May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments
In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”
That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.
Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.
I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”
That was my dad talking.
That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.
Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.
That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.
There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?
Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.
May 15, 2017 § 8 Comments
By Jacob Little
I have several friends from various parts of the literary world who joke (with varying degrees of sincerity) about how nonfiction writers are “narcissists” or “navel-gazers” or even “cheaters” (announcing before you tell a story that it is true ratchets up the emotional investment and is a good way to disguise weak material or poor craft—or so a friend once told me). Aside from the numerous problems with these assertions, the charge of “self-involved” seems particularly hard to shake. How to explain a twenty-page story with oneself as the main character? Or even worse(!), a full-length book? (A beloved former poetry professor used to call them ME-moirs)
The obvious counter is to point out the hypocrisy of the assertion. What short story, novel, or poem has ever been anything other than the author exploring their own obsessions? The material may be different, but the self is present in all writing (and all art, by extension). We funnel our experiences and beliefs into our work.
But this is probably little more than a dodge. There is a difference between what drives and compels us to make art, and the content of the art itself. Why do we often choose ourselves for material, as if we are the most interesting or important subjects to consider? If you have one biographical story then fine, but why keep going back to that particular well?
It helps me to think of writing nonfiction as performing a live, theatrical self-autopsy. One might similarly point out why wouldn’t you perform the autopsy on someone else? Why is your body so interesting? And I’d answer the same way I do when explaining why I write nonfiction; “I have no moral or intellectual authority over someone else’s body. With my body, I may do as I choose. I know it better than I will ever know someone else’s. When I am the one with the scalpel, I may tell you what each cut has done to my body, what it feels like. I can point out each scar and attempt to tell you its origin.”
So we have ethical and factual authority over ourselves as material. We can speak to our own authenticity and accuracy, according to our actual experience. But why is this important? Why does it matter if you’re simply telling an audience about your—a single human’s—experience of being alive? Why should anyone else care at all?
For some reason, when talking about the self-dissection that occurs in nonfiction, we sometimes talk about it as if we are dissembling a machine in order to learn more about the machine itself; writing about the self is not merely a way to understand the self. That’s a part of it, for sure: “Jacob Little reporting from the field: I’m a human and it feels like this.” But when we are tempted to think this way, we should remind ourselves to look less at the frog’s formaldehyde-soaked intestines and more at what those intestines reveal about the world outside of the frog.
After all, long before humanity had begun the long, dirty work of mapping our bodies’ various humors and machinery, Babylonians practiced autopsies on animals. They did not do this to learn more about a crow’s intestines or a cat’s liver. Despite whatever its ransacked and inventoried appearance might suggest, the animal itself was never the thing revealed. Instead, the Babylonians believed that examining the innards of animals was a way of communicating with the gods. In humanity’s earliest days, pulling apart the bodies of animals allowed us to see into the future, to understand a purpose to our otherwise senseless, chaotic lives.
And so, when we’re pulling ourselves apart on a stage for readers, we aren’t just staring at our disembodied pancreas, trying to work it out for our own sake. Instead, we are holding up the organ to ask everyone in the room “do you recognize this?” and “what the fuck is this for?” and “what does this pancreas say about the mind of God?” If you rip apart a pocket watch, a laptop, a couch from IKEA, a human body, you will learn a great deal about the thing itself, but also about how things like these tend to work.
Good nonfiction—like all good story writing—extrapolates, tries to make sense of chaos, looks for similarities and signs and portents even in a bowl of Wendy’s chili. This isn’t, of course, accurate. At least, not any more than examining a bird’s entrails for messages from God. But we’re in the stone ages here. Our communication is hopeless at explaining our bodies, concerns, and experiences, woefully inadequate to engage our intellect, emotion, or consciousness on the level we are capable of. The best pieces of writing advertise their own failure to the reader, reminding us that story is artifice, that this autopsy is being recorded—and what’s worse, the doctor knows it. This acknowledgement is a cause for lament as well as celebration.
This lack of real connection leaves me, personally, feeling severed, separated. Every body outside my own must be a foreign object. There can be no pretense at comprehending someone else’s thoughts, motives, or desires, especially when I know so little of my own. And so, when I write about myself, it is not because I’m obsessed with understanding myself, it’s because I’m obsessed with understanding the rest of you. I see in myself some of the same organs you have, and am compelled to examine what’s inside of me for even miniscule, imperfect implications about the depths contained within all of you.
Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and a PhD candidate at Ohio University. You can find his poetry and nonfiction in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Yemassee. He’s been radioactive since 1733. You can follow him at @little_jaycup and jacoblittle.net.
May 3, 2017 § 7 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore is featured this week on Signature-Reads.com, insisting that revision is the most joyful part of writing. His craft piece is excerpted from his new book, The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir, which came out just yesterday.
Here’s an excerpt:
The blank page is a frightening void. An early draft, however, filled with words – all pointing in the right direction, but in need of some tender loving care – can be exhilarating. Words are like clay: you can push them around and make all manner of shapes with them. And clay reminds us of childhood. And childhood reminds us of the time when we were the most playful, most creative, and least haunted by voices telling us we can’t do things well enough.
In other words, you can approach revision with your head low and your shoulders tensed, thinking, “Boy my sentences are so sloppy and wordy, and everything seems slow. All in all, I’m a pathetic failure.”
Or you can approach revision thinking, “Hey, here’s my chance to get it right. Let’s play around.”
Too many areas of life don’t afford you a second chance, but writing does, and you should see that as a good thing.
And here’s a link to the full Signature piece, though Dinty would like everyone to know that he had nothing to do with choosing the accompanying illustration.
April 24, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Sarah Evans
The first type of writing conference regret typically hits shortly after the event begins.
You’ve just walked out of your first breakout session, one that you picked after poring over the descriptions and presenter bios to decide which one was right for you. In the hallway, you bump into attendees who went to a different session — one you’d considered but eventually rejected — and all of them are buzzing about how amazing their presenter was, how their notebooks are filled with words of inspiration, how the whole conference was worth it for just that one talk.
You sigh, because even though the session you picked was quite good, it never seems to live up to the mythic-level one you didn’t attend.
This happened to me last May at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers asked us to choose our first session months in advance of the event, and I wavered between my top two picks: “Structure for Long-Form Nonfiction” and “What Do I Write About?”
I picked the first, a session that offered a solid nuts and bolts lesson, specific tools and devices we could try with longer works. Among other things, the session leader analyzed the techniques Jeannette Walls used in the opening of her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” advocating that we start our story, like Walls, “close to the peak of action, right before a defining moment” — before leaving that scene and going somewhere else in the story for a while. The result: you make the reader want to ride along to find out how that opening scene will conclude.
“I already know this,” I thought at first — I had used this technique for years in my magazine writing. But as I continued jotting notes, a question nagged at me: Why wasn’t I also using this technique for my memoir-in-progress? I wrote in the margin of my notebook, “Open memoir with me meeting Mom at 7-11 after the funeral.” Minutes later, I walked out of the talk satisfied that I’d gleaned several potential ideas to play with when I got home.
Then I ran into the people who had gone to the other session. They talked about how inspiring it was, how the session leader had given them all these great nuggets of wisdom to remember and reflect upon, adages like, “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning.”
Regret rushed in. I appreciated the nuts and bolts, but also hungered for those motivating tidbits to remind me why I was a writer. I definitely encountered some later in the conference, but as I flew home afterward, part of me still wondered what else I might have missed.
Those precious post-conference days are when you may encounter another form of conference regret: wasting your inspiration. You come home with your brain and your notebook brimming with ideas and notes, and then … you do nothing with them. If you’re like me — a writer who also works a pays-the-bills job while raising a young family — it’s easy to return to that former life of not always writing, of pushing it aside until later when you’re less busy and less tired (which never happens). You have high hopes for what you’re going to do with your conference inspiration, and then you leave that notebook closed on your desk.
This time around, the new idea about how to open my memoir just wouldn’t leave me. I thought about it throughout the conference and on the plane ride home. It continued to taunt me as I attended office meetings and wiped runny noses. So within a week of returning to Oregon, I sat down and wrote. I only wrote about a page and a half, but I could tell it was the best I’d written in a while. When friends asked me about the conference, I told them how I’d written this new prologue for the book I hoped to finish someday, and how jazzed I was about the new direction. They smiled and nodded — most of them weren’t writers, so they didn’t understand the import of this development. Inside, I rejoiced that for once I hadn’t completely squandered the weekend.
I wish I could say that prologue turned into a regular routine where new chapters poured out of me every week. Instead, my kids and my regular life stepped back in and I’ve actually written very little of my memoir since then. But just getting that prologue onto the page was a game-changer. It led to me digging out old chapters to revisit with my writing group, thinking about the structure of my memoir often, and feeling reinvigorated about returning to the project.
Months later, I entered the prologue into the Oregon Writers Colony Writing Contest, and it won third prize for nonfiction first chapter. Take that, conference regret.
So the next time I come out of a session and hear the other attendees gushing about their presenter, I will smile, but I will not feel regret. I got what I needed out of the day, and that is what conferences are all about. And the next time I leave a conference, I’ll try harder to write something immediately after, even if it’s brief. It’s better than nothing, and it could signal a new beginning.
I didn’t even get to the third type of conference regret: when you meet that famous writer you admire and you blabber on or say something stupid. If you figure out how to defeat that one, let me know.
Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who is working (sometimes) on a memoir about her teenage years as a punk-rocker in small-town Texas. She is a graduate of the MFA in writing program at Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.
April 18, 2017 § 24 Comments
By Sheila Siegel
According to all the books on writing that I have read, I am not a writer. I am a psychologist, an anti-slavery activist, and a reader, but I am not a writer. Yet, I have written a book.
I approached writing as I do everything, with focus and determination, but, when I am writing, get stuck, and feel I have nothing to say, I don’t sit down at my computer and stare at a blank screen as other writers exhort. I get up and read, paint, or take the dogs for a walk.
I don’t blog even though it sounds like a good idea. I don’t journal although I have bought several with all good intentions. I had a five-year one where each day was given three lines. After six months, I had made one entry. I gave it to a friend who wanted to write.
I have taken memoir writing courses. I am in writing groups and workshop my pieces diligently. Sometimes this is not all that helpful. During one critique a fellow student suggested I show less and tell more. Had she not been listening? I have read as much as I could stomach of Bird by Bird, and devoured books on memoir writing by Mary Karr, Stephen King, Abigail Thomas, and Ann Patchett. I no longer use adverbs in dialogue and have learned to incorporate “carnal details” to make my scenes come alive. I have improved my craft. I am a better storyteller than when I started, but I am not a writer. I don’t do writerly things. I don’t force myself to keep going on. I rarely feel blocked because I just stop trying until I am ready to sit down at the computer again.
I don’t write essays, or letters to the editor or look for ways to make money through writing. For me, I need a book under my belt to give me credibility so that I can do what I really want which is to give talks on the problem of global slavery, a field I have been working in for the last 4 years.
Although my friends and family badgered me to write, I resisted.
I told them, “I am too much of an extrovert. The idea of sitting alone day after day holds no appeal.”
I have written articles and a dissertation that have been published. It was enough, until I got sick.
While working in Haiti, doing trainings on trauma informed care, I contracted ciguatera, food poisoning that attacks the nervous system. Chronic fatigue is one of the side effects and once I had recovered enough I began to write. I had energy for nothing else.
As I wrote, I tried to become better. I sought out writing classes where there was a strong critical component and was frustrated and impatient with ones where everyone liked everything. I wrote and rewrote daily. But, when I wasn’t writing I didn’t really miss it until I got a new idea.
This realization that I am not a writer has just struck me. In my current class our teacher often asks us, “What are you reading?”
Some people claim not to be reading anything because they are so busy writing. Because I am retired, I have lots of time to read. In a week, I will have read at least 2 books and listened to a third. I read memoirs by the dozen to see what it takes to write a good one. I think there are more people in my classes like me. Some admit that they need a class to get them writing. So, are they not really writers?
Writing is hard work. Sometimes it is fun and sometimes disheartening. When I started Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov I thought to myself why am I even trying? I could never possibly come close to writing so poetically. My words compared to his are pedestrian and banal. I soon got over that because the writing was so lyrical that I got bored and had trouble finishing the book.
On the other hand, it is nice to tell people that you are writing something. Of course, you always skip over the not writing part, the creating the book proposal, building a platform, finding an agent most of the ones available being in their 20’s and not interested in a book about retiring.
So (after spending the last 18 months creating my oeuvre) it has become clear to me, that really, I am not a writer. Still, once I get recharged enough, I will sit down and try again. Right now, I think I will go for a walk.
Sheila Siegel is a clinical psychologist. When not traveling the world as a volunteer for Free the Slaves, she is working at a drop-in center for homeless youth located near her home in Venice, California where she lives with her husband and their two dogs. The rest of the time she spends looking for an agent for her memoir, The Badass Grandma’s Guide to Tackling Retirement and Global Slavery. She uses her down time to write.
April 12, 2017 § 37 Comments
By Shawna Kenney
First thought, best thought; revise, revise, revise. Write first thing in the morning when the mind is alert; write at night and never while sober. Do it alone, in an office with the door closed, surrounded by books; write in coffee shops, surrounded by stimulating characters and conversation. Use traditional quotation marks and capitalization Unless You Are a ‘Genius.’ Journal in longhand; always type fast. Sentences longer than three or four lines are unacceptable and tedious, unless you are William Faulkner, William Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, David Foster Wallace or one of those other people who can get away with it. Short is good.
Write with an ideal reader in mind; fuck the audience. Never show anyone an early draft; find a workshop for feedback. Write to please everyone; quit workshop and hire an editor. Take classes to improve; don’t go to college—you’ll lose your voice. Don’t send work out until it’s ready; submit early and often—it’ll never be perfect. Find a guru. Trust yourself. Kill your darlings. Study the masters and steal their attributes, but never plagiarize—even from yourself.
Don’t write a memoir until you’re ninety; write a memoir while you’re young and events are still fresh; write many memoirs. Write about what’s eating you; eat while you write, or write on an empty stomach. When writing nonfiction, recreate scenes you don’t fully remember; only use facts and information that is verifiable. Show your family your work; never share what you’ve written with those you’ve written about—you are the ultimate authority on your life.
Get a big desk. Keep a notebook in your pocket. Write for two consecutive hours each day. Sneak writing in on 15-minute breaks. Take long naps. Get up early and write before everyone else is awake; stay up late and write when everyone is in bed. Write on napkins, grocery receipts, scrap paper, on your phone or computer, or only in a Moleskin. Write in pen. Always write in pencil first. Special writing software makes you more organized and gets you published faster. Write to get paid. Never expect money for your writing. Value your skills and charge what you’re worth. People who write for money are hacks. People who make money writing are lucky. Say this writing mantra every day: I am my own mantra. Never call yourself a writer until someone else does. Feel free to call yourself a writer, as long as you are writing. Fiction is thinly-veiled memoir. Memoir is mostly fiction. Poetry is useless. Poets are crazy blessed saints. Deep down, we all want to be poets.
Make an outline, then tear up the map and feel your way through. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there. All art is a process of discovery. Write what you know. Write to figure out what you don’t know. Write for your dead mother, your sweet pup, your unborn baby, or the ancestors you never knew. Write for yourself. Don’t write unless you can write the right way. Just write.
Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers and co-author of the forthcoming Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.
April 11, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Maddie Lock
Every day that I don’t write is a wasted one. There’s writing and there’s everything else. This creates a spiritual conflict.
Let me explain. I am a student of Buddhism now for four years. I call myself a student because I have yet to step over any definitive line that allows me to call myself anything other than one who is still learning. A practitioner, yes, but one who struggles with the pithy and practical advice that the Buddha gave to our world.
Buddhism teaches us not to get attached to anything because everything is impermanent, in a state of constant flux. It is our perception of how we are doing that determines how we feel as we go through our day. Time hands us events in that linear way time has, our feelings follow behind like faithful dogs. I know this, yet I have the deepest sense of frustration if I can’t get to my computer and write something amazing daily. That’s right, something (that I think is) amazing, whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph or the word that fits perfectly. I’m looking for that writing “high.”
As a business owner, wife and mother, I have responsibilities. As a friend, a work-out enthusiast, and shelter dog walker I have events that provide fulfillment. I have a life. We all do, us writers, but as any one of us may confess, I write for that euphoric wash of feeling when I’m in the flow and pleased with my work.
Alas, I don’t reach the heights of ecstasy daily. Far from it. My single-mindedness stymies me. I hover over words, over ideas. My satisfaction one day turns into despair the next: It’s crap, it’s all crap! Wasted time, when I have not enough to begin with. The euphoria becomes a dark pit designed for mental flagellation.
Nothing about my attitude here would be espoused by the Buddha. After sitting under the Bodhi tree for days, he “awoke” with the wisdom that we’re all wasting our time scurrying around importantly while we worry about everything that is transitory and not worth worrying about. The Buddha didn’t feel the need to write down any of his newfound wisdom. He spoke to those who would listen and trusted them to pass on the good news in a way that worked for them. The Buddha didn’t worry about finesse; he concerned himself with the truth in the meaning. The form in which his teachings were delivered differed from place to place, person to person. He would not be impressed with my obsession for critical perfection.
Or my quest for the writing “high.”
Yet, there it is. It’s there for me to learn and remember that this feeling of limitless promise—not to be taken for granted but to be cherished for the gossamer sweetness that it is—comes and goes as it will. It cannot be harnessed and it’s never intrinsic. It is, after all, perception.
Perhaps, one day, what I write on this day, in this time, I can give to the world and the world will say: well done, for now. I’ll take that “high” for as long as it lasts and however far it will take me.
I can almost hear the Buddha sigh.
Maddie Lock is a semi-retired business partner, animal lover and Buddhist enthusiast. She has published two children’s books about dogs, writes essays about important life issues and is ardently working on a memoir about her newly-discovered German family.