February 20, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Sonya Huber
- That thing that makes your guts turn queasy, the thing you did, the thing you saw… you know what I mean. The thing that swims in front of your eyes before you’re even awake, the face of the haunter, the hurricane. Scream at it with the alphabet until it becomes a piece of toast or at least a grave, anything with edges. Make a list of all the people with that same piece of toast and feel less alone.
- Procrastinate on a major serious to-do until the procrastination gets a pedigree and health insurance, turns from Pinocchio into a real boy. Take your bullshit seriously, unless you’re one of those people who was born doing that. In that case, take your bullshit out back and shoot it in the head.
- Smell smoke—or some weird almost-smell, cardamom mixed with musty stairwell, and put off picking up your kid from daycare in order to find that smell. Catch it and nail it to a piece of plywood and then describe your failure and how glad you are that you failed.
- Stop capitalism for a moment by being kind to yourself and to others. See a human in the turn of a hand, the flick of a gesture. Then try to sell that little portrait on the sidewalk. Have a fight with the person you painted who thinks you made them look mean.
- Get really good at bonding with strangers as your honesty with friends and family atrophies into a voracious gnarled beast who breathes the smoke of dirty laundry and wants only more and more material.
- Write an essay to make people fall in love with your brilliance but then have the essay turn out to be about your endless need for praise and your intellectual insecurity.
- Pick a fight with a dead person. Lose.
- Pick a fight with a leader of the un-free world and destroy.
- Become skilled at writing 3000-word personal ads in which you portray yourself as a supremely sensitive and reflective person able to see nuance and subtle conflict in the smallest scene. In real life, become even more of a conflict-avoidant mess of anxieties.
- Love bricks. Love people. Love the decapitated wooden head of a decoy duck. Let language welcome you home when home has been a hard idea. Let words locate the people who are home to you.
- Freak out about endings and the even number “10” and resist the urge to end cute, end with a bow, blow up the ending. Wreck it good with a side (chopped, smothered) of restraining order. End on a noun, end on the nametag from Waffle House.
- Throw in some asterisks and numbered lists and a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (the cocaine of essayists) and then roll this all up into a bottle, pour gasoline in it, and light it on fire … but only on the page because, come on, the most dangerous thing you’ve done besides grab a microphone is press command-P.
- Be soft. Be shattered.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program. She swears this is not reflective of in-depth, wonderful, and non-surreal curriculum in the Fairfield MFA.
February 19, 2019 § 34 Comments
Finishing takes forever. Thus far, I’ve published one short writing-life book with a hard deadline from a small press. From idea to publication took three years. I’ve written two more books of greater weight (for me), a memoir and a Young Adult novel. Each took ten years. Sure, they overlapped, I wasn’t writing continuously the entire time, I published other short pieces throughout, but from generating pre-first-draft material to querying agents was ten years.
The memoir agented but never sold. Recently, a friend urged me to revise and send it out again. She texted:
At this particular point in cultural and political history, a searing memoir…might be particularly welcome? Maybe the time is riper now…
While I appreciated the encouragement, that book is over. Years ago I would have been glad to publish. Now it’s not a life I want to present to the world. I’m not that person any more, and now-me looks at that manuscript—at ten years’ work—and says “meh.” It’s just not that good. The level of better I could make it isn’t worth the time it would take.
The YA novel is on a break from submission. Two months ago, I was devastated by a rejection from an agent who’d been very excited to read the full manuscript. She told me more or less, “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.”
It took a week to become un-devastated. A couple weeks to actually receive the feedback and truly consider her words. I mean, hadn’t five beta-readers, all excellent writers themselves, loved it? What about the high-school student readers who agreed to come early to talk about the book and were already deep in discussion when I arrived at 6:50AM? Meanwhile another agent rejected the full: “It slows down in the middle.”
I printed one copy through Createspace having fun mocking up a placeholder cover, thinking if I read it like a real book maybe I’d notice what was wrong. I carried the book through three states and four countries without opening it.
Then a writer contacted me about editing her YA novel. I looked at the first 25 pages and emailed her, “You write very well, but the story hasn’t started yet.”
A bolt of lightning hit me. I dragged out my own book and flipped through.
Chapter One: Girl with gun ready to shoot
Chapter Two: Flashback…to a nap…in a library.
Chapter Three: Flashback...to a scene in which the girl recaps everything we already know to another character.
My readers were wrapped up in clever voice and interesting premise. They hadn’t noticed what a merciless stranger found: Nothing happens in the middle.
You can be an incredible writer and still lack dramatic structure. You can be a sharp structuralist and lack voice. You can make characters live and breathe on the page, then find them staring at each other over a kitchen table while the agent flips ahead to see if it gets good anytime soon. And you won’t know any of these things about your work until after you have invested as much time as it takes you to write a book, plus some more.
I’ve done the Seven Drafts process and quite a few more than seven drafts. I’ve had beta readers and entered chapters in contests. I’ve taken pages to a workshop and paid for query feedback. Theoretically, I’ve done everything right and I’m still not done. ‘Not done’ interferes with my sense of entitlement. I ticked all the boxes! Why aren’t I finished? It’s frustrating and annoying and makes it hard to want to work on the book. But now that I know it’s not as good as I can make it, now that I understand the problem, I need to work some more.
The biggest separation between writers who publish and those who don’t is that writers who publish keep working after they feel entitled to be done. They write yet another draft. They painstakingly revise thousands of words that end up cut. They let time pass.
The more involved we are in a particular project, the more meaningful it is to our writer-self, the longer we spent writing, the more time it takes to let serious feedback sink in.
We all feel the clock ticking, watching emerging writers spring forth apparently fully-formed. We all want to be done, to share our book with the world. It’s not just you. We all need a little more time.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.
February 13, 2019 § 10 Comments
By Ellen Birkett Morris
Step One: Write
I’ve been a writer my entire life. I still have a story penned on lined paper bound by ribbon. I’ve long since thrown away scraps of paper with bad poems, the kind of poems you need to write before you can write good poems. I wrote for my school paper and took poetry workshops in college.
When it was time to get a real job, I summarized newspaper articles for a research database before starting to freelance for my local daily, the business paper, and a women’s magazine. The work was wide ranging: I filled in for a home and garden columnist, did restaurant reviews, covered crime news, and had a column on health and another on local attractions. I took every opportunity I could find to write.
Step Two: Find Your Ground
As I wrote I got a better sense of what was important to me. When I joined the staff of the business paper, I did my best to broaden their coverage by profiling the head of a feminist women’s foundation, penning a controversial column in support of a local fairness law supporting LGBTQ rights, and writing an award-winning story on women in depression.
As I wrote my skills got sharper and what mattered most to me, social justice and making the unseen seen, became clearer. I enjoyed the buzz of having a byline appear each week. It felt productive, even if the newspaper pages might end up lining someone’s birdcage.
Step Three: Have the Courage to Follow Your Dreams
Despite the rewards of being a freelancer something was missing. I wanted to get back to where I started and write creatively, but I was afraid I’d suck at it. I was 32 when I decided to give it a real go. I started writing poems, joined a writers’ group. and began the process of honing my skills. I wrote lots of bad poems. I started reading to get a better sense of what a good poem required—the play of language, the crystalline images, and the accumulation of meaning. I submitted my work, got some published and eventually developed a chapbook, Surrender, which explores the loss of my father and coming to terms with growing older.
Step Four: Educate Yourself
When I felt strong enough, I took my writing out into the world and looked to deepen my knowledge. I attended workshops and earned an MFA, developing techniques, anchoring myself in the canon, learning about innovators, and getting feedback on my own work. I explored short stories, expanding my view to include scenes and dialog, drama, and catharsis. I trod my ground working over themes of seeing and being seen, the power of kindness and the cruelty of fate, and what we as humans can do in face of the beauty and horror that is life. I missed the thrill of a daily byline, but it was replaced with the sense that as the words filled the page, I was accumulating a greater sense of mastery over the work itself and my ability to articulate what it means to be human.
Step Five: Take Joy in the Process
I gradually succumbed to the realization that everything about writing (and life) is process. Joy is found in front of my computer in the act of writing. In the doing and redoing. In the vision and revision. There are no perfect pages, no perfect stories. Still I write. I’m working on a novel now, a task so daunting I never imagined I would take it on. I am world building, letter by letter, word by word, bird by bird (Bless you, Anne Lamott). There is no guarantee of an eventual byline. The challenges are endless and the rewards scanty. But this is my path. The only thing I’m sure of is that I will make the most of the journey.
Ellen Birkett Morris’s essays have appeared in Brevity Blog, The Butter, The Writing Group Book, The Girls’ Book of Love, The Common, The Fem and South Loop Review and on public radio. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, Inscape, and Upstreet. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press), a poetry chapbook.
February 11, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
I have just been humbled by how work-shopping and reading manuscripts outside of my genre—my CNF comfort zone—has been a tremendous gift and revelation. Fresh out of my MFA program’s winter residency, I am inspired by everything I’ve learned, but as usual, growth does not come without pain.
About six weeks before the residency was set to begin, in anticipation mixed with both curiosity and excitement, I clicked open the shared Google doc folder containing the seven different 40- to 60-page CNF and fiction manuscripts for the “Extreme Workshop” I’d signed up for (“extreme” because normal MS length for workshops is eighteen pages). I’d had a literary fiction project percolating in me for some time, and decided to give it a go, eager to get a feel of whether this was something I could do.
I downloaded the first MS, the page-count ticking in at fifty-eight. I took a deep breath and scanned the opening paragraph, including the author’s letter to us readers. Words like “fantasy fiction” and “sub-genre” and “LitPRG” and “video games,” jumped from the page, as my eyes glossed over. Yeah, ok. No. I’ll save this one for later, I thought as I closed the doc, and opened the next one. Then the next, and the next, only to realize that four out of the seven manuscripts were not only popular-fiction, but its subgenre fantasy-fiction, or its sub-subgenre, urban fan-fic. I recognized nothing about the characters and their worlds or conflicts. When I’m at a bookstore, I never, ever, stop at “that” table or browse “those” shelves. I noticed my fingers going numb and a prickly feeling behind my eyes, or was it along my hairline? Something like panic. Oh. My. God. I. Can’t. Even…
With a great sense of relief, I found the one CNF piece about mourning the loss of a parent, and read it in one, enchanted sitting, and then the one, literary fiction MS, where I was swept away to communist-era Hungary with all its fascinating, dark, and complex realities. Eventually, there was no way around my fate: I had to tackle the fan-fic pieces. It was not easy. After completing the first read-through of MS #1, but before writing my feedback letter to the author, I sent the workshop faculty leaders an email pleading for help. I had to be coaxed down from the ledge of despair. I felt stupid and useless, wallowing in self-doubt, unable to see the bigger picture of what I had to offer, or what the writing could give me. While waiting for the emergency intervention, I willed myself to keep calm and compose the three-page commentary, beginning by stating my uninitiated fan-fic reader status, but vowing to do my best to offer constructive suggestions on plot, character development, scenes, pacing, and the like. I sent it to my teachers, to see if I had managed to generate a reasonable response. Then something surprising happened.
About two hours after they answered my email, reiterating the advantages of reading outside our genre and telling me my feedback was thoughtful and well written, a letter ticked in to my inbox from the very author whose MS I had freaked out about. He admitted having trouble reading my CNF MS (about Jews in Norway during WWII, family secrets, and collaboration), and said he had to force himself to complete it, and feared he would be unable to provide any useful critique. He wondered if I had any suggestions, adding he was aware of the irony that he was asking for advice from the person to whom he was supposed to give counsel. I suddenly realized that reading outside of one’s customary genre isn’t just a challenge for me; that we writers are all in this together. His candid letter made me feel better, and I thanked him for his honesty, adding some guidelines I had tried to follow when I critiqued his MS.
When the ten-day residency began in middle of January, set in the wintery landscape of Freeport, Maine, I spent the first half in a CNF workshop, pouring over often-deeply intimate memoir pieces about illness, trauma, and spiritual journeys. The last day I told the lively group of writers how apprehensive I was about the second half of the residency, and all the fantasy fiction shoptalk I anticipated. I expected to feel like a fish out of water and an outsider, not able to follow the way of the current or appreciate the otherworldly lingo. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.
In the Extreme Workshop, my MS was workshopped the first day, and at the end of the session, I was euphoric by all the helpful feedback and validation my fellow students had provided on my project. For four days, we gathered around a massive conference table at the Harraseeket Inn, discussing the many elements of what makes a good story, regardless of its genre; while flames flickered in the quiet gas fireplace we were lucky to have in the meeting room. Where a CNF’er pointed out the need for a fan-fic’er to go deeper into the character’s mind and motives, a fan-fic’er suggested how to improve the pace or increase the stakes in a CNF’ers piece. It was a writer’s dream for a workshop: each participant brought their unique strengths and lens, accumulated over years of honing the craft and sensibilities of their specific genre, sharing generously, and critiquing compassionately.
I don’t believe any one of us left dissatisfied, and I, for one, learned a valuable lesson: that my preconceived notions about what I am capable of as a reader, and what type of writing can be helpful to read as I develop my craft, were misinformed and needed to be shed. Instead, it is exactly by reading as widely as possible that I will optimize my understanding of what works best in storytelling and world building, regardless of genre.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature. She has lived, taught, and raised three sons in CT, but recently migrated north to Maine. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, and here on the Brevity Blog, among other places. Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was published in 2017. She humbly just began her 2nd semester at USM’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program.
February 6, 2019 § 21 Comments
By Gayle Brandeis
The boy who sat behind my mother in primary school dipped the tip of her braid into the inkwell carved into his desk, turned her hair into a brush slashing calligraphy across the back of her shirt, marking her with his intent. My grandmother told her to be flattered, said it meant he liked her, but did my grandmother worry about this boy, this ink, his intent? Did she scrub and scrub at her daughter’s shirt, hoping it would come clean? Did it ever come clean? Did the ink wash out of my mother’s hair, dark swirls of it disappearing down the drain, or did it seep deeply into each shaft, dyeing it until her mother trimmed off the ends, littering the floor with the intent of that boy? And where is it all now, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy, in what landfill, what house, what dust molecule? Have I breathed in flecks of it, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy?
The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, the memoir I wrote about my mother, her delusion, her suicide, was the most necessary book I’ve ever written; as hard as it was to write, I desperately had to get it out of my body, get it onto the page, start to find shape for the mess of my grief. Writing it helped me find compassion for my mom, helped me feel closer to her than I had in years, if ever. It helped me feel much clearer inside myself, more whole. Still, when it was published in late 2017 and interviewers asked how my mother would have felt about the book being in the world, shame crept over me, and I started to wonder: had I done the same thing as that boy? Had I dipped my mother’s hair in ink, too, used her as an unwitting pen? Was I as complicit as that boy, doing something without her consent, taking what was hers and making it my own? Were my hands irrevocably stained?
Trusting the urgency of the creative process is one thing; holding on to that trust after publication is another. While the book was received with overwhelmingly open arms and led to breathtakingly profound conversations, I also received Tweets like “Shame on you” after an excerpt was published, and “If I was your mother, I would kill myself, too.” Of course I am not alone in such trolling—it is sadly part and parcel of being a writer in the world these days, especially a woman writer—and I’ve received very little compared to many writers I know, but those Tweets got under my skin, fed the doubts and guilt already bubbling and growing inside me like a yeast. What had I done to my mother? Was I that boy, that ink?
The question of how my mother would have felt about my memoir came up again at a university reading last year, and the same shame started to re-percolate in my gut. Then my gracious host said he sensed my mom would have loved seeing her face on the cover of my book, and I realized, yes, that’s true—my mother always wanted to be the center of attention; she would likely be thrilled to see herself on the cover of a book. Something relaxed in me at this revelation. And I trust that at her best, truest self, my mother would understand I wrote this book from a place of love, from a sincere desire to fathom her, to connect. I may have started writing my memoir with a lot of anger and confusion, but every single word ultimately became a love letter. If I’ve plunged my mom’s hair into ink, I’ve also written her more deeply into my heart, tattooed her there, her presence now refreshed, indelible.
Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press). Find out more at www.gaylebrandeis.com
January 28, 2019 § 11 Comments
By Alex Kazemi
I live in a community of writers, poets and artists. Thoughts and sketches drift languidly on humid summer air down the streets underneath the tall plane trees that have burst into green, past the weatherboard villas and cottage gardens, in and out of windows flung open by writers who, fresh from finishing their first draft, spring up out of the chair to hail the painters cycling past with their canvas underarm, and shout “Hello! Meet for coffee later?”
Or at least conceptually that is how I think of Mount Eden. There is probably at least some truth in the statement that, as a central city suburb of Auckland, Mount Eden was once a liberal enclave of both the scholarly and the creative who would freely mix in its leafy streets. Nowadays you would be more likely to brush shoulders with a shiny suited businessman who had bought the property next door, the type who likes to spend his money on expensive European cars of the sort that are folly to buy for you and me, because when we received the first 12,000 kilometre service bill handed over nonchalantly by the young manager, we would be emptying our pockets of loose change whilst dabbing at our eyes as if we were attending our dear great grandmother’s funeral.
There are some pockets of literariness still left and writers scattered here and there. I know that a Booker Prize winner lives around here somewhere. I know this because I am in that nearly but not quite elite second tier that you might recognise as People Who Have Sat One Table Over In A Café From A Booker Prize Winner And Thought Isn’t That “X”, Winner of The Booker Prize For That Book I Haven’t Had Time To Read Yet?
We also have an independent village bookstore where writers might hang out to be hopeful or just coolly distant in a made-it sort of way. My greatest literary achievement to date is that the lovely people who run the bookstore now know me by name. Not because I have written anything of worth but because, in the course of trying to learn how to write, I have read a lot of books and bought even more. I am a funder of greatness.
In their little brick building, the bookstore also has an upstairs room where they hold readings. Piecing things together from photos on Twitter, and filling the large gaps with the mortar of my imagination, I believe the writers hang out on black leather couches adjacent to stylish bare brick walls, with the noise of the Mount Eden Road traffic barely creeping in to disturb their evening, huddled round an elegant table of pinot noir filled wineglasses. I am more than a little envious. In my mind I am staring in, face pressed against the window, hands thrown up in despair, manuscript clutched tightly in one of them. I know. This makes me either unfeasibly tall or a stilt-walker. Just go with it; this is my daydream.
The way I deal with this burning envy is to reason that the writers must be twenty-somethings successful in the way that I imagine twenty-something writers might be with their avant-garde single italicised lines and disconsolate reflections of days full of coffee, ennui, bad sex, messaged relationship breakdowns, and French cigarettes smoked on the balcony of their sparsely furnished apartments.
Of course I have never heard or read their writing or met them so that is my own fiction to quell the envy. They are probably nothing of the sort.
Still, I would like to go to their cool readings too, to read my less avant-garde work, but I fear they might frown at my middle-aged attempts, pricking the bubbles of youthful possibility. So instead I walk up and down the tree lined streets of our neighbourhood past the cottages and villas and dahlias and perfectly placed nikau palms, and think about what I am going to write and who might read it, and to tell the truth I don’t exactly know, except that the walking still makes me happy in a way that is all to do with placement. Right in the centre of a quiet world of my own imagining.
You might say that “this is all in his head and has nothing really to do with the business of writing or being read.” I wouldn’t disagree with you. But to be honest, in my work life at the hospital I have to frequently take doses of reality enough to send any unanchored daydreams plunging down through the depths to the distant sea bed of lost ambition.
It may or may not be that envy can be turned to your advantage. But in the stretching space between submission and rejection I can dream. And write some more. And when the rejections come through I will stick them on a spike and carry on writing and living in the imagined world where my book is nestled tidily into the favourite new readings section of the local bookstore. And, irrespective of any reality you might throw my way, right now that seems like a fine place to be.
Alex Kazemi lives in Auckland, New Zealand where he works as a doctor. In his spare time he visits the excellent Time Out Bookstore to buy more books than he could ever possibly read, writes, and sometimes procrastinates on Twitter as @kazemialex. Up until recently he was a proficient dreamer but he has now had work accepted to Thin Air Magazine.
January 25, 2019 § 28 Comments
By Suzanne Guess
I am a woman of a certain age. If you’re that age too, you know what age I’m talking about. Let’s just say I have more years behind me than ahead of me. When I reached that age, I took some time to reflect on what I’ve done, haven’t done, and still want to do. As a result, I picked up my flute again after a twenty-year hiatus, dyed my hair purple, and earned an MFA.
I have a corporate job in the financial services industry and have been writing my entire professional career. It’s not the kind of writing that is submitted to literary journals, though—reports, business cases, statements of work, among others. Everyone raves about my writing, and some of my status reports are fabulous works of creative nonfiction (and sometimes fiction). I’ve had some success publishing in a regional antiques journal, my pieces often getting front page above-the-fold status. Surely I would have the same measure of writing success with literary publishing, right?
Rejections. Lots of them. I’ve heard the advice: Don’t take it personally! Keep submitting! It’s a numbers game! Aim for 100, 300, or more rejections in a year! Easy for you, with your seventeen published pieces and a book deal, to say. With each rejection, Over-Think-It-Me whispers to Rational-Me, An editor just face palmed herself and handed your essay to another editor and said, Did you see this crap? or, She doesn’t use quotation marks. Who does she think she is, James Joyce?
When another rejection arrives in my inbox, often at times like my birthday, vacation, Christmas, or a week that’s already had a lousy start, I dig deep into my day job until I feel like I can face the page again—usually a few days. I’m super productive at work during that time and find creative ways to navigate the project roadblocks that land in my path (accelerating the project schedule, changing resource allocations, competing business agendas). It occurred to me one day that maybe I could apply that creative problem solving to rejections that are sometimes the only email I get.
I came up with this: rejection as a writing roadblock. My objective is to publish my work, and a rejection is the roadblock to achieving that objective. The roadblock isn’t impenetrable; it’s something to negotiate around or through. It’s something I can try to solve for by finding a home that’s a better fit for the piece, getting some additional feedback, or shelving it for a while. Thinking of a rejection as a writing roadblock also removes the negative connotation that sends Rational-Me into a conversation with Over-Think-It-Me and usually ends in a downward spiral and a half gallon of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
I stopped writing New Year’s Resolutions a few years ago because “eat and drink more” and “gain weight” are generally frowned upon and don’t really fit with the “new year, new me” model. I didn’t make any resolutions for 2019, but I did set a goal: get 110 writing roadblocks (two roadblocks per week, arbitrarily rounded up). At work, I don’t allow roadblocks to derail my progress and I certainly don’t skip work for three days to sulk because I got called out for not adequately addressing a project risk. I show up the next day. So when another writing roadblock pops into my inbox, I’ll show up to the page the next day and figure out how to solve the problem because there are at least 110 roadblocks ahead.
I’m testing this hypothesis with this blog post, my first submission of 2019. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Suzanne Guess is a freelance writer and project manager for a large financial institution although she is bad at math. She is a fifth generation Iowan. When she’s not writing, Suzanne plays flute respectably but not expertly in a wind ensemble, and wanders antique shows and auctions searching for a working vintage Easy Bake Oven. She is a big fan of fancy pens, Doritos, and Coke. Read more at www.suzanneguess.com.