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 6, 2021 § 6 Comments
By The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti
My addiction to reality television started six years ago at the gym. I detest working out so must distract myself but reading books on the elliptical makes me dizzy. Having exhausted reruns of scripted crime shows, one day while changing channels I caught a glimpse of Los Angeles, where I lived in my twenties. The people on the program worked in a restaurant but had acting or musical aspirations, reminding me of almost every twentysomething I knew in LA in the nineties, but these young people were also on television so despite their server salaries they could afford Botox and plastic surgery. Time on the exercise machines flew by as I watched them carry grudges and try to prove one member was cheating on another. Eventually I figured out when new episodes came on cable and one night tuned into Vanderpump Rules on my home television. My husband Gary watched for fifteen seconds before saying, “I can’t believe you’re bringing this filth into our home.”
Filth? That’s harsh and led to years of hiding my habit, especially from my parishioners because I’m also a pastor. I recently realized, however, after Lisa on The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City said in her confessional “Once I threw my husband’s Rolex out the window” that reality television is not filth: it’s creative nonfiction. I have an MFA in creative nonfiction. As a writer, I’m aware that reality television burgeoned in popularity during a writer’s strike, so for years I felt like I was crossing a picket when watching, but now I realize that watching means research.
When I started studying creative nonfiction at the graduate level, Gary wanted me to define the genre. “It sounds a lot like lying,” he said.
“It’s applying fictive techniques to nonfiction,” I explained. “Like scenes and dialogue. CNF is authentic in a way that fiction can’t be, but we still have to make it engaging.” I hoped the acronym would make it sound more legit to him because he’s retired military.
Calling CNF “lying” reminds me of how reality television producers and personalities are accused of being “fake” when storylines are “suggested” and then take shape, but that’s a lot like the practice of some writers who set out to spend a year attempting to embody the various rules in the Bible or only eat food they grew themselves.
More than fashioning storylines, however, reality TV producers have to extract them from hours and hours of footage of filming people eating and applying makeup and swimming in the ocean on an all-expenses-paid group vacation. This is akin to a memoirist trying to find a plot in the story of our lives. Examining where an episode starts and stops can generate ideas for where chapters or essays begin and end. Watching what’s included can help us to write scenes in our work. What’s interesting about two women and their young children shopping in an Italian market in California, for example? Does the scene start with them parking, gathering grocery carts and walking through the store doors, or with one tossing fatty foods into her friend’s cart while the other threatens to call her personal trainer about the temptation?
Unscripted television dramas generally attempt to build to some sort of climax, which CNF writers have to do as well. What are we building towards? Often the season ends with a big event like a wedding or huge charity bash, but the climax typically revolves around side action, like a confrontation or breakup.
Finally, the “confessionals” commonly used in unscripted television can help CNF writers learn more about two important puzzle pieces in our own writing: interiority and filling in the gaps. Essayists might struggle to recall and craft dialogue, but reality TV producers wade through mountains of it. So how do they convey what their characters are thinking and feeling—what we would call “interiority”? By interviewing the participants several times throughout the season. Then they can fill in the gaps by asking leading questions about what was happening inside their heads when they were being fired from their job on a yacht or a restaurant or what they really thought of someone else’s attire. The confessionals help smooth together a storyline that otherwise would be disparate scenes.
Sorry, I have to go research now. The Real Housewives of Potomac is on soon.
The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Christian Century, Entropy, Modern Loss, and numerous other publications. She holds an MFA from Spalding School of Writing and tweets @bizfel.
December 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.
What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.
That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.
Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.
Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?
When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.
Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?
Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?
If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.
Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her forthcoming book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her and Ashleigh Renard Tuesday December 22nd for an Ask Us Anything episode of the Writers’ Bridge Platform Q&A (free, sign up here for Zoom link).
December 16, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Diana Wagman
“Person A, say hello.”
“Hello,” I said.
I was speaking into my cell phone and hoping my reception didn’t crap out, as it does sometimes at home. I had signed up to participate for an hour in an odd kind of pandemic theater. Two strangers call a phone number. A robotic voice answers and tells us a story, stopping intermittently to ask us unrelated questions.
“Person B, describe where you’re sitting.”
I found the whole exchange remarkable. I knew nothing about the other participant, not where she lived or what she did. By the end of our conversation, I knew she had a son, but not how old he was. I knew she was wearing a gray sweatshirt, but not her name. Any knowledge I had was the result of her answers to the robot’s very specific questions. She knew alternative, but the same number of odd facts about me. And yet, when we hung up—when the robot hung up on us so we couldn’t exchange anything personal—I felt sad, as if I’d lost a friend.
“Person A, what is the name of someone you love?”
Afterwards, I immediately emailed a woman I know, an actress and long time theater person, and asked if she had heard of this. I told her how moved I was and what a solace the hour had been in these lonely times. It meant so much more than watching a recording of a play on screen.
“It’s not theater,” she said. “Rehearsal. Development. But theater needs an audience.”
I didn’t respond then, but later that evening I decided that I disagreed. Does art need an audience to make it art? In this case, wasn’t I both actor—although I am definitely not an actor—and audience? I was following the story, listening to the robot’s instructions, and learning the few things I did about the other person on the phone. It was at least an audience of one. Maybe two, with the other person listening to my story as well as her own. Maybe three. Hard to tell about the robot.
Did it take more than just me to make it theater? Does art need an audience to make it art? And that made me wonder about a painting that is never seen by anyone except the painter. Is that art? Is a musical composition never heard by anyone except the composer still art? In my own very particular case, if I never publish this book I’ve worked so hard on and no one ever reads it, is it art? Is it less than a book? Am I less than a writer? Does no audience, no reader, no viewer, no listener mean my work is just rehearsal or development?
I tell my students the only difference between me being a writer and them being a writer is that someone has given me some recognition and labeled me a writer. That doesn’t make me a writer. Writing makes me a writer, just as they—my students—are writers if they write. Not if they publish, but if they write.
Painters paint. Musicians play. When art is successful, it makes connections between what we know and what we don’t. It reveals commonality and creates empathy or at least recognition of the other. It pushes the audience (or the reader or the viewer) to expand their thinking. This hour on the phone had done that for me. When my writing is working, it’s doing that for me, whether or not anyone else is reading.
“Person B, do you know how to train a dog?”
The story we heard interspersed between the questions was simple. We—my fellow participant, the robot, and I—were driving down an empty desert road. A few questions later the robot told us the car broke down. We were stranded. No sign of human life in any direction. A couple of questions and then we were told we decided to walk to the nearest gas station. The robot didn’t mention any danger, but as we returned again to the questions I worried that my fellow stranger/actor/audience member would not be able to keep up. For no reason, I imagined her frail and delicate. I was invested in her survival.
I had heard her voice and the answers to her questions. I knew the sound of her hesitating, taking time to think. I knew she had worried about her parents when she was a child, been concerned for them. Maybe that was why I was nervous about her. I didn’t know her. She could have been a bodybuilding firefighter trained in the martial arts and much stronger than I, but these questions, this interchange, and the inherent risk in the desert breakdown tale, made me want to care for her.
The thing I hope for most in my writing is that I make the reader care about my characters.
“Person A, repeat after me: Am I coming into focus?”
Of course most of us write wanting to be read. We act hoping to be watched. We compose wanting to be heard. We paint wanting our work to be seen. We do not create only for ourselves, to keep our work in the closet, but it wouldn’t make it less valid if we did. If we produce work we’re proud of and has accomplished what we set out to do and we never get an audience of thousands, or hundreds, or even more than one, we are still artists. It is still art and we have succeeded.
“If you saw me in a crowd, would you know me?”
“Yes.” Oh yes, I’m sure I would know her anywhere.
“Thank you for participating. Good bye.”
Diana Wagman is the author of six novels. Her second, Spontaneous, won the 2001 PEN West Award for Fiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Colorado Review, Electric Literature, and other literary journals, as well as The Los Angeles Times. The theater piece referenced here is written and produced by 600 Highwaymen .
December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments
Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!
But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?
First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.
Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.
Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.
I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.
1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.
2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.
3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?
4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.
5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.
6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.
7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?
8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.
Next, my favorite editing technique of all:
9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.
When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.
This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”
If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).
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 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.
November 25, 2020 § 13 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
Our new puppy has upended my careful writing schedule. No more early morning writing, no time to myself first thing to revise. For the first time in years, my internal marching orders at dawn don’t lead me to the Italian Moka on the stove filled with espresso powder, and then my laptop. No, my first task each morning is to let Caramel out into our yard, then feed her before returning to the yard, where we spend an hour or so playing.
Freedom of movement – and the freedom to write, in my case – are restricted. My partner and I have blocked off certain rooms of the house and confined ourselves to the kitchen, as we sit vigil with the dog, weathering once again the doldrums of infancy. Instead of our son’s infancy, it’s the puppy’s infancy (if that makes sense). A life of disrupted sleep, limited outings, confined spaces – and scant writing.
Even with the pandemic restrictions still largely in place, it’s been a trying time since we picked Caramel out of the litter. I spend much of my day throwing the frisbee or coaxing her to do something other than chew everything we own.
This not only upends my writing day – it threatens to undermine the life-changing habit I’ve scrupulously cultivated since getting serious about writing eight years ago.
Or does it?
I have found that mornings spent with the sky, enveloped in the suspended air – when the day is still in the birthing stage – are transcendent.
The sky is always there, isn’t it? There above me now, like every moment that’s come before. But forced to spend hours under its shifting gaze, I feel as though I am only now noticing that it’s a chameleon, a compass, an all-weather friend. You could hang it in a museum, so compelling is its composition.
As I age, I’ve come to crave the outdoors. Yet one morning last month, when I looked up at the blue cathedral roof above me, I felt as though I were seeing it for the first time.
As night turns to day, the sky is a paint swatch, slowly progressing through shade variations. Yesterday as I stepped outside with the dog, the sky was initially grey, ominous, uninviting. The only respite was the twinkle of the moon crescent above. Ten minutes later, a bit of pink shading on the clouds in the east emerged. And in the western part of my sky, the sun reflected on ordinary windows became something extraordinary. Straight above me, steely grey parted to reveal soft blue sky while the windows remained ablaze, like a Turner painting.
Although I keep a computer diary, I also buy physical journals so there’s always a spot for my thoughts even when I am away from my computer. I am currently filling a novel-sized journal whose navy blue cover is decorated with stars. Since tending to the dog, I’ve stashed the journal by the back door to record her early months. I can sometimes write while I pace the yard with her, taking a page from the poet Mary Oliver who wrote as she wandered the woods near her home.
So I began my so-called dog journal by noting Caramel became fussy if I read the newspaper. She was afraid of the cars passing the front yard. She loved eating my hibiscus plant. And she’d quickly captured our attention.
But something happened as summer mutated into fall. At 6 a.m., my first instinct as I headed out into the yard was to look skyward.
The dog journal became a diary of the sky.
This morning, the sky as my day began was leaden, and a lattice work of patchy clouds moved over its surface. Moments later, the clouds turned puffy, their edges lined ever so lightly with pink. The pink of the sun, beginning its ascent: Breathtaking. After a few minutes, the pink faded and the sky journal became the office window journal as the sun set ablaze the glass on a building downtown.
As we’ve left the summer behind, the minutes of daylight have changed while the dog’s wakeup routine remains the same. One morning last week, I rose early enough to see a single star twinkling above my house. Another day, I woke up after a fitful night of sleep and found the sky was almost electric blue while the air seemed to quiver.
Perhaps what I’m afforded when I rise with the dog is unfiltered morning. When I wake up to write, I glimpse the morning at a distance through the windows, my focus elsewhere. Out in the yard with the dog, by contrast, I am one with the air and the temperature. I may not be writing, but I am nurturing the seedling in the brain that gives rise to writing. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”
I shouldn’t be surprised to find it all so fascinating. As a journalist, I’ve learned almost any topic sparkles when you can examine it further. Even banking! And I have long followed Mary Oliver’s other bit of wisdom: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Still, I had spent years enshrining the hours between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. as my time, writing as long as possible — typically, until my son stirred. A fine, productive habit.
But last year, when I set my annual goals, I wrote, “Live more, write less.”
Writing this piece, I cheated a bit, jotting down thoughts in the starry journal as I stood in the middle of the yard (Mary Oliver would approve). Living and writing. Because living spurs writing. Right now, it’s about the kingdom of the sky. When my life takes me in a different direction, the living will spur a new kind of writing.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She has won a short-term fellowship at the New York Public Library where she will study Holocaust literature by Italian women writers.
November 24, 2020 § 8 Comments
Writing advice often starts from the premise that we’re all going to sit down and bang out our word count for an hour every morning—or we should be. But not only do you not have to write every day, a lot of writers can’t write every day. They have families. Or they’re caregivers. Or demanding jobs consume their creative brains. This does not make them—or you—any less a writer.
But how do you assemble a set of scraps? And how will you envision the assembly of those scraps into a book when you have no time?
Start by honestly assessing where and when you can write. Not when you’d like to or wish you could, but when you actually can. Seven minutes waiting for the pot to boil? Twenty minutes before the kids wake up? (Only you can’t get out of bed because that will wake the kids up.) While pretending to watch and enjoy peewee soccer? Waiting in the carpool line?
Once you know when and where, choose how. I dictated the rough draft of this blog on my phone en route to an appointment,* and finished it in the waiting room on my laptop. Does your phone have voice-to-text? Can you hold a baby with one hand while composing sentences with the other? Could you carry an index card and a golf pencil in your back pocket everywhere, as Anne Lamott does? Is it better to have a small notebook in your bag, or a big one on your kitchen table? Could you type your memoir into the notes app on your phone as memoirist Esme Weijun Wang did?
If you’re working in scraps, strategize how to stay connected to your story’s thread. Try reviewing the most recent day’s work first—reading usually takes less time than writing. Start each writing session with a particular song, or even a flavor of tea to trigger your work. Perhaps set a topic each week and use the snowflake method, or mind-map moments from the event or person you remember first.
Our brains are marvelously adaptable. If you commit to writing in small bursts regularly, it will get easier. You’ll be able to pick up where you left off. Your book will become your best friend from high school who you haven’t seen in years, but the conversation flows like it was yesterday.
Maybe you’re a binge generator instead of a scraps gatherer. When you’re lucky enough to take a retreat week, or a weekend in a local AirBnb, or send the children for a weekend sleepover, you churn out several thousand words in one breathless go.
Retreats often take the first couple of days to “settle in.” But it’s possible to hit the ground running if you come in with a plan. Before bingeing, use your time scraps to map out your work. You could outline, start a list of topics, or note scenes to write.
Enlist your family. Instead of feeling guilty for taking time away, tell your kids or spouse you’re thankful for their support as you do this exciting thing you care about. (You would support them, right? Give them the honor and responsibility of choosing to support you.) Small children build maturity when they understand mom or dad has artistic work important to them and needs people who love them to say it’s OK to do it. Model this behavior for your kids, and they’ll learn to do it for you.
Enlist your friends, both writers and readers. Can someone give you a socially distanced day in their guest room? Lend you a whiteboard to plot your memoir?
What happens when you have to assemble your scraps or tidy your binged words into a new draft, something closer to an actual book?
Plan ahead. Every time you write, drop a quarter in a piggy bank. By the end of your first draft, you’ll have enough to get a half-day of childcare, or take a half-day off work. Use that time to map the book. With a clear structure in mind, you can still work in scraps, or take another binge when the time is right.
Consider an app like Scrivener for your phone, or a to-do program like Evernote, Things or Notion. Apps allow you to organize while writing, and see an overview of your book throughout the process.
Every writer needs a room of their own, and many of us don’t get one. But constructing a metaphorical room from method, intention and support can be the next best thing.
*Brevity does not recommend writing while driving, and you absolutely should not get a bluetooth headset for this exact purpose. Eyes on the road, people!
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need to kickstart your 2021 memoir year? Join Allison and Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore for Memoir Large and Small, a 5-day virtual writing intensive with generative sessions, craft and publishing seminars, and an opportunity to publish on the Brevity blog. Find out more / register here.
November 19, 2020 § 25 Comments
“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.” (Stephen King)
“I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.” (Peter De Vries)
“Just write every day of your life.” (Ray Bradbury)
Write every day. Build a habit. That’s the only way you’re ever going to finish a book. It doesn’t matter how many words as long as you’re regular. I have many times told the story of Andre Dubus III writing The House of Sand and Fog, 17 minutes at a time, sitting in his car in the cemetery, and I tell it again in my forthcoming book about how to finish a book.
I don’t write every day.
I don’t even write every week.
Very often, I’m neck-deep in someone else’s manuscript, or teaching a workshop (last week, in prison!), or leading a retreat. I love teaching and editing, and I value doing those things. You might have a job you enjoy, or students’ work to read, or be the primary keeper of your home life. And while we can half-ass the things we don’t value to make more time for writing, it’s harder to pull time and focus away from things we care about doing well.
But even when I have vast swathes of open time, I don’t usually write every day. My brain needs fallow time. I’m working on three books right now, and I’m not writing every day on any of them.
I used to feel lazy and fake, because of course a real writer would use that time better. They’d spring from their bed, rush to the laptop, and bang out their daily word count, just like a real job! And since I didn’t act like a “real job” I must not be a “real writer.”
My creative life improved dramatically when I finally realized I run on what I call the “theatrical model.”
- Think about the project for maybe six months or a year, gradually accumulating notes and ideas.
- Sign up for a hard, non-negotiable deadline imposed by an outside source (the publishing equivalent of Opening Night).
- Rush through the entire creative process in six weeks, the last two weeks being 12-hour days.
- Tweak and revise after the deadline until it’s perfect. If it’s not revise-able, move on, trusting that I won’t make the same mistakes in the next project.
I’m fortunate enough that I can sometimes go stay in a hotel for a few days. In a self-made retreat, I’ll look at the manuscript I haven’t touched in weeks and pour out 5-10K words a day until it’s done, often at the very last minute.
What makes this way of working possible?
I’m not starting from nothing. When I was a theatre director, I already knew the style of the play, or had thought through what the staging would look like, or planned the acting beats, before I walked into the rehearsal room. I’d personally cast the actors, so I had a sense of what they were capable of, and approved the set, costume and lighting design. I don’t touch my manuscripts every day, but I stay in touch with the practice of writing sentences on Twitter. Short essays on Instagram. On an eleventh-draft novel, ten pages once a month for my writing group. And guess what? I bang out those ten pages the day they’re due. Every time.
I write 95% of my Brevity blogs in the 60 minutes before they’re published. But I know the rhythm of a post and what makes a clicky headline. I keep a long list of blog post ideas. Every day on social media and in my email, I see what writers care about, what challenges they’re facing, and I think about what advice will help, making notes for when it’s time to write.
As you fit your writing process into your life, enjoy the things you value that take time. Notice how you work best, and work that way on purpose. Maybe you are a daily writer who loves the rhythm. Maybe you’re better at the last minute. You get to write on the schedule you want. Keeping in touch with your work isn’t always sitting down at the keyboard for your daily word count. Sometimes it’s thinking through ideas in the shower, building up your story in your head, making notes in your phone or your notebook. Sometimes writing looks like typing, and sometimes it looks like keeping in touch with your world.
There are plenty of “real jobs” that operate on the “have a baseline of skill and resources and then do it all at the last minute under pressure.” Surgeon. Firefighter. Pilot. And in my case (and maybe yours), Writer.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking about Content Planning for Writers and how to come up with ideas at the drop of a hat, Tuesday November 24th at 1PM Eastern on The Writers Bridge. Sign up for the Zoom link (or post-show recording) here!