January 13, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Victoria Lynn Smith
Ask me how I decide if I’m going to write about an event as fiction or nonfiction. I have a mental flowchart for that, and I can explain it clearly.
Ask me how I choose a point of view or tense. I can’t explain that as easily, but I sense when my choices aren’t working and try a different approach.
Ask me if I consider myself a writer, and the waters are murkier. It depends on the day. Did I write? Did I get a rejection? Did I submit a piece of writing? Did I walk away from the computer thinking I just spent hours writing crap or I’m excited to work on this tomorrow? Did I spend any time learning about the craft of writing? Did I spend time with other writers? When did I last get paid for something I wrote?
Most days I call myself a writer, but there are days I call myself a pretender.
Ask me if I consider writing a hobby, a job, or a profession, and the waters are an oil-slicked quagmire. Recently, as a panelist in a presentation about beginning a writing career after retirement, I was asked, “Is writing your hobby, job, or profession?” and I stumbled over my answer.
Sometimes writing looks like a hobby. I learn about it, spend money on it, try to perfect it, and want to put it on display when I’m finished. Occasionally, I earn money, which has never happened with my real hobbies. But most of my writing, like the crafts I create, is given away, published without pay. It’s satisfying to be chosen, but if my writing doesn’t pay for itself, maybe it’s a hobby. But I’ve never devoted this much time to a hobby.
So, maybe I should consider writing a job. Just a low-paying job, really low paying. If it’s a job, maybe I should figure out how to get myself a raise. I could write articles for magazines. I’ve tried. I start them, save them in a file, and abandon them, returning like a remorseful lover to a story or an essay that I jilted while in pursuit of a paycheck to give my writing legitimacy.
I could do corporate writing. A couple of years ago, I met a woman at a writers’ gathering who said she made good money at it. But I love writing fiction and essays. I told her about my first story, which had recently won a contest. (I was probably obnoxious, like a mother showing off pictures of her firstborn.) Others talked about memoirs, novels, or poetry they were writing. Somewhere among all the chatter about craft and books and resources, the woman looked at me and said, “I need to make time for my writing.” Her words and the look on her face have stayed with me. She was young and needed the income. I’m retired and free to explore my passions. So maybe it’s not a job.
I can’t call writing my profession. Yes, I belong to two writers’ associations. I subscribe to a writing magazine and read it cover to cover when it arrives. I subject my work to critique and critique the work of others. I enroll in classes. But I don’t treat writing as a business. I don’t need to pay the bills with it. I don’t have a website or a Facebook page. I’m not writing a book I need to market. Not yet anyway.
Maybe writing is my occupational hobby.
Yesterday, my nine-year-old granddaughter clarified the whole issue.
I had my four grandkids for the afternoon, and at three o’clock, I learned I needed to read at a virtual open mic. I was on the sub list and another reader couldn’t make it. I asked my grandkids to play quietly while I rehearsed.
My seven-year-old grandson asked why, and I told him I needed to practice.
But my granddaughter told him, “Because Nana’s a writer, and she’s a good writer.”
The grandkids cooperated, more or less. My granddaughter sat at the table drawing pictures. Two of my grandsons played in a bedroom and the toddler napped on the couch. I pulled out a 500-word essay of mine that was published this summer. I knew I could read the essay in under five minutes. Halfway through I realized my granddaughter was standing behind me.
When I’d finished, she asked, “Is that a true story, Nana?”
“Yes,” I said. “Even the part about the gun in the kitchen cupboard, but no one got hurt.”
Still, I wondered if the piece was good enough to read at the open mic. I started looking for something else, verbalizing my angst as I did.
“Nana, you should read the story you just read. It’s really good.”
I took my granddaughter’s advice and read the essay.
She’s right. I’m a writer. A hobby, a job, a profession? For now, the label doesn’t matter. On this day, at this moment, I’m a writer.
Victoria Lynn Smith writes stories and essays. Her story, “Silent Negotiations,” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize Contest, and her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest. Her work has appeared in regional publications, on various blogs, and on Wisconsin Public Radio. She is working on a collection of short stories about the lives of children and teenagers. And, although she thought she would never say “I’m working on a book,” she has written two rough chapters about the house and neighborhood where she grew up. Read more at https://writingnearthelake.org/
January 12, 2021 § 12 Comments
The holidays are behind us and with them go the season of “should”: should send holiday cards, should bake festive treats, should go to worship services. Even though the pandemic may have altered some of our plans, I would imagine that for most of us, there were still “shoulds” ringing loud and clear in our minds.
And it continues to ring, that “should,” as we move into the new year and the onset of what I like to think of as flagellation season: all those resolutions, all those vows about what we’re going to do differently and better this year. “Should” governs all those resolutions; it’s the reason why (in the Before Time) gyms always get so crowded in early January.
Writers have their own fitness dreams, also governed—unless we’re careful—by “should.” We look at the gleaming blank page of the new year and we’re sure that we should do 1000 words a day (Famous Writer On Twitter does that) or we should get this new software program (our writing group buddy swears by it) or we should be doing a mind-map of the memoir (saw that on the internet)…
Should. It’s the auxiliary verb of guilt.
It’s great to be inspired by the writing buddy or the Famous Writer or the internet, but what if your writing goals for this new year were simply…whatever it is that you think you can do? Maybe even what you want to do?
Yoda had it wrong. “Do. Or do not. There is no should,” is way more helpful than telling us “there is no try.” Let’s face it, sometimes “try” is all we’ve got. We try to hit our daily word count or page count; we try to find the right words. There’s a reason that “essay” comes from the French essayer, an attempt. A try.
An essay is an attempt to capture something—but trying to capture anything with “should” is going to be tricky. I had a student once conclude an essay about The Great Gatsby by saying that Gatsby and Daisy should just have given up drinking and then everything would have been fine. Let’s disregard the fact that neither Daisy nor Gatsby drink and move to the idea that Gatsby becoming a teetotaler is irrelevant: the novel doesn’t offer us that possibility. But what that “should” suggests about the student’s own life? That’s an essay.
“Should” gets deployed in the scripts we think others have written for us: I should be this sort of parent, that sort of child, this type of partner, that type of writer. Should is not the verb of honest self-reflection—or rather, it’s not the “should” that matters, but whatever motivates the should.
The stories we need to tell lurk around that “should.” Maybe we shouldn’t have gone home with that person, or maybe we should have taken that job, or gotten a second opinion…but is the “should” the story? Or is the story that matters actually embedded in should-based regret? “Should” keeps us at arm’s length from ourselves; it prevents us from finding ways to unlock what matters.
We might think of “should” as the language of first drafts: we think we know what a memoir “should” look like and so we write towards whatever that “should” tells us to do. Sometimes that directive can help us move forward, act as a path through the unmarked territory of memory. But sticking to the path that someone else established may prevent us from striking out in the direction that we need to take. The obvious joke here: “We should write without should,” but I won’t make that joke. I’ll say only that when we start “should-ing” ourselves, we might think about why we’re chastising ourselves: maybe that’s where to start the story.
Instead of thinking about what we “should” do this new year, let’s find the stories that we want (or need) to tell and try to tell them—essay them—as best we can.
Deborah Williams is a writer and literature professor based in Abu Dhabi. Her work has appeared in The Common, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times, Brevity Blog, The Rumpus and others. She is finishing a novel based on the life of Lady Hester Stanhope, who defied convention (and Napoleon) to wander the Mediterranean and the Levant with her much-younger lover. Follow Deb on Twitter and Instagram @mannahattamamma.
January 1, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Hello, 2021! The New Year is here! After the theatrics and tragedies of 2020, we have learned that life happens when we are least expecting it. No matter what, we have to carve out time for our creativity (whatever that might look for you on a given day) and protect it fiercely without taking on the performance pressures. As Franz Kafka said, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
Everyone is different as is their relationship with writing. Writing sustained me during the pandemic. I am not surprised because writing is how I make sense of the world. It’s how I grieve and cope. I wrote every day to center myself. As a result, the manuscript for my upcoming collection of essays, A Piece of Peace, is now with the publisher and the book comes out in fall of 2021.
To me, writing is like meditating and practicing yoga asanas. It’s a daily practice and has very little to do with whether I want to or not. You show up with dedication and devotion daily—without any ego or expectations. Prepared to be surprised and don’t judge the outcome. Focus on your journey. You don’t compare yourself to others or even your own self. On some days, you will finish an entire story or an essay; on other days, a blank page will taunt you. Don’t allow your moods, inner voice, and external environment (sass, competition, negativity, cold days, rejections etc. etc.) to influence your dedication to the craft. Show up. Show up. Show up. If we all wrote only when we felt like it, imagine the number of books the world would be deprived of?
Here is what fuels creativity (at least mine): Move your body daily, floss your mind at least every 24 hours aka meditate, make healthy food choices 80% of the times, make time for fun, surround yourself with good people, and learn to be happy for other writers and their successes. Also, read a lot. This is one way of approaching creativity and establishing your relationship with it. But it is not the only way.
I asked four women writers if they could share their advice about three goals every writer should make in the New Year. Here is what they had to say:
Sayantani Dasgupta, Assistant Professor, Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between shared the following three bits of advice:
1. Give yourself the tiniest, most manageable daily writing goal. In my case, I have assigned myself to write ten sentences every day. I think it’s especially useful during this Pandemic time when every day can feel the same, it’s important to find a way to separate one from the other. If on some days, the 10 sentences become 20 sentences instead, or 20 pages, that’s great! But if not, that’s also fine. Somedays, my 10 sentences are just that. Somedays, they are nothing more than 10 words, each jotted on a different line. And that’s okay.
2. Build a cheerleading team of 2-3 friends who are also writers. They may or may not be tasked with reading your drafts but they absolutely must be willing to listen to you talk about what you are struggling with, be it a godawful character that refuses to die, or a poem that’s not cooperating in terms of strong images, or the literary agent who has ignored your last three emails. Please remember it’s not a one-way street. Invest in these friends by giving them the gift of your time and attention.
3. Be genuinely happy with other writers’ successes. Simply put, don’t be an asshole. No matter how successful you become, there will always be writers who are smarter than you, who sell more books, land more interviews, whose spouses take them to Paris and bring them breakfast in bed, and who photograph well, no matter the camera angle. Don’t hold on to envy or jealousy. It’s not good for your mind or body. And it’s most definitely not good for your writing or creative process. Find ways to improve your craft instead of bringing down others, whether literally, or in your own mind.
Rachel Hills of Brooklyn, New York and author of The Sex Myth recommends:
1. Write without your audience in mind. In this era of online comments and social media, writers have immediate access to what people think of our work – and that’s not always a good thing. Earlier in my career, I constantly had the potential responses of my audience playing in my head as I wrote, and I think it made me less brave and interesting than I might have been. Now I try to practice putting the audience aside entirely – at least when I’m writing the first draft – and I find it helps me to achieve better flow and deeper insights.
2. Make a practice of showing up for your work. It’s obvious, but it needs to be said: the only way to write a book (or a poem, or a blog post) is to sit down and write it. Make a practice of showing up for your work, whether it’s daily, weekly, or something in between.
3. Take the pressure off. It’s easier to show up to your writing practice if you make it fun. You don’t need to produce a perfect draft every time you sit down at your laptop or your notebook. You just have to write something. Learn to take pleasure in letting your thoughts unfold and find their form.
Jen Gilroy who lives in a small town in Eastern Ontario, Canada and has written the book, A Wish in Irish Falls, says:
1. Make practicing self-care a daily habit. Nurturing yourself also nurtures your writing. Taking even thirty minutes each day to do something for your well-being boosts mental health and enhances creativity, in turn increasing your happiness and productivity as a writer.
2. Set small, measurable goals and reward yourself for achieving them. Instead of setting yourself a big goal like “write a book,” break that goal down into smaller, more manageable chunks such as “in the next two weeks I will write 1,000 words each day.” Then give yourself a reward (watching a movie works for me) when you reach your goal.
3. Don’t compare yourself to other writers and limit social media scrolling if it contributes to self-doubt. In writing, as in most areas of life, it’s easy to compare yourself to someone else and think you’ve fallen short. However, every writing journey is different and even the most successful authors face rough patches. Support other writers and celebrate their success, but focus on your story and your career or, as many of us were told at school: “Keep your eyes on your own paper.”
Lisa Montanaro, who lives in Davis, California, and is working on her debut novel (The title of her WIP is Truth and Other Inconveniences) advises:
1) Honor Appointments with Yourself to Write: I’m a certified organizing and productivity consultant, so my biggest piece of advice is to carve out time for your writing on your calendar by scheduling it in as an appointment. And then honor those appointments with yourself just like you would an appointment with someone else. We tend to honor appointments for official meetings, with other people, or for events. Do the same with your writing sessions!
2) Move Your Body Each Day: Writing is often done sitting down for long stretches of time. Make it a point to move your body each day. Whether that consists of light stretching, yoga poses, a walk outside, calisthenics, or more strenuous exercise like a bike ride or hike—it doesn’t matter as long as it’s movement. I love the app Down Dog and the free Namaste Yoga classes on Amazon Prime. But my favorite activity is cycling. I bring my iPhone and brainstorm ideas for my WIP and dictate them when I pull over to drink water. Dictating ideas for your writing is another great way to keep the writing going when you’re not sitting with your Butt in Chair!
3) Get a Writing Partner: My writing partner and I have been together for almost three years now. I don’t know where I would be without her! We use Facebook messenger to communicate almost daily, do video chats periodically, brainstorm ideas for our WIPs together, and swap pages. We hold each other accountable, offer a shoulder to cry on, and cheer each other on. I would not want to be on this writing journey without her! I highly recommend finding another writer that you can partner up with. Of course, you have to make sure that you’re a good fit. But once you find a great match, it’s worth it’s weight in gold.
Be it for two hours or ten minutes, include exercising your writing muscles as part of your routine. Be it daily or once a week, schedule time in your calendar for writing. It’s self-care, it’s your dedicated me-time, and much more. As Pattabhi Jois says, Practice and all is coming.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. 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: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
January 1, 2021 § 8 Comments
To: Self-Employed Writer
From: The CHFO (Chief High-Five Officer)
Date: January 1, 2021
Subject: You’ve Earned Employee of the Year! Again!
I am writing to congratulate you on the commendable efforts and energy you put into delivering on your 2020 production quota. Nobody here wrote more words on more pages than you. You wrote and rewrote. You edited and edited again. Yes, you really did type this year.
Your ability to keep the volume of rejection letters organized was exemplary. Each one that came in the door was noted and filed, then cancelled out by another submission. Another swing at the piñata. You swatted so many times this past year that your arm has grown thick and strong. There’s new work out there because of it and more to come if you keep at it. Note for 2021: swing with your left for a while to even out the situation.
Thanks especially for your dedication and commitment to attendance. This past year coughed up more challenges than most. You could have sat in the corner, curled in a ball, rocking and humming, but you showed up on a somewhat regular basis instead. For your year of diligent service, I applaud you. I applaud all of the writers out there. You deserve a raise!
Windy Lynn Harris writes personal essays, short stories, flash, nonfiction, and novels from her desk in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. Her work has been published in The Literary Review, JMWW, Pithead Chapel, The Sunlight Press, and many other journals. Find her at www.windylynnharris.com.
December 31, 2020 § 27 Comments
2017 2020? Yeah, this post I wrote three years ago is STILL ASTOUNDINGLY RELEVANT. You know that feeling of low-grade background stress you’ve sustained for nearly four years, ramping up a level each year? You’re not alone, fellow writer.
So 2020 was a dumpster on fire while swept away in a flood, yes, but how was your writing? Because now is a great time to consider what you did. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and couldn’t. Let’s genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments, together.
Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?
Get a piece accepted? Submit to places you want to be accepted?
Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?
Make it to an online workshop or reading or write-in?
Read a book you really loved? Or one that taught you something about writing? Tried some exercises? Researched something new?
They all count.
Bask in the feeling of accomplishment. If you’re a journal-keeper, make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations!
When you’re done, look ahead. Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 12th. But it’s a good time to reassess, because other writers are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck your local independent bookstore (who likely offer curbside pick-up).
Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.
- Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open.
- That one’s Measurable–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, or maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out.
- Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. Maybe start with “meet more Swedes.”
- And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing.
- Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts (10 tries, quarterly submissions, etc), so the goal starts with an action you can take.
Here’s what I’m thinking about:
What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to finish a novel, because I care about writing YA, and I think it looks better to give writing advice when I’m walking the walk. You?
Do you need help to be this kind of writer? I need to locate a couple of beta readers who haven’t read the previous incarnations so they can come in fresh. What help do you need?
What big project do you want to finish? That book, and to host a writing retreat in Costa Rica or Italy, both delayed from last year. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process. And allow myself grace when elements I can’t control hinder my progress. What’s your big project?
What do you want to read? More “challenging” books and less comfort re-reads. How can you make that happen? Order Hilary Mantel’s latest and dive in! What can you not wait to read?
What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’d like to spend a little less phone-on-sofa time. You?
It’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in our brains. It’s hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what we can actually accomplish. Like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.
Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2021’s writing year? Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. January 22nd, she’ll be leading the webinar This Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal-Setting and Project-Planning for Writers. It’s a steal at $25–sign up here!
December 11, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Anandi Mishra
Earlier this year, after years of putting away the plan to write creative nonfiction, I decided to submit to literary magazines in the US and Europe. What awaited me was a sweet little dilemma. What could I write from my vantage point that would interest readers of those magazines that I had been reading myself for the last few years?
I did not know what ideas I should and could pursue. One set of ideas would manifest itself as too bold in my south Asian Indian woman mind. What if my family read it? Would my friends be tolerant of knowing that I masturbate? What about that sentence that said that I smoked pot? All the what ifs would cloud my mind and soon blur my creative vision. I was lucky to have one friend who could give creatively balanced feedback — my boyfriend. M always created a comfortable ground before pointing out small issues here and there and helping me to see what was good to go. When I voiced my apprehensions, he would listen with a sensitive ear. His feedback would soothe me, instilling in me a little bit more confidence to go ahead and pitch my ideas.
My other worry was that my ideas were too meek, blunt, and superficial for American and European magazines. For my pitches to stand out, I thought they might need a bit of self-absorption, singularity, and navel-gazing. While I didn’t lack these qualities, I found it hard to understand how to distill them all into my writing. If I wrote a pitch, it would come across as too apparent. I worried it would excite my simple Indian literary taste buds but be too bland for the other side of the world. I would read, scrolling down websites, one after the other, skimming through essays written by my favorite writers of Indian origin. How did she strike this spectacular balance between the personal and the private? How did she allow this beautiful detail into the essay without prying deeper into it? Why can I not do this? How do I make some — heck — any of my pitches work?
Reading, making notes, penciling thoughts on margins or into my notebooks, I would let these favorite writers’ words weave inspiration around my head. I would parse through their words and let my imagination take off from there. Sometimes a sister thought would take hold of me, and I would quickly jot it down. On other occasions, I would go off on the same tangent mentally, trying to understand how to arrive at a topic that I would be the best person to write about.
As I went down this road of finding inspiration, seeking courage, the list of women writers of south Asian origin who gave me hope, kept increasing. I read more essays written by people all across the world, but especially by the women who came from backgrounds similar to mine. At least, vaguely, remotely, minutely similar to mine. I would scroll past their Twitter handles, into their websites, reading almost all the nonfiction pieces written by them. Although this all happened at the sub-conscious level, I was rapidly also creating a bank of my own ideas. Geeta Kothari, Abeer Hoque, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dur e Aziz Amna, Iva Dixit, Sejal Shah, Janice Pariat, Sumana Roy, Anjum Hasan — their essays, each vastly different from the rest, intrigued me. Picking up from there examples, I started internalizing how to find that perfect balance.
But it would still take me at least ten times the rejections against the acceptances to arrive at the first satisfying piece of writing. I understood that while Melissa Febos’ essays were mind-boggling, they were also, at least to begin with, uncharted territory for me. I could find courage to be vocal about my innermost demons from them, but I wouldn’t be able to be vocal about what kept me awake at night. Indian society still classifies certain subjects as taboo, and I wanted more and more people from my home country to read me. Nonetheless, my first essay addressed something that I had never seen another Indian woman writer address in her work.
My day job is as a communications professional, and with the 2020 pandemic lockdown, my home and bedroom became the place where I worked, attended office calls, ate, wrote, read, and slept. While my work continued on weekdays, during weekends I found it hard to get myself to write, to sit down and do the one thing that I have deeply enjoyed since childhood. Then one day, during an over-thinking spree, I figured out that I was looking for a go-ahead from someone. I moved out of my parents’ house in mid-2008 and since then have in one way or the other always needed permission to do something, anything, from them or from other “elders” around. It is common in our North India culture for women and also men (up to a certain age) to always feel the need for a sign off on every small thing, such as wanting to grow nails or go for a night out with friends.
When I sat down with an essay pitch, I worried that I was being devious. Was I cheating on my employers? Was I lying to someone? Was I being unthankful? Was I hurting someone by writing on the side? One weekend I checked with my boss and she assured me that she was perfectly fine with me publishing literary essays. I was still not fully convinced. What I needed then, I would realize later, was the final nod from an over-imposing authority. I waited, stuck in this limbo for weeks, for this permission to come through. And when it did not, an epiphany struck.
One Saturday afternoon, I sat in front of my bookshelf, wrested out a book of essays by a favorite writer, folded into a palthi, and thumbed through its pages. I read one essay after another, deriving from each of them permission to write, to feel, to wander and get lost about in the land of my own words. It was in those vulnerable moments that I, an Indian woman who doesn’t come from a family of creative types or moneyed types, gave myself the permission to forge on ahead on this uncharted territory. In doing so, I became my own muse, my own guru, my very own agent provocateur, my teacher, and my special student.
Later that afternoon, I decided to refuse the binary and marry my two sets of ideas. I would blend the two in a way that was idiosyncratic of my blog pieces that I had been putting out since early 2018. I would let my inner world come and live itself out on my pages in the way that I wanted. I told my stories my way, and in doing so, I owned the very essence of them.
I started from there, and I’ve been ploughing my way through. To quote the one and only Toni Morrison,
I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.
Eight months from my first nonfiction publication, my writing journey has only begun. There is hardly that nuance that comes with the remove of a longer passage of time, but so far it has been a delicate ballet of awkwardness, one that I have learnt to enjoy. I am following Morrison’s advice and beginning to own this joy that comes with noticing, looking, and capturing the world in my words.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has also been published by or is forthcoming in Mint, Popula, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3AM Magazine, Transformations, RejectionLit, Berfrois, Multiplicity Mag, and elsewhere. Her essay, “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown,” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020).
December 8, 2020 § 21 Comments
When I was working on my book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I was writing for my younger self and to other young women like me, or like I had been—women in their twenties and early thirties, who are in the process of finding themselves, of becoming. I wanted my book to function as a guide, or rather an anti-guidebook of sorts, a map of what not to do. I wanted these young women to see the mistakes I had made, so they wouldn’t need to the same ones themselves.
My advanced reader copies went out, and even though I shouldn’t have, I wanted to see how people were responding, so I looked at Goodreads. Other writers told me not to. They said, “Goodreads is for readers, not writers.” One writer told me that what readers think of my book is none of my business.
They were right, of course. But I thought, I’m a reader, too!
There were a number of reviews that didn’t like that the essays aren’t arranged in chronological order. A few men didn’t like my narrator, which was to be expected because I was writing about a woman trying to get out from underneath the male gaze and learning to be the subject of her own desire. Any story that subverts the patriarchal order is bound to be met with a bit of disdain—I counted this as a win.
What I wasn’t expecting was the vitriol from young women—not all young women, of course, but some of them hated the book and seemed especially mad at me for writing it. One young woman wrote a 1,200 word-review, twice as long as this post. These women, the very ones I thought I was penning a love letter to, were very passionate, indeed, but in their anger.
One young woman wondered if my younger self really did all those “stupid things” or if I was just “making it up” to sell books. Let me be clear: I wasn’t making it up. And yes, I really was that stupid.
Certainly, I could have just written a terrible book with an asshole narrator.
But I wondered why they would finish the book if they hated it (and me) so much and then take to Goodreads and spend a lot more time thinking and writing about a book they couldn’t stand.
During this same time, middle-aged and much older women started writing to me, gushing about how much they loved the book. They saw their younger selves, their own missteps, and they said that though they may not want to admit it, they could relate. They thanked me for putting their struggles into words. The mirror I held up to them showed their much younger selves and the ways that they had reckoned with their mistakes, helping them grow into the powerful women they now were.
I went back and noticed in the negative reviews, readers wrote more about themselves and their experiences in relation to the book. My book, it seemed, had held a mirror up to the reader, and some of these young women didn’t like what they saw.
I often tell my students to think about their audience, and I still think that’s good advice. Write to a specific someone in your mind. But now I’ll add this: you might be wrong about that specific someone, but that’s okay.
Sometimes the book is smarter than the writer. And your love letter may be unrequited, but someone else will find it, someone who needs it. And it doesn’t matter who that is, because you have done your work. You have written your book. And in the end, what the reader thinks about it is none of your business.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
December 4, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Margaret Elysia Garcia
Writer’s Evil Brain: What are you doing?
Writer: What does it look like I’m doing? I’m making a to-do list. There are things to submit. I kinda thought about that NaNoWriMo thing again but – I just don’t write that way.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Well you never finish those things. How about we eat something?
Writer: We just had dinner.
Writer’s Evil Brain: You only ate three pieces of chocolate today, there’s room for more! Loaf of bread maybe?
Writer: Who are you?
Writer’s Evil Brain: You.
Writer: Keep away from me. I had a good week last week.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Not so good this week though.
Writer: I had two things published. Leave me alone.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Did it come with health insurance? I don’t think so.
Writer: Who are you, my mother?
Writer’s Evil Brain: I’m waiting for you to answer me.
Writer: I worked on things today. Okay? I did. And—I didn’t play online mahjong or check social media or anything.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Really?
Writer: Only in the morning. When I was checking email. But I am working.
Writer’s Evil Brain: And yet the book still sits there only half edited. You aren’t getting any younger and must I remind you that hello THIS IS WHAT YOU SAID YOU WANTED TO DO.
Writer: It’s useless.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Like majoring in your own language?
Writer: It seemed like a great idea at the time and marketable to all sorts of low paying prestige-less jobs. Fuck. Now I’m doing it. Go away Writer’s Evil Brain! I’m doing shit. I’m just not doing it at your pace. Did you just finish a new play and a poetry manuscript? No you didn’t.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Actually you haven’t finished the edits on either of those things. Hey. What are you doing? You’re not going to. Put that down.
Writer: What this? [Writer pulls out edible gummie].
Writer’s Evil Brain: Yes that. Don’t do it. We can stay up editing till three o’clock in the morning if you want. We can crack out on twitter. We can tell your Trump supporting mother in law to fuck off on text. But don’t edible, girlfriend.
Writer: Why? Because you know I’ll go to sleep in half an hour. I have time to edit tomorrow and before the weekend is out at least one of those projects will be tackled. Why do you even care? You’ve published lots of things this year. Stop freaking out on me.
Writer’s Evil Brain: You’re going to wake up late, panic, and read the New York Times and wish you were Roxane Gay because you kind of thought those things she wrote about, and thought about writing it, but you didn’t actually write them down, loser.
Writer: I’m chewing.
Writer’s Evil Brain: I’m done with you. I’m going to go next door and bother your hack neighbor who just writes off a template. ‘Insert main character here.’
Writer: Ha! You won’t go. You hate that guy. Good night, evil brain. I’ll see you in the morning for edits. I promise.
Writer’s Evil Brain: Whatever, bitch.
Writer: Night. [yawn].
Margaret Elysia Garcia is the author of short story ebook collection Sad Girls and Other Stories, and the audiobook Mary of the Chance Encounters, and the co-founder and lead playwright of Las Pachucas, theatrical troupe. She teaches creative writing and theatre in a California state prison.
December 1, 2020 § 20 Comments
The writer sitting next to me in a workshop last year was sharing excerpts from her memoir about her narcissistic mother. During our discussion of her vivid and heartbreaking prose, she blurted out, “I just want to finish my book before I die.”
My brain lit up with recognition. “That’s exactly what I always think!” I said. “I guess I’m not the only one.”
I’d found a kindred spirit, someone who grew up in an unstable family and understood the particular anxiety of wondering if you’re good enough to write a book, if you even deserve to write a book, if you can complete a book before you get run over by a truck or the world disintegrates into fiery chaos.
Because doom awaits. That’s how my psyche works. The future, to me, is precarious, unpredictable, and limited.
“Children of narcissistic parents,” writes Julie L. Hall in Psychology Today, “particularly children who are routinely devalued or scapegoated, commonly internalize feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, and imminent threat that create a sense of foreshortened future.”
I first learned about the idea of a foreshortened future years ago from my therapist, but it’s only recently that I’ve connected it with my fear—the anxiety I usually repress and deny—that I can’t finish my book-length memoir. That’s something other people can do, “normal people,” people who aren’t fundamentally damaged.
Growing up with a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder and narcissism created in me the subconscious belief that I can screw anything up at any time. I won’t see it coming. I’ll fail at whatever I most hope for, and I won’t know exactly why, except that it’s my fault. There’s just something about me that doesn’t work right.
As Hall writes, I experience a “dissociation from [my future] and alienation from those who have confidence in living relatively long, full, and stable lives.”
How do The Normals do it? Where does that confidence even come from? It’s as if they were given a rulebook at birth teaching them how to make life work and my copy was inexplicably lost.
But I am determined not to let others see this anxiety in me. I’m afraid letting it show will give it power.
Essentially, I’m faking it until I make it. I work on myself and work on my book even with this relentless inability to imagine a future in which I succeed.
My memoir, Terrible Daughter, is about freeing myself from my parents and accepting all the parts of me: beautiful, strong, damaged, or whatever. Sometimes I feel it, that inner strength and self-belief I write about, as I dare to tell the truth about my life. I’m revealing family secrets I’m supposed to hide. It’s empowering to break the rules.
Writing the truth is a radical, artistic act that salves my psychic wounds in a unique way, like weaving together disconnected threads inside of me. I can glimpse what wholeness might feel like.
So book or no book, I’m determined to keep trying. And I know I’m not alone. I know there are other writers who share this fear, who, in their solitude, grapple with the dread of failing to write a book as well as the uncertainty inherent in the writing process itself.
Even when we feel confident, we can never be sure of how a story will end. Writing has a way of leading us to emotional places and even revelations we don’t expect. But I rely on this as a crucial part of my process: I may not see what’s coming, but what’s coming might be gratifying, even healing. All I can do is to write when I can with as much clarity and courage as I can.
I don’t have any three-step plan to eliminate the fear of a foreshortened future. Perhaps it will always be there. If so, I hope I can accept it as a part of who I am; not an enemy of my work, but a presence reminding me of all I’ve been through and accomplished so far.
I do believe that I, and all of you reading this, have a right to tell the truth. And when those moments of strength show up, I grab them and go to work.
Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her memoir-in-progress, Terrible Daughter, is about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.