February 21, 2018 § 17 Comments
By Patrice Gopo
Last month, I returned my essay collection’s approved edits to my publisher. I hit the “send” button and sat for a moment awash in that momentary burst of triumph.
Then threads of worry began to creep into my celebratory mood—threads of worry I tried to banish with the purchase of a book, a necklace, and a donut too. Back in September when I’d first turned in my manuscript, I believed I’d written the best essay collection I could possibly write. Several months later, while reviewing the suggested edits, I spotted adjectives I needed to cut and several paragraphs I found excessive. I rewrote a metaphor and changed the word choice in more than a handful of places.
Now there will be no more revisions. There will be no more changes. The words I returned will be nearly the same words I will see later this year printed in the pages of my book. In the interim, however, I will continue to write and read and study the craft of writing. As a result, the writer I will be when I open my book will not be the same writer I am today. The writer I become in the future will have a greater ability to see the flaws in my work. And this fact scares me.
The rush of triumph—and the celebratory donut—doesn’t negate the worry that one day I may find my work wanting.
Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in a writing residency at the Collegeville Institute, a week of quiet, peace, and solitude on a college campus in rural Minnesota. I woke early each morning and took a walk beside a lake, sharing the new day with several deer and a couple of storks. The sun rose above the water, streaks of pink and orange staining the horizon and radiating with what I considered to be writing inspiration.
One afternoon I took a break from working on my essay collection and visited a nearby pottery studio. The manager invited me on a tour. As he spoke about the history of the studio, I stared at a row of rounded vessels almost—but not quite—identical in shape and style, the damp clay still dark grey in color. Full, leafy branches twisted around the curve of each vessel—except for the last one. Here I saw what the other pots would become, the branches soon removed, revealing a delicate pattern imprinted into the clay.
“We have a 300-year supply of clay,” the manager said. He talked of generations in the future when other artists would use the same source of clay the studio uses now. He mentioned how the presence of the clay reminds everyone that the studio is not one artist. Rather, the studio arises from the collected work of many.
I was taken with this idea of enough clay to last 300 years. Long after we are all gone, a potter none of us would ever know would throw pots made of the same material. Immediately I thought of a verse fragment from my Christian faith. “…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” A great cloud of participants in a long creative tradition.
A 300-year supply of clay. I return to this idea now in the aftermath of approving my edits. I try to conceive of the vast number of objects artists will create over the lifetime of a 300-year supply. But I also remember those branches with full leaves pressed into the bodies of a row of vessels similar in shape and form. I recall the one vessel with the visible imprint.
Is it possible to feel both small and significant in a single moment? Because I do. The medium I throw on the blank page is not part of a lengthy—but finite—supply of clay. Instead, a supply of words without end. A reality that scoops my work up in the ongoing legacy of writers before me and writers not yet born.
Perhaps what is true is that when we look back on work we wrote four months ago or four years ago or eventually four decades ago, our contributions may seem flawed and inadequate if considered in isolation. Perhaps some degree of all we create will at some point fail to reflect the writer we become—even with our greatest triumphs. That one vessel with the leafy imprint offered a fleeting beauty that pales in significance to all the work that will ultimately originate from not just that potter but—more importantly—also from that supply of clay. But the thought of that vessel alongside hundreds of years of created pottery made me gasp.
Maybe we find the freedom to let go of worry about how we will perceive our words in the future through the act of seeing our creation as one artifact that is part of a greater whole. A contribution to both the words written before and the words that will come after. It is not perfection that defines the worth of my contribution. Rather, it is the willingness to offer to this ongoing creative tradition the best work I can as the writer I am at a particular moment in time.
Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow, and her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging will release this summer. Please visit her website to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.
February 20, 2018 § 11 Comments
I’ve never been a writing group person.
1) I travel a lot (you may have noticed) and it’s hard to commit to meeting regularly with the same group.
2) It’s hard to find the right group.
Honestly, “right group” is the biggest obstacle. I would–and have–driven hours to write with the right people. I’ve extended stays in cities where good writing people live, fought down jet lag, gone through airport security twice on a layover to meet a writing pal in the landside coffee shop. Why go to the hassle when there’s plenty of Meetup groups in my hometown?
The right people are worth a lot of effort.
The wrong people, on the other hand, are a waste of writing time. Groups focused on genres I don’t write, or on self-publishing (no shade, but I need writing time, not marketing chat). If a group is way above my level, it’s hard to get good feedback–they aren’t working on the same craft issues I am. If they’re all beginners, I end up teaching people I don’t know for free. The jolly glow of literary citizenship is great, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a writing group.
Over at LitHub, Kaethe Schwehn points out why many writers are reluctant to start or join writing groups:
Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.
Schwehn also sings the praises of finding a group that’s the right fit, saying the mix of cheerleading and critique can be more effective than only picking work apart. That having a small writing community lets authors discuss craft and concepts beyond specific manuscripts, and that working in a group without an official leader allows freer exchange of ideas, without jockeying to earn the teacher’s approval for ‘best critic.’
I absolutely hear this. And I have it. Just a little differently. My writing ‘group’ is two great buddies I meet with 3 days a week when I’m home in Dubai. They haven’t met the writing buddy I sit down with when visiting my mom in Florida, or my first reader/muse I email and text and phone. Peripheral members include the blogging community I sat down with in a London co-working space, and the NaNoWriMo groups I sidled into last November. I wasn’t doing a novel in a month, but timed writing sprints among 30 people focusing in a Pret-a-Manger basement got me to my daily goal on a cold and lonely day. Sometimes, my group and I read to each other out loud or exchange work. Sometimes we set a goal at the beginning of a writing session–number of words, a blog post, number of submissions sent out or pages edited–and check in at the end on how we did (my favorite!). Sometimes we smile and say “Nice to meet you,” while packing up our laptops and forgetting each other’s name.
I wish I was a solitary genius, but I’m not. I can and do write alone, but it’s a lot more fun with other people around. The energy of showing up (and let’s face it, showing off–look, I’m still typing! Everyone else keep going!) fuels me, makes me finish that chapter I wanted to quit in the middle of–but everyone else was still going.
Your writing group might be on Meetup or the NaNoWriMo forums or online at Wattpad or Absolute Write. It might be a friend you know is typing something–anything. (I finished my chapter! You finished your expense report! Go us!) There’s no right way to do a writing group.
Yeah, sometimes people think it’s weird that I showed up once for their group meeting and came back a year later. But when I come back I’m ready to work, with whoever wants to work with me.
Read Kaethe Schwehn at LitHub on finding and keeping a great writing group. And let me know if you’re ever in Dubai–I know a great coffee shop.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a writing-group-ish-thing in India in June.
February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
February 8, 2018 § 11 Comments
Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”
But should you?
One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.
As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?
By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.
Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.
For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.
Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:
In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.
That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.
Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
February 7, 2018 § 21 Comments
By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen
I’ve written a new essay, and I’m eager to share it. After we’ve eaten the dinner I rushed to prepare in between writing and participating in a Skype call with other writers — and thus screwed up, missing that the whole wheat orecchiette was supposed to be cooked in the chicken broth — I open up my laptop. “Want to hear the essay I wrote about me and my brother Rick today?”
My husband’s head is down; he’s looking at his phone. Our eight-year-old daughter dances next to her chair, eager for dessert. “It’s short,” I say. “Sure,” he says, not looking up. I begin to read, and for five seconds, my family pays attention. Then my daughter darts over to whisper something in her dad’s ear. He nods. I pause. “Are you guys listening?” My husband looks up from his phone.
A few years ago he bought me a copy of Poets & Writers magazine at Brookline Booksmith. As I flipped through it, ogling the far-flung retreats listed in the back matter, he shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, in both a resigned and fond way. “It’s all over now.” I saw then that he fears losing me. He’s afraid that a torrent of words will sweep me away from our marriage.
Maybe that’s why when I begin reading again he interrupts me with a question. I pause for the second time. I wonder: would a writer-husband be more attentive than my pharmacist-DJ husband, or less? I try an appeal to his creative side. “It’s not the same thing at all really, but think about this. What if you were DJing a song, and I shut off the music in the middle of it to ask you a question? How would you feel?” No response. “Can you please just listen for two more paragraphs? I’m getting to the point here.”
Maybe the essay should have gotten to the point sooner. This is the value of an audience, even an inattentive one — our daughter has disappeared into the living room to play. I finish reading. “What do you think?” I ask my husband. “Did you show it to your brother?” he asks. “No.” “Oh.” We sit. “Well,” I tell him. “Aren’t you glad that I didn’t write about you today?” We laugh uneasily.
I’ve been working on a book-length project about our marriage that requires me to enter and exit both the living partnership and the story about it. I do so clumsily. The transitions feel like stumbling through a revolving door. Despite my husband’s trepidation about losing me to exotic retreats, and about his presence in my memoir in progress, I recall a moment a few months ago when he indirectly showed his support of my work. He used a windfall to pay off our mortgage. His generosity is an extravagant gift. Perhaps he’s listening after all.
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Finalist for her memoir-in-progress, To Have and To Hoard. Kristen completed GrubStreet’s year-long Memoir Incubator in 2017. Headspace published her personal essay “A Day With: Hoarding Disorder;” her reporting has appeared in the Boston Globe. Kristen is grateful to Louise Fitzhugh for giving her a character she relates to—Harriet the Spy (with her ever-present notebook). Follow Kristen @kpnwriter.
January 29, 2018 § 15 Comments
By Shannon Hageman
“Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of women writers,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, Professions for Women (1931). I’d like to believe that women have come a long way; I wasn’t even born until forty years after Virginia Woolf advised women writers to kill the Angel of the House. I know we’re not expected to be Angels anymore, but there are expectations. Expectations I picked up from the housewives in my family –grandmothers, godmothers, and aunts. Expectations I built while scorning my own mother who worked full time, let my father do most of the cooking and cleaning. There’s a constant nudging: be the mother portrayed on social media with her perfectly assembled outfit and frizzless hair in the carpool lane, who sends her kids to school with well-balanced, organic cold lunches packed in Bento boxes. Mothers who don’t just pin, but create Pinterest masterpieces. The mother who balances the full-time career while maintaining a full time housewife status. A mother whose children do as their told, look adorable, make the grades, and function without therapy. I’m supposed to be the Angel of the House; the mother, nurturing, accommodating, serving, sympathetic, pure, and utterly selfless.
I killed her, my Angel of the House, back in undergrad, so I could write essays for my creative nonfiction class. In a fit of frustration and procrastination, I etched her onto the lined paper that was supposed to hold my shitty first draft. I drew her, shaded her wings neatly. Then I jabbed that pencil right through the center of her tiny dot eyes. I pinned her to the cork board hanging above my desk. Every time I wanted to return to my domestic duties, I paid homage to Woolf and once again stabbed the Angel corpse hanging on my corkboard, killing her and my guilt. Eventually, the corpse was battered enough to earn her final resting place in the recycle bin.
But she’s back, haunting me from her grave, as I sit at this dining room table where my laptop taunts me: write something, anything. I worried this might happen, when I decided to register for the grad program at my local university. I worried she’d return to haunt me with guilt and expectations. There are laundry piles surrounding me, neatly folded and sorted by bedroom. There are homemade pumpkin energy bites cooling in the kitchen, something I’d put together for tomorrow’s breakfast, a request from my teenage sons. Across from the table, an overstuffed chair holds my sewing box and my youngest son’s school uniform shorts that still need the button reattached. Spread out on the other end of the table are an array of school papers needing checked over, a permission slip waiting for my signature, a handprint turkey drawing my daughter doodled while waiting for help with her homework. I have twenty minutes before I’ll pack my husband’s lunch and send him off to work the third shift. My middle son hollers from down the hall, “Someone grab toilet paper from downstairs! This bathroom is out!”
And the laptop taunts me: write something, anything, I dare you.
If I am to be a writer, what purpose does it serve? I’m a wife and a mother and a teacher and those vocations easily serve a purpose. But what purpose does writing serve? Most days I want to preserve specific moments, my side of the story, my view from this little corner of the world in which I live. That’s a selfish reason to write, that isn’t really the purpose. So I try to find purpose and put more intention to my writing. I set out to challenge myself to write better, to write more, to seek publication. Then the guilt seeps in. Guilt over perfecting my craft of writing rather than perfecting my mothering, wife-ing, homemaking. I should be nurturing my children, not writing about them. I should be cultivating memorable experiences, not preserving them. If writing serves no other purpose than self-preservation, then every time I sit at this computer, I am being selfish and avoiding my purpose-driven vocations.
When we have a spare moment, I’ll tell my husband about the Angel that haunts me. He’ll remind me we’re a team. He’ll throw in a load of a laundry. He’ll grill some steaks and help our kids with their homework. He’ll make sure that everyone has their school things ready before they go to bed. He’ll send me to my room, with a charged laptop and coffee he brewed fresh. “Write something, anything,” he’ll say. He’ll close the door and leave me alone with the Angel.
And then, I’ll kill her.
Shannon Hageman lives with her husband and their six children in a small town near Omaha, Nebraska. She is an English teacher at an alternative high school and is a graduate student at University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her essays have been published in Saint Mary’s Review and Catholic Digest.
January 26, 2018 § 11 Comments
By Alea Eve Hall
During the past year of political upheaval, I became crippled by the pressure I felt building up behind the words that needed to find their way to the page. But I had to face the facts. I had writer’s block. So, I took to my couch. In fact, I laid on it for so long that there’s still an outline of my butt, forever imprinted like a lingering effigy of my politically-depressive state.
As the New Year approached, I eventually realized that I didn’t actually have writers block, I had the opposite problem. I had too much to write about, and the experience of having so much to unravel on the page overwhelmed me; I simply had no narrative distance from my experiences. I lacked the perspective to begin seeing the painful connections and truths that had come to make up my existence over the past year. I have to wonder how many writers think they’re experiencing writer’s block, when in fact they’re facing this conundrum: too much to write about and the task of unpacking everything that needs to be written is just too overwhelming.
So I went back to the drawing board, but each time I attempted to type words on the page I only found myself engaging in a brutal critique of turgid prose, because suddenly, mere words didn’t seem like enough to excavate the meaning behind the past year. Around that time, I was learning about imitation in an Experimental Creative Nonfiction class. At first, the idea of closely emulating another writer’s work seemed wrong. In class, we would create imitation exercises for our classmates, who would then fill out select words and phrases from a selection of a chosen text. As I played with nouns, adjectives, and verbs, I kept sentence structures intact, the effect was fascinating and I began to think about the exercise as a kind of Mad Libs for adults. The exercise captivated me and I found myself playing with words and language again, but in a new way, and suddenly, imitating another writer’s work seemed so right.
In my Experiments class, I was introduced Barry Lopez’s “The Raven.” He was one of the first writers I had learned to imitate, and I connected with his essay on the behaviors of crows and ravens, a metaphorical critique of societal social structures. Here is an excerpt from Lopez’s “The Raven.”
The original passage:
“I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert. What appear to be crows are ravens. You must examine the crow, however, before you can understand the raven. To forget the crow completely, as some have tried to do, would be like trying to understand the one who stayed without talking to the one who left. It is important to make note of who has left the desert.”
“I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no [straw men] in the [wild]. What appear to be [straw men] are [real men] You must examine the [straw man], however, before you can [burn] [all men].To forget the [straw man] completely, as some have tried to do, would be like trying to [burn] the one who was [inflammable] without talking to the one who was [on fire]. It is important to make note of who is [burning] and who is [untouched].”
Even though I closely adhered to Lopez’ original sentence structure, I still began moving things around to fit with the narrative I was creating. The exercise became more and more useful, as did my understanding of the importance of sentence structure. Although these experiments in and of themselves didn’t lend themselves to publishable prose, they did become a level up for me, and ultimately led to one of my biggest breakthroughs in writing that semester.
Honestly, the results of my Mad Libs haven’t always been profound works of art, and I often leave carnage in the wake of my creative desperation, but eventually, using another author’s sentences relieves just enough pressure for me to write without my internal critic incapacitating my creativity.
As I sift through my old imitations, I’ve began writing new ones. I’ve imitated Didion, Lopez, Boully, Harrison, and Sue William Silverman…all the greats, and all became the bridge between my voice and the words lost within me, and together we move forward.
Alea Eve Hall was awarded the 2017 Wardle-Spire-Lane English Department fellowship in recognition for outstanding graduate work, as well as runner-up for the 2017 John J. McKenna Graduate fellowship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Alea is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University Nebraska at Omaha where she enthusiastically teaches Composition I and II. She is currently working on her thesis, which is a thematic exploration of the mythologies of sexual abuse.