occasionally experiments from the flash world break out into the mainstream. For example, I suspect the recent popularity of novels in fragmented form (Dept. of Speculation, Memorial, No One is Talking About This) can be traced at least in part back to the rise of flash. Still, mainstream acceptance is not the goal. Flash fiction and flash nonfiction are not just farm-league systems for the major publishers, they are meaningful genres in their own right. They are essential to the future of literature.
That is why one of our major takeaways from these festivals is to be bolder, take bigger swings, and use flash to really explore what writing can do.
Catalyst for Change
Our festival panelists in both genres also identified flash as a potential space to dismantle the cultural redlining that still dominates publishing as a whole.
White writers made up the majority of contributor lists and mastheads and MFA students for so long. But in recent years not only do we see more flash stories and essays published by writers of color, writers who are queer or transgender, or writers who are disabled or neurodivergent, there are also more flash outlets with diverse mastheads and equitable models of publication.
Flash is uniquely suited genre to take back power. As a network of small (mostly online) journals, the world of flash in both fiction and nonfiction largely exists outside of the major established structures of production, reception, and recognition making it more responsive to calls for change. Flash can be a powerful outlet. As Vanessa Chan put it in one of our festival panels, “I think that writing for me is an exercise in regaining power and correcting the imbalance of power structures that exist for someone that looks like me in spaces that are maybe not made for me.”
Not that the flash community has fixed publishing or defeated white supremacy, of course. Genuine multicultural magazines and diverse contributor lists are still too few. But journals like The Offing, projects like SmokeLong en Español, special issues like Brevity’s upcoming Trans Experience, and anthologies of flash by writers of color like Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction edited by Megan Giddings help lead the way to an equitable future for all of publishing. A major takeaway from our festivals is the need to push this work further.
In the introduction to Forward, Megan Giddings explains that publishing diverse writers is more than just posturing: “I want to feel like my work is important. Not just something that makes the editors look good, but it so urgent and beautiful and engaging that they had to respond. That I am speaking to humanity and living, not filling a quota. I am a person.”
But most of all, our panelists and participants celebrated flash fiction and flash nonfiction as genres for play. Writers of all backgrounds and interests find their way to flash to create in a joyful spirit.
Although fiction writers may draw more often from the well of imagination while nonfiction writers more often shape experience and research into new writing, firm genre distinctions are less important in flash. There is more crossover and interplay. I like how Joy Castro puts in in “Genre as a Vessel for Presence” when she says, “I see fiction and nonfiction slow-dancing, inseparable, holding each other close.”
At Literary Cleveland, we are excited to continue this dance, holding flash festivals for as long as the writing community is interested. Our third virtual Flash Fiction Festival is this February 19-25 and our workshop leaders and panelists are all contributors to the new Flash Fiction America anthology out from W. W. Norton on February 14. We will continue and deepen this conversation about flash and the future of writing. I hope you will join us.
Matt Weinkam is the executive director of Literary Cleveland. His work has been published in Denver Quarterly, Sonora Review, New South, DIAGRAM, and Electric Literature. He holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University, an MFA in fiction from Northern Michigan University, and he has taught creative writing at Sun Yat-sen University in Zhuhai, China.
Starting Your Own Retreat: How Hard Can It Be?
January 24, 2023 § 14 Comments
I guess that guest didn’t hate me after all.
By Allison K Williams
Writers often thrive in new places—residencies and retreats that allow us to expand our ideas and make big progress outside the demands of daily life. But residencies are often competitive and retreats expensive. After eyeing promising opportunities that may be distant, outside your childcare capacity, or require three references (on paper! In the mail!) you might ask, Should I just lead my own retreat? How hard can it be? You’d get to pick convenient dates, cover your own travel, maybe even profit.
After leading sell-out retreats online and off, I can say it’s hard the first time, and new challenges arise from new locations and types of event. But repeat events become a checklist of specific tasks I know I can accomplish. Whether in Tuscany or onboard the Queen Mary 2, I’m going to teach how to finish books and write better, addressing the experience level and needs of every writer present. Most new challenges are logistical.
Going virtual? The new challenge is “make it feel like a real retreat,” and meeting it means gift boxes, responsiveness outside retreat hours, and clear guidelines for participants to plan their time.
New venue in Costa Rica? “Communicate serious dietary needs to the on-site chef in my very weak Spanish.” Hello, Google Translate and a poster of guest pictures clearly marked Vegana, Sin Gluten, and Sin Alcohol.
New itinerary in Portugal? “Schedule tour bus and trains.” Doable with a TaskRabbit helper in Porto, a guide in Coimbra, and the national train system website.
Retreat leadership has evolved from hoping I’d break even and enjoy the experience, into a regular income. It’s truly amazing to nurture artistic growth and exploration in writers who happily contribute to my livelihood. Often, I’m lucky to have Brevity’s editor in chief Dinty W. Moore as co-teacher, which means not only sharing the emotional load but learning new elements of writing myself, in the classes he leads.
Could you create a retreat?
Yes! Even if you start small, perhaps an AirBnB weekend with one writing friend, asserting time for the joy of writing feels great.
But should you create a retreat/workshop/event that other writers pay you for?
Yes, if you keep two main principles in mind.
1) Find the right audience. It’s much easier to market to a specific, defined participant you want to serve. When I created Rebirth Your Book, most retreats didn’t focus on whole-book work. When Dinty and I created our Virtual Intensives, most writing workshops didn’t offer an affordable week focused on one topic.
Are you drawn to help authors fill in the gaps to make their book publishable, or generate new material? Do you want to only offer writing, or explore a new culture, a complementary artistic process, or yoga? Got a great location you want to share, or are you more comfortable over Zoom? As you define your offering, narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone who has a week off and wants to go to Provence,” identify an immediate, pressing problem you will help your guests solve. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, their problem should be solved.
2) Remember that you aren’t a participant. Retreats are rarely “fun” for the leader. They’re often joyful, meaningful, and profitable, but come with daily, constant responsibility. Having a great time on a mountain hike? Make sure you’ve spent a few minutes walking and talking beside each guest. Check in with the guy who was working through a new idea after dinner—how does he feel about it this morning? Is the lady who needed to reach her family for an emergency able to focus on her writing or does she need some personal time?
Retreats demand rigid flexibility. You must create a strong frame within which absolutely anything might happen. Where you’re truly open to accommodating what each guest needs, even if what they need isn’t what you planned. My first-ever retreat, one writer didn’t want to stay in the venue after all, instead commuting from a hotel and eating on her own. I tamped down my fears and made myself available for porch talks and reading pages on her schedule. She later thanked me for “supporting the retreat she needed to have.”
At another retreat, a writer outlined ideas, but didn’t write much at all. I worried he secretly hated me, was sorry he’d paid me, had only tagged along to be with his friend. But two years later, he booked another retreat, so I guess it didn’t suck—and it’ll be my job again to support the retreat he needs to have.
Sharing what you love in a fabulous location with happy guests is truly marvelous. Taking home a paycheck (and a bit of paid vacation) is the icing on top. With planning, confidence, and clear expectations, you can make great retreats happen—whether it’s just you and a friend, or a fellowship of inspired, productive writers. Whether you break even or make bank, our true profit comes from experience. Our true leadership is taking someone’s hand and asking, “What do you see? Show it to me.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager, and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Her retreats take place around the world and online, and she’s offering a webinar about leading your own sell-out retreats (and making a real income from meaningful events) Feb 4th. Find out more/register here.
Authors: Can You Answer These Questions—Quickly?
November 4, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Sue Fagalde Lick
What kind of books do you write? What is this book about?
Sitting at my table at a recent book festival, I heard the same questions over and over. The authors who sold a lot of books were ready with their answers.
I can’t count the number of times Mike Nettleton [deadlyduomysteries.com] at the next table said he writes “humorous murder mysteries” and then described a book in which a professional wrestler turned private detective runs into Sasquatch in the woods while on a case. His spiel was clear, quick, and interesting. If the potential reader wanted to know more, he would go on, but often this was enough.
He and his wife Carolyn J. Rose, who writes mysteries with a substitute-teacher protagonist, had an attractive display, friendly smiles, and books of a sort that people want to read, and they knew their lines. I couldn’t resist.
During my break, I strolled around seeing what other authors had to sell. I bought some books, but not from any of the writers who hemmed and hawed or who pummeled me with blow-by-blow descriptions of books I didn’t want in the first place. I had 50 booths to visit, and my break was short.
I avoided the writers who called out, “Hey! What do you like to read?” Don’t put me on the spot like that. I bypassed children’s books, religious books, how-to-feel-good books, or anything that looked like I would never actually get around to reading it. I just wanted a good story. All I wanted to know was what kind of book are you selling and what is this book about? If I was not interested in what they were selling, nothing they could say would change my mind.
One author said her books are like Clan of the Cave Bear but rated PG. Another said he writes “biker poetry.” Another offered “inspirational nature photo books”. I didn’t buy any of those, but I appreciated their sales skills.
Remember: so many books, so little time, and only so much money to spend.
Back at my table, I noticed a pattern. People were attracted by the cover of one of my novels, flipped the book over to read what it was about, then glanced at the rest of my books and asked what they were about. Time for me to say my lines. I was prepared.
You have probably heard about the “elevator pitch,” a quick summary of your book that you could spout if you ran into an agent or editor in the elevator during a conference. That doesn’t happen very often, but you do find yourself meeting all kinds of people at meals, in the hallway, or even in the restroom. When they ask, “What do you write?” are you ready with an answer? Don’t start with, “I don’t know how to classify it, but, well, there was this girl and she . . . and then she . . .” By then, they’re checking their email or looking for a way to escape.
No. Humorous murder mystery. Professional wrestler turned private detective meets Sasquatch in the woods.
Even if you never sell your books at a festival or meet an editor at a conference, you need this information. Before publication, it’s your pitch. After you sign the contract, it goes on your book cover, website, and Instagram posts. You’ll need it when you’re trying to schedule readings, when your mom wants to brag about you, and when they introduce you for your Pulitzer Prize.
Coming up with these two pieces of verbiage can be more torturous than writing a whole 300-page book, but it’s worth the effort.
What kind of things do you write? Boil it down to 3-5 words. Walk around a bookstore to see where your books would fit. Hike a nature trail and brainstorm until you find the one that works.
What is this book about? Two sentences. Do not start with, “Well …” Don’t give us every little plot point and describe every character. What is the big story you’re trying to tell? How would a reviewer describe your book in a few words?
Glynnis MacNicol’s memoir No One Tells You This is about a New York journalist who is single and childless on her 40th birthday. She spends the next year considering what her life will be like if she remains alone.
In My Two Elaines, Martin J. Schreiber, a former governor of Wisconsin, offers a no-nonsense account of his caregiving journey with his two Elaines, the Elaine before Alzheimer’s and the Elaine after. Chapters tell of their lives together and how they changed and what he advises others taking care of loved ones with dementia to do.
My own novel Up Beaver Creek is about a young widow who heads west from Montana seeking a new life as a musician. She settles on the Oregon Coast where things are going well—until the tsunami hits.
Take the time to find the right words. Polish them, memorize them, and say them with pride.
Even if you’re not writing books at this point, if you’re submitting essays and articles, you still need to answer these questions in your cover letters and query letters and after you publish. What do you write? What is this piece about? Take the time to figure it out.
Then get back to reading about the detective and Sasquatch.
Sue Fagalde Lick writes memoirs, fiction, and poetry about strong women living nontraditional lives. Her books include Stories Grandma Never Told, Childless by Marriage, and the forthcoming Alzheimered: A Memoir of Mutts, Music, and Madness. She lives on the Oregon coast with her dog Annie. More information: https://www.suelick.com.
Get Thee to a Writers’ Conference… and S T R E T C H
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.
How to Embarrass Yourself at a Writing Conference
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.
Honesty and Bravery in Creative Nonfiction Workshop Commentary
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
Writing as a Death-Defying Act
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