Why Can’t I Do This At Home?

October 15, 2019 § 19 Comments

I’m leading a writing retreat in Tuscany right now. It’s glorious—good coffee, leisurely multi-course lunches, candlelit dinners. Oh, and we’re writing, too. Each morning after breakfast, everyone checks in with what we’re working on that day, and what, specifically, we’d like to finish before lunch. At the end of writing time, we check back in: did we accomplish what we set out to do? What’s next?

If only we could write with this much focus all the time. Do we have to spend money and fly long distances? How can someone with kids and pets and a full-time professional life find mental space for their deep, committed work at home?

Yesterday, writer Cary Tennis, a Salon columnist and co-author of Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done came to lunch, and took us all through a Finishing-School style workshop. It was pretty simple. We went around the table:

Round One: What we’re working on, the title, and our ultimate goal for the manuscript

Round Two: A specific time we’re going to be able to write when we get home, written into our calendar

Round Three: What we will work on related to our project in that specific time

It was astonishing how challenging it was for six driven, committed, regular writers to pick a specific time and name a specific task. We have partners and children and jobs, meals to cook, other trips to take, weddings and school events to attend. We have side hustles and on-call time and ten-hour shifts we know will stretch to twelve hours. Cary encouraged us to pick a time anyway, saying it’s better to reschedule a specific time to another specific time than make a general commitment to possibly have time…sometime. Task-wise, some of us had an idea of where we’d be in our manuscripts next week or next month; others said they’d wait until the end of the retreat to pick a goal for the at-home session. We were all well aware that our best-laid plans would be subject to the vagaries of our personal and professional lives.

photo by Tawnya Bragg

At the end, we paired up and committed to text our writing buddy when we started our scheduled work and when we finished. No evaluation or page-swapping or critique, just “I’m going to do this” and “I did this.”

A retreat is accountability on steroids. Here and now, we’re in a tiny medieval town with historic buildings and great views and nothing else. As former resident Boccaccio said, “In Certaldo, you can hear an ass bray from one end of town to the other.” Each morning, we’re surrounded by positive peer pressure to name a step in our project and carry it out at a scheduled time, and that time is now. An editor (me) is there to give immediate feedback on new work. Huge amounts of mental energy and physical time are freed up by not shopping for, preparing, serving, or cleaning up after meals (plus every course is a delightful surprise!). Can we take this feeling into our work at home?

Probably not.

Sorry.

But the primary value of a retreat is feeling like we have enough time, and what we can do at home is change how we approach our creative projects. Most of us have big ambitions, and in the long run, that’s good. But Cary pointed out that in the first week of his Finishing School workshops, writers often set lofty goals for the number of hours they’ll work or words they’ll generate, goals most of them won’t meet. He doesn’t discourage them, because attempting and failing gives visceral insight into what we’re actually capable of accomplishing. Once we’ve adjusted our expectations, we can make smaller goals that give us satisfaction to achieve, and create momentum.

We can’t change the laws of physics or the behavior of our family and colleagues, but we can limit the writing tasks we set ourselves to fit the time we have. Wanting to write for three hours and stopping after fifteen minutes to settle a fight about who has to clean up cat barf is frustrating and discouraging. But the feeling of “Hey, I set out to edit two pages and I did” makes us want to do it again tomorrow—in the time we have.

We can’t all dash off to a stunning location to be cosseted with meals and editorial support, but we can allow ourselves the grace of small steps. Pick a time. Write it in the calendar. Pick a task. Make it small. And revel in the glorious feeling of I wrote today in the time I had.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow Rebirth Your Book on Instagram, and writers Cathy Gatto Brennan, Casey Mulligan Walsh, Karen Fine, Jenny Currier and Tawnya L. Bragg to enjoy more inspirational writing-in-Tuscany photos.

Taking a Social Media-Free Day

October 14, 2019 § 3 Comments

Manzella photoBy Abby Manzella

Today is a social media-free day.

What that means is I will get through a solid draft of this essay without my mind straying. What that means is I won’t have little hazy moments when my focus drifts to blankness as I pretend that I can multi-task.

I used to remind my students that you can’t actually multi-task. Science has shown that you’re never truly doing two things at once. Instead, as you shift back and forth between two ideas, you lose a great deal of time because each move requires your brain to readjust, leaving you with two tasks much more poorly done than if you’d done them separately. This is not surprising. This is true.

This is true, I again remind myself.

As I watch the words build without the distracting shot of adrenaline from the phone’s vibration and the laptop’s beep, I think of Pavlov, and how well we’ve been trained like dogs to retreat to our treats. I long for the blue light that sometimes flashes on my phone. Our phones have trained us to receive a dopamine burst even through a signal light. Many of our senses are covered: sound, sight, and touch. If programmers could only figure out how to deliver taste and smell, our food-centered selves would do nothing but tweet.

As I complain, though, I watch the words accumulating and do not open another desktop window.

Now you may not have words that you need to write. Instead, you may have a book to read. Numbers to crunch. Children to tend. The point is still the same. At the end of the day I can count the lost hours to hearts and likes. At the end of the day, I know a great deal of trivia, and I feel a great deal of anger from the political rants I’ve read. I also suffer the fear that we are sharing with those who don’t wish us well. In this regard, I mostly worry about money scammers, but there are many forms of evil lurking on the other sides of our screens. Mostly, though, I worry about the depth of the conversations we’re having, the bubbles we’re creating, and the rage we’re spreading without seeking on-the-ground solutions.

All that said, note that I stated that today is a social media-free DAY—not week, not forever. Maybe not even through the evening. I protect myself in whatever ways I can and hope that the government might step up some more protections for us, as well, but for now, I’m staying online because there is still so much that I get from social media.

I still get to hear from childhood friends and those I’ve met along the way. It’s even a nice way to stay up-to-date with those who are a little too busy even while they are merely across town. Online I’ve also built my own small platform for my writing—I hate the word “platform,” but thus it has been termed. (Feel free to follow me to see!) I learn about public events that do take concerns from my glowing screens to the streets. Through it all, I get to hear about how other people are coping with their everyday lives both professionally and personally. All of that is reassuring.

The personal connections seem more straightforward: it’s fun to see what a friend who moved to the West Coast is doing and to know that she’s in town for the week. On the professional front, though, some of the connections are less obvious. Yesterday, I read an article that theorized how we are currently analyzing television shows; it was helpful for my own work. Here is how I found out about it:  Someone I knew in graduate school—for a year almost twenty years ago—had asked on social media where he should publish a piece he had written. When someone else, whom I didn’t know offline, suggested a certain magazine, my grad school friend mentioned the greatness of a piece he’d read there…and off I clicked to read it because of its mention and his recommendation.

This find was something I was unlikely to have stumbled upon without the circuitous trails of social media. I appreciate that social media has kept me in touch with this former colleague and that such a connection continues to help me with my work. Thus, the digital space of social media is something that has become one of my popular culture research loops. You never quite know what is going to breed the next idea, but you follow that trail when it sparks a little something like Marie Kondo-ian joy inside of you, and off your typing fingers run.

Yes, I wish that I could figure out better ways to trash those scrolling things from the start that don’t spark joy, and I do some of that. Even so, there is a lot of unwanted garbage to wade through, but that is the case with much of our learning from the world around us and even the books we read.

So, while this is a social media-free day, tomorrow won’t be. I’d love to sit down to tea with you, but such is mostly not in our daily options. Instead, I’ll see what you’re up to on social media. I’ll give you a like, a heart, and a stray comment and hope we can continue to know each other.

See, I got through the whole draft without a single interruption. I feel a bit more refreshed from avoiding the ping-ponging of the beeps and lights. I might even go outside. As the sun sets, though, I know I’ll be back to some online research and more social media connections.
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Abby Manzella is a writer and critic who has published with sites such as Lit Hub, The Rumpus, The MillionsBust, and Kenyon Review. Her scholarly book Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Migrations was named by Choice Reviews as an Outstanding Academic Title for the year. Follow her on Twitter @AbbyManzella or on Facebook @AbbyManzellaAuthor. She’ll be there–on and off.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Alive and Well  

October 11, 2019 § 15 Comments

DAHickmanBy D. A. Hickman

In an era of sameness and overt conformity, when conventional wisdom outshines a legitimate yearning for personal wisdom, I cling ever more closely to my intuition. The human pack, in other words, runs one way, but I, like Minneapolis native, author Robert Pirsig, am committed to viewing the common path with a skeptical eye before setting out, or wholeheartedly, joining in.

Especially when making seemingly innocuous choices, I avoid mainstream currents by noticing what feels meaningful, as opposed to traditional and automatic. I read slowly, for instance, with intention, books I’ve carefully, or carelessly, sidestepped.

Why not resist the formidable rush of a frayed culture, the oft-perceived need to worship speed, by examining my assumptions and habitual reactions? Besides, investing energy in what I’m sure I don’t want to do is likely to generate a viable path to untapped energy, a multi-layered sense of discovery.

Motorcycle Maintenance

Admittedly, as a discerning author and reader, I’ve brushed aside books because of hasty first-impressions: covers, titles, or slightly strange author photos, that didn’t resonate.

For a painful number of years, I had even avoided Robert Pirsig’s bestselling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for such superficial reasons. A disinterest in an annoying piece of thunderous metal called a motorcycle had led me astray.

But, having studied sociology in graduate school, I was intrigued by the subtitle: An Inquiry into Values. I believe that cultural values lead to profound insights into the underpinnings of society, providing a roadmap to the unspoken, the unnoticed, the abandoned.

Still, sentiments of “I should read it” didn’t get me moving.

An April Death

My husband had a worn twenty-fifth anniversary edition floating around our house, and periodically, it surfaced when we culled books to donate to our used bookstore. Seeing it, I’d pick it up, flip through, and think: later on, when I have time. Then I caught the news.

The 88-year-old author who defied the literary gods in getting Zen published (William Morrow, 1974) had died on April 24, 2017.

The headline hit me with a painful sense of urgency. I’d, in fact, procrastinated so long that Pirsig had perished. The very poignancy of time—its brazen passage, its troubling complications—finally resolved the lingering issue for me.

I found the book, tucked in a bookmark, added it to a sizeable stack of must-read books near my bed. When relaxed, yet focused, and our house is pleasantly quiet, I read these gems—books I’ve wanted to read yet failed to read—two, maybe three, pages at a time. An informal mindfulness practice, if you will. A creative, surprisingly effective, way to row against the fierce current of trends, the monotonous rush to get somewhere, and the exhausting promotion of “popular, must-read books” that rarely reach us intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally. I prefer authors who dare to build their stories without all the glitter—who, like determined explorers, let things deepen slowly, imperceptibly so.

At long last, Pirsig’s Zen, all 425 pages of it, had a real—even honorable—place in my life, and the infamous, yet mysterious, Phaedrus was destined to surface once more.

Geographic Connection

The author broke through more layers of unjustified resistance when he mentioned South Dakota. I knew, and loved, this terrain. Would his perception of the plains, the wide-open prairie, sound authentic or contrived? Did he “get” the place I call home—the lonely tree near a long stretch of gravel road, the sky that permits no doubt or hesitation, the unique, yet humble, place I’d written about in my book (Where the Heart Resides: Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie, William Morrow, 1999)?

The cross-country motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son, Chris, originated in Pirsig’s hometown, Minneapolis, ended in California, but early on, as they approached eastern Dakota, Pirsig aptly described the psychic impact of space and empty roads, noting he felt “lulled” by tranquil thoughts of “wind sweeping…across open fields of the prairie.”

Relishing this surprising personal connection, I looked forward to resuming, without fail, my long overdue journey with Pirsig. And when I read his closing words, I realized, a book I’d senselessly avoided for so long, had almost nothing to do with motorcycles, per se. Meditative in nature, contemplative in style, reading about his observations and personal journey—his deep dive into quality and organizational dynamics—harmonized perfectly with a slow, intentional read. Pirsig’s message came through in neon letters.

Each breath, a critical form of life maintenance; each decision, a link to all the other pieces we must try to understand. Perseverance, patience, and the ability to confront obstacles within by not succumbing to the wild, ever-changing cultural winds are how we unravel the secrets of the universe.

As I noted the two-year anniversary of Pirsig’s death this past year, on April 24, 2019, and gingerly anticipated the 2020 anniversary (Will the planet still be here? What might the noted author tell us about motorcycle trips and the creeping power of climate change?), I felt extremely grateful for an insightful warrior who wrote a book that, unlike us, will never expire. Not even when allowed to collect dust on an old bookshelf.
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D.A. (Daisy) Hickman, an avid student of culture and society, writes to connect more deeply to the complexities of the human condition. Her upcoming memoir, A Happy Truth: Last Dogs Aren’t Always Last, is about spirited dogs, clever cats, and fortuitous decisions. Previous titles include The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, and Ancients of the Earth: Poems of Time. Hickman studied sociology (M.S.) at Iowa State University and completed her undergraduate work at Stephens College. To connect with the author, visit her website at SunnyRoomStudio.com, and find her on Twitter @dhsunwriter or Facebook. At work on a new poetry collection, Sometimes We Fly, Hickman lives in a small college town in eastern South Dakota with her husband and spirited schnauzers, Hannah and Georgia.

 

National Writer’s Work Day

October 9, 2019 § 14 Comments

m fraterrigoBy Melissa Fraterrigo

During the polar vortex last winter, when the middle school and the college where I adjunct was cancelled for two whole days and delayed for the other three, I sat my twin 10-year-old daughters on the couch and read to them the first chapter of my YA novel-in-progress. “Just tell me what seems interesting,” I said, and began to read. E stretched her nightgown over her knees and rocked back and forth. When J pushed her hair back, I glanced at her face for signs of boredom.

Outside minus-twenty degree winds whipped the brick façade and snow curled up tree bases. The walls moaned in response, but inside we were cozy in pajamas and slippers. I came to the end of the first chapter and looked up. E immediately darted, said she had to go to the bathroom.

“Wow, that’s good,” said J.

“Should I read more?”

She shrugged. “If you want to.” Of course I wanted to only J said, “maybe later?”

The swings at the next-door park wagged back and forth as if weighted with invisible bags of cement, and the other twin, back from the bathroom, went to find the Monopoly board. I sat there and watched them scurry off and released the breath I didn’t know I had been holding.

I never participated in National Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day when I was my daughters’ ages in the 1980s. My dad worked as a hospital pharmacist and switched jobs on average every four years. He’d accept a position in an ailing facility, whip it into shape, and then leave for another pharmacy where he’d offer this same service. Now I see this trait continues in me, where on the page I am drawn to the thrill of a new idea and sometimes lose energy when the process overwhelms. Unlike my dad, who needed his job to keep my brother, sister, and me in shoes and cereal, I could choose to stop writing and sending out work. I could simply teach. On bad days, the temptation to let it go gleams as bright as a trophy.

“It’s really good,” J said pausing beside me. “I like how in your book you have that school assignment,” she said. “It makes the story seem real.”

The heater kicked on, a warm pulse striking from above. With their postures from that morning during the Polar Vortex in mind, I continued to work on the novel’s opening the rest of winter.

I write on a slanted desk in our basement, books towering beside it. Once this winter I glimpsed J hovering in front of my desk where I had fixed the manuscript inside a three-ring binder. Seeing her standing there, reading my writing inside the confines of our home thrilled me.

Later, when I picked up her empty cereal bowl from the table she blurted, “Questions of a Warrior reminds me of something I’ve read.”

“It does?”

She shook her head. “I mean it reads like something that should be published.” I thanked her, delighted by her words, but also concerned by them. As a child I felt the weight of my dad’s displeasure when he’d return from work frustrated by hospital administrators. I’d crack a joke when he seemed sullen. I tiptoed around when the hook of his jaw set. It took years before I was able to see how I’d tried to absolve him of his anxieties and somehow, forty some years later, I worry the same cycle repeats.

For a writer, the power of Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day is to share with one’s progeny our deepest selves. For there is no doubt that when I began reading my novel’s opening aloud that I hoped my daughters would be as motionless as the ice-glazed light posts outside.

What is it about writers that make us crave affirmation?

If I had a day off school, Mom might take us to Lincoln Elementary, where she worked as the school nurse. She’d charge us with filing papers or cleaning peak flow meters for the asthma support group. I’d only go without complaint if she promised us lunch at McDonald’s. I had little interest in being at the nurse’s station. But now, as a parent, I crave my own daughters’ understanding and approval of my work.

At the end of the day, it is difficult for me to demonstrate the results of my efforts. Words and pages accrue and now, after more than four years, there are 77,000 of them in book form and yet that work guarantees little.  Reading to my daughters from my start of my novel, listening to their reactions, I was bringing them into the dark uncertainty of writing. This place is my office, the bricks and mortar of my occupation. I am writer and teacher and parent. And there is no water cooler that brings together all of it.

Imagine an actual suite where all writers work. Tiny offices with desks and solid wood doors, a bright open space with a long table where writers could heat up their leftover soup and ask each other about that morning’s progress. Once a year, the entire office would host Take Your Son or Daughter to a Writer’s Work Day, and then I’d show my daughters where I wrote essays and revised stories. Maybe there would be an office coordinator who would lead all the children on a scavenger hunt so we writers could write. That night, during dinner, when my partner asked the girls about mommy’s work, I’d feel electrified—to be seen as a professional, for them to have seen me as more than a maker of scrambled eggs.

A few weeks ago, while tucking J into bed, I told her I loved her. “You’re my favorite author,” she said. I touched the end of her nose.

“Thank you. But you don’t have to say that.”

“I know,” she said. “I wanted to.”
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Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days  (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which was named one of “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from storySouth and  Shenandoah to Notre Dame Review, Sou’wester and The Millions. She teaches at IUPUI in Indianapolis and is the founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, where she teaches classes on the art and craft of writing.

How to Overcome Writer’s Block in 5 Simple Steps

October 7, 2019 § 12 Comments

SwetaVikram_Headshot_Brevityby Sweta Srivastava Vikram

If you are a writer, you have most definitely met your worst enemy: writer’s block. Aside from the inner critic that wins at ripping apart the writerly confidence, writer’s block can be a real catastrophe too. It can make you question your creative abilities, send you into a spiral about your identity, and make you ponder over your future, amongst other things. Writer’s block, like the indignant cold & cough, is impartial; it impacts most writers from time to time. Be it because of waning passion or unrealistic expectations or burn out or real-world distractions, most of us get stalled in our creative work.

Getting out of this sterile, uncreative funk is in the writer’s hands. While some might think that procrastinating or waiting for the muse to show up or writing only when you feel inspired or wallowing in self-pity or watching nonstop television or making excuses for the dry, creative spell might help overcome writer’s block…that’s not the case. Overcoming writer’s block takes sincere efforts. To get out of the funk, you have to take active steps and create momentum:

  1. Create a routine: After months of not being able to write because of personal and professional commitments in life, I open my laptop and a journal. Guess what? Nothing happens. Not even a word. For six days in a row, I show up. I swallow my pride (After having written and traditionally published 12 books inside 9 years, battling writer’s block isn’t easy for me), embrace my frustrations, and deal with another non-creative day before leaving for work. On the 7th day, I show up to my words and this time, my words transform into sentences and inside an hour, I write this essay. I am not trying to tell you that I am a genius: This productivity is attributed to conditioned response, something I learned from studying Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov’s, experiment with his dog. In a nutshell, whenever the dog heard the bell, he started to salivate. This was an association that Pavlov cultivated. I don’t have the luxury of being a full-time writer, so I have been training my mind to make an association when it sees my laptop and/or journal at the same time every day. A simple trick to get words moving on the page using conditioned response. The only guaranteed way of overcoming writer’s block is by writing. So, create a routine and follow it diligently. Practice. Practice. Practice.
  2. Free write: I was telling a dear friend of mine—who happens to be a psychotherapist—about the unintentional distance between me and words of late. Between my day job, running a business, and managing the home front, I don’t always find the creative juices flow instantaneously. She suggested changing how I envision writing. “Write for the joy of writing. Write for yourself. Not for the editor or publisher or to sell a piece.” She continued, “It doesn’t always have to be a completed essay or a blog post or an article or X number of words from a new book. Don’t try to say or produce anything; just get some words on paper or your laptop. A scribble in the journal. A tweet. An Instagram post—they all make for writing.” Aah, the power of free writing. I have to say…there is something liberating about writing without an agenda or a deadline or filters. The catharsis is real. You start to see words pour onto the page and morph into sentences and then paragraphs.
  3. Create bullet points on paper for ideas and brainstorming: I always bring a tiny journal with me wherever I go. Writing by hand connects you with the words and allows your brain to focus on them, understand them, and learn from them. Bullet points helps to stay organized and work as sunken treasures you can dip into when looking for ideas on a barren day. Writing down ideas in an organized way by hand gives your brain the space to think and concentrate on what it is you are writing about. Handwriting can be particularly useful during goal setting and brainstorming because it’s slower and more deliberate. It also helps improve memory. Research shows that writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters…the sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information. Writing on paper also allows us to break predefined formats and layouts.
  4. Change your environment: One other thing that helps me get out of the non-writing funk, aka writer’s block, is being mindful of my environment. What do I mean by that? Given that I haven’t hit the jackpot yet (*inserts sarcastic smile*), there is only so much space my New York City apartment can offer. I find parks and coffee shops and trains and make them home to my writing. But here is the deal: I keep each environment sacred to a particular genre. For instance, if my favorite coffee shop in the neighborhood is where I write nonfiction, I would never bring my poetry or fictional writing into that space. If poems pour in subways, nonfiction and fiction stay buried during the commute. Changing the environment can help with creativity.
  5. Walk away the block: Walking offers unique advantages to improve health and boost creativity. Research tells us that when a creative professional doesn’t get to write and express their creativity, they can get into depression. A nice brisk walk might be just what you need to stimulate your brain’s creativity and get you back in writing mode as walking unleashes creativity. Researchers from Stanford University have found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined the creativity levels of persons while they were walking and while they were sitting down. On average the creativity level of the walking people increased by 60 percent. Walking helps release creative juices along with endorphins. It circulates more oxygen and blood to the brain.

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In the end, don’t wait for the perfect moment, optimum word, or seamless spot to start writing and overcome writer’s block. Start somewhere, anywhere. A few words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Write something. Anything. Definitely don’t make excuses or justifications for not writing. Don’t be bogged down by perfectionism and eloquence. Start today wherever you are. It’s easier to pick up speed when you are in the habit of writing. You’ll be writing before you know it—conquering writer’s block and returning to creative work in due course. The idea is to get words on the page. Eventually, the writer’s block will become a distant memory.
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Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a mindset & wellness coach, global speaker, and best-selling author of 12 books, including, the recent Louisiana Catch. She helps entrepreneurs and creative professionals increase productivity through health and wellness. Winner of the “Voices of the Year Award” (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton and founders of the #MeToo movement), Sweta is also a five-times Pushcart Prize nominee. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications, across nine countries on three continents. A graduate of Columbia University, Sweta lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is also the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, which helps women share their stories, heal from trauma, and empower their mental health and lives using Ayurveda, yoga, and storytelling. Find her on: TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

On Leaving the Workshop Behind (For Now)

September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments

Marcia Trahanby Marcia Trahan

I’d always heard that writing a book was a grueling process, something you certainly didn’t take on alone.

After I got my MFA, I struggled, the way I thought I was meant to. I slowly, joylessly built essays about well-worn topics like living briefly in New York City during my twenties. With the help of a mentor, I tried to form a book-length collection, but I couldn’t find a cohesive theme.

Then I got lucky, at least from a creative standpoint. Dramatic things started happening to me.

At thirty-five, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and sixteen months later with pulmonary embolism. Both diseases warranted invasive medical procedures that left me physically and psychologically scarred.

Once I started writing about these experiences, I couldn’t stop. The words came easy and angry, bitterly humorous and filled with fear. I no longer had to force myself to sit at the desk. Rather, I had to force myself to leave the desk. The pages were piling up.

I brought an early draft of a chapter to a workshop at a writers’ conference. I wasn’t sure that I actually had the beginnings of a memoir, or the tenacity to finish one. As a freelance editor, I could cheer on clients when their motivation flagged, and help them break through the obstacles that kept them from completing their own books, but I didn’t know if I could give myself this kind of support.

I was stunned when my fellow students praised the chapter, which was about my hospitalization for pulmonary embolism. I was even more stunned when the instructor turned to me at the end of the discussion and said, “Marcia, you must write this book.”

I immediately knew she was right: I had to do this.

The feeling that I had experienced medicine as violence had led me to binge-watch true crime TV, the kind of lurid programs I had always avoided. I urgently needed to discuss what had happened to my body; and I needed to explore connections between life-saving treatment and this strange new preoccupation with bodily torment at the hands of criminals.

I returned to the same conference year after year, new chapters in hand, and always came away with fresh ideas and insights. During the twelve months in between workshops, I kept in touch with the writers I’d met, desperate not to disappear into the solitary labor of chiseling my story sentence by sentence—for that early intensity kept vanishing, and when it left me, writing was as hard as ever. With the support of others who struggled, I could face the gray days of revisiting terrifying medical procedures, of analyzing the darkness of my own mind.

Until the year when my workshop left me feeling lost.

It was no one’s fault. I had so much material by that point that selecting a twenty-five-page excerpt was a frustrating task. I ended up submitting parts of chapters, which made it hard for the other students to see where the story was going. They could only make suggestions about what was in front of them. They couldn’t possibly give me the big-picture analysis I needed.

I realized, with sadness and with no small measure of anxiety, that my workshop days were over, at least for now.

Could I actually finish the memoir without my annual boost from the group?

The universe seemed to be pushing me in that direction. But this went against all the advice I’d ever heard: Get feedback. Join critique groups. Find a mentor. Didn’t I promote the same ideas to my editing clients?

To my surprise, I found I needed to leave behind the multiple voices that had offered insight so that I could see what I thought of my book. At this stage, only I could make decisions about what succeeded and what didn’t. I would always be grateful for the generosity and the energy of the workshop, but now I had to depend on myself.

Freed from the desire to please readers, I was soon writing ecstatically about my illnesses and my subsequent obsession with death. I gloried in long afternoons at my desk, in late nights with the laptop on the living room couch. I was thrilled to discover the right words and images, glimmering in the light of day and glinting in the dark. Electrified by working hard and taking risks.

Of course, I had my painful days too, when I wept and cursed over seemingly unsolvable problems with structure, and doubted if I would ever finish the memoir. I still wanted to find my own way through obstacles. I wanted to resolve my own doubts. I was certain I was making mistakes, lots of them, but they were my mistakes.

Granted, I wasn’t totally alone. I sometimes showed portions of the book to my partner, Andy, an astute reader. And when at last I had a full draft, a year-and-a-half after my last workshop, I showed it to one writer whose judgment would be tough if it needed to be. She told me that after a few edits, I would be ready to submit the manuscript.

The memoir was accepted by a publisher in April 2019. I’m now working with my editors on changes—I was never so foolishly besotted with the writing process that I imagined my draft wouldn’t need revisions. Again, I’m immersed in insightful, challenging feedback, and actually relieved to have help once more. I’m taking pleasure in creative collaboration.

But I sometimes long for the sweet days and nights when it was just my memoir and me, for the almost holy passion of those hours. And, bundle of contradictions that I am, I also long for the excitement and comradery of the workshop. I trust that with my next book, I’ll know when to embrace the group and when to go it (almost) alone.
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Marcia Trahan’s essays and poetry have appeared in Fourth Genre, anderbo, Connotation Press, and other publications. Her debut memoir, Mercy, a story of medical trauma and true crime obsession, is forthcoming from Barrelhouse Books in spring 2020. Find her on Twitter: @MarciaTrahan.

11 Reasons Why Doing Stand-up Comedy Has Made Me A Better Writer

September 27, 2019 § 2 Comments

carmella comedy clubBy Carmella de los Angeles Guiol

  1. It gets me writing. Ever since I started doing stand-up, I find that I’m constantly jotting down ideas in my notebook—way more than before! Perhaps I feel less pressure when it comes to stand-up and therefore, I’m more energized and motivated when it comes to creating material.
  2. Stand-up comedy is just another avenue for self-expression. I have many thoughts and ideas that I don’t want to write an entire essay about, but I’d still like to express them. Comedy gives me the chance to explore themes that I wouldn’t necessary explore on the page.
  3. Truth makes the best comedy, and the audience will sniff out any hint of inauthenticity—a good lesson to learn both on and off the page, no matter what kind of writing you do. Good stand-up is based on personal experience; as a memoir writer, stand-up comedy has allowed me to hone my voice and find out what matters most to me.
  4. Having to speak my words aloud is good practice for the page. In comedy, like with prose, syntax matters. The way you structure your punchline can be the difference between a room full of laughs or dead silence. Writing for comedy has made me pay closer attention to syntax in a way that translates positively to my longform writing.
  5. In comedy, there’s a clear goal: make people laugh. I’ve begun to think about what goal I have for my prose writing. This can help me streamline what projects I work on and how I go about them. It’s another reminder to infuse any writing I do with intention, from drafting a joke to working on the 10th draft of a mammoth essay.
  6. Trim the fat. In comedy, it’s all about getting to the essence of your joke with the least number of words. As a long-winded writer, this is a great lesson for me.
  7. Kill your darlings. The crowd will give you instant feedback—either your joke is funny, or it’s not. If it’s not working, it’s important to ask—why not? Is this helping me pursue my goal of making people laugh or is it getting in the way of what I’m trying to say? As writers, we fall in love with the sentences we spend hours working on, but sometime we just have to learn to let them go.
  8. It’s all part of the process. Like with each essay or story draft, each set is a chance to tweak, learn and improve. During a set, I may add something new, take away something, or do something totally spontaneous. I always record my performance so that I can review it later, the same way athletes do. I study my performance to see how it lands with the crowd. While we don’t usually get instant feedback when writing, it’s important to have beta readers who can share the way a piece landed on them emotionally.
  9. Take the long view. No set is going to make or break your career, same as no rejection is going to be the end of you as a writer.
  10. Get out from behind the computer and get out into the world! My writing mentor Heather Sellers always said that being in the chair is just as important as being out of it—it’s what you do when you’re not in the chair that makes all the difference. Stand-up comedy is a hobby that brings me joy while also sharpening my craft as a writer.
  11. Comedians just wanna have fun. Even though it’s a lot of work writing jokes, attending open mic nights and waiting late into the night for my turn on the mic, the essential truth is that I love making people laugh. That’s why I do go through the trouble to do stand-up. Although it would be fantastic to get famous and have an hour-long Netflix special, that’s not the goal. The goal is to make people laugh. Same with writing. Writing, revision, editing, and submitting is a lot of work, and it would be fantastic to be rewarded with a spot on The New York Times bestseller’s list, but I write because I love to write. I love to work with words, share ideas, and express myself on the page. Whether I make it big or not—on stage or on bookshelves—I’ll still be happy because I’ve spent my life doing something I love.__

Carmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Pushcart-nominated writer, educator, and polyglot. She is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship in Colombia as well as Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. Her haiku about starfruits can be found at a Miami bus stop and stamped on a sidewalk. Check out her newsletter, Dispatches from a Digital Life.

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