How Flashdance Started my Writing Career

December 7, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When I heard the news that Irene Cara of Flashdance died recently, the butterflies in my stomach twirled around and sank. Not only did her death bring up the issue of my mortality as she was only a year younger than me, it also brought me back to an empty movie theater on Tremont Street in Boston, where I watched Flashdance for the first time.

That day, the old theater smelled of stale popcorn and butter, with sticky floors and uncomfortable seats, and was nearly empty. I was there by myself, and as I watched, I became riveted. This movie was made for me.

It was 1983. I had graduated college three years earlier, and realized the world beyond the walls and the ivory tower wasn’t so great. In New York, where my peers and I had landed, I discovered that peeling potatoes and cutting up artichokes while wearing a toque, double-breasted white jacket and checkered pants in the kitchen of a fancy hotel really wasn’t my thing.

I moved to Boston and found a basement apartment in Kenmore Square which I shared with roaches and an army of mice. I watched Diana and Charles get married from my bed.

Like Jennifer Beals, I was encouraged by family to work in a safe environment – not to take gigantic risks. So, I went to secretarial school, which I rarely share with anyone, and then I worked in an ad agency as a glorified secretary and then as the head of the “traffic” department. My job was to report on what creative teams were on time with their work, and who was not. I did this at every Monday Morning Meeting in front of all the executives and president. I was a hired rat.

I had originally thought I could move into a writing position there – working creatively on print and TV ads. This was not going to happen. I didn’t have the skill set for jingles and snappy copy. 

I developed insomnia. On Sunday nights, I laid spreadsheets out on the floor in my new one-bedroom apartment between MIT frats on Beacon Street. I checked off those deadlines that had been met and highlighted in yellow those that hadn’t. I didn’t like being a snitch.

One day after work, I walked up Washington Street, between the pillars of the Boston shopping world – Filene’s and Jordan’s – and found my way into the little movie theater on Tremont.

There, on the screen, I saw Jennifer Beals, as Alex Owens, pursue her dream of dancing professionally against all odds and making it. She was a blue-collar steel worker and didn’t come from the world of ballet. And, we were the same age – sort of. If she could put herself out there like that, so could I. I forgot that this was a movie, where things turn out for the protagonist. I was hooked.

Just as Owens wanted to dance, I wanted to write. During my angsty teenage years, I played with poetry while listening to Fleetwood Mac and Carole King (still my hero). But poetry and I parted ways and while I was informing on my colleagues at the ad agency, I took classes in Public Relations where I learned to write press releases. I took classes in feature writing, where I learned how to interview sources. This was not an easy feat for someone who couldn’t speak in public and hid in the back of every classroom. But, I figured, if I could tattle on the creative teams in front of a room full of mostly older white men, I could do this too. I felt smart asking questions of people who knew more than me.

I loved writing. I missed taking college courses, and this felt like an extension of college. I yearned to write about topics and people I wanted to know about more. Writing was also an extension of me and my interests and thoughts. I loved finding the right word to describe a look, or a place.

But in order to really get better and have a career doing this, I’d have to take a leap of faith, and apply to graduate school. That was terrifying.

Beals, as she danced across the screen, gave me the push I needed. It didn’t hurt that a friend offered to give me $500 if I quit the same day.

I did.

I’ve never looked back. I am not a fancy writer with a world-renowned name and career, but I have written for a lot of publications and I’ve never been bored. I’ve written about child development and parenting and benefitted from a lot of free advice. I’ve written health pieces about miscarriage, sleep disruptions, STDs, and more. I wrote business pieces, where I learned about electric cars and assisted living long before they were commonplace. I’ve written profiles on some of the coolest people – singers, writers, lawyers, actors, and teachers. Most recently, I was the managing editor for a website for older readers on how to live fulfilling lives. I’ve also written personal essays and memoir pieces that resonate with readers.

And, I teach. I work in college classrooms where students are trying on different personas to see which fits best. I guide older writers who are working on their life stories. Some hope to publish and have, but all are compelled to write these stories and be heard. Just like me.

While Irene Cara is gone, Jennifer Beals is still alive. The take-away for me is the same today as it was in 1983. Follow your dreams. Don’t be discouraged by how hard it is. Keep focused, be persistent, and define your own success.
__

Morgan Baker’s work has been featured in many regional and national publications both on-line and in print. These include The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Talking Writing, The Bark, Cognoscenti, and Hippocampus. She was managing editor of The Bucket. She teaches at Emerson College and through private workshops. Her memoir, Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Good-byes will be out Spring ’23 with Ten16 Press. For more information visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

Missed Trains and Gender Pains: Nonfiction as a Means to Finding the Self

December 5, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Taylor Grothe

Writing has always been an instrumental tool in learning about who I am as an individual. As a fiction writer, writing nonfiction essays is a new craft for me; I only really began about a year ago, meditating on parenthood, the themes of living through grief and loss, and the potential selves left behind at junctions of an earlier life, like trains missed at their stations.

Through the essay, I gained access to multiple sides of myself, sides that hadn’t seen the light of day or acknowledgement since I was a child. I never imagined that writing nonfiction would help me to solidify an identity I thought had been set—by me, for me, by society at large. Nor did I imagine that the craft would propel me into journalism at Verywell Family, where I write about parenting and gender identity.

My journey began when I enrolled in an MFA program through Fairfield University, signing up for a nonfiction writing course in a fit of pique and panicked desperation to find out who I truly was.

The requirement was at least 15 pages of nonfiction. I barely had that. It was hubris, I knew, to enroll; what did I know about nonfiction? Truthfully, and maybe to my instructor and peers’ chagrin, I threw together the few very short pieces I had, explorations that had only just begun to peek at the truths, eyes squinted, under the well-trodden realm of my most visible identities and environments: children, the home, and the pandemic.

To my surprise, I was asked to write more. To go deeper.

When I was a child, writing in journals was a constant preoccupation, my earliest attempt at nonfiction. My parents never grumbled about the notebooks littering my room, never mind that the ones I started rarely contained more than a few pages of chicken scratch. I’m sure for them my writing time was a welcome relief from the thorny child I was: silence, the sound of a pencil against paper. Scrawls from the heart of my prepubescent anxiety, a way for me to touch upon truths about myself I didn’t know how to name.

One of them that I am rediscovering and naming now is gender.

I was a lovely little girl, but one who liked to run into the woods at the slightest provocation, reveling not only in the tutus, dancing, and makeup of my mother, but the rough and tumble, mud-sprinkled, and more masculine-signaled experiences of the boys I knew. A child who took the gender assigned to me and split it in two.

This duality was true of almost everything in my life then. A good reader, but a failed student. A nervous child, but a confident hyper-fixator with encyclopedic knowledge about words. (My most famous trick in middle school was pulling out a dictionary in the hall to read instead of engaging with the bullies’ taunts.) A pretty girl and a tomboy, these terms not two ends of a binary but the reality of my lived gender experience. I did not want to choose. I wanted to be both and also neither. Not superficially, but as a reality.

Back then, I did not have the word ‘duality,’ nor did I have the word ‘nonbinary’ to describe myself. I might have had ‘fluid,’ but not in the manner one can use it now, to describe the way one relates to gender. Now, as an adult with access to the Internet and its myriad communities, creative and otherwise, I have the words.

Seated at the MFA program’s table, a blank sheet of paper and a timer in front of me, I wrote for the first time about the expectation of gender. Of not-knowing, and deep-knowing, peeling the apple until I got to the flesh and then the core. At its center I found not seeds arranged in the shape of a star, but an embryo, a nascent life I meditated on so infrequently precisely because it was so central to my identity.

Writing about my relationship to gender helped me understand its place in my life. My desire to embody this duality, to be at once everything and nothing—on a page, this tangled issue seemed simpler.

A blank page is a neutral place, existing outside of cultural valence, before its words are introduced to readers. A blank page is safe, but it isn’t the truth. The introduction of one’s true self to others is a political act, an act of agency and courage. 

I won’t say the piece I penned for my MFA workshop was good. I was so nervous to share raw words, raw thoughts to this class of strangers. But my greatest fear, that of rejection and repulsion, was not realized. Instead, my peers and mentor gently suggested there might be other stations to visit, other junctures I had not considered, the first of many movements along a new journey. Writing was the start of undoing something that had prickled me since childhood.

I realized that calling me a “tomboy” had been a way for the adults in my life to elide a cultural obligation to see me as I was, truly and wholly. Now, as a thirty-two-year-old parent of two children, to whom I have a responsibility to raise without the self-hatred I experienced and with all the vocabulary I never had, I find writing about my gender to be an accessible nexus of change. Not only for myself, but also in sharing the gift of fluidity with others.

When I became involved as an assistant managing editor with Brevity, our managing editor floated the idea of a special issue on transgender experience open to those, like me, who are exploring and examining the embodied aspects of their gender identities vis-à-vis writing. I am so excited to say that this idea, only a spark at first, has been nurtured to flame. The Transgender, Gender-Nonconforming, and Gender Expansive issue is now open for submissions, graced by guest editors Krys Malcolm Belc, Silas Hansen, and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram.

But also graced by those like me, like us, who are now finding the words to speak their truths, forgotten things they had long ago folded in the chest of the mind, dusty and overfilled with deeply held secrets. Here, now, a place to cast sunlight, to access the darkest things, and examine them in the lovely, golden rays of truth. To don them, and to step onto the next platform down the line.

___

Taylor Grothe is a non-binary, Autistic writer of horror fiction, on submission with a psychological horror novel set in Iceland. Shorts of theirs can be found in Coffin Bell Journal, Shortwave Magazine, and Bag of Bones Press. Taylor is the graduate Assistant Managing Editor of Brevity Magazine and an MFA student at Fairfield University, as well as an Author Mentor Match Round 9 Adult Mentor. They are represented by Larissa Melo Pienkowski of Jill Grinberg Literary Management.

Healing a Pulverized Heart: Why I Write Nonfiction

December 2, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Chelsey Drysdale

If you’re like me, while writing your memoir, you spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what everyone will think of you once you publish it. You may even make yourself physically ill like I do. Recently, though, I was reminded why I craft my pain into art regardless.

Eight years ago, my UCLA Extension instructor, and now personal friend, accepted a steamy but heartbreaking piece I wrote about my college boyfriend for an anthology she was editing. We took our published stories in paperbacks on a California book tour, including to the Bay Area where my former love now lived. It was terrifying and exhilarating and propelled me to write my full manuscript. Over the years, I have often wondered what the subject of my story would think if he ever read the essay I shared in public with strangers, family, and friends alike. Despite changing his name, I revealed private, excruciating details of our twentysomething selves, like any diligent memoirist would, finding solace my words only appeared in print, never to be found in a Google search.

The other day, I sent him a happy birthday message on LinkedIn, the only place we’re still connected. I hadn’t spoken to him online or otherwise in a decade and hadn’t seen him in fourteen years, since the night I met the woman who would become the mother of his children and, much later, his wife. One night after Christmas in 2008, I had dinner with them when they were in the honeymoon stages of dating, and I was still nursing wounds from a broken engagement and previous divorce. At the restaurant, I admired his then girlfriend’s bright, infectious smile and hopeful, sparkly eyes. Her eyes twinkled like mine did before he broke up with me with little explanation, shocking nearly everyone. I left dinner thinking, “Please don’t hurt her.” That night, for the first time in eleven years, I rejoiced over feeling like I was finally over him, despite the remnants of my heart most likely still swirling around the parking lot outside a certain former coffeehouse, where he once said, “I don’t think this is going to work out.”

In my LinkedIn message, I told him I have a knack for remembering birthdays, and I wished him and his family the best. He wrote, “How are you?” How does one explain the last fourteen years in a LinkedIn message to the man who pilfered her innocence? I gave him the short version: I’m still single. I never had children. I quit my job. My nephew is ten, and I wrote a memoir. I said I’d send him a copy someday when it’s published. He responded, “I would love to read your memoir. Good luck finishing it up.”

“My memoir is finished!” I wrote. “I’m just trying to find a home for it.” (Still.) This felt like an opening. “I actually wrote about you, and everyone liked it because it was a very nineties pre-internet look at a romantic relationship. If you want to read the [published version],” I can send it to you. He said he was “nervous reading a critique of [his] twenty-year-old self, but [he’d] take a crack at it.”

He thought he was nervous.

I sent him the published essay and the material I added to my manuscript when I was working with a book coach in 2017. He emailed he was busy but would “give it a solid read” when his time freed up. “No hurry!” I replied, meaning, “You don’t have to read it. Forget I ever mentioned it.”

The next morning, I received an email when I was in my bathrobe at my desk next to a handyman who was fixing the track on my sliding closet doors. The love of my young life and source of endless sadness wrote, “I have to admit, I really enjoyed reading these. I may have to set my computer on fire to destroy evidence, but I loved reading them.”

Then I received the clarification and apology I hadn’t realized I still needed after twenty-five years. “I’m really sorry how poorly I handled the breakup.” He called his former self “weak” and “super emotionally immature.” He had “needed more time to be free and date other people but didn’t know how to tell [me],” which, of course, most people need when they’re barely an adult. “I’m really sorry I caused you so much grief.”

Nowhere in his email did he ask me to change one word of anything unpublished I’d written, something I offered to consider if he had any major objections—particularly about the time I found him passed out drunk on the sidewalk or the day we passed sexy secrets back and forth quietly in a notebook during a philosophy lecture.

This felt like validation. This felt like the young him had loved the young me after all. This felt like my version and his finally gelled and made sense. We’d collided before he turned twenty and was a “mess,” back when I was naïve and wore my heart as a necklace outside my body—a recipe for a strychnine cocktail. While our breakup was inevitable, its abruptness had steamrolled me, but now I had more proof I wasn’t inherently unlovable.

After reading his email, I left my bedroom to head downstairs and watch the rare rainfall outside the backyard window, lest the old dude fixing my closet door see the tears streaming down my face. I thought about how a memoirist can’t predict a person’s reaction to her words, and in this full-circle moment, I could finally tell that twenty-three-year-old girl whose heart was pulverized for the first time that someday pouring her soul onto the page would be worth it. She would be seen, and she would finally receive the transparency and understanding she’d craved but never expected.
__

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Coachella Review, and others. She edits at drysdaleeditorial.

Saying Yes When the Heart Says No   

December 1, 2022 § 32 Comments

By Heidi Croot

The boisterous host running a women’s networking event in downtown Toronto smiled as she waved her index finger about the room. “And don’t think we don’t know,” she said, “that some of you are already scheming how to duck out early.”

Was she prescient? That’s exactly what I was doing.

Knowing laughter rippled through the crowd.

My fellow “introverts” I would later realize.

It was a label I would eventually claim with everything in me. But not before a good friend ghosted me for my solitude-loving ways.

I last saw Carol more than 30 years ago. We were hanging out in my back yard on a sunny summer day. It had been my turn to host, and I’d dragged my feet in bringing it about. Carol was full of energy and chatter that Saturday afternoon. While happy to be with her, waves of fatigue were preventing me from keeping up.

I was “scheming how to duck out early.” 

At the time, I’d just started a new job as corporate communication manager for big tech, and life was intense, a daily performance. The constant intersection with people—in meetings, in the hall, in my office as I waited on high alert for the inevitable knock or ring—separated me from myself. I typically left work empty and overstimulated. Most evenings and weekends, I wanted only to duck my circle of family and friends and drift. Read. Write in my journal. Exchange the occasional stray word with my fellow-introvert husband.

When many years later I resigned from corporate life and went freelance, clearing space for me to swim in the creative writers’ pond, I finally found my clan. On my first writers’ retreat in Ontario’s Hockley Valley near Orangeville, our instructor laid out the rules: no talking before noon. We were to conserve our energy for our writing.

No talking! Permission for interiority! Reprieve from small talk! 

Early morning light found me in my plain, small room, bent over the keyboard as I tapped into the writer’s zone, a creative energy humming through the walls as my fellow writers up and down the hall tapped into theirs. 

It was as if I’d been away, and now I’d come home.

More recently, along came the pandemic offering a retreat of a different order. This time, government laid out the rules. Yes, I said, of course I would do all I could to protect myself and my family. Yes, by all means I would maintain a safe distance. Yes, you bet I would stay home.

Survivors’ guilt aside, I was suddenly sleeping better. Waking up happy, calm, expansive. Measuring time with words on the page.

Brain science explains the dopamine effect, “the ‘feel-good’ chemical that affects the brain’s pleasure center,” says reporter Roxanne Roberts in her Washington Post article, “Meet the introverts who are dreading a return to normal.” Extroverts need more of it to be happy and energized, she says, whereas for introverts, “a little dopamine goes a long way, and too much of anything can be exhausting.”

Introverts, she adds in my favourite line, savour their ability to go “for hours or even days without speaking to another person.”

It’s not that as an introvert I can’t socialize. Oh, on good days I can hold my own and with aplomb—especially if the talk dips below small to deep. It’s that with every passing hour, a little more of my energy slides down the drain like flat champagne.

Which is what was happening on that long ago summer afternoon with Carol.

She resisted when I hinted it was time to bring our visit to a close and scolded me for not making myself more available. I saw myself in her rebuke but lacked the insight to explain, either to her or myself, why my desire to be alone wasn’t personal. So, there we were, two friends on opposite sides of the introvert-extrovert continuum. Me, unable to mirror her effervescence. She, unable to mirror my reclusiveness. Neither of us having the words to bridge our divide.

She left and never came back. When it dawned on me why, I grieved her absence (still do) and blamed myself for being a bad friend.

Now I know I wasn’t so much a bad friend as someone who just didn’t know who I was. Who had more to learn about my obligation as a card-carrying introvert to stop saying yes when my heart said no. 

I may have found an enduring way to meet that obligation. I discovered it in a dictum most writers with writing goals know well: butt in chair. For some, a cracking of the whip. For me, a permission slip to stay home with my keyboard. 

I wear the three words on my T-shirt like a talisman. Like a shield.

No, wait—more like a self-embrace.

I miss the face-to-face visits with friends. My people-pleaser self still pressures me to say yes to every invitation. Life is short, this side of me says sternly.

Meanwhile, my writer self, the engine of my beating heart, gently hooks my chin with her finger, turns my face to hers.

Your butt in the chair, if you please, she says. The one friend you need to please is me. And life is short.

___

Heidi Croot is an award-winning corporate writer and a Brevity Blog editor. Her creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity Blog, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Ontario’s Northumberland County and is gathering courage to query her memoir. You can reach her on Twitter.

Surviving the Season

November 22, 2022 § 23 Comments

Hide a book in the bathroom in advance.

by Allison K Williams

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me

Twelve bosses texting

Eleven toddlers shrieking

Ten addiction triggers

Nine tacky sweaters

Eight guests arriving

Seven spouses slacking

Six in-laws nagging

Five traaaafic jaaaaams!

Four unwanted presents

Three loud screens

Two barfing pets

And an obligation Christmas party.

I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live three thousand miles away in a country where December is celebrated as, and I quote “Winter Shopping Festival.” Our neighborhood lights were for Diwali, and they’re already down.

I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past twelve Christmases, usually in a non-English-speaking and/or non-Christian country, and this one I’ll be in Bali. Not everyone is that lucky.

My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”

My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”

An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules (“I can’t ask them all to do overtime this month”) while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three crutches in three weeks.

You may have similar items on your holiday list. Touchy in-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was out of town the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Bad art friends.

But your holiday experience is up to you. Often, things that felt like obligations were only customs. We don’t “have to” do anything—we may prefer doing something unpleasant over the consequences of not doing it, but that’s still a choice.

So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, choose your favorites, and purposefully dismiss the rest of the list. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do, so you can say, “sorry, I’m not available.”

All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.

What a shame our schedule filled up so much—have a great time!

Our budget has just vanished in a flash this year.

Wow, I can see that situation really bothers you–I hope it all gets sorted out.

Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “That sounds terrible. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”

If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)

Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. Make it not your job even to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I can take on, but you’re welcome to plan it—let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”

Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Rosario has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Maria’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.

Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, bail to your guest-free refuge while muttering “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.

And if all else fails? Hit me up. We could use a housesitter to water the plants in Dubai.

___

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This holiday season, she’ll be by the pool, writing lesson plans for Project Memoir, an 8-week high-intensity writing program. Check it out.

To Continue or Not? Writing the Memoir, That Is.

November 17, 2022 § 62 Comments

By Nancy L. Agneberg 

I worked on my memoir for years. Years. 

Revising. Restructuring. Changing the focus. Responding to feedback from my writing group (“Go deeper, deeper, deeper”), and incorporating what I learned in classes and from books about writing creative nonfiction. 

I was pleased with the current version of my book—and with myself—and decided it was time once again to share the manuscript with a writer whom I had hired to read earlier versions. I wanted her opinion and thoughts about next steps. Obviously, I knew more revisions would follow, but I thought, I really did, that she would say, “Good job, Nancy. You are so close to the query and book proposal stage.”

Instead, she said, “I hope I don’t make you cry.” 

I didn’t cry, at least in her presence, but I admit that when I returned to the sanctity of my car, I had a good cry, one I repeated later at my desk. 

Wisely, I gave myself space before reading the three pages of comments, as well as those on the manuscript itself. I allowed myself to be stunned. Later I shared the comments with my writing group. They were stunned, too. 

Then I entered a time of discernment. 

Discernment is a process of deep listening. An intentional process during which insight, that ah-ha moment, has room to make itself known.

First, I posed some possible scenarios:

  • Revise the memoir based on the reader’s suggestions.
  • Self-publish after revising.
  • Self-publish without major revisions. 
  • Create essays based on specific chapters and submit to appropriate venues.
  • End all involvement with the memoir. 
  • Retire. 

Based on the scenarios, I asked myself a series of questions:

  • Do I agree with my reader’s evaluations? (Some yes, some no.)
  • Am I willing to do the amount of work suggested? (Not sure.)
  • If, as was suggested, this would be a hard book to sell to a publisher, what about self-publishing? (No. I don’t want to spend limited funds that way.)
  • Do I regret all the time I’ve spent on the book? (No, I don’t think so, for I’ve learned so much along the way.)
  • Was writing the memoir my purpose? My identity? (No, writing the memoir was part of my purpose and part of my identity.)
  • Will I feel like a failure if I don’t continue with this project? (No, and as my husband pointed out, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.”)

In some ways, this is the perfect time to be working on a book. My children are grown, and my grandchildren are in their teens, one in college. My husband is retired and content with his own projects. Both of us are healthy. Nothing prevents me from continuing with this project. 

And yet, when friends ask how my book is progressing, and I attempt to explain my dilemma, more than one person says, “But Nancy, you have worked so hard.” 

True, but did I want to continue working so hard? Is that what this is all about?

The questions swirl around me like fall leaves caught in brisk breezes. Perhaps I need to be the tree and let go. Clearly, it is time to take a break, to pause, to exhale and clear the space.

These mornings, I sit quietly in my meditation space, breathing gently in and out. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, finding my own rhythm. I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely. 

Pat Schneider writes in How The Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, “If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world.” 

I believe that. 

I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world. Writing is a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage leading me towards the person I was created to be. 

I will continue to write, but not my memoir. 

__________________

Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Brevity, Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; and elsewhere. She facilitates a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words: Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice, and blogs at Living on Life’s Labyrinth

Is That All There Is?

November 15, 2022 § 41 Comments

What if publication isn’t your best goal?

By Allison K Williams

An author friend realized something while working on her memoir: faithfully rendering the stories of her life and preserving her experiences for her family was important. Quality writing, ideally at a publishable level, was also important. Actually publishing? Not so much.

Another author friend recently told me she’d just landed her dream job. Based on a similar previous job, she’d written a novel, a snarky, hilarious send-up of the manners and mores in her business world. Now she needed to set her work aside—publishing it, perhaps even working on it, could jeopardize her career.

Writing for personal satisfaction, or family tradition, or balancing the value of the job or life you love against the publicity of publishing, doesn’t get much respect. Often, we see the pursuit itself of publishing as a validator—that anyone who doesn’t seek shelf space isn’t “serious” about their work. As self-publishers advocate side-stepping the gatekeepers, we think, well, maybe you didn’t stick it out long enough for “real” publishing. Maybe your work wasn’t good enough. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re on the outside of a sharp, considered business decision. Sometimes we’re desperately needing validation for our own position in the queue, telling ourselves we’re “real” for sticking it out even as the process stretches on.

“Everyone has a story worth telling,” says publishing expert Jane Friedman. “Not everyone’s story is a good fit for a commercial publishing deal.”

You can take Friedman’s meaning as, “Sure, write your story, but it might not be good enough.” But there’s an equally strong case for “Sure, write your story, but explore your goals—is a traditional publishing deal actually your best path? Or will getting your words into the world another way be more satisfying?”

Traditional publishing is often seen as the “top” goal. Big Five, literary or university presses offer us validation, a stamp of approval from the publishing establishment. But even then, book sales can depend on how much time and effort the author is able to spend on marketing and promotions. After a long slog to find an agent, publisher or both, the author may have little control over the cover, title, or how the book is presented to the market.

Self-publishing can be a giant money pit—or a source of steady income for authors willing to self-educate and able to self-promote. It’s easy to be taken in by scammers, choose a terrible cover design, or get snowed under while learning how to run Amazon ads, write press releases and recruit a launch team. For authors who want to see their work on physical shelves, it’s discouraging and disheartening how many indie bookstores want nothing to do with self-published work.

Hybrid services can be a fast, easy way to get one’s book into the world, combining the control of self-publishing with the assistance of traditional publishing—or it can be heartbreakingly bad and massively expensive. Authors using a hybrid press often forget that they are not signing a “publishing contract” but purchasing a package of publishing services, and no matter how many times the press says “partner” or “contribution,” their entire profit comes from the author’s pocket. (And “royalties” means, “you already paid to publish your book and now we’ll be taking some more money.”)

We have all seen plenty of success stories in all three venues. We’ve all watched low-profile books capture the public imagination and shoot up bestseller lists. We’ve seen self-publishers make bank in book sales and generate enormous subsidiary businesses. And eyes-open hybrid packages can be a strong option for people with more money than time who need a guiding hand.  

Here’s what I rarely see—authors who say, “I was happy just to have a book in my hand; I used Amazon to print ten copies for my friends.” Or, “It was enough to tell the story in my head and type ‘the end’.” Or even, “I enjoy writing, but I love my day job more.”

I spent ten years on a memoir that didn’t sell. I’m glad I wrote it, because it taught me how to write a book. I probably needed to go through getting an agent and lots of publisher rejections for the lesson to hit home: this book wasn’t good enough. Self-publishing Get Published in Literary Magazines was exactly the right choice when I needed a product to sell at writing conferences to offset my travel costs; I’m looking forward to bringing out the third edition with co-author (and Brevity Blog co-editor) Andrea Firth. And having Seven Drafts traditionally published has been a credential I needed to advance in my life’s work.

As you write, consider your goals. “Work real hard for a long time and feel like a failure if you don’t get a traditional deal” is not actually a goal. But “feel good about what I created and know I’ve done my best” is. As our own Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore says in another Brevity Blog,

Don’t let others dictate to you what “success” means in book publishing.  Decide for yourself what makes it worth your while–and then celebrate your efforts.

I’m about to send a final draft of a novel—another 10-year book—to my agent. It might not be good enough. If she wants edits, I’ll make them. But if this book isn’t ready, I’m probably done with it. I’ll print a few copies for my friends. Because I don’t need this book in the whole world—I just need to tell this story, writing at a publishable level. Writing that sentence makes me cry. But it doesn’t make me sad. I’ve put the best of my craft into finishing this manuscript. People whose opinions matter to me think it’s good. And sometimes, that’s enough.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her mailing list here (that’s publishing, too).

How My Modern Love Essay Saved My Memoir

November 14, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Mary Alice Hostetter

A gentle question from a member of my writing group is how it all started. “Don’t you think you might include your coming to terms with being a lesbian in your memoir’s arc?”

“I do not want to be the poster child for Mennonite lesbians,” I responded, perhaps more forcefully than her innocent question warranted.

I thought I was finished with the first draft of my memoir, a quiet story about growing up in a Mennonite farm family in Pennsylvania. It was a tale of trying to fit into the Mennonite community, my teenage rebellion against the rigid rules, and escaping to fit into the bigger world. Introducing the lesbian theme, I worried, would change the whole focus. After all, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was until I was an adult.

“Did you ever come out to your parents?” another member of the writing group asked.

“Interesting you should ask,” I said. “I wrote an essay about that a few years ago, and it tells the whole story.”

I had written the essay about how my gay brother and I made the decision to write “coming out letters” to my ninety-five-year-old father, a bit fearful of how he might take the news, but needing to do it nonetheless. We delighted in his surprisingly accepting response, “Well, that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should tear families apart.”

I shared my essay with the group, and the instructor said, “You should submit this to Modern Love.”

I knew about Modern Love essays, read them from time to time, but not religiously, and most certainly did not know that for nonfiction writers getting a Modern Love essay published was like finding the literary holy grail. Articles were written on how to write the perfect Modern Love essay. Who knew it was a thing?  If I had known that, I may have found the prospect of submitting too daunting, but I naively thought, “Why not?” and went about shortening my piece to comply with the submission guidelines.

Imagine my shock when a few weeks later I got the email from Daniel Jones, the Modern Love editor. He wanted to publish my essay. Me in the New York Times? And then I thought about the implications. It’s not that I was closeted exactly, but coming out as lesbian in the Times was a higher level of coming out than I had ever imagined. I took a deep breath, feeling already a bit exposed and vulnerable, but the idea of it also felt freeing. The notion of being fully out to family, friends, and all those readers was strangely liberating.

The essay, “Dear Dad: We’ve Been Gay for a Very Long Time,” was published, and the responses, mostly positive, started coming in from all over. Daniel Jones forwarded one to me from a young Mennonite girl in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. The church was then in a bitter dispute about whether they would allow gay members, and a self-righteous intolerance was splitting both the church and families apart. Her note expressed gratitude for my essay and ended with, “Your essay gave me reason to hope in very dark times.”

I was working on what I thought were final revisions of my memoir, sticking with a variation on what I had planned as my original arc, continuing to skirt around any explicit mention of coming to terms with being a lesbian. It was as if my story ended with an acceptance of being happily single, what my mother chose to call “an unclaimed blessing,” finding the term spinster derogatory.

However, after coming out to the hundreds of thousands of NYT readers, I realized that keeping the lesbian piece out of my memoir didn’t make any sense. And, if including it had the potential of “giving hope in dark times,” if only for a few, omitting it seemed an act of callous cowardice. A thoughtful reader would certainly sense important information was being held back and suspect that what was on the page, though not dishonest, was incomplete.

I began rewriting the memoir, keeping a new and more honest ending in sight, discovering markers along the way I had not previously noticed and digging deeper to explore those. I knew an introverted writer may not be poster child material, no matter the cause, but I could feel in my bones the new ending was where my story needed to go, an ending that might never have happened had the essay I wrote, mainly for myself, not been published in Modern Love.
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Mary Alice Hostetter grew up the tenth of twelve children in a Mennonite farm family. She had a career in education and human services before devoting more time to her writing. Among her publications are The New York Times (Modern Love), Gettysburg Review, Hippocampus, Prime Number, Appalachian Review, storySouth and HuffPost Personal. Her debut memoir is Plain: A Memoir of Mennonite Girlhood (University of Wisconsin Press, December, 2022).  She lives with her wife in Charlottesville, Virginia. For more information, visit her website.

Ballet Barre and Memoir

November 11, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Kara Tatelbaum

Pliés, tendus, dégagés…whether you’re in Paris or Poughkeepsie, ballet barre exercises are the same. Most professional dancers are in class by 10 am every morning, whether they’re home or on tour. The routine is expected. You show up for class. You start with pliés. After thirty years of leotards and tights, I know this in my bones.

When I began to write my memoir, I was all over the place. The freefall of rants in the margins of my appointment book felt liberating at first. I scribbled fiercely on the subway, in between dance classes, during rehearsals, and in grubby corners of the gym. One night, after a Pilates class I taught was randomly cancelled, I tried organizing everything I’d written. The sheer volume, disorder, and lack of structure made me dizzy. I knew I had something. But what was it?

I’m sure other writers have faced this too. Especially those of us without formal training. We start with a little bit written here and there. That builds up and makes us wonder what to do with all of it? Am I writing a book? Help! 

At this point in the writing process, I think a lot of us run to find a writing coach, class, or group to join. We look outward to get someone else to figure out what we’re doing. This costs money and time and can also easily waste both. You’re still in freefall and haven’t established any sort of boundaries to anchor your new practice. The act of writing is personal. The discipline of writing is too. Before letting others in and seeking professional help—be it a writing coach or therapist (I ended up getting both!)—focus inward and buckle down. It’s time to establish a writing routine.

Yes, it’s that simple—and inexpensive! But routine takes discipline. This means committing to a time, place, and repetition. Especially for us writers who may not consider ourselves writers, a dedicated routine helps shape our emerging writer selves. You have the impulse to write something, see it through on your own before inviting others in. What begins as a random, personal happening will become an established process. Your process. 

While pleasing the ballet teacher is an integral part of a dancer’s training, ballet class is also where you can take chances, push your technique, fall and get back up. There’s no question you must be in the studio each morning for that to happen. Show up for your teacher, but first for yourself. But how do you show up as a writer? Look right, look left, there are no sweating bunheads cramped on either side of you trying to achieve the same goals. No long stationary handrail for support. No precise start time. No instructor or feedback. Dancers build technique and then push limits. Perfect two pirouettes, then go for three or four. I couldn’t take writing risks in this abyss! I was falling before learning any proper technique. The dancer in me craved routine and repetition. So that’s where I started.

The evening I went through all my writing, I decided to wake up at 5 am the next morning, before my dance and Pilates life started and get to “work.” For me, that meant to show up to write and keep going. The custom centered me. Each morning, I put on my dance clothes, poured myself some form of hot caffeine, popped open my secretary desk, and stuck to it. 

I let myself continue to scratch notes freestyle whenever and wherever too. These improvisations proved to be the guts of my story. Before ballet class, rehearsals, and sessions with clients, I worked on my writing. Sometimes I reread what I had written other places and copied it into my computer. Other times I’d edit the parts I’d inputted or organize what I had written into sections, which later became chapters. I grew to love editing; it felt familiar, like rehearsing in dance. The same way I manipulated dance movements (bigger, smaller, upside down, faster, slower…) I cut, pasted, and played with my words. Making them perfect. Making them fit. 

A year later, I had the first draft of my book. 

I had grounded myself as a writer with the disciplined routine of a dancer. Ballet class starts standing at the barre. Writing begins sitting at my desk. Same time each morning. I showed up.

Turns out my 5 am routine worked for querying too. A few months later, on a pause between pliés and tendus, I snuck a look at my inbox and found I landed an agent.

—————–

Kara Tatelbaum’s debut memoir Putting My Heels Down: a memoir of having a dream…and a day job—a brutally honest look at her life as a dancer and very reluctant Pilates instructor trying to make it in NYC—was released by Motina Books on International Dance Day (April 29, 2022) and was a #1 Amazon Bestseller in Modern Dance. Find Kara on Instagram or visit her website

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? 

For example: 

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.
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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.

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