Community vs. Solitude for Writers

October 14, 2021 § 21 Comments

By Lisa K. Buchanan

Workshops, writing groups, classes, and conferences can all be lifelines for writers.  It is only as a grateful beneficiary of such bounty that I’ve also come to know when it’s important to work alone.

In an online writing group awhile back, I received the happy news that a short piece of mine was chosen as a finalist in a competition. Savoring the treat, I kept it to myself, grinning stupidly. Meanwhile, a fellow writer in the group announced her own finalist win—but with exasperation. Her piece had “finalisted” many times already. Always the bridesmaid… Accordingly, colleagues’ congratulations were more sympathetic than celebratory. Finalist again? Aww, sucks! Next time, for sure! I stifled an impulse to post a bumper sticker: Cartwheels Not Condolences. I knew my own finalist win would help counteract rejection and boost my stamina for subsequent revisions and submissions. Ultimately, both my piece and the piece by the disappointed finalist were published. At the time, however, I cherished the award, but kept my cartwheels private, sidestepping the risk of group sympathy.

In addition to online communities, I’ve also enjoyed destination workshops, a two-year MFA program, and, more than one enriching run of monthly meetings in the living rooms of fellow wordmakers. Most of my colleagues in these groups nurtured and respected and celebrated and commiserated in just the right way. In one particular constellation, though each of us had published shorter forms exclusively, I received thoughtful responses to scenes from a novella I’d been writing. My colleagues were helpful and astute, but the piece decided to stop, butt-to-concrete, mid-sidewalk like a tired toddler. Long after the group had amicably disbanded, I was traveling in Ireland, and asked a bookseller for a reading recommendation. When he asked for a title that had recently thrilled or disappointed me, I cited a thick novel I’d eagerly begun; after a gripping thirty pages, however, I’d irrevocably lost my connection to it. The bookseller had too, calling it “a novel that should have been a short story.” The impact was swift and startling; the recognition, absolute. The bookseller’s comment only reminded me that I had suspected as much for my tired toddler. On the ten-hour flight home, I began condensing my novella into a story. I also began to see that my writing-group hadn’t been well positioned to assess the arc and momentum of a longer work. I’d shared only individual scenes, out of order and separated by weeks or months. By design, we didn’t sit with each other’s work in advance, but usually read aloud and discussed our excerpts or flash pieces in-progress. Though my colleagues had been kind and encouraging, I’d benefitted greatly as well from a stranger who didn’t know my novella existed. Additionally, the bookseller pointed me toward Foster by Claire Keegan, a powerful work that had been published both as a long story and a short novel.

Lastly, I find that pain often begets writing, and colleagues often beget comfort—which can, in turn, blunt the pain that drives the writing. In an elevator at an AWP conference, I overheard one writer explaining the plot of his novel to another writer. They seemed to have only just met. The listener was kind, the novelist was stuck, and as the plot summary had a well-rehearsed sound, I doubted the novel would be finished anytime soon. Had the writer inadvertently transferred too much energy from the page to the (possibly numerous) confidantes? Or perhaps, I had it all wrong, and it was this very telling, whether the fifth or the fifty-fifth, that enabled the novelist to work out a literary problem. In contrast, I often find that the less I say about a work in progress, the stronger the writing. When I witnessed a stranger’s suicide a few years ago, I knew I wanted to write about it. I also knew I needed to keep my shock and sorrow intact. By taking notes and denying myself the relief of conversation, the emotional pressure continued to build until the words were finally ready to find a form. I worked on the piece quietly and sporadically for about four years. A writers’ group might have sped and smoothed the process, but then I might not have ended up with the published piece as it is, potent and still sore to the touch.

I recently heard a journal editor cite “community” as one of three essential components of writerly success. While I wholly embrace the first two components, (reading in and about one’s chosen genre), I initially bristled when I heard the third, that of participating in the exchange of writerly feedback. I suspect the editor’s intention was to caution against insularity or isolation; hard to argue with that. But when I’m lucky enough to be immersed in words—from both reading and writing—I’m usually engaged and rarely lonely. When I next feel the need for community, I won’t hesitate to embrace it. For now, however, I’ll keep cartwheeling alone, just a little while longer.

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Lisa K. Buchanan’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus, New Letters, Narrative, The Offing, and The Rumpus. Awards include the Sweet 2020 Flash Nonfiction Contest (winner), The Bristol Short Story Prize (shortlist), and the Fish Short Memoir Prize (honorary mention). She likes The Charleston, black rice with butternut squash, Downward-Facing Dog, and breaking the Rule of Three. She lives in San Francisco. Find her at www.lisakbuchanan.com

Writing Groups: How? Why?

September 30, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Aimee Christian

A few years ago, I took a ten-week class at the creative writing school in my city. As the sessions drew to a close, we talked about what we would do next: a break, another class, a writing group, work with an editor? I couldn’t decide. I was so fired up about my writing that I wanted to do everything but take a break. 

I went for coffee with a classmate who seemed to have all the answers. I downed my Americano and asked her if she wanted to be in a writing group with me. 

“No,” she said with confidence. “Writing groups and classes are too much work spent on other people’s writing. I don’t want to read and edit other people’s pages anymore. I’m going to invest my time and money in an editor to work on my own pages.”

I thought she was wrong, so I wished her well and took another class. And another one. She was right: the classes were a lot of work on other people’s pages. But I was learning. With every editorial letter, every line edit, my eye got sharper. With every reading assignment, I was becoming better-read.

And when it was time to keep revising the same pages I’d generated in class, it was time for writing groups. During the pandemic, I’ve created and participated in groups that have helped my craft, my process, my accountability, and my entire writing life. Writing groups have solidified writing in my life in seven ways: 

1) Accountability

Some of my writing groups provided, or were specifically for, accountability. People who commit their goals to another person are more likely to accomplish them. Knowing someone can see me keeps my ass in the chair! I have ignored my family and foregone beautiful weather, woken early and stayed up late in the name of completing assignments I said I would.

2) Process

Making time for thought. Making time for my words to breathe. Making time for revision. Having two and three and four opportunities to workshop the same piece. Having group members to read something on deadline at the last minute, or cry with when something gets rejected for the tenth time. Making time to try again and again. Having a proverbial drawer for all those drafts moving through revision cycles and the many pairs of eyes they need. That’s process. 

3) Learning

Writers are notorious introverts—but we also love to talk, and we memoirists love to talk about ourselves in particular. Even in my silent Zooms, we use the chat function like crazy. Ask a memoirist for help and you will hear all the details about how they edited, who helped them, what classes they took, what books they read, where they submitted, what tier rejection they got, and more. You will get offers to read drafts—maybe even an offer to edit. 

4) Editing  

Editing other people’s pages and writing feedback letters have helped me see similar issues in my own writing. When I resisted someone’s feedback suggesting I kill a particular darling, cut a section I loved, or clarify something I felt the reader should understand, it became crystal clear to me why only when I found myself giving that very same feedback to someone else.

5) Motivation

Connecting with other writers and seeing their growth is powerful. Hearing where they’re submitting, where they’re being accepted, helping them achieve their goals always makes me feel like their success could rub off on me, and often it does! I belong to one online group that holds submission parties, and another whose participants commit to getting 100 rejections in a year. 

6) Hive Mind 

I subscribe to lots of writing newsletters and scan calls for pitches and submissions on Submittable and elsewhere, but a group of writers means a lot more sets of eyes. I love getting texts, Slack messages, and emails with calls for pitches and notes saying “Thought of you!” or “Have you seen this?”

7) Camaraderie

Meeting other writers, whether newer or further along in their work, is the best thing about any group. Writers are the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. Writers better-published than I have read and edited my pieces, recommended and loaned me books, connected me with other writers, and suggested outlets to pitch. In turn, I have done the same. We are the only people who understand each other’s writing woes, and because of this, I’ve made lasting friends.

So yes, a writing group is time and work spent on others’ pages. But it’s also time and work for your own. A group can improve your writing and introduce you to a life of literary citizenship. Want to know more about how? Create one. 

Join me in conversation about writing groups! How to form one, why to form one, how to improve yours. Leave with tools to make the most of your time, minimize your efforts, and achieve your goals. First session is Sunday October 10th7:00 – 8:30 pm EST. Info and registration on this page

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Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net

The Do’s and Don’ts of Applying for a Writing Residency

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.

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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.

Flash Diagnosis: Illness as Craft

September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Fawn Montgomery

When my father became ill, time stopped, and with it, the words.

It was not that I was unfamiliar with writing with and through and perhaps because of pain—much of my writing centers on disability, my most recent book, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, scrawled during anxiety attacks, OCD compulsions, and PTSD flashbacks.

I am well familiar with writing with pain, hunched over the keyboard with a muscle spasm, trying to finish a page before fatigue sets in. Sometimes I take time away from writing when I’m in pain, a practice disabled writers must accept despite the loud proclamation of “write every day” that comes from abled writers and writing programs. I write by hand when I cannot stare at a screen because of chronic migraines, or in bed when chronic infection takes a month, then six, to heal. I do not keep track of hours or words or any of the other writing milestones simply unavailable to disabled writers. I do not write to escape illness, rather I look to disability to guide my practice and craft. Disability and illness are essential to my writing—they shape my work as they shape my life.

But when my father was diagnosed with cancer—hugging me goodbye at the airport on Father’s Day, given a grave warning from physicians the next—I could not write. Perhaps it wasn’t the words that went, but rather the time, the sense that I had space stretched in front of me to make stories, space to live in the past of memoir rather than the present, which was painful and fleeting.

I was nearly finished with a book manuscript, but suddenly I could not conceive of a project that spanned many years when the narrative of my life compressed into the moment of diagnosis. The book was about my father and our complicated relationship, and I could not make myself finish writing, complete, end, and final words that sent me hazy and uncertain.

While my experience as a disabled writer means I am more prepared than most to create when pain is the only given, my experience with chronic illness has never involved such proximity to death. I am unsure how to create while witnessing its opposite, how to build worlds when my own is crumbling.

As before, I turn to diagnosis to lead my craft. My father’s illness means we exist in brief. Our conversations are short because he does not have energy, because he is grieving and does not want to talk. Our moments of joy—a procedure, the promise of a new treatment—are quick before the next disaster reveals itself on a CAT scan.

So I write in brief. It is hard to conceive of a far-reaching future, so I focus on single moments. It is hard to focus on a work that might outlast my father, so I write what I can accomplish while he is here. I am overwhelmed by grief and fear and the medical responsibility I have assumed as a medical proxy and the oldest daughter of eight, so I focus on what I can control—a few paragraphs, a short burst of memory.

Time does not operate the way it did before, so neither does my writing. I spend 16 hours flying from one side of the country to the next, moving backwards against the sun as though I am a time traveler. When I look at what I have written those many hours, it is less than 1,000 words; I have started and stopped a dozen pieces. Writing feels like duty and distraction, a task calling me away from the important work of caregiving, yet one whose pleasure and control I am desperate for.

I lose hours each day on hold to hospitals and physicians, am constantly living in another time zone. My father takes hours to eat the calories he used to consume in minutes. He stops eating altogether, convinced he would rather end the narrative himself than see how the story plays out on its own. My mother and I repeat ourselves over and over on the phone, spiraling, meandering like we are told to do when writing essays. We search for new ways to craft this narrative, though nothing provides the resolution we hope.

When I feel distracted, pulled in a dozen directions—phone calls and medical paperwork and treatment follow-ups and sorrowful calls with my mother and cheerful attempts to console my father—I remember that I am still living. I do not need to write this story now or at all. I do not need to write like I used to, can instead condense memory, search for the moments that give meaning to my life. I write as I exist—in flash, in short bursts, emotion and time compressed—the way a memory can come from nowhere and send you reeling.

Now my writing mirrors my living—it is brief and urgent, sharp and vital. I write flash because it is the only way I know to process the story of my life coming to an end. I write flash because it is the only way I can light up the dark.

It feels wrong, in many ways, to think of writing when I am grieving so, when living in the present rather than ruminating on the past is essential. But I write to make sense of the world, to understand how the man who made his living building the fences that bordered and controlled the world feels to watch his own borders and control slip away. I write to remember his easy grin when he sped up his work truck, fence posts and chain-link rattling in the bed, rushing down dusty California backroads to give me a tickle-belly, Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio and sunshine splayed across the dash.

I write to remember the sweet smell of sawdust on my father’s work boots, his strong calloused hands over my own as we placed our palms in wet cement to make ourselves last forever.

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Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She recently edited a special “Experiences of Disability” issue of Brevity. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

What 40 Days of Self-Discipline Can Do For You & For Your Writing

August 30, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Sweta Srivastava Vikram

Summer of 2020 was a wash for most of us. Between social distancing and hanging out (whatever little) with our bubble pod, I couldn’t tell much difference between the seasons or my stories. Everything felt mundane and predictable.

Come 2021 late spring and summer, when businesses, restaurants, bars, cafes in NYC reopened at 100% capacity, and in-person meetings started to happen, I felt both grateful and exhausted. Being fully vaccinated felt like a superpower. Hugging people after 16 months felt emotional. I was able to take the NYC subway and Long Island Railroad. Writing and reading in spaces that felt both familiar and unfamiliar.

But in less than a few weeks’ time, I started to feel the overwhelm creep in. We returned to a new normal so suddenly that my brain and body rebelled….and because of it, my creativity. Despite living a mindful life where I pay attention to what I feed my mind-body and have sacred movement practices in place, I felt slowed down. I didn’t feel as enthused to write or even brainstorm new ideas. The mid-week chai, desserts, and sometimes wine get-togethers had started to impact my sleep cycle, energy, my workouts, food choices, and as a result…writing. 

Why did the alarm in my brain go off?

I have a new book, A Piece of Peace, coming out in September 2021. I figured I needed better practices in place before summer of 2021 flew by, and I wasn’t ready for the book. Writers need their solitude to get their work done. But I am aware that I prefer a balance between me-time and being in good company. I didn’t like feeling exhausted or the brain fog stifling my creativity, or the lethargy brought about from being uninspired. Between juggling a day job, home, my writing commitments, and a wellness company….and now meeting small groups of vaccinated people more regularly (something I will never take for granted), I had to shift certain habits, so I was truly present for both life and my book. 

What did I do?: I decided to forego any wine or desserts for 40 days. 

·      You probably already know what we eat impacts how we think. 

·      There is a close relationship between your brain and gut. 

·      There is a reason that the gastrointestinal tract is referred to as your “second brain.” 

·      About 90-95% of serotonin is produced in your digestive tract. 

·      Doesn’t it make sense that the digestive system doesn’t just help you digest food, but also guides your emotions? 

·      Do you see the correlation between what you eat and its direct impact on creativity and productivity?

Eating healthy food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which in turn positively affects serotonin production. Good bacteria lower inflammation and positively impact nutrient absorption. A steady diet of sugar, alcohol, too much caffeine, and junk food, on the other hand, can cause inflammation that hampers production of serotonin. When neurotransmitter production is in good shape, your brain receives positive messages loud and clear. And you see your emotions reflect it. But when serotonin production goes awry, so might your mood. 

Do writers need to be reminded about our emotions and moods and how they can impact our writing days?

Why forty days?

The significance of 40 days holds a deep meaning in spirituality. Forty days is powerful, not some superstition. It’s considered a period that allows transformation (renewal, repair, regeneration, and rebirth) to occur. The philosophy behind it states that it takes 20 days to break old habits and 20 days to form new ones.

Let’s get to physiology. Our skin cells on average take 40 days to renew, our red blood cells start dying from 40 days onwards and sperm count can be increased in 40 days. I wanted to stick to my “cleanse” for 40 days if I wanted to do any justice to my writing and new book.

It takes 40 days from conception to a fetus becoming fully formed, the 40 weeks of an entire pregnancy from conception to birth. In India and China, a new mother is confined to her home for 40 days after she has given birth. This gives her body the time to heal and recuperate from childbirth. It is traditional to spend 40days in mourning in many Islamic cultures. I am told that in Judaism, there’s a mystical practice that says one who seeks an answer to their prayers should pray the same prayer request for 40 consecutive days. Buddha attained enlightenment after 40 days. This number also has a significance for Christians who fasted for 40 days during Lent.

My Experience

Initially, I was a little concerned how difficult it would be to not eat desserts. There were plenty of memes being circulated, encouraging us to continue with mindless indulgences as a pandemic survival guide. I also pondered about the social etiquette of sticking to my chai every time someone offered me a glass of wine. The first 7 to 10 days were the hardest, but after which it was a piece of cake (no pun intended!!). No temptations or FOMO or agitation. The focus was on point. Gatherings were nourishing but never a distraction because I was diligent about what I put in my body. 

Bonus Points

I noticed a huge difference in my energy levels despite late Saturday nights or mid-week trips to the beach post work. I was able to wake up at the crack-of-dawn and carry out my morning, creative rituals. I started to write 5-6 essays a week, did the publicity work for my upcoming book, ruminate over ideas for my next book. Because there was no sugar (my weakness) or alcohol, nothing messed around with my mood or emotions or hormones. I felt recharged around people (emotionally), not depleted. I had the energy to show up to my workouts diligently, which helped my creative juices and mental well-being.

Not only did I stick to my cleanse and benefit from it, but also my experiment inspired others to try out the 40-day experiment to improve their productivity.

If you are feeling stuck, maybe shift your habits and see if that impacts your writing practices?

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Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and an Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. Her latest book, A Piece of Peace, comes out in September 2021. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: TwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook.

It’s All Relative

August 26, 2021 § 18 Comments

By Victoria Waddle

On Christmas Eve, as my extended family chatted over dinner, my good news about having a story published in a highly regarded journal was upstaged by my nieces’ 23andMe discovery of a previously unknown cousin, Tom.

Soon afterward, a bit of sleuthing revealed his parentage.

Tom was seeking relatives of his estranged father, but as it turned out, our link to him was through his mother, Sarah. My half-sister.

Dad was nineteen when Sarah was born. Back then, he lived in the California desert, on his parents’ failing farm. His lover’s parents owned a motel, creating opportunities for clandestine meetings. However, he had neither a phone nor a car. After learning of the pregnancy, it took Dad two weeks to reach Sarah’s mother. In that time, she’d married her “official” boyfriend, a high school sweetheart. Dad never tried to contact her again. In the Korean War era, breaking the silence could have destroyed the life she was building. 

After decades of privately wondering whether the child was his, Dad expressed relief in airing his secret. Our ostensible values, our family history, were built on illusion. Now we were pulling back the curtain.

At the urging of my sisters and me, our Dad spoke on the phone with Sarah for the first time, sixty-five years after her birth. Frail and mostly deaf, he needed assistance. Sarah, quavering into tears, confessed to not speaking to her parents for decades, though they were still alive. Unable to convey more, she assured Dad he wasn’t the cause. She’d always believed the man who raised her was her father. 

My sisters and I exchanged emails with Sarah, including photos and information about our families, careers, and hobbies. Sarah had majored in English, been a copyeditor and was an avid reader. Photos of her resembled our much-loved and much-missed grandmother. However, a childhood trauma survivor, she was wary of us. How would we create a bridge of connection?

Surprisingly, the first thing she expressed interest in was the online literary journal where I was the editor. She read the annual teen issue. 

“That’s kind,” I said, “but you don’t have to read the teens.”

“They write about wounds I can relate to. Thank you for giving them a voice.”

Sarah was slowly recovering from a knee injury, homebound. Dad would die before the two could meet. Carrying a letter he’d written along with a high school yearbook that included photos of Sarah’s mother in journalism class and our father on the football field, my sisters and I flew from Southern California to the Oregon coast to visit. Entering Sarah’s sage-infused cabin, we wept. Her resemblance to our grandmother was uncanny; our sense of stepping into the past surreal.

Sarah’s story was pitiable. When she saw how much she looked like our dad, she understood her paternity had to have been known. She had been punished for being the family outsider. Now she wanted to be understood as a person in her own right. 

“I just want to be seen,” she said.

“We’ve come here,” we affirmed. “We see you.”

While hoping to offer connections in place of the ones she’d lost, we understood her use of sage as a ritual of protection. We explained our burst of emotion upon our arrival. Sarah mused, “I wish I had known that grandmother.” 

Previously, I’d hesitated to share my writing with Sarah. Returning home, I sent her a creative nonfiction piece. Published in a small journal, it reflected on our grandmother’s death and my first encounter with grief. The essay explores the shock of that experience—one that, as a teen, I was naive enough to believe would be the worst of my life. A few days later, Sarah wrote back:

I’ve nearly memorized the scene in the family room and the ‘bowlful of jelly’ paragraph…the description of a younger you carrying the weight of your grief home through the dark night…I have no words, just hand gestures, which don’t serve well in an email.

Sarah is working through a lifetime of grief. Trusting strangers—even ones who are family members—is difficult. I’m grateful I had something meaningful to share, words that thread the connection between us. Since then, my essays and stories have helped Sarah understand who we are as a family. Who I am as an individual and a sister.

Writers like me, who publish in literary journals and other small venues, hope for a larger audience. Yet, the opportunity to share with the perfect reader, one who recognizes herself in my work, served as an opening in the best sort of way. Our conversation began.

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Victoria Waddle is the author of Acts of Contrition, a short fiction collection. She is the managing editor of Inlandia: A Literary Journey and contributes to Southern California News Group’s “Literary Journeys,” which celebrates writers and their work. Connect with her on Twitter (VictoriaWaddle1) or Instagram to chat about books, nature, and dogs.

The Illusion of the First Draft

August 24, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Katie Bannon

I begin each class I teach with a warning: writing the first draft of a memoir can be excruciating. Diving headfirst into memories that lie in the darkest recesses of our minds is difficult enough. Add in the vulnerability of producing the imperfect, “shitty first draft” writing that’s inevitable at this stage? The experience borders on masochism.

For many of us, this is our first time voicing stories we’ve been told never, ever to speak about—never mind harbor ambitions of sharing with thousands once our book becomes a New York Times bestseller. We want desperately to reach others, but there’s also part of us that fears muttering a word of these memories to another living soul. This presents a confounding paradox. We might question if we should be writing and publishing this story at all. What’s more, when we actually find the courage to write, the words don’t come easy. Sometimes the blank Word Doc looks as menacing as your father’s face when you tell him you’ve written a memoir, and that yes, he’s in it.

Our fears and doubts—while real, and valid—are often based on false assumptions about the way drafting should be. We imagine that “real” memoirists plod along on their keyboards with all the grace and skill of Simone Biles on the gymnastics mat. Of course, just like for Simone Biles, gracefulness and skill does not equal ease. Nor does progress happen in a linear fashion – sometimes we need a break from drafting (or to walk away from that vaulting horse) to refill our creative tanks.I’d wager that every successful memoirist had days they wanted to burn their manuscript. When the weight of their memories felt too much to bear, or they didn’t feel “good enough” to tell the story simmering inside them.

First drafts are humbling. They expose not only our most vulnerable stories, but our deepest insecurities—Am I talking too much about myself? Who actually cares about what happened to me? Was it really that bad, or am I just playing the victim here? By its nature, memoir doesn’t just put our writing under the microscope, but our very sense of self.

I finished the first draft of my memoir in 2015. Writing it had felt like wading into a dark lake, watching the water rise higher and higher up my torso, with no idea if my fate was to sink or swim. So imagine my relief when I completed the manuscript. The suffering was over! Revision wouldn’t be easy, but at least I wouldn’t have to mine for material or face the whiteness of an empty Word Doc. The emotional turmoil was behind me, right?

Wrong.

Five years later, after a full-scale reimagining of the manuscript, I had what I’ve come to think of as my “second first draft.” I took a cleansing inhale as I held the newly completed manuscript. Now I was really done with drafting. I had paid my dues, spent seven years producing two distinctive first drafts with their accompanying suffering, self-doubt, and sleepless nights. It was time to move on from the agony of drafting and charge ahead toward revision.

You probably know where this is going by now…but I didn’t.

Three months ago, an illuminating workshop led to my next realization: I wasn’t done drafting. I wasn’t even that close.

What I’ve learned is that we don’t always have one “first draft.” The insecurities, fears, and challenges don’t magically dissipate when we reach our 70,000 words. If you’re anything like me, revision can feel more like rewriting, producing another “shitty first draft” that inches closer to the story we want to tell.

I don’t regret writing the previous two—maybe it’s more accurate to call them “versions”—of my memoir. Each one taught me something new about the craft of writing, and about myself. Most importantly, the process made me realize how badly I wanted this. If I was willing to give so much of myself to this project, maybe my story really did need to be in the world. 

Today, I’m in the beginning stages of the “third version” of my memoir. I no longer worry about what draft I’m on, nor do I expect an end to my emotional strife once this version is complete. I’m focusing on what’s right in front of me: Examining each memory with compassion. Activating my verbs. Playing with how my scenes fit together.

Six years after completing that “first first draft,” I’m still in emotional hell. I teach my students the value of “shitty first drafts” and liberating painful memories, trying mightily to keep my voice from shaking. I’d once believed I was on the other side of the vulnerability I associated with early-stage writing. Now, I realize, it never really ends. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

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Katie Bannon is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in NPR, Salon, Narratively, Cognoscenti, and more. Her memoir manuscript was a finalist for the Permafrost Nonfiction Book Prize. A graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator, she holds a BA from Tufts University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Emerson College. Katie is a developmental editor and consultant who loves working with memoirists on finding the “story” behind the “situation” of their lives. Find her on Twitter @katiedbannon

What to Leave Out

August 19, 2021 § 25 Comments

By Laurie Easter

I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my forthcoming essay collection, All the Leavings, by author Sonja Livingston (The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion) for her YouTube interview series “The Memoir Café.” Being live interviewed was challenging because, like many people, I always think of a better answer after the fact.

The question Sonja asked that I later obsessed over was “How did you decide what to write about and what not to write about?” The first part of this question was fairly easy to answer, but the second part—how I decide what not to write about—was the part that bothered me for days. Perhaps this is because what we leave out of our writing is not something generally discussed.

Initially, I said that if something doesn’t serve the narrative, then it gets cut (or possibly it was never included in the first place). But I am an essayist who does not write in a strictly narrative form. Often, my essays are lyric—hermit crab, braided, mosaic—pieces that defy standard narrative form, so “it doesn’t serve the narrative,” while applicable some of the time, does not always apply. And in these lyric essay styles, gaps and spaces—what is left out—can be integral to the formation of connections made by the reader.

Sometimes the choice of what to leave out is about protecting someone’s privacy. Inevitably, when we write creative nonfiction, we cannot tell our own story without sharing parts of someone else’s. This can be tricky and requires careful consideration.

While copyediting my book, I ended up cutting two brief scenes that, in fact, did enrich the narrative. One of the scenes depicted a circle of people at the local alternative community school the day after a teenage boy had taken his life. The scene described the mother of the boy—her grief-stricken staccato movements within the circle—and shared details like the smudging of sage and a parent singing a Native American chant. To avoid any misconstruing of cultural appropriation (the singer is of Native American descent and many in the community are practicing members of the Native American Church) and to protect the mother of the boy, I cut this scene. My reasons: to protect privacy and to avoid a potential misunderstanding without including an awkward sentence about how the singer of the chant was indeed of Native descent.  

Eventually, I told Sonja that for me, the decision of what not to include is often intuitive. This answer might seem without real substance, but it is in fact a huge part of how I work as a writer. I trust my gut, go with my instincts.

After the interview, I realized I could have talked about how when my publisher sent my manuscript out for peer review, one reviewer said they wished to know more about my relationship with my husband and suggested I expand the manuscript to focus more on our marriage. In the peer review process for a university press, if the reviews come back positive, recommending publication, the author writes a response to the press, addressing the reviewers’ comments and detailing what changes will be made. This left me with a conundrum: do I heed this reviewer’s suggestions?

What I felt strong and clear, what my gut was telling me, was that the book was not about our marriage. Our relationship was threaded into the manuscript, but it was not the main theme, and I did not want to restructure the manuscript to focus on that. That was not my intention for the book.

If I could go back and revise my answer to Sonja, after having the time to obsess think about it, Intuition + Intention is how I decide what to leave out. Is it my intention to expose a grieving mother at her most vulnerable? Is it my intention for readers to potentially misconstrue a situation and perceive it as cultural appropriation? Is it my intention to write a memoir about my marriage or is this essay collection about the rugged terrain of the human heart, what it means to experience love and loss or the potential of losing? When I ask, what is my intention? and I listen to my intuition, that’s how I know what to leave out.

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Laurie Easter’s debut essay collection, All the Leavings, is forthcoming from Oregon State University Press in October 2021 (and can be pre-ordered now). Her essays have been published in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Hippocampus Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree, among others,and are forthcoming in Brevity and A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. She lives and writes from an off-grid cabin in the woods of southern Oregon. For more, visit laurieeaster.com.

Writing a Legacy

August 12, 2021 § 10 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When I was young, my neighbor, Caroline, in New York City and I created our own private library, before my parents’ separation when I was nine and I moved. We made pockets in which to put library cards in the back of our books and shared them between ourselves.

In the summers after the divorce, I spent hours lying on the scratchy rug at the local library with my cousin Betsy. There, I picked out all the stories about happy families like The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, and Cheaper by The Dozen.

I’m 63 now and aspects of that time still hit my nerve endings. My craving to write stemmed from wanting to tell all my parents how hard the divorce and the subsequent remarriages were on me as a kid and teen. I was lost in the melee of my parents’ acrimonious divorce and the fallout that continued for decades. I wasn’t sure anyone thought about how the children were managing. Well, I would show them. I acted out. I wasn’t welcoming to my stepfather, I was mad at my mother and I missed my father. I don’t remember any conversations between any of my parents and me, about how I was doing. Perhaps my mother worried about my behavior, but her pain colored any objectivity.

Now, writing gives me a voice, one I didn’t have when I was younger. I’m not the most outgoing person, but on the page, I feel safe. When I started writing professionally, it was with feature stories related to parenting, health, travel, growing older, and even business. 

I began writing creative nonfiction as a way to understand my life and bring clarity. Essays addressed my childhood, dogs, moving, mothering, and even writing.

I’m now editing a memoir I wrote because I wanted to understand the depression I fell into after my oldest daughter left for college and our family parted with a litter of puppies. Another project of linked essays about my family’s generational history on Martha’s Vineyard sits on my computer, waiting its turn. I wanted to save pieces of my life and that of my family’s, of a time when life there was easier and more casual. I want my daughters to know those stories. I’m drafting another memoir about my move to and from Hawaii as a 60-year-old with my husband. Writing about living on Oahu helps me own that experience and acknowledge how beneficial it can be to take risks at an older age.

Putting our stories down isn’t just about getting them published and going on (perhaps virtual) book tours. Writing also chronicles our lives for those who come after. I hope my memoirs find a wider market, but if they don’t, I’ve helped myself along the way and left a legacy.

Both my father and stepfather are sharing their own life stories now. My father wrote A Pewter Spoon about his childhood, professional, and personal life. Coincidentally, my youngest brother and I decided to interview my stepfather/his father, on his life story.

My relationships with my fathers were not always smooth. Ripples spread from where rocks were skipped, rough and many until they settled with time. Now, the water gently laps the shore where I stand with these two men, 88 and 91. My understanding and compassion for both of them grew with the reading and interview. I know why they both like to putter around their homes, fixing, painting, landscaping. I read about one father’s work that took him away from the kids; I appreciated how hard it was for the other to marry someone with three children.

There is value in writing and/or recording your history to pass on to your children. Sometimes, however, the readers’ memories don’t match the writer’s. Maybe they won’t agree with your view of a particular incident, or they might get sad revisiting their grandmother’s (your mother’s) death, but you thought it was important to chronicle. I want my memoirs to enter the world so readers will know they’re not alone fighting depression, that they too can take a chance on a huge adventure, and that a family’s history is often anchored in a place. If my projects never see an agent’s or editor’s desk, that’s okay, because when my children are ready, they’ll read about my life which, I hope, will enrich theirs. They may have questions that hopefully, I’ll be around to answer, just like I wish I could ask my mother who died in 2005 if she was sorry for the pain the divorce caused her children. More importantly, over time, I’ve forgiven myself for my behavior during my teens and twenties. Writing my story has helped me get there. I wish I could tell my mother about my life.

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Morgan Baker writes about dogs, family, writing, moving, aging and places. Work is forthcoming or published in Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, The Bark, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Talking Writing, Motherwell, and more. She is the Managing Editor of thebucket.com and teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. Morgan also runs private CNF workshops on Zoom. She lives with her husband and two Portuguese Water Dogs in Cambridge.

We’re Not Going to Talk About It

August 11, 2021 § 36 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Shame is visceral.

An essay about a pivotal moment from my childhood had been declined. In the rejection letter, the editor wrote:

Thanks for sending us more of your writing. Regretfully, we won’t be able to publish your work this time. As you know, only a fraction of what we receive is selected for publication, so even very good writing must sometimes be left out.

We’re grateful you chose to share your creativity with ________ again. Effective simile: ‘You both pump and fly through the air, back and forth, like the metronome on Grandma’s piano.’ Muscular description: ‘you descended, the poles pounded to earth, and you dragged your feet across the ground…’ Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.’

That last comment, “Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her,’” was difficult to hear. Outside our zone? The submission guidelines hadn’t listed any such prohibition.  

“Punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.” My words accurately described my father beating my mother. I could’ve said he pushed her around or he roughed her up a bit. But I couldn’t because he didn’t push her around or rough her up—he punched her, knocked her down, and kicked her.

I cringed. Why had I written the essay? How could I have been so callous? Why did I send it?

Shame kneecaps.

One morning the boy next door said to me, “Your parents really went at it last night.” I was in ninth grade and crazy about that boy. I said nothing.

Shame silences.

Many times, my mother has said, “Maybe it was partly my fault. Maybe if I’d kept my mouth shut.”

“No,” I have said, just as many times. “No one gets to beat you because they don’t like what you say.”

Shame eats autonomy.

Then I got angry. Then irate. Then pissed off. About the rejection letter.

Why had I written the essay? It’s my flashbulb memory. It changed me. I still think about it. Writers are told to pay attention to stories that play in their heads, to write about them. They may become inspiring essays. And, not writing about domestic violence won’t make it go away. It’s still going to happen.

How could I have been so callous? I wasn’t. The editor was. Perhaps there was a better way for the editor to reject my essay. But I can’t think of one. The standard spiel “not a good fit” would’ve sufficed. Sort of like, We don’t have any record of your room reservation. Or, We don’t have any tables at this time. Not publishing an essay about domestic violence won’t keep it from happening. It just remains a dirty little secret.

Why did I send it? Because it’s a good essay. Because sharing lets others know they’re not alone. And because I don’t like to share my story. It took me twenty years to share it with a good friend. She told me her daughter kicked out an abusive partner. He was sorry and wanted to return. The daughter was wavering. I listened but didn’t share.

Shame isolates.

The guilt of complicity gnawed at me. The next day I called my friend and told my story. My friend asked, “Can I tell my daughter about your childhood?”

“Yes, that’s why I told it to you,” I said. “Tell your daughter it will get worse. It will become harder to leave. The children will suffer.” The daughter didn’t let her partner return. Did my story influence her daughter? I don’t know. But my friend told me how much my story meant to her. That’s the power of story.

I’ve been a lover of story all my life: fiction, memoir, nonfiction. Story exposed me to the ugliness of racism, sexism, genocide, war, violence, abuse, poverty, prejudice, intolerance—experiences I didn’t have in my white, middle-class sphere (except for domestic violence, which travels everywhere). Story makes me walk in other people’s shoes, enter their worlds, feel their humanity.

I remembered my mother’s words about blame and applied them to myself. Maybe it was my fault for submitting it. Maybe if I’d have kept my essay shut up in its file. No, I told myself. No one gets to sweep your story under the rug.

The ideal rejection from the editor would’ve read, “Thank you for your submission, but we have to pass at this time as we’ve recently published a thought-provoking essay on domestic violence. Please submit in the future.”

__

Victoria Lynn Smith lives in Wisconsin near Lake Superior, where she recently started paddle boarding. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles. Her work has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television’s Moving Lives Website, Brevity Blog, Better Than Starbucks, and in several regional publications. Her flash essay, “Cloud Like a Lamb,” which is the subject of this essay, recently won third place in the Jade Ring Contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Writers Association Her dream is to one day visit the Shetland Islands. For more visit https://writingnearthelake.org/.

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