June 19, 2017 § 17 Comments
By Kathleen Siddell
You try but it’s not quite right.
You try again.
And again. You feel like it’s almost right but not quite.
It doesn’t feel difficult. At first, it’s fun. You delete a word here, add a different phrase there. You cut and paste and cut and paste whole paragraphs. You like puzzling a story together. You like how suddenly the image will emerge.
Unless it doesn’t.
Then you work slowly and deliberately. You force sentences together because they seem like they should go together. When you step back, you know something is wrong. The picture is unclear, fuzzy, or distorted. You move sentences around some more but they all seem like the same shade of blue. Dull and obvious. Writing is no longer fun.
So you stop.
You try a different angle. You scroll down. Hit return over and over and over. In the endless white space, you start again, this time with the reds, splashing new ideas onto the page to see what splatters.
You clean it up. Backspace.
Back in the white space. This time it feels empty and hopeless. Still, you try.
You find inspiration in black and white with someone else’s name on the cover, someone smarter, more talented. Someone who is not you. You read and read and get lost. You forget who is who and remember only the words. The words are more important than the names. The picture more important than the pieces.
You believe this so, you try again. You try while you drive to work, chewing words like gum to see what will stick and what must be spit out. You write a phrase on the scrap of paper you found in your purse at the red light. There is a stain on the paper but the words don’t care.
When the words start to drain from your fingertips, you vow not to stop. You will not stop to look at the picture you are forming.
Until you do.
It’s not so bad. You take a step back. You think more critically. Maybe it is so bad. The page is filled. Maybe this is all that matters. But you know it’s not. A page can be so full, it blurs grey.
But this page is clear. Black and white letters you hope will read in color.
You’re not sure, so you try again. You try and believe, try and believe, and somewhere in the cycle, you believe you have formed a picture that tells a story. You believe you have created depth without sacrificing clarity.
You stop and submit because you forgot it doesn’t matter if anyone sees what you’ve done.
But you don’t really believe that. Why else would you spend your time agonizing over all these letters? You forget that you write because you can’t not.
“Unfortunately, we are overwhelmed by the quality of submissions.”
An opposite of submission is resistance. There is a resistance between the story you want to tell and the story you have told. But was it almost good enough? How much resistance is there? You’ll never know.
But maybe you do know.
Because you keep trying and believing.
You believe the picture is one people might like. You remember it doesn’t matter if people like it. You ask yourself if you like it.
But you’d like it more if other people also liked it. Because part of what drives your fingers to the keyboard is other people.
Why is that?
Why does it matter? You know you keep saying it doesn’t when really it does. You feel resistance between what you say and how you feel.
You try to release this tension onto the page; the page that is black and white and full of color.
You don’t know if they’ll see what you see. Maybe it was never really your story in the first place. Maybe it wasn’t your story but A story. Their story. The story. But here it is.
For the taking.
Kathleen Siddell is a sometimes writer and high school teacher. She, her husband, and their two boys have spent the past 4 years living in Asia. You can find her essays on The Washington Post, Mamalode, The Write Life and elsewhere.
June 8, 2017 § 27 Comments
First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.
You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.
Thinking time counts.
Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.
But there’s still value in completion.
Process is great. We all need process. But every now and then, we embrace process to the point of avoiding finishing. We dive into six projects at once, knowing in our under-soul there’s no way we’ll get through even two of them. We embrace multiple genres or venues as a way to write what we’re “in the mood” to write, whichever essay or proposal or article or chapter calls to our heart at the moment we’ve finally cleared our mental decks and sat down.
Some days it’s important to be our beautiful wayward writer self. Explore! Play! Freewrite!
Other days, it’s time to sit our butt down (“the only secret to writing is ass in chair” as the saying goes) and bang out some words. Some good words, maybe. More likely some crappy words. But remember how much easier it is to turn shit into something passable than it is to turn nothing into shit? No? If that’s not a memory you hold, maybe next writing session is a good time to pull out something you gave up in despair and take another look at it with a cold editorial eye. Perhaps there’s one sentence in there worth saving. Perhaps there’s a whole new piece based on the third paragraph. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the whole thing’s nowhere near as bad as you thought when you walked away. If there’s truly nothing you can find in there worth working on, you have two options: send it to a friend and ask if there’s anything they think is worth working on; or toss it.
Hit delete. Crumple it up and put it in recycling. Burn the notebook. Make room for something else you want to write. Get the unfinishable crap off your desk and call it practice. Be grateful you learned what that piece taught you and move on. The practice of writing is also practice. It is the height of arrogance to scold ourselves for not putting something perfect on the page in a first go–what other job, what other sport, what other art gets things right the first time, every time they start something new? Wow, Mozart, that was awesome and you wrote it once, in pen! Gee, Usain Bolt, now that you’ve run as fast as you ever will around the track this morning, you’ll never need to train for the Olympics again!
Practice/rehearsal/training involves mistakes, screw-ups, wrong paths, poor choices and loss of interest. We don’t save a videotape of every time we go to the gym, we count ourselves happy if we hit that second pull-up, or stay on the seated bike checking Twitter until it’s suddenly been twenty minutes and hey I’m done! Now I can do all the fun things I’m bothering to get in shape to do!
Practice also involves sitting our ass down and deciding we’re going to finish something. Now. Today. This week. In fifteen-minute increments while waiting for carpool, or in one wild coffee-fueled weekend.
I will ride the bike for thirty minutes.
I will clean this closet.
I will purchase these six items.
I will put dinner on the table.
I will get to the end of this sentence, this paragraph, this page. This essay. This book.
Be a beautiful free-spirited artist. Be a tortured soul contemplating the horror of the page not living up to what’s in your head. And then sit your ass back down and write to the end of the page. Set a day, or a week or whatever interval works for you, aside to finish your shit. Pick up a piece and decide if you want it or not. If you want it, finish it. See what it feels like to do whatever it takes, to revise or seek help or break it apart and rebuild, or let it go and move onto something else you want to finish. Let go of the hundred weights of half-pages that once seemed like a good idea. Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas, hundreds, thousands of them. Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Don’t settle for half-finished.
May 29, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Jan Priddy
The sound crew working on a film is careful to record ambient sound—the faint traces of traffic and wind and birds or elevators and footsteps and air conditioners—the barely audible noises in the background of any location. Even a very quiet place is not silent. Later, if a line of dialogue must be rerecorded or the interruption of a plane roaring overhead corrected, layering in ambient sound is necessary to ensure continuity for the filmgoer. Ambient sound is the kind of stuff we notice only when it is missing.
Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.
More than forty years ago, a friend at the University of Washington was taking a class on scientific illustration. Her first homework assignment was to illustrate a bird. Pamela, who already had a Biology degree, chose her model from a display in the Burke Museum on the NW corner of campus. The taxidermy grebe in a diorama of coastal waterfowl had the great advantage of holding perfectly still while she made preliminary sketches and recorded colors and feathers.
Her completed illustration was a beautiful and detailed but otherwise incorrect representation of the Western Grebe. As it turned out, no living grebe ever positioned itself in the upright manner she depicted. Her portrait was of taxidermy, not life. She thus perpetuated another’s error.
Getting things right often requires that the writer know much more than what fits on the page. Ask any great writer. Novelist Molly Gloss, known for her science fiction and historical novels, noted recently that she researches a thousand facts in order to locate the one telling detail that lends authenticity to a scene. Writers of nonfiction and poetry might do well to follow her example.
Too often details in poetry and nonfiction can be traced directly to Wikipedia, and the writing is both limited and flawed because the writer has failed to pursue the richness of fact beyond the abbreviated online version.
My father, a research librarian for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, taught me a lesson about research. My elementary teacher encouraged me to use the various encyclopedias in the local library to research a report. He insisted that encyclopedias were useful only as overviews leading to more reliable sources. He took me to the card catalogue of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. He taught me to use an index, to draw reasonable conclusions from diagrams and illustrations, even those with captions in Norwegian. I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and that I must never under any circumstances rely on the accuracy of those writing outside their specialty. Find the facts, he said, and like a good scientist (or journalist), confirm my sources with more research.
Today such research is far easier. We have access to images and texts from all over the world, libraries and journalism, film and even people. The writer seeks truth, and superficial research leads to missteps. A recently published poem perpetuates several common misunderstandings concerning a nineteenth century event. The author’s only source was likely Wikipedia, and while the Wikipedia entry is mostly correct, the poet did not have enough ambient knowledge to avoid misrepresenting what is found on that page.
It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious. Our understanding must be encyclopedic, not limited to scanning a few inches of an encyclopedia.
For her next illustration, my friend Pamela went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle where the live Emerald Tree Boa was a gorgeous green and neatly draped in a series of concentric loops across a branch. Its head rested precisely in the center like a goddess wearing a broad and elegant collar of its own body. Pamela drew sketches from various angles and went home to work on her illustration. Then she panicked: What if the position of that snake was a fluke? What if, as with the taxidermy grebe, she wasted days creating a flawed representation? Back to the zoo she went. On her second visit, both Emerald Tree Boas in the exhibit had arranged themselves across branches in that same symmetrical manner. Zoo personnel confirmed the pose was characteristic of the species.
It is tempting is to make our task easy, to trust immediate impressions, but there is no excuse for errors resulting from a failure to look past the first link on Google. We need to know more than what shows at first glance. We need knowledge of what is just behind and beside our subject and the faint trace of footstep and birdsong carried through the air. We need to earn our authority not only with well-chosen words but with truth.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon.
Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) at San Diego Zoo (side view) photo by Reino Baptista, free use available through Wiki Commons, 2015
May 25, 2017 § 22 Comments
By Lynn G. Carlson
The resident dog at my vet’s office is named Beulah and she is clearly senile. Her black-lab muzzle is grizzled and her eyes are opaque gray.
She stands in the center of the waiting area on unsteady legs and makes eye contact with me, then moves her eyes to a blue ceramic jar on the counter marked Biscuits. Then she looks back at me.
When I look over at the jar, and back at Beulah, it sets her tail to wagging so hard she almost falls over.
Beulah looks at the jar, then at me. Over and over. Nothing breaks the trajectory of her gaze, not even when a german shepherd happens by on his way to the examining room and jams his nose into Beulah’s butt. A tabby-cat yowl coming from a crate not five inches away from her doesn’t even seem to register.
“Can I give Beulah a biscuit?” I ask the gal at the counter. “She looks hungry.”
“Nah. She’s already had four this morning. Thing is, as soon as she eats the biscuit, she begs for another. She does that all day long.” The woman leans over the counter and smiles down at the ancient dog. “Beulah never remembers that she just ate a biscuit, and I guess she never gets full.”
Something about this chills me. Something bothers me about that idea of being in a constant state of yearning.
Maybe because I recognize it in my own life. Maybe because I see a little of myself in Beulah’s fixation on more biscuit.
Like, for instance, the way I crave the feeling you get when you send out a “My writing got accepted!” email to friends and family.
How I yearn for the next infusion from the Muse. Words, gimme, gimme more words.
How easily I forget a good writing session and pine for another.
Yeah, Beulah, I feel your pain.
I can’t help this dog with her cravings and forgetting, although I do go over and give her a good head scratch.
But—and this is the thing—unlike Beulah, I can turn from my cravings. I can stop and say thanks to the Muse for guiding me in my garden-at-night poem, for helping me find the tendril of thought that strains towards what the poem is really trying to portray.
I can remember that I had a solid journaling session this morning, complete with the arrival of a memory about my college days in Gunnison, Colorado, when I had no car and walked everywhere. And because I was on foot and not in a car I noticed how the lines of snow on the mountains inched upward in May.
I can observe, and even admire, the way snippets and memories coalesce into a personal essay that explores why I am so obsessed with my elderly mother’s eating habits.
I can even appreciate a wobbly dog who pushes me to acknowledge the nourishment that writing gives to my life and helps me, for a moment at least, to feel full.
Lynn G. Carlson is a writer who lives on the prairie outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming with a retired firefighter, a span-triever and plenty of gophers. She has published poetry and nonfiction in various literary magazines and has an essay in NPR’s This I Believe archives. In 2016 she served as editor for Watch My Rising, an anthology of stories and poems about recovery from addiction. Lynn blogs at www.writingwyoming.com.
May 23, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Marcia Krause Bilyk
The day after Trump’s inauguration, when Sean Spicer stood at the White House podium and declared the crowd the largest in Inaugural history, instead of scoffing at him, instead of declaring him as nuts as his boss, I was transported to my childhood feelings of rage, fear, and despair.
I grew up with a narcissistic father. Our home was suffused with his grandiosity, his exaggerations, his uninformed opinions. Mother, for reasons I couldn’t understand, didn’t contradict or question him. If I complained to her in private about his bullying, she’d say, “Your father loves you.” It felt crazy. Mother warned us not to speak of what went on at home to our friends. Dad’s rages were a closely guarded secret. There was no predicting what might set him off.
I withheld from Dad what he wanted and expected of me: affirmation, loyalty, devotion. I vowed I’d be factual and avoid using his imperatives. This is the greatest, isn’t it?! I was so invested in being not-like-father, it took me years of therapy to discern my identity separate from his.
I thought my reactive days were behind me, but the triggers for post-traumatic-Dad stress are escalating. Trump fires Comey, dashing my hope for someone to stand up to him. I feel the rage underlying Trump’s tweeted “tapes” threat. In the Oval Office photo with Russian officials, Trump’s face mirrors Dad’s boyish infatuation with power. Through an absence of appropriate boundaries, Trump exposes and betrays a vulnerable source. And, now, Paul Ryan sounds like Mother. “No leaks. This is how we know we’re a real family…”
When I’m able, I detach from the news, but anyone who’s grown up amidst family dysfunction will tell you about their hyper-vigilance, their need to be aware, at all time, of where the danger lies.
And so, I sit at my computer and I write. It’s confessional, an acknowledgment of what God already knows is churning inside me. It helps me to identify the feelings I need to set aside in order to access the still and silent God-place within. Writing, for me, is centering, like prayer.
There is a response to my outpouring. Newfound understanding and compassion for my emotional flashbacks make it possible to move on to activities that bring me joy. I gaze at the seedlings on my office windowsill and decide it’s time to plant them in my garden.
Marcia Krause Bilyk is a retired pastor, who works part-time in a long-term residential treatment center for chronic relapse addicts. Her work has appeared in Gravel, The Interpreter, Five2One, Drunk Monkeys, and The Upper Room.
May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments
In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”
That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.
Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.
I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”
That was my dad talking.
That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.
Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.
That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.
There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?
Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.
May 15, 2017 § 10 Comments
By Jacob Little
I have several friends from various parts of the literary world who joke (with varying degrees of sincerity) about how nonfiction writers are “narcissists” or “navel-gazers” or even “cheaters” (announcing before you tell a story that it is true ratchets up the emotional investment and is a good way to disguise weak material or poor craft—or so a friend once told me). Aside from the numerous problems with these assertions, the charge of “self-involved” seems particularly hard to shake. How to explain a twenty-page story with oneself as the main character? Or even worse(!), a full-length book? (A beloved former poetry professor used to call them ME-moirs)
The obvious counter is to point out the hypocrisy of the assertion. What short story, novel, or poem has ever been anything other than the author exploring their own obsessions? The material may be different, but the self is present in all writing (and all art, by extension). We funnel our experiences and beliefs into our work.
But this is probably little more than a dodge. There is a difference between what drives and compels us to make art, and the content of the art itself. Why do we often choose ourselves for material, as if we are the most interesting or important subjects to consider? If you have one biographical story then fine, but why keep going back to that particular well?
It helps me to think of writing nonfiction as performing a live, theatrical self-autopsy. One might similarly point out why wouldn’t you perform the autopsy on someone else? Why is your body so interesting? And I’d answer the same way I do when explaining why I write nonfiction; “I have no moral or intellectual authority over someone else’s body. With my body, I may do as I choose. I know it better than I will ever know someone else’s. When I am the one with the scalpel, I may tell you what each cut has done to my body, what it feels like. I can point out each scar and attempt to tell you its origin.”
So we have ethical and factual authority over ourselves as material. We can speak to our own authenticity and accuracy, according to our actual experience. But why is this important? Why does it matter if you’re simply telling an audience about your—a single human’s—experience of being alive? Why should anyone else care at all?
For some reason, when talking about the self-dissection that occurs in nonfiction, we sometimes talk about it as if we are dissembling a machine in order to learn more about the machine itself; writing about the self is not merely a way to understand the self. That’s a part of it, for sure: “Jacob Little reporting from the field: I’m a human and it feels like this.” But when we are tempted to think this way, we should remind ourselves to look less at the frog’s formaldehyde-soaked intestines and more at what those intestines reveal about the world outside of the frog.
After all, long before humanity had begun the long, dirty work of mapping our bodies’ various humors and machinery, Babylonians practiced autopsies on animals. They did not do this to learn more about a crow’s intestines or a cat’s liver. Despite whatever its ransacked and inventoried appearance might suggest, the animal itself was never the thing revealed. Instead, the Babylonians believed that examining the innards of animals was a way of communicating with the gods. In humanity’s earliest days, pulling apart the bodies of animals allowed us to see into the future, to understand a purpose to our otherwise senseless, chaotic lives.
And so, when we’re pulling ourselves apart on a stage for readers, we aren’t just staring at our disembodied pancreas, trying to work it out for our own sake. Instead, we are holding up the organ to ask everyone in the room “do you recognize this?” and “what the fuck is this for?” and “what does this pancreas say about the mind of God?” If you rip apart a pocket watch, a laptop, a couch from IKEA, a human body, you will learn a great deal about the thing itself, but also about how things like these tend to work.
Good nonfiction—like all good story writing—extrapolates, tries to make sense of chaos, looks for similarities and signs and portents even in a bowl of Wendy’s chili. This isn’t, of course, accurate. At least, not any more than examining a bird’s entrails for messages from God. But we’re in the stone ages here. Our communication is hopeless at explaining our bodies, concerns, and experiences, woefully inadequate to engage our intellect, emotion, or consciousness on the level we are capable of. The best pieces of writing advertise their own failure to the reader, reminding us that story is artifice, that this autopsy is being recorded—and what’s worse, the doctor knows it. This acknowledgement is a cause for lament as well as celebration.
This lack of real connection leaves me, personally, feeling severed, separated. Every body outside my own must be a foreign object. There can be no pretense at comprehending someone else’s thoughts, motives, or desires, especially when I know so little of my own. And so, when I write about myself, it is not because I’m obsessed with understanding myself, it’s because I’m obsessed with understanding the rest of you. I see in myself some of the same organs you have, and am compelled to examine what’s inside of me for even miniscule, imperfect implications about the depths contained within all of you.
Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and a PhD candidate at Ohio University. You can find his poetry and nonfiction in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Yemassee. He’s been radioactive since 1733. You can follow him at @little_jaycup and jacoblittle.net.