July 19, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Margaret Moore
Someone once told me that I must be going about the writing process all wrong.
The remark came from an individual who was eager to see the release of my debut book—a memoir about growing up with a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy, losing my father to cancer, and participating in academics, extreme sports, and extracurricular activities with my mother’s support and the inspiration of my father’s determination never to give up. Undoubtedly a flattering sentiment, this person wanted to see the book come out faster than my process permits.
He assumed, though, that I was dawdling, acting as my own worst enemy by procrastinating and delaying publication. While I admit I found the conjecture annoying, it honestly didn’t bother me—he was new to writing and had no experience with writing a book. We had never discussed my process. He couldn’t possibly know the steps that I take to produce my book.
His comments raise numerous questions, though: Are there correct and incorrect ways to journey through the writing process? Who and what defines an effective process?
I think about my experience thus far in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. Semiannually, we gather for a nine-day residency and attend workshops, seminars, readings, and presentations. Our instructors guide us through writing exercises that enhance the depth, structure, and organization of our work. Some exercises involve prompts that provoke writers to delve deeply and create a thorough illustration of one aspect in their pieces. Others come as directions to write about a particular topic for a certain amount of time—two, three, even up to fifteen minutes—before moving to a new exercise or the next part of the prompt. Still others involve jotting down on index cards a few words to label the various scenes in our pieces and then moving the cards around on a table to explore potential arrangement.
It is notable that our instructors never sit us down and say, “These are the exercises that you absolutely must do if you want to succeed in your writing career.” They simply frame them as activities that writers can incorporate into their processes if they find them beneficial.
I think, too, of the writers who publicly describe their processes. Some have a certain word count that they like to hit each day. Others write best with pen and paper rather than with keyboards and screens.
There is no question that some writers use techniques that would never work for me. While my cognition is not impaired, I rely on a motorized wheelchair and a communication device. I don’t have the ability to handwrite (give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you the best chicken scratch you can find), and I also can’t use a traditional keyboard and mouse. My writing is done on my communication device, which functions as both a speech device and a Windows 10 tablet.
I operate the device with the joystick of my wheelchair and also with eye-tracking technology. A flick of a switch turns my joystick into a mouse, the cursor gliding in the direction that I move the joystick, and the buttons on the control panel—ordinarily power buttons for my headlights—acting as left-click and right-click buttons.
A small sensor protruding from the bottom of my tablet, the eye-tracking module is a system of lights and cameras that detects reflections of light in my pupils, monitoring my eye movements and translating them into mouse clicks. My device initiates clicks in the areas of the screen that my prolonged gaze rests. I alternate between my joystick and eye-tracking, and, while the physical act of typing still takes about three times as long as it takes my able-bodied peers, using both methods allows me to write most efficiently.
Manipulating physical tools such as index cards is out of the question for me. I instead use virtual sticky notes, bullet pointing moments to include in my memoir and moving them around to explore potential organization and structures. Once I settle on an order, I start writing.
I never know how much I’ll be able to develop in a writing session—it all depends on whether my hand and eyes are fatigued and whether my technology is functioning properly. The frequency that the device malfunctions largely fluctuates, ranging from every couple weeks to a few times a year. While waiting for the glitch to be fixed or for a loaner to arrive by mail, the amount that I can write is limited. Although I can access Microsoft Word and Google Docs from my phone, typing with my fingers takes abundant muscle coordination. I become fatigued after getting two or three lines on the page per writing session and end up having to wait to finish the bulk of my writing until my technological difficulties are resolved.
I don’t set out to hit a certain word count each day. That method would only lead to my own disappointment over my inability to get a profusion of words down. I instead look at the outline in my virtual sticky note and set a goal for what scene I want to have finished before the day’s end. I am flexible with this goal—it may take longer than anticipated to adequately write certain scenes, so I don’t mind if multiple days are needed. Crafting a thoroughly-depicted scene takes priority. The only rule I have for my process is to maintain flexibility—to keep an open mind and to continue to explore new approaches both for the craft and practice of writing and the technological side of composing.
Someone once assumed that I was approaching the writing process all wrong. Is this possible? Are there right and wrong ways to journey through the process? No. Every writer must tailor it to their own unique needs. As long as they are writing in a way that is best for them and are happy with their projects, they are spot-on.
Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.
July 15, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Brian Watson
I lost track of the revision count. There had been many since the first draft of my memoir. The more I worked, the more details flew into my mind. I caught my breath in May, thinking that all was good. The word count? 103,946.
Judas Priest, that’s a lot.
Part of me was proud. One hundred thousand words was a mythical goal. I have things to say — important things, of course — and the words just tumbled out of me.
A friend read a small part of it. She was encouraging, as I had hoped she would be, but her hammer fell.
“Do you really need all of this description?”
My ego fell into a thousand pieces. A crash, a calamity.
And I paused. I stepped away from the impulse to be defensive. My friend was a writer. She knows what she’s talking about. And I can listen to sage advice, gently given. Before my ego had a chance to reassemble, I looked again at the pages. I could see what she meant. She was right.
The memoir began as an exorcism. My old traumas and their many ghosts were siphoned out of me, onto the screen. The words poured out in an urgent rush. A Columbia River of ideas, with no Grand Coulee to dam any of them up.
Words are very important to a trauma survivor like me. I must describe everything. I must be precisely clear. You must know exactly how I felt.
But your reader is never your therapist. Nor your parent. My words, the descriptions, they were getting in the way. I loved my outpourings but yes, they walled the reader away from the crux of it all. My words were supposed to embrace the reader. The reader would then, in turn, embrace them, but with my ego still shattered, helpless, I saw something different. My words kept the reader away. The descriptions made everything opaque.
A concern lingered: What if, after I make more revisions, cut the extra words out, my voice as an author is damaged? I refused my entry into that rabbit hole of despair, took a deep breath, and began.
The first thing to go were summary descriptions. I laughed at first. I was certain. I already excised them all. Surely there were none left.
But I went looking, and I found them.
In a chapter that described my discovery, at age seventeen, of the glory holes in the men’s restroom at the local Sears, a paragraph began like this.
I returned to that restroom time and again for quick anonymous sexual releases. One time, however, a man had asked me to…
That first sentence had to go. Get the reader into the action. Faster. And that triple dose of adjectives there at the end of it? Cut it all.
During one of my suddenly frequent visits, a stall neighbor whispered, follow me.
The clouds parted. This is the way. Summary descriptions now popped off the page at me. I was merciless, slashing them all.
And then I saw my writing tics. Phrasing that is natural to my speaking voice. Over and over, I saw them in sentences. …to a point… …as a result…
Time to wield the editorial machete. Chop, chop, chop.
What else caught my eye? Redundant descriptions. The reader already knows I’m in Japan. I did not need to remind them in forty separate paragraphs of where I was.
Another thing I saw was my need to take the reader by the hand. To carefully, specifically, walk them, step by step, inch by inch, from moment to moment, scene to scene.
The reader might be interested, once, in mapping out the exact route I took to commute to work, for example, but once was enough. The reader might care, once, how I navigated my apartment, how the rooms were connected, which doors I closed as I crossed into the kitchen and sat at the table. But the reader will likely be happier just to know that I sat down.
I also began to think about adverbs. I love them. But they don’t bring that much to the party if all they do is confirm action for the reader. If instead, I save them for moments when my protagonist surprises the reader, when actions surprise — he was stubbornly elated — adverbs are more powerful. Chop, chop, chop.
At the end of June, the threshing, as I came to call these new revisions, the machete-way-clearing, was done. Chaff removed. Wheat remained. Thoughts made accessible. Word count? 77,518.
Did I mourn the absent words? Maybe, for the briefest of moments. But the revisions empowered me. I know that I can tell my story in stronger ways. In ways that will connect me more profoundly to readers. I took my thresher and my machete and opened the memoir up, and it felt good. And my concerns over voice were unfounded. If anything, my voice rings louder, truer.
Let go of ego. (It’s not as hard as you think.)
You’ve got this!
Brian Watson is currently preparing a proposal for his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he now lives in the Seattle after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro, and a cantankerous old cat, Butters. His website is http://iambrianwatson.com/
July 12, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
I recently completed a months-long writing course in which participants were required to design a hat to wear during the final gathering. The hat was to be decorated artfully to reflect one’s favorite lessons and mantras about writing. I’m not good at visual arts, and my first reaction was to dismiss the hat: How in hell is this related to writing? Nevertheless, I remained silent about my misgivings, and soon received in the mail from the instructor a half-circle of cardboard with folding and tabbing instructions to form a small cone, like a child’s birthday hat.
The template for this hat exactly matched one presented to me in first grade — my third first grade, to be precise. I began at a parochial school in Indiana attended by various cousins, who showed up at my house on the first day to walk me there. After two months, my parents moved us temporarily to a treeless townhouse complex in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The townhouses, arranged in semicircles, were so identical that after I exited the school bus, I had to count the semicircles and then the houses within it in order determine where I lived, or risk appearing at a stranger’s door (third horseshoe on the right, fifth house from the road).
A few months passed, and my parents bought a house in northwest D.C, enrolling me in the local public school in early April. I was a sensitive kid, overwhelmed by yet another school change. My first day began during Mrs. Mackie’s art class, but I’d missed the hat-making instructions. I sat at a desk with the template, scissors, construction paper, and no idea what to do. I tried to copy everyone else, too shy to ask, but my little green headpiece was a failure. The evil Mrs. Mackie berated me in front of my new classmates.
After this hat episode, I developed a paralyzing anxiety. It didn’t help that schools in the nation’s capital conducted nuclear attack drills every month, using the school basement as a fallout shelter. My anxiety diminished somewhat in second grade, when an older teacher with horrid breath advised my parents that I worried too much and they should ease up at home regarding whatever pressures I was under. She was a hugger, kind and encouraging, and gradually I lightened up — though I suffered a small relapse during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But while my generalized anxiety slowly evaporated, I retained a specific dread of crafts, especially group crafts requiring a uniform look to the finished product. That anxiety extended to assembling textbook covers, which involved a surprising number of tab A-slot B instructions. When a teacher handed out virgin book cover sheets at the beginning of the school year, I would ask to go the toilet, cowering there until someone searched for me, then take the book covers home for my dad to affix to my textbooks.
Now I confronted another hat, a dunce’s cap for feelings and mantras. The shapes were to be uniform, but unlike the first-grade hat, the decorating was to be unique. Still, the same panic gripped me. I texted others in the writing group: “What are you doing about the hat?”
“I’m having a blast decorating!” someone said.
“I have too many ideas,” another said.
No one shared their ideas, and unlike in grade school, I couldn’t hide in the bathroom or look around to copy. Copying wasn’t the idea, anyway. Without any artful decorating tendencies, much less assembly skills, how could I represent my creativity?
I’d just bought a print to hang in my office, artwork by a painter who also writes; in other words, someone extremely not me. The picture features a grove of deciduous trees with bold trunks, and in the center of the grove, a deep green fir tree. Gray shadows of other trees back the grove, except for a vivid patch of blue sky behind the fir. The trees float, suspended on the page; their roots extend to the bottom of the picture like gnarled fingers. Black birds dart among the roots, burying seeds– just as crows do in nature– that with time and luck, can become a forest.
I didn’t know the artist’s intention, but her work spoke to me as a metaphor for writing. The birds’ insistent, instinctive, unintentional seeding mimics my work on the page, some of which, given time and luck, develops into the sturdy trunks of good writing; some of which does not; and a piece of which might someday be that glorious fir.
It occurred to me as I studied my new print that my hat, like my writing, didn’t need to be transcendently visionary and original. Because I created it, it would be distinctively mine. I could borrow this artist’s pictorial vision and imbue it with my own words and meaning, in the way we writers steal other writers’ structures, metaphors, and sometimes even plots to plant them in a new context. (Which writer among you has not borrowed from another author?)
I printed a color copy of my new art. I used my hat template to cut the print into a cover for the cardboard hat form, thinking that this was, at long last, like making a book cover. Near the bird part of the picture, I wrote in fine pencil, “Plant stories like birds plant seeds.” But I glued the art to the hat, and rejected sticking tab A into slot B in favor of stapling it into a cone shape. Mrs. Mackie isn’t around anymore.
Mary Hannah Terzino resides in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and won first prize in Fiction Factory’s 2021 flash fiction competition.
July 9, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Karen Richards
I didn’t start out intending to write a memoir. In fact, for many years―ignoring my own deep yearnings―I quietly avoided writing honestly about myself or my life. I tamped down thoughts about the meaning I imparted to ordinary things, the layered, complex connections between events, skeins of colored threads twisting on unruly spindles, tangled and tight in my efforts to contain them. Once in a while I wrote poetry, as if slowly turning a faucet, allowing just a few measured drops to gather at the bottom of an empty cup. But then I turned back the handle hard, and went about my life. I put the poems into a folder in a firmly closed drawer.
Until the pandemic. Stay-at-home orders meant found time. I stepped away from my corporate job to support one child with her college preparations, the other with his virtual learning. Because I tend to rise early, and teenagers do not, I rediscovered the hours I used to spend getting ready for work, hustling school lunches into brown bags, feeding the dogs and taking them out, throwing in the odd load of laundry. Now I opened my eyes and swung my feet into the day, shrugging into yoga pants and sipping from my yellow mug as the light spread across the backyard. The chickens began their clucks and calls as soon as the sun tipped over the tallest trees and bathed their coop in pinky gold. Quiet, sacred moments of in-between.
I didn’t know what I wanted to write, or exactly why, only that I did. My husband’s wise advice: Just start. So began the year’s work: writing a memoir of two threads I pulled and unwound carefully over many months of these stolen mornings, then afternoons and early evenings. The story of my son who had been very ill with depression the year before, and of my family’s pandemic journey sheltering in place, coping again with uncertainty and grief. I wrote to make sense of the world, to understand how things happened and why, and what I could have done differently. Through the writing, I excavated my son’s sorrow, our family’s struggles as he lived in residential treatment for almost half a year, how it changed all of us in ways we could not see at the time. How the hothouse of hours spent locked up together in our house for a lost year both hurt and healed us. As I wrote, I began to know myself as someone else. The kind of parent I had only read about, one ready to step outside myself for my child even as I felt the fear tugging at my pelvis like a contraction. One who would descend into the valley and abide there with him until he was ready to join us again in the light.
I became a patient weaver, the keeper of memories, binding together all we had experienced in the last two years to a single cloth―warps and wefts, colors and patterns―the bitter and sweet intermingled. On the outward-facing side of this textile, patterns swirl and complement each other, harmonious and seamless. But the back shows the knots, the corrected stitches, all the grinding work of my thoughts. My doubts and errors. The polishing and refining of each story arc so in the strongest passages, my words sang with remembered truth and the grace that comes from an honest accounting of pain.
On the last day of the year, I met with my online writing community to celebrate our work over the past months, to mark the moment of completion. Of course, I knew I would have to go back and revise, move scenes from one place to another for impact, chip away at repetitions and words not essential to my narrative. But in the finishing I realized something important.
I had written myself into belief. Spinning and weaving with the work of my humble hands, smoothing the finished cloth, familiar, yet new. Reclaiming my identity as a writer.
Instead of hearing my voice only in my own head―I translated the jumble of memories and impressions, my own uneven transformation as a mother and a person, the words spoken between us―onto the page.
My inner voice waited in the silence of the early mornings, as the neighborhood began to wake, my children to stir from their beds, and my husband to grind beans for the morning coffee. Then she began to speak.
My hands became her instruments of transmission. Sitting at my computer at the bank of east-facing windows reminded me of piano lessons as a child. When I would finally―after hours and hours of practicing the same passage―master a difficult piece, the ebony bench hard against the base of my spine. My fingers would in some moment of imperceptible alchemy know what to do, which keys to hit, piano or fortissimo, where to slow, when to transition gently from andante to lento. Without warning, I would hear the music, become both the singer and the song.
All that was required was for me to allow it to happen. To let go and breathe it into being. Close my eyes and listen, as the notes unfurled into the waiting room. My dormant words onto the unmarked canvas of the empty page. Clear and pure and ready to be heard.
Karen Richards lives in Northern California with her husband and teenagers, two dogs and seven chickens. Her creative nonfiction has appeared online at AndBloom, Resilient Writers, National Mental Health First Aid, and others. Read her blog, the bitter & the sweet at karenrichardswriter.com, or follow her on Instagram at krichardswriter.
July 6, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Laraine Herring
The Velveteen Rabbit undid me. A stuffed Rabbit, a friendship with a living Boy, and the tale of how love and believing in what could not yet be seen turned fabric, stitches, and button eyes into fur, muscle, and whiskers.
Embracing my imagined worlds helped me become Real, too.
And as someone who is now Real, I am qualified to help define the terms of my arena. Here’s one:
Speculative memoir is an umbrella genre in which the questions of the memoirist’s book are addressed through speculative elements, which may include ghosts, metaphors, what-ifs, imaginative scenarios, and fantasies. It is memoir focused more on the possibilities of the internal world than the facts of the external world.
But it took me a long time to be able to claim that definition. To be able to stand in all of my skin. Vulnerability has never come easy. I teach for a reason. I’m a therapist for a reason. Let other people expose their hearts while I stay hidden, safe behind boundaries of steel.
Embrace your weird.
You’re too strange.
You have a unique perspective.
You’ve lost your direction.
These contradictions followed me from school to school, job to job, until colon cancer pushed me into a story that obliterated them, revealing the myth behind the message.
When I was a girl, I read The Velveteen Rabbit over and over. I loved the gentle bunny, the way he loved his Boy, and the way that love, over time, made him Real. But to me, he was Real before. From the minute Rabbit appeared on the page, he was Alive. This was true with my own stuffed animals—Zebra and Monkey and Dragon. As I got older, Carl the Coffee pot began to speak, as did Zoya, my red Toyota and faithful companion, and of course Eva, the air conditioner. Imaginings, sure. But also Real. Also impactful.
Walls in particular spoke to me, the imprints of the people and animals they’d held still shimmering on the faded paint. I saw my first ghost in my great-aunt Lena Mae’s house in North Carolina. I was walking up the stairs and she was coming down. I remember the pink feathered hat she wore. I remember the warmth of her when I had expected a chill.
Could I have made her up?
Who can prove a ghost?
But that’s the wrong question. We don’t have to prove that our imaginings are Real. We don’t have to quantify them for others. The better question—the question that connects to writing our stories—is How have these imaginings shaped our lives?
I never spoke of these relationships. I didn’t want to explain them, but I also didn’t want to share them. They were private. In the 5th grade, a particularly-bullied year, I made tiny yarn creatures and brought them to school in a baggie so I could talk to them when I had no one else to talk to. The Alpha Boy found them—they always do, the Alpha Boys—and began to toss my baggie of friends back and forth over the desks when the teacher left the room. I knew better than to try to catch them—my physical awkwardness already legendary. I could only wait until he grew tired of the game, or the teacher returned, and we all went back to our desks pretending that we were sweet and innocent, pretending that we didn’t already know how precious and sacred our personal visions were, pretending that we hadn’t already learned how to hide them away to keep them safe.
After cancer, all the reasons for pretending to be someone other than who I was vanished. All the fears about being seen, being made fun of, being hurt were overpowered by the awareness of death. The always-lurking question of what would I regret not doing should I die tomorrow reared up, and all the voices of all the ghosts and walls and stuffed animals returned, and there was no way to contain them anymore—no way to pretend they didn’t impact my life.
When I decided I wanted to share my story, I froze up again with the memory of those yarn creatures flung carelessly in the air.
People will not understand.
People will make me feel small.
I chose to write a speculative memoir because my inner life impacts my outer life. Because my imaginings have been my friends, my mentors, my hauntings, and my companions. Because to leave out the richness of that world would be to shift me back to 2-dimensional—back to the flat shape that they tried to force me into in middle school. Back to invisibility and conformity. Back to malleable and agreeable and utterly unremarkable, a word you want to see on your CT scans, but not a word you want to guide your life.
When the voice of Raven appeared, the magical form helped me explore my own story of complicated grief, I had found my guide and my friend again. I hadn’t turned my back so far that my imaginings couldn’t reach me. I hadn’t betrayed them, like I had betrayed my yarn creatures by not fighting for them when the outside world tried to take them away.
I was busy doing other things when cancer came, and my father, thirty years dead, returned to me as a Raven.
This is my story. I am Real. My imagined world has helped me make choices, resolve old wounds, forgive others and myself. My imaginings are worthy of a voice and audience, and this time around, I will not let the Alpha Boy take them. I will not let their vulnerability become a liability.
I will stand in power with them, all of us Alive.
Laraine Herring’s speculative memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, will be released in October. She’s also the author of The Grief Forest: a book about what we don’t talk about, and a trilogy of writing books with Shambhala. She’s a professor of psychology and a book coach for women over 40. She’s also the founder of the online ‘zine Hags on Fire, a place for women’s stories about menopause and aging. Find out more at http://laraineherring.com/
June 29, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Andrea A. Firth
My goal for this summer: to get published more. My husband’s summer goal: to grow heirloom tomatoes. In the writing world, we’d call that a metaphor.
We love heirloom tomatoes, the funny shapes, the rainbow of colors, the earthy smells, the taste—sweet and smoky, complex like wine. We buy them at our local farmers’ market, but my husband dreams of having his own tomato plants, ready to pick, and I’m game to help. After watching a YouTube how-to last fall, I harvested seeds from five heirloom varieties, let them dry and stored the tiny seeds in envelopes labelled red, yellow, orange, green, and cherry. In mid-May, he recycled some cardboard packing as planting pots, added soil and a sprinkle of seeds. He was tomato ready.
How does this connect with my publishing goal? All journals want to publish your best work, carefully edited, polished to a shine—like those perfect tomato seeds. With the writing done, the next step is to get tomato ready:
Be Prepared—the first step is READING. You need to read literary journals. I write nonfiction, but the same applies to fiction writers and poets. You read to find a good fit. What kind of writing does the journal publish? Consider genre, style, length, content, structure, form and tone. Does the writing in the journal sound like your writing? Consider published writers who you can follow and model. Where they have been published? When you read an essay, story, or poem that you admire, look at the author’s bio for where she has published. Go read those journals. Make a list of journals that fit.
Read the submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Fifty percent of the submissions editors receive do not fit the journal or don’t follow the guidelines. These submissions are rejected outright, not because the writing isn’t good, but because it’s a bad fit. Read before you submit—be tomato ready.
Back to the seedlings. Early summer temperatures in northern California can drop into the 50’s, so we’ve been hauling the trays of tomato plants inside at night and out each day. As we moved the tomatoes once again, I asked my husband. “Do you really think this is worth it?”
He smiled and handed me a tray.
Growing tomatoes from seeds takes up to 80 days, almost the entire summer. My husband has always been patient, a quality essential to getting published.
Be Patient—submissions are a long, slow process. Journals take 2, 4, 6 months or more to respond. Most journals allow simultaneous submissions. Up your odds. Submit each piece to 3-5 outlets at a time. Keep writing. Once you have another polished piece, submit to 3-5 more journals. Keep the cycle going. Submitting is doing a writer’s work.
Four weeks in, the best of the tomato plants was only 3 inches tall. My husband called the master gardener, who suggested: change the plant containers (maybe the cardboard contained chemicals); more shade (maybe the seedlings got scorched in the recent heat wave); and give them time. My husband got off the phone and said, “Smart gardener.”
Be Smart—Rejection is part of the process. Learn from it. If you get a personalized rejection, like we are quite interested in seeing more of your writing and hope you’ll send other work—jump on it. Busy editors don’t often send personalized rejections. Submit a new piece (that fits) straight away. Note the editor’s words in your cover letter: I appreciate your positive feedback on my story “The Struggling Tomato.” If you don’t have a new piece that fits, write one. And submit your original piece to a couple new journals.
If you get several standard rejections, take a fresh look. Ask a writer friend whose instincts you trust (your master gardener), to read your piece. Consider the feedback. Make some tweaks. Send it out again.
As we hauled the seedlings inside last night, I said, “You know, we could buy some established tomato plants.”
My husband shook his head. “I’m going to stick with it.” Patient, determined—and stubborn.
Be Stubborn—My graduate-school mentor, Marilyn Abildskov, has been published in The Best American Essays and long list of elite journals. Marilyn once told me that she submitted an essay 40 times before it was published.
“I believed in the piece,” she said, “I knew it would find a good home.” Stubborn.
I’m patiently waiting until August to see how many tomatoes we will harvest this summer. I look forward to biting into that first homegrown heirloom. I think I will be pleasantly surprised.
Be Pleasantly Surprised—Recently I had an essay published, the story of my father’s protracted death braided with the story of a rangy coyote. Another metaphor. I believed this was one of my strongest essays; it was rejected seven times. After the first three rejections, I re-edited and took a closer look at the journals I was targeting. I got personalized rejections from the next four journals. Encouragement. I submitted again, and the essay found a fine home in The Coachella Review, the literary arts journal of the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. If you are trying to navigate the literary journal publishing process, there is a lot more you can learn and do. Join Andrea on Thursday, July 15th for How to Get Published in Literary Journals (and more). 5 PM PST, recording available if you can’t make it. Details and register here.
June 28, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
There is, perhaps, no current genre of writing as misunderstood as the personal essay. The personal (or literary) essay nowadays is often dismissed as some variation on a “Freshman English” paper, dull at best, and at worst a cliché-ridden five-paragraphs weighed down by unnecessary thesis sentences. Alternately, the personal essay is confused with archaic, meandering pontifications from old dead white guys, British and effete. Or at times the essay form just gets lost in the name game confusion of creative nonfiction. What, for instance, do we call a work of scene-based memoir that runs six manuscript pages? Is it an essay, or a memoir, or a, essay-length memoir? And if it is indeed an essay, then what do we call an essay that isn’t primarily memoir?
I’m confusing even myself.
The downside of all this uncertainty is that too often we fail to recognize that the personal essay is a wonderfully flexible and creative form, as alive and inventive as the writer at the desk wishes it to be.
In its purest and most dynamic state, the essay takes flight when a writer engages a topic – any topic under the big yellow sun – and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. In the hands of contemporary practitioners such as Rebecca Solnit, Brian Doyle, Patrick Madden, or Roxane Gay, the personal essay is an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection.
I’d like the personal essay to generate less confusion, and I’d like more nonfiction writers to see how this flexible form creates opportunities to expand on our “usual” subjects, to find new life and fresh writing pathways emanating from our personal stories.
On Wednesday, I’ll explore all of this in a 75-minute webinar – The Pleasures of the Personal Essay – sponsored by Jane Friedman, examining the myriad forms that an essay can take. The 90-minute course will discuss how the essay fits into contemporary literary publishing, how understanding the flexibility of the essay form can help with “stuckness,” The role of research (and how it can be fun not work), and how to find the best markets (literary magazines and beyond). Participants will leave with useful prompts to help them determine their own essayistic opportunities.
Here are the details. Hope to see you there:
When: Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time
Do I have to attend the live class?
No. Everyone who registers will get access to the recording.
June 25, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Krista Varela Posell
Before the pandemic, I hadn’t published anything in three years. I don’t even think I even finished writing a single essay that entire time. I had not one but two book manuscripts that had stalled out. Major life events kept me from writing regularly: my mother’s dementia diagnosis, the death of my first dog, and a significant transition in my marriage. I kept telling myself, “you are just living the life you’ll write about later”—though that did little to assuage the guilt I felt thinking I should be more disciplined if I wanted to call myself a writer.
When California’s shelter in place orders went into effect last March, I decided to use the shakeup in my routine as an opportunity to jumpstart my writing practice. For inspiration, I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a frequently recommended book on craft and one that had been sitting on my shelf for over a year after I found it on clearance in a bookstore.
I committed to reading a chapter a day, which amounted to just a few pages, to get myself to think about writing. Looking at the table of contents—65 chapters including the introduction—I thought, I won’t even finish this before life goes back to normal. It seemed like a productive and pleasurable way to pass the time. As of this writing, 423 days since I started working from home, I could have read the book several times over.
I established a morning ritual: sitting at my desk to read, then writing down a line or two that captured my eye. I followed up with journaling, trying to capture the strangeness of daily life in an unprecedented time. “Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical,” Goldberg writes. “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.”
And so, I did my best to record the details, filling almost an entire notebook in six months. Many pages served as to-do lists. I became obsessed with keeping straight the basic tasks I had to accomplish to get through the day: “Put out the trash bins. Repot the plants. Weed the backyard. Hang up the laundry. Return book to the library.” Writing down any task became the first step in being able to complete it. If it wasn’t on the page (short of eating and bathing) it wouldn’t get done, disappearing in my brain amongst the riptide of constant anxiety.
As the pandemic pressed on and it became evident that we would still be living in this reality far longer after I finished Writing Down the Bones, my motivation for reading evaporated. The book was meant to serve as a time marker, a source of optimism. But one of the rewards for finishing it—going back to “regular” life— was no longer there. Even something as small and manageable as a single chapter felt too overwhelming.
After taking a break for a few weeks, the chapter I returned to began, “When you are not writing, you are a writer too,” as though Natalie Goldberg knew that was exactly what I needed to hear to get going again. These words reinforced what I wanted to believe during those years I hadn’t been writing but wasn’t comfortable enough to embrace until now.
I’ve tried to do my future self a favor to document as much as possible when I have the energy for it. In between my lists, I’ve kept other notes, unfiltered raw thoughts of what I don’t want to forget about this past year, mostly frenetic musings on loneliness and angst:
June 5th: “It’s hard to know what to even write. Black people are dying.”
August 20th: “I can’t feel excited about turning 30 when I’m feeling so anxious about just surviving.”
December 22nd: “I’m still feeling an all-encompassing restlessness that makes it so hard to get through the day. I’ve never felt so much animosity toward just having to exist.”
Having to be gentle with myself for all the complicated feelings arising during the most stressful time in recent history, I’ve let go of the idea of a daily practice, of sitting down at the same time and space to write every day, for good. Even Goldberg acknowledges the importance of cutting yourself some slack, of making sure you don’t become too rigid in your routine: “Just stay in touch underneath with your commitment for this wild, silly, and wonderful writing practice. Always stay friendly towards it.”
And yet, for the sporadic fluctuations to my process, I had more victories in 2020 than I had in the three years prior combined. All that journaling eventually began rendering itself into actual essays, some that I managed to publish throughout the year. I also started a blog and got my first paid byline. Writing finally feels like it has a regular place in my life in a way that it hasn’t since I was in grad school. And by regular, I mean one that doesn’t feel so tenuous if I can’t manage to do the thing for a week or two.
I still don’t write every day, but the biggest difference is, I no longer feel guilty about it. We are living in a pandemic, after all. I spent years wringing my hands over whether to call myself a writer, feeling like it’s a title I don’t deserve. Now, it’s an identity I comfortably inhabit, one that is pliable and forgiving of the circumstances of life. When I’m not sure where to start, I simply write down the knowns, the truths of what I’m experiencing: “It’s your life, begin from it.”
I haven’t finished reading Writing Down the Bones yet either. Instead of rushing toward the end to move on to something else, I’ve chosen to savor it like a decadent dessert I come back to when I need a little pick-me-up. Over thirty years later, it feels as though Goldberg is still speaking directly to our present: “In the middle of the world, make one positive step,” she writes, “In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.”
Krista Varela Posell (she/they) is a queer Latina writer living in San Francisco. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Bold Italic, GO Mag, Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Krista earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and is co-creator of the community blog Poly in Place.
June 24, 2021 § 6 Comments
When I’m not writing nonfiction and blogs for Brevity, I write Young Adult novels. I’m gonna put modesty aside and say I’m good at it. Specifically, what I’m good at is voice. Teachers and fellow writers have said so, and the people whose opinions I care about most—high school students—have said so, too. “I think that all the time,” one girl whispered to me. “But I didn’t know you could write about it.”
I’ve put a lot of practice into writing fiction, but that’s not the secret sauce that lets me write YA, or essays about my younger years.
It’s not having kids.
Once we have children, I’ve observed, we’re parents. Duh—but parents are different than people.
People remember their childhood. Parents remember their childhood but hope to hell it was better, because they’re watching childhood play out right now, and it’s really, really important that it be a good experience for their own little people. Tragedies fade and blur. Adventures polish up and outshine them. But some of the greatest adventures of our childhood could have been terrible tragedies if chance had gone the other way. Nobody wants to imagine that roulette wheel spinning for their own kid.
Parents see how young children are. In the movie The Tale, based on director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences, the protagonist imagines herself in the past at age 13 as sophisticated, mature, wise beyond her years. She has fond memories of intimacy with her track coach. Then she sees a snapshot of herself at 13, small and childlike. She was a baby! What happened to her wasn’t her “first relationship with a caring older guy,” it was victimization by a predator. Even those of us without children in our homes can see that. But when you have kids, you see the baby first. It’s harder to recapture that feeling of invincibility, grown-up-ness, the sheer power of being young, and feeling beautiful and exciting because you don’t know how young you are.
My writing buddy Jessica Jarlvi says, “Writing Middle Grade has been quite challenging—I have to look through my children’s eyes and see how they’d react to a situation.” Seeing what childhood’s like—experiencing it fully enough to show it on the page—means becoming for a short time the person who thought getting in that guy’s car, lying to your parents, having that drink or smoke, was a great idea. And it’s damn scary to imagine that in your own child’s head. Parents have a biological imperative to believe childhood was, on balance, pretty OK, with maybe a bad moment here or there. We want to think we can create that for our own children, and it goes against every instinct to truly, honestly believe, that your own tragedy wasn’t some exceptional, never-to-be-repeated lightning bolt. It could happen to your kid. It could be happening right now.
Even when we’re not consciously aware of these feelings, they must be moved past to write our younger selves on the page. This is one reason why it’s easier to write childhood memoir in our retirement years. The kids are out of the house. We did the best we could. We’ve heard about some of their near escapes and talked through them—or laughed about them—over wine (they’re old enough to drink! Bizarre!) They’ve mostly survived.
I’ve had the experience Jennifer Fox’s character had in The Tale, of seeing how my outside was wildly different from how I felt on the inside, because I teach circus to K-12 students. Going into the same schools year after year, I see kids cross that threshold from child to not-really-a-child and marveled at how young they still are. They’re stage managing a 150-kid show and handling boxes of uncounted t-shirt cash and protecting each other from falling off the trapeze. Very focused. Very mature. But picturing my 9th-grade boyfriend, age 28, pulling up on his motorcycle outside the gym to pick up one of my trapeze girls? I’d kick his ass.
To successfully write as our younger selves, or as younger characters, we have to let go of the ass-kicking, no matter how righteous our anger. We have to listen to the music we listened to, eat the food we ate, revisit the schools we ruled or crawled through. We have to accept that we took big risks, that we caused or experienced great harm. We have to forgive ourselves for lying, for doing that stupid thing, and see why that felt like the right choice at the time. And we have to let go of imagining all those things happening to kids of our own until the writing session’s done.
Go hug them.
Join Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams next week for a free keynote: Writing Memoir for Middle Grade and YA, or the paid masterclass ($20) or roundtable live-editing workshops ($60), June 28 and 29, hosted by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors of Western Washington.
June 15, 2021 § 4 Comments
Hello? Ex-Husband? Why you were such a terrible person?
Interviewing people in your memoir can fill in details about settings you were too young (or emotionally unable) to remember, and explain personal logic behind choices that hurt you. But how the heck can you have a civil conversation with your abuser, your estranged parent or your ex?
Writing a good memoir means connecting deeply with your own feelings and experiences—then setting them aside and approaching potentially traumatic conversations with the detachment of a documentary filmmaker.
Don’t start with “Why’d ya throw me down the stairs, Dad?” If you’re there to make a point, challenge your sister’s truth, or get your mom to agree with your version of events, your interview is already tainted. They’ll feel it. They’ll get defensive. And there you are, right back in the relationship you were trying to process and move past. When interviewing perpetrators of your trauma—or just plain awful people—focus on knowing and understanding another person and the logic that made their own choices make sense. Truly listening doesn’t mean you agree!
Start easy. First interview people you enjoy talking to. Even if you clearly remember a positive event, they’ll fill in more detail. Your best friends can gently remind you of times you weren’t on your best behavior, and those belong in your memoir, too.
Lower the stakes. Set up interviews in comfortable, reasonably neutral locations.
- Record on your phone if needed. Microphones feel “official.”
- Talking in the car can yield intimate, thoughtful conversations—you’re sitting close, but without uncomfortable eye contact.
- Avoid assigning blame or questioning their integrity. Instead of “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” ask, “When (specific event happened), what were your feelings and thoughts?” or “Are you able to tell more about what happened when…?”
Give fair warning. Anna Sale of the podcast Death Sex and Money says:
First, you need to ask yourself why you want to have a conversation about something hard. Then, when you initiate, start by asking if it is a good time to talk, and talk about why you want to have this particular conversation. “I’ve been wondering about something,” or “I need to tell you something I haven’t.” With this groundwork, you are signaling that you want to go into a different mode together. Again and again… when I explain why I am asking a particularly sensitive question, people are much more open to answering it. They feel invited in, rather than ambushed…
Prepare…then go with the flow. Make a list of questions, but let the conversation roam. Near the end, pull out your list and see if there’s anything important you haven’t gotten to. You can say ‘I really want to hear more about…’ ‘Can we talk about…?’ or ‘I’m going to take a jump here and ask you about…’
Let them feel heard. The Body Keeps the Score author Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Being validated by feeling heard and seen is a precondition for feeling safe, which is critical when we explore the dangerous territory of trauma.” Use validating language like:
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- I hear you.
- I appreciate that this must be difficult for you.
Nonverbal cues, like nodding or “hm/uh-huh” can be helpful. If someone gets emotional:
- This reaction is normal considering what you’ve been through.
- I’m sorry you had to go through that.
Use silence. Let the silence stretch after you ask a question. After an answer, avoid jumping right in with the next question. Often, your interviewee will feel the need to fill the silence, and their spontaneous response may be more revealing.
Stay aware of body language. Watch for closing-off gestures like folded arms, looking away, or legs crossed away from you. Listen for short, clipped answers or vocal tension. These are cues to back off or leave this subject for another time. If your subject is open and relaxed, you can probably push further.
Bring them back to normal. If you leave your subject happy, they’re more likely to talk again. End your interview with a positive question:
- How’s your day-to-day life now?
- How do you like to unwind or spend the weekend?
- What’s the best part of your life right now?
- Do you have any plans for after we talk?
Ask twice. If you can, talk again a couple weeks later. Often, people remember more details after your questions have been on their mind.
Interviewing with a genuine intention to hear and understand the other person helps you treat them fairly in your book. You’ll also be able to contextualize poor decisions other people made, or times they hurt you, if you allow them to tell you their logic at the time. You don’t have to forgive them, or forget what they did. But asking real questions and allowing truthful answers (even from shitty people!) yields information you need to write your book. Let your readers judge their character. Your job is to extract more truth with less trauma—for you or anyone else.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her Wednesday (tomorrow!) for Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. A recording will be available to registered participants if you can’t make it live.