August 20, 2019 § 10 Comments
Doing one thing.
It seems so simple, and yet this morning I:
Gave feedback on pages
Tore apart my closet looking for a thing I tucked away while I was on vacation, and had hidden so well I couldn’t find it (my closet is now extremely tidy and partially Konmari-ed)
Dealt with the air conditioner repair men
You get it. Chances are, you do it too. And it doesn’t make us bad people, or even bad writers. We’re human. We got stuff to do.
But three months ago I really needed to finish a website. I made it my “weekend” project, and worked only on website copy and pictures and html code until I was done. No editing, no other writing, no reading, no errands. It took four days. But it’s done.
Two months ago I needed to finish a book proposal. Weekend project. Blinders on. Six days. But it’s done.
I don’t have kids and I set my own work hours and my spouse is beyond supportive. But it’s still hard to pick one thing, figure out how to tackle it, and do it until it’s done. It’s hard to stay focused when totally legit things want our attention (I did shower and cook dinners).
That’s why so many writers love retreats. A blissful week away in which someone else cooks and cleans, and no-one can “Hey Mom!” or “Ummm…Dad?” or “I need that presentation” you. But even on retreats it’s hard to get started. And if you’ve only got a week, you need a plan. A big-picture view of what needs doing and how.
At home, you can enlist a writer friend. Split an Airbnb for a week, read each other’s manuscript before you go and give specific, prescriptive feedback about what to work on in what order. Not “your book should be like this” but, after hearing your goals, “Restructure the plot, then fix the ending, then rewrite chapters 8-10.” Check in with each other daily for accountability.
But if you have time and funds, we’d like to suggest a retreat…that comes with a manuscript read. (This is where the ad part starts!) Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams would like to invite you to Costa Rica.
Next May, we’ll be hosting 10 dedicated writers in a luxury eco-lodge overlooking the Pacific. Organic food that you don’t cook. Beautiful grounds you don’t mow. Probably sloths. Definitely monkeys. But most importantly, we read your entire manuscript before you arrive, and with you, make a work plan to finish a draft, a proposal, or your book, before you leave. Don’t have a book yet? Write the first draft with us, and we’ll read it when you go home. Either way, it’s a chance to focus deeply on the work that’s most important to you.
If a travel retreat isn’t in your bag, grab a friend and start picking dates for your own week of fabulous productivity. But if you think finishing your book in tropical paradise might be for you, we’d love to spend that time together.
More information about Rebirth Your Book retreats. (If you’re already close to done, there’s room for two more in Italy in October!)
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Please say hello if you’re at Hippocamp!
August 19, 2019 § 19 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
A little while ago, in a fit of whimsy, I sold an article about my two biggest obsessions―Gilmore Girls and tarot cards―to a major website known for lifestyle and pop culture content. It felt great―I got to share this nerdy piece that brought me pure happiness, and I did it on a new platform that was previously outside my comfort zone.
One of my most trustworthy writing partners, a woman who consistently gives me the most thoughtful and truthful feedback a writer could ask for, gushed praise in an email to me.
“I loved it because it felt like a whole different you,” she said, “like the person who wrote it is lighter and happier than the person who wrote everything else.” Then, “I feel like the writer Rae I know has always been buried beneath layers and layers of pain and bad experiences, but the person who wrote this has finally climbed her way up to the surface and just stuck her face in the sun for the first time.”
Because I am an overflowing bag of all the feelings, I had sixteen different emotions about her reaction. But the strongest emotion was a hybrid of shame, tinged with pride. Shall we call that shmide? Prame? (Can you feel both at the same time? Trust me. You can.)
I felt shame because she was right―since I started writing “seriously,” I’ve clung to a few major narratives, most of which revolve around codependency, depression, and addiction. Sometimes, if I’m feeling experimental, I’ll throw in heartbreak and self-hate, too. These stories – the ones that have centered around my most painful lessons – felt like the most valuable thing I could put forward. Why else would I have gone through these experiences, I thought, if not to share what I learned with others? I’ve spent years applying my love of language to pain and trauma, a careful alchemy that felt like a calling. Sure, a calling that has given me endless stress, worry, and frustration, but a calling nonetheless. Of course it would be difficult to tell the most charged and challenging stories of my life. Of course it would be a struggle I could not unburden myself from.
At the same time, her comment made me feel immense pride. Anyone who knows me in the real world, far away from the glowing screens of my published essays, knows I am an optimistic, cheerful, sometimes maddeningly bubbly person who tries to find joy anywhere she can. The new piece I published wasn’t painful to write―it was a perfect reflection of my real-life voice, my interests, and my outlook. Yes, on top of my dark, twisty interior, knotted tight with anguish and self-reflection, beats the heart of a truly annoying Gilmore Girls fan who pulls tarot cards when she isn’t sure what to have for dinner. Beyond being a woman with a past full of difficult relationships and years of cutting myself down until I was barely recognizable, I am also a woman who can rattle off funny stories about disastrous first dates, musings about female friendships, and thoughtful missives about the genuine benefits of watching Hallmark made-for-TV movies.
I realized, after reading my friend’s supportive and celebratory email, that I had been called out in the best way possible. I have been struggling to effectively tell “my story” for a few years now. Each time I think I’ve made progress, something busts up the foundation I’ve laid and puts me back to square one. My Google Drive is overflowing with unfinished drafts, half-revised, clunky essays, and blathering notes to myself about what a ridiculous failure I am.
What if all this teeth-gnashing is happening because I’m holding on too tight to a narrative that no longer defines me?
What if the thing I thought I was called to do is actually the thing that’s holding me back?
To be sure, I’m not going to stop writing about my past as a way to understand it and create connections with people who have experienced similar things. However, I think this exploration of lighter topics could be just the break I was looking for. A way to share my voice without having to dig it up from the deepest depths. A way to remember that I am made of so many different things, and even if they aren’t deep or meaningful or heartbreaking, they can still be what connects people to my work, and to me. I don’t have to be one kind of person, or one kind of writer. If I can accept all the disparate parts of me as a functional whole, then I can trust the people who read my work to do the same.
I have long lurked in the Binders Facebook groups, reading with wonder as talented writers turned around thoughtful reaction pieces and hilarious listicles one day, and poignant braided essays about family trauma the next. Everything I was working on felt so heavy, so burdensome, so impossible to finish. I envied those writers, believing that kind of lightness couldn’t come out of me, believing that I couldn’t look away from what hurt long enough to talk about the small delights of my life. Believing, maybe, that my value as a writer hinged on those painful narratives.But it feels like change is now inevitable. An essential adjustment, not just to the kind of pieces I write, but to the trauma-identified writer mentality that I have maintained for so long. I’ve still got years of heartbreak and pain to talk about, and if I live a full life, I will have many more years in front of me. But I also want to talk about moisturizing sheet masks and psychic mediums and online dating and that new show on Freeform. And there’s value in all of it.
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.
August 16, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Laura Barakeris
Surrounded by others all day and crushed by the noise of the Internet, I often struggle to slow my thoughts and pace enough to write. Because most of my day is turned out—getting information, communicating, checking my to-do list, meetings—it is hard to turn back inwards and write about what I have to say. But if I don’t, how can the stories in my head come out? How can the solutions to the dead-ends and logical traps in my storylines reveal themselves?
“Without solitude, I can’t hear myself think or access my true voice. It’s such an essential part of creative living for me,” said Nicole Gulotta, blogger and author of Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry.
I know I need solitude to create too. If I have not had time be alone and write down my ideas, I get cranky and lash out at those closest to me. Like a snow-bound runner who has not been able to get out and run, I become antsy and stir-crazy if I have not had time to write.
“Solitude for the writer is hard and glorious and essential. It’s like a good marriage: The more you commit to it, never giving up no matter how difficult things get, the more grace and mystery is revealed to you,” said Ann Tashi Slater, in her HuffPost article, “Writing and Solitude.”
And what is that grace and mystery? Space to think. The ability to be in the moment—not looking back or planning forward. It is stillness and quiet, or at least nothing fighting for your attention. Reflection. It is the ability to hear the stories in your mind and to listen to what your imagination is telling you. A break from the chaos. Quieting the noise. Silencing the chatter. The gifts that solitude hold are different for every writer, and making space for them in a busy schedule requires discipline and creativity. It is a negotiation, a trade-off between silence and solitude and everything else.
“A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom. Alone time is fuel for life,” writes Ester Buchholz, in “The Call of Solitude,” published in Psychology Today.
Unfortunately, most of us do not have long, uninterrupted blocks of time in which everyone and everything goes away and lets us create in silence. Usually, the television is on in the background, and the phone’s notifications are binging, or someone is asking something of us. We must pay the bills, feed the kids, and love the spouse. Time alone to create is pushed aside because of guilt, exhaustion, or lack of time.
“I used to wait for solitude and silence, demand it,” said Shawna Lemay, blogger and author of The Flower Can Always Be Changing. “But if I did that now, I’d just never write. So what I’ve learned to do is to cultivate an inner quiet, an inner solitude. It travels with me.”
My surroundings, schedule and mood, will never be lined up to provide the ideal writing environment and if I wait for perfection, I will never write. I sometimes have an hour or two in the evening and I can also write in the car on long road trips. I usually also have a long empty Sunday which I can fill with at least a few hours of writing—if I take it. And that may be the crux of it all. If I look closely, I do have time, but I hesitate, and then weeks go by and I haven’t written.
“Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time,” says Joe Fassler in “What Great Artists Need: Solitude,” published in The Atlantic.
Could there be something else? I sometimes wonder if I have a fear of being alone. When I am alone, I learn something about myself, and I worry that I will not like it. What if I have nothing to say? What if no one wants to listen to me? What if the mean girls in Grade 5 were right and I’m a “Boring Nobody”? What if I submit my story and I don’t even get a rejection letter? If you send out a story and there’s no response back, are you even a writer?
One of the joys and incomprehensible mysteries of the whole writing process is the conflict of the external and internal—of going out into the world to see what is happening and to hear what other people have to say, but then coming back inside to our thoughts to figure out how we feel about them and how we fit into it all. We struggle through draft after draft; taking something out, putting it back in. It is not the final product that means the most—although, that is what we focus on—but the solo journey and figuring out how we fit (or not) into the rest of the world. And recognizing that we do have something of value to say.
I planned a solo DIY writing retreat one weekend this past winter to a cabin in the mountains. On the drive there, I wondered if I would be able to write. I was giving myself just over a 24-hour period, but with all that quiet, would I be able to write, or would I sit frozen at the computer screen calling myself a fake and a failure because nothing would come? Would the quiet silence me?
I need not have worried. I wrote 9,000 words that trip. I walked with my dog. I got closer to animals than I ever have before. I breathed in the sweet mountain air. I marvelled at how beautiful the world is. And I realized again, that I’m a writer.
Laura Barakeris is a Canadian writer and editor. She just finished an MA in Creative and Critical Writing and is currently working on a memoir about building a cabin in the woods. Twitter and Instagram: @LauraBarakerisWriter
August 14, 2019 § 17 Comments
By Lenore Franzen
At my writer’s group recently, we were going around the circle and checking in—giving the others an update on our own writing, perhaps raising an issue we’d been facing. One woman, when it was her turn, expressed frustration over a question she is asked often by those who know she’s working on a memoir. “When are you going to get your book published?”
When indeed. For anyone who doesn’t make a habit of wrestling with words and calling it her livelihood, let me tell you a secret. This is the question every writer dreads. It’s a question that pokes us, taunts us, by way of saying there should be a measurable outcome to everything we do and perhaps we’ve chosen the wrong thing to spend our time on.
A journalist writes to meet a deadline. An academic writes to stay relevant. A copywriter writes to sell.
The writers in my group are not the publish-or-perish type. Our work has a more subtle intent. We are trying to solve something that may not have a solution. And we won’t know that until we do.
We aren’t capitalists. We don’t keep a time sheet. We don’t have a business plan. We don’t build empires. We don’t insist on deadlines that force us to a place we don’t yet know exists.
We aren’t lion tamers. We don’t train words with a whip, making them do tricks for others. Writing must maintain its wildness. We’re just along for the ride.
This is why we don’t know how to answer these questions. They seem to be in Farsi, and we only speak English.
- How long have you been working on your book?
- When will you be done?
- How long is your book?
- What’s your next project after this one?
- Do you have a publisher yet?
As Annie Dillard writes, “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.” (The Writing Life)
Let me tell you something else. I came to the end of my latest revision this week. For a quick minute I breathed. But my first thought wasn’t to begin researching literary agents or tell you how to pre-order copies on Amazon.
My first real thought was, “Now that I’m done, I can sit down and write my story.”
This is how writers think. We arrive, hoping for greater insight, a clearer path that then requires going back to the beginning, rubbing that new insight like a smooth stone.
It takes courage, believe me, and no small amount of faith, which is assailed most days when we look at our words from the day or week or year before and they’ve lost their sheen. Still we persist, sometimes taking a necessary break, sometimes diving even deeper into the murky waters we’re trying to see our way through.
Here are a few thoughts on what to say to the writer in your life:
- What feeds your writing?
- I’m interested in what you’re working on.
- How has writing changed you?
- I admire your commitment to your writing!
- Courage, my friend.
When we write, we put symbols (words) on the page. We don’t know yet what meaning they contain. We can’t because we are traveling in new territory. It is full of mystery. “Right now,” Dillard says, “your job is to hold your breath.”
Lenore Franzen has published an essay in Minnesota Women’s Press, a short story in the collection Mountains of the Moon, and eight nonfiction titles for school library series. She has written a historical novel and is currently working on a memoir. You can follow her at lenorefranzen.com.
August 9, 2019 § 10 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Students ask: What is creative nonfiction? Is it made up? Who got the idea first?
Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, is on the record that he did not coin the term, that the concept predates him, whatever it’s called. The genre of creative nonfiction covers a lot of ground. It is a true story, well told, not invention but truthful art in expression, exquisite perspective without deviating from fact. The creativity is in the telling, not the story. Nonfiction.
Maybe it’s whimsical or informal in tone and uses first person in greater or lesser capacity—it steps beyond objective journalism while never avoiding truth. Memoir is only one form. Robert Louis Stevenson’s first travel book in English, An Inland Voyage (1878), about boating on rivers and canals, < travel books by Ibn Battuta and Basho, Thoreau’s nature writing, Woolf’s meditations on women who write. People have been writing stories incorporating personal experiences and exploring how these experiences lead to broader insight . . . forever.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in conversation with Bill Moyers in 1995, cautions that “students, the high school students, frequently want to talk about emotion as the key to life. … I think … it’s more energy and energy comes from many kinds, it comes from juxtaposition and things coming together. … And I think that our brains are desperate for that kind of energy.”
An essay I assign suggests a more concrete approach to writing creative nonfiction: You might begin with an experience that had an impact upon you personally. Clarify the moment, what happened, ponder how it moved you, then turn around and look at the world from that vantage point. Find what matters. I warn them against writing about romantic love. They are often wrong in thinking they know what matters when they start. I force them to alter structure, reconsider verb tense and point of view. I provide models.
Diane Ackerman’s essay “Mute Dancers: How to Watch a Hummingbird” leaves personal experience behind without completely abandoning it. “A lot of hummingbirds die in their sleep”—who can resist an opening like that? The author does not know this from personal experience; it is clear she has done her research. Her presence barely registers, and most students struggle to pinpoint the instant the author says “I.” Her collection The Moon by Whale Light follows her slog through Florida’s swamps, the stink of bat guano, yet even in describing the cacophony of hearing her assigned penguin chick in a roomful of babies screaming to be fed, her epiphany concerns penguins, not herself.
That’s one way: The author is fully present but not the point.
By contrast, Zora Neale Huston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” speaks back to a particular claim of racial damage. She describes her personal pride having been raised in an all-Black township and how her individuality overcomes racial identity. “Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.”
Her life experience is front and center: “I am not tragically colored,” she insists. “I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
My assignment suggests personal experience as the centering tension or image, the easy part. Description is hard enough, but my students struggle to “turn around and look at the world.” How does their life experience or a moment’s perspective illuminate the world at large or even their place in it? How to find that grander view?
Students fear I am asking for wisdom, but really I want patience. What might they come to understand through sustained focus, deep thought, and messing about with words? Where does their experience lead them? If they stick with it, they hardly notice as step by step they grow more powerful on the page.
Creative nonfiction may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond. In every case the connection to poetry is significant. Experience as metaphor. Precise observation develops principle and connection, even what we like to call meaning.
Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.
It is the shock as we walk barefoot through our own house, squish on something, and realize what it is.
Jan Priddy taught art, high school English, and college writing for over forty years. Her work earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE: https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com
August 8, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Chris McGlone
I was writing on the back porch a couple of weeks ago, or, more accurately, trying to write, when a catbird perched on our roof and began running through every song and noise he knew. There may have been female catbirds in the area he was trying to impress—the size of the male’s repertoire apparently does matter to female catbirds. Or, he may have had no motivation other than pure idiotic exuberance. He imitated the songs of other birds, then switched to imitating humans with a few telephone ringtones and a doorbell. He punctuated his routine with random buzzes and beeps, the ever-popular clicking ratchet sound, and the almost-meow that gives catbirds their name. It was entertaining listening, but not all that helpful for writing.
The catbird’s performance did lead me to a useful insight, though; I realized that there’s a catbird lobe in my brain, up there in its catbird seat, watching as the rest of my brain tries feebly to string together words and doing its best to “help.”
If my catbird brain sees that I’m trying to write something original (which should always be the case, of course), it will help by imitating everything I’ve ever read—Didion, DFW, Montaigne, Danielle Steele, cereal boxes, etc. If I’m trying to think of the perfect word, it will suggest dozens of less-than-perfect words. If I’m trying to be lyrical, then it’s time for the ratchet and doorbells and ringtones. Why do you want to work so hard, the catbird asks? Why not do something fun instead, like Sudoku, or Twitter, or YouTube, or just make noises?
If I do manage to write something despite its help, the catbird ridicules it, echoing my own insecurity about the piece by repeating my internal critiques in a sarcastic tone—metaphorically crapping on it.
How does one deal with a catbird brain? One strategy is to just ignore it, but while real catbirds eventually fly away metaphorical catbirds never seem to leave. Throw a real or metaphorical rock at it? Real rocks can be dangerous and break windows; I’m not sure how to throw a metaphorical rock.
Maybe the best strategy is this: if you can’t ignore the catbird, be one. Write for the pure exuberant idiocy of it. Listen to the entire world and everything in it, mix it all up, then get up on the roof and sing it all back at the top of your lungs. Let the words pour out, then sieve out the buzzes and beeps and look at what’s left. It works for catbirds.
Chris McGlone is currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at George Mason University. In his previous life as a photogrammetrist he published a number of technical papers and book chapters and co-authored a textbook. Other interests include playing Irish guitar and bluegrass banjo. He is on Twitter as chrismcglone75
August 7, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Alice Lowe
My writing buddy, Jim, is the only person to whom I confess my current impasse. To others I’m taking stock, generating ideas, planning. Whatever I can say in lieu of dried up, empty-headed, in a funk. In lieu of the inadmissible: w______ b____. I shrink from the admission and what it might say about me—that I’m a quitter, lazy, bereft of creativity—just as I would be loath to reveal a sexually-transmitted disease. The most I’m prepared to say is that “I’m struggling a bit.”
Jim and I met in a memoir class eight years ago, both of us recently retired from business careers. We still meet every two weeks and are well acquainted with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He flags my ample alliterations and excessive em-dashes. I circle his run-on sentences. We celebrated each other’s first published essay and every subsequent success. We’ve withstood times of plenitude and drought.
Me: I’m struggling a bit.
Jim: I’d suggest writing from prompts, but I know you hate it.
Me: I don’t hate it, just have difficulty getting started. I can’t generate anything on cue.
Jim: Try again—what can you lose?
Me: Mmm, maybe so.
Prompts are everywhere, I add, stirred by his challenge. I pick up a book from the end table. Sustainability: A Love Story, by Nicole Walker. I flip to a random page and read: “Everything grows more slowly in Flagstaff.”
We look at each other wide-eyed.
Jim: “Wow. That’s a good one.”
I agree, but it doesn’t help.
Me: I’m still struggling. Actually, I’m stuck.
Jim: Why don’t you write about it?
Me: Everyone writes about … writer’s block. There, I’ve said it.
Jim: And we always read them!
Me: What would I say?
Jim: How about “Everyone writes about writer’s block.”
Everyone writes about writer’s block. Every writer knows it firsthand, whatever they call it, whatever their experience. Carson McCullers was paralyzed by it. Samuel Coleridge resorted to opium. Toni Morrison rejects the term but knows the feeling. Hilary Mantel suggests getting away from your desk. John McPhee says to write your way out of it. Mind over matter. Write. Or take a break. Either way, it’s a phase. It will pass.
I wrote a craft piece several years ago, “How to Become a Writer After Sixty.” I advise: “Be patient but firm with yourself. When you’re not inspired or productive don’t call it writer’s block—bowels and sinuses get blocked, not writers.” But that was when I was flooded with ideas, when life stories queued up in my brain.
But surely I haven’t exhausted the experiences of a long and rich life, esoteric themes ripe for development. I’ve researched and written about baseball and Arctic exploration, maps, noodles, cookbooks, and obscure novelists. What else might I unearth?
I’m invigorated by beginnings, real or arbitrary—the start of the year, spring equinox, as soon as this (fill-in-the-blank) commitment is over—times of transition, of renewal, of fresh beginnings. This January began to work its magic as I made lists—to do, to read, to write. I looked at notes I’d jotted down but hadn’t followed up. Sentences, paragraphs and pages abandoned to slush files. I started with a few carry-overs; ideas began to bubble to the surface.
My creativity awakened, like a congealed sauce that needs to be stirred and heated to revive its essence.
Or like Flagstaff, where everything grows more slowly, and which, a tantalizing topic, I put at the top of the list.
Alice Lowe writes about life, literature, food and family in San Diego. Recent essays appear in Ascent, Bloom, Hobart, Stonecoast Review, Superstition Review, and Waccamaw Review. She has been cited in the Best American Essays notables and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.