The Periphery: Preserving Your Writing Time (and Focus)

October 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

lizmBy Liz Matthews

The anatomy of my eyeballs is in trouble and I’ll need laser surgery to widen the canals.

“Don’t look this up on the internet,” my ophthalmologist says to me twice during my initial consult.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “my imagination is worse than the internet.” I don’t tell him that I didn’t even Google ‘what’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?’ before this appointment. I don’t explain that as a writer, I prefer to linger in this hazy space, on the periphery of truth and fact.

On the same morning that I learn I am among the 10% of the population who has small eyes, I also hear on the radio that in today’s culture, we are distracted every eleven minutes, and that it takes twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. No wonder. No wonder when I finally catch up with my college roommate or talk to my sister who lives across the country, I can’t focus afterwards. No wonder when I finally sit down to write, my mind is too crowded with not just to-do-lists, but also conversations, the idea of a full inbox, and voices that say about me, “you don’t really like to text, do you?”

In my writing workshops, I encourage my students to write on the spot about something they know nothing about without using Google. “May I just look something up quickly?” one of them asks. No. It defeats the purpose of the exercise, to imagine what it feels like to be, say, a miner or an opera singer. Now I will also share that it would take some time – more than twenty minutes – to recover from that distraction. If we allow ourselves the opportunity to always be distracted, how can we be creative?

I am in the process of revising a novel that involves a high school student who spends a lot of time in the art studio. I have been trying to get in touch with a woman from my hometown who became an art teacher at our high school. We exchanged a few emails, but didn’t land on a date to get coffee or even talk on the phone. A few weeks later, I run into her at a mutual friend’s party. I tell her that her voicemail is full. Should I email her instead?

“I rarely check my phone or email, but keep trying me.” She is unapologetic, which is unfamiliar and inspiring. She is also a fine artist – a painter – and a mom to two small children. She is not teaching right now so she can spend more time on her art. “Just keep trying my phone. If I’m free, I’ll answer.”

I replay this conversation in my mind for weeks following the party. Here’s a different approach for how to stay focused to make creative work. Even if we sneak in phone calls here and there, we have to take into account the time it takes to process these conversations. We have to allow room for how these external voices will inform our work, will continue to distract us. We can still ensure our family’s safety, still be accessible, without becoming Google or Wikipedia or Alexa – always available to answer questions, to provide small talk responses on text.

At the party where I run into my old high school friend, she says, “I’m curious what you wanted to ask me about teaching art.”

“Just about the classroom, the type of kids who take art these days, the assignments you give. Do any of them have nose rings?”

She explains about the self-portraits she assigns, how the middle school students aren’t mature enough to stare at their reflection for long periods of time, how this assignment is best suited for high school students, who know and understand themselves better. I imagine my sixteen-year-old self, staring at my reflection. The teenager who doesn’t know yet that her eyes are considered small, that her teeth will become crooked again, and that nearly three decades later, she’ll still want to write. I also recognize how useful this anecdote is for the teenage character I’m working on, who is struggling with her identity, how this assignment could showcase some interior monologue as she considers her reflection. I wonder if this exchange would have come across through email – or even over a phone conversation. As we make eye contact, I see this friend as the teenage artist who painted murals in the art store in the center of town. She also always knew what she wanted to be.

I tell my writing students that it’s important to quiet your mind before writing, to take a walk, meditate, wake up early, do whatever you need to do to be open to your creative voice and to silence your judgmental voice. But now I have this to offer – think about what you do before you sit down to write. Think about how you procrastinate. Maybe you shouldn’t make that call until later. Maybe you shouldn’t be so vigilant about cleaning out that inbox. If someone needs to reach you, they will reach you.


Liz Matthews received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008. Her writing has been published at The Rumpus, Brain Child, Quality Women’s Fiction, and Town & Country online. She lives in Connecticut with her family, and teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop.




Living in Post-Manuscript Limbo

October 10, 2018 § 9 Comments

chelseydrysdalephoto-1By Chelsey Drysdale

A year ago, I finished an overhaul of my manuscript. Since then, I’ve existed in that anticipatory space between first completed memoir and accepting agent, when all literary momentum has stalled.

I write about love, sex, and relationships. As a 45-year-old who has forgotten how to date, I’ve already covered (almost) all the noteworthy, sordid details in the book. Waving sayonara to a trail of men that could fill a hockey roster, my romantic future is murky, so now what?

I have an essay on submission that started as a 4,000-word piece I whittled in workshop until my first mentor said it was ready for the “done pile.” When I removed it from my original manuscript, I renovated it into a 900-word essay about how I’ve always loved emotionally unavailable men, but no longer pursue them. I did research. I included outside sources. A haunted house figures prominently, and as it was early October last year when I sent it to publication number one; it was timely for Halloween.

Early rejections were promising. I was told, “This is a lovely read, but not quite the right fit for us.” One publication said, “We’re super full,” but “pitch this all over.” The “Halloween peg” was a plus. Halloween came and went, so did Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. Positive feedback turned to silence after an editor I once worked with at The Washington Post said, “Oh boy, can I relate to this one!” But, unfortunately, “relatable isn’t enough to make something stand out on the Internet anymore.” In addition to personal, it also had to be newsworthy.

Then, six years after I first began the essay, I sent it to a friend who provides keen feedback. She advised I ditch the quotations because they distracted from the flow of the piece. She was right. They were an attempt to please an imaginary online editor. My eagerness to press ‘send’ was revitalized.

But now Halloween is upon us again, and I’m on submission number 17, wondering if I should give up after 20. Because of the brush-offs, I doubt the essay’s merit and wonder if the other 11 essays I’ve published since 2014 were flukes. You had a good run, I tell myself. Maybe it’s over. The stillness in my self-created purgatory has conjured the tiny, mean voice in my head that once successfully urged me to quit writing for two years. It’s pestering me again, but this time, I can’t quit. I have a well-earned manuscript that’s not too shabby. So, I must thwart my brain’s wishes and push forward.

That’s why I continue to query agents and revise my book proposal. To date, I’ve queried 49 agents, including one in person and one referred. Five are pending. I considered that excessive until I saw a suggestion on Facebook to make a list of 40 agents, query 10 at a time, and do that three times before reevaluating the angle. Do 120 agents who accept smutty memoirs without happy endings even exist?

Submitting and querying are both excellent ways to avoid writing and still feel like I’m accomplishing something while I summon new topics. I could set up another Bumble profile and leave it up for more than three days at a time, but then I’d have to talk to dubious strangers and maybe even meet them in person. To gather fresh material for my writing, I have to be open to new love, right?

Maybe not.

When the #metoo movement began, my first thought was thankfully, I don’t have any stories like that. Then an overlooked incident from the late ‘90s immediately revealed itself, and I turned to the blank page and filled it. I considered capitalizing on that “newsworthy” angle. But, staring at new content about an old incident, I wasn’t sure what the point was. It needed to steep. It’s still steeping. After an important realization later, I put the incomplete piece in the same Word document with an unpublished essay I began more than 10 years ago, another casualty of my revised manuscript. I puzzled out how they relate, and then something scary happened. I thought this needs to be fiction, and I can’t unthink it. But I don’t write fiction.

I’ve often undervalued myself—in relationships and writing. Fiction requires an imagination I’m not sure I possess. I wrote a short story during my teaching credential program 19 years ago and read it in class, sobbing. I haven’t tackled fiction since. So, instead of writing a short story, I’m reading about how to write a short story, pulling old craft texts off my shelf, including a stellar one written by someone who lost his job for sexual misconduct.

My literary career and love life hover in the balance, and I’m perpetuating this indeterminate state. If I don’t write, I can’t fail. If I don’t date, I won’t be rejected again. Both are defense mechanisms that stem from the same unfounded fears. I may be an anxious person, but I’m also adept at eventually running into the eye of the storm with my eyes closed. So, I signed up for a fiction writing workshop. I will leap into the great unknown, scared as usual, but willing nonetheless.

Maybe by next Halloween I’ll publish that pesky essay or receive an email from an agent who’s intrigued. By then, my nebulous short story, crying out to be told, may have taken shape.

Until then, I’ll deal with the silence. I’m a pro at limbo. I can wait.

Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington PostThe Manifest-StationBustleBrevityRavishlyBlack Fox Literary MagazineLuna Luna MagazineReservoir JournalBook Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

An Aging Writer’s Guide to Vision Problems

October 5, 2018 § 7 Comments

By Karen Zey




Karen Zey is a Canadian writer with a youthful spirit and aging eyes. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Cleaver, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Memoir Magazine, Prick of the Spindle and other places. Karen received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2015. You can find her sipping tea at a Pointe-Claire neighborhood cafe, on Twitter @zippyzey or at

On Writing, Time, and Tangling with Leonard Bernstein

October 4, 2018 § 5 Comments

zz osheaBy Heather O’Shea

“Oh, no!” I thought. What have I done?

In recent weeks when kids were being shot at school, immigrant babies were being yanked away from their parents, and beloved icons were deciding they had had enough of life on this planet, I found myself quoting Leonard Bernstein. Specifically, a quote I found on the bulletin board in my church’s choir room: This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. 

Yes, I thought the first time I saw it. Yes—let’s double down on art and music and prove we still believe that love wins in the end. I love making music, and I believe in its redemptive power. When I’m not writing, you’ll likely find me singing in a choir or playing my piano, mandolin, or violin. But as weeks passed and the world kept spinning through a never-ending meteor shower of violence, I started losing patience with Bernstein’s words. He wrote them right after JFK was assassinated; he was replying to a specific act of violence that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I started working on a blog post in which I argued that making music wasn’t going to cut it this time. I wasn’t sure what I wanted my musician friends to do instead, but I didn’t want them to retreat to their studios and practice rooms and leave the rest of us out here alone, trying to pick up the pieces every time something new breaks. I worked on the essay for weeks, but I couldn’t make it work. Everything I wrote sounded too cynical. I finally left that post to languish in my drafts folder and moved on.

But something else Bernstein said started haunting me. I’ve recently made some huge changes. Not only did I leave my teaching job, my husband and I sold our house and are in the middle of a cross country move from New Mexico to Florida. I’ve cleared all the decks—work, the choir I sing in, violin lessons with my granddaughter. I’m moving away from everything and everyone I’ve been saying yes to for decades. My calendar is clear.

Instead of fitting writing in around the edges, in my new plan, all those edges will radiate out from a firm core of words. In just the first few months, I’ve completed the revisions on the novel I’ve been wrestling with for the past four years, guest-posted for another blogger, added new content on my own blog, and started sending out work that’s been gathering dust for years. In other words, I’m killing the new plan.

I’ve also adjusted my relationship to money and things, as it has become necessary to live a little more lightly in the world. I purged and packed and packed and purged until 3,400 square feet of house (who needs 3,400 square feet of house?) could fit into an 18-foot truck and whatever room my husband and the golden retriever don’t take up in the Subaru. I’m dreaming of spending my life sitting on the lanai, writing words that people actually read.

I’m training myself to say lanai instead of porch or patio or stoop since I am moving to Florida. I like lanai. It makes me think of Joan Didion. If I weren’t in the middle of a move, I could go to my bookshelf and look at my Joan Didion books and figure out why lanai makes me think of her. Unfortunately, my bookshelves were built-ins, so they are holding up someone else’s books and knick-knacks now. My books, if I can believe the man who drove away with them, are stashed in a warehouse in Austin. They should join me in Florida sometime in November, when my new house and its lanai are completed.

But I digress. Why did I start this essay with an “oh, no!”? During the weeks when I was busy clearing the decks and struggling to write a blog post arguing that playing music just won’t cut it this time, I stumbled on these other words, also supposedly spoken by Leonard Bernstein. “To achieve great things, two things are needed;” he says. “…a plan…”

Check. I’ve got a plan.

“…and not quite enough time.”

I flip through the newly blank pages of my planner, empty as a night without a dream. Oh, no, I think.

What have I done?

Heather O’Shea is a freelance writer and author of the blog Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Daily Good, the Notre Dame ReviewBlue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review. Heather left a career in business for a career in education, and just left that career to fulfill her dream of writing full-time (on or off the lanai). Any day now, she will be looking for a publisher for BookEnds, her first novel.

The Fire is a Lion: Writing at Rock Creek

October 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

zz FullSizeRender (6)By Emily H. Freeman

On the way to write with the boys from the group home, we turn off the highway at a piece of land adjacent to Rock Creek, the pristine fly-fishing stream that attracts anglers to Montana from around the world. Mountains loom in the distance, shaded in varying grays from the 20,000-acre wildfire burning in their midst — the Sapphire Complex, it’s called, a joining of what was once three smaller fires, each with its own evocative moniker: Sliderock. Goat Creek. Little Hogback.

Lily, my partner from a local watershed restoration organization, stops the truck and unlocks the gate, and in the distance I see a vast fenced-in area of dried-out dirt surrounding a small pond. It’s a construction scar from a failed development project, Lily explains, putting two words to something I’ve seen, but never named: construction scar. A thwarted attempt at change.

A white van rolls in behind us: four teenaged boys and two staff members of the group home where they live.

We hand out notebooks and pencils at the base of an old cottonwood snag, its sides stippled with perfectly round holes where birds have made feasts of what once lived beneath its bark. My job this morning is to write with these boys, and to be as present and encouraging as I can, in the hour that we’ll spend together. After we write, we’ll take care of the land.

The boys tell me their names, their ages. One says he loves to write, is working on a novel. Another, politely unabashed, tells me he doesn’t like writing at all. A third tells me that he sometimes writes raps and poems, and the fourth, a shy redhead, mumbles something inaudible, barely meets my gaze.

A woodpecker flies to the tree above us, perches on a high branch, as though listening. Lily points it out to the group. “Pileated,” she says. “Largest woodpecker in Montana.”

One by one, the boys turn their heads to look.

We talk about wildfires, about the smoke that’s been filling the valley for weeks, and I ask the boys to write about it.

With such a short time together, and little knowledge of their backstories, I throw out my best hopes for quick and fruitful writing prompts. I tell them to use their five senses, to imagine the fire as an animal, an emotion, metaphor.

Heads bend down to notebooks; pencils start to move. It’s quiet now, save for the intermittent roar of semis in the distance, the chattering of kestrels wheeling overhead. Through the trees behind us, Rock Creek throws its voice into the song.

When it’s time to share, the boys’ voices start quiet and tentative, growing in strength as they realize they have the group’s full attention. The fire is a lion, they say, a tiger, an unnamed mythical beast. It is greed, it is violence; it is an insatiable hunger. Some of the adults share what they wrote, as well, privileging the boys with their own vulnerability.

And then: it’s time. Too short, but writing is only a part of what we’re here to do. Bodies shift and notebooks are rounded up.

We shift our attention to the construction scar, brightly colored plastic flags marking spots where young plants are growing: black cottonwood and mock orange, choke cherry and rocky mountain maple. These are the plants that will restore the soil, create habitat, and heal the land.

The boys know the drill, having worked with Lily all summer long. They walk over to her truck, its bed filled with a 150-gallon tank. She opens the valve, and water drains through a hose into a large container set on the ground. We scoop out bucketsful, then slowly walk through the warming mid-day air to pour out the contents at each flag. At some, a foot-high wild rose grows, branches prickly and resilient-looking. At others, a small red twig marks a willow, and at still others: nothing. Lily insists they be watered anyway, that roots will get established even if there’s nothing to show for it above ground.

For an hour we fill, and trudge, and tend. In the center of the pond, a duck family floats, nearly still, on the water’s surface. Two boys across the pond spot salamanders, catch frogs. Another finds a snake. The reemergence of these small and fragile creatures is a sign that the project is working.

Water gone, we circle up at the truck. Lily sits on the tailgate and pulls up a wildlife identification app on her phone.

“What kind of frog do you think you found?” she asks the boys.

“Leopard Frog?” one offers.

“More likely a Pacific Chorus Frog,” she says.

She finds the frog on the app, turns up the volume on her phone and holds it in the middle of the circle for the boys to hear. Conversations fade, and the frog’s call – a kind of guttural chuckling — fills the air.

In the next two weeks, the fire in the distance will grow to nearly twice its size, with no signs of slowing, evacuation and pre-evacuation orders in place for the houses at its borders.

In the next three weeks, the boys will start school again, moving through already complex channels with an added burden that most of their classmates will never know.

In the next few months, one of them — a high-school senior — will turn 18, and age out of the group home system entirely. He’ll have to move out on his own, and, as much as the staff of his home has done to prepare him for this inevitability, he’ll nevertheless be a not-yet-high school graduate, somebody’s still-young son, navigating the world largely on his own.

But none of that is happening right now.

Right now, we are a motley assemblage of kids and adults, standing within an ember’s throw of a fiery mountain, crowded around a phone from which emanates the call of a small amphibian.

And somewhere in the pond, another frog turns to listen.

Emily H. Freeman has taught writing in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation through the Missoula Writing Collaborative. Her work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons.



On the Graphic Memoir: Picturing the Hybrid Form

September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

1 title block for brevityWhile she was writing her last memoir, Rebecca Fish Ewan discovered that sketching helped her characterize scenes she was drafting in richly worded detail. Surprisingly, the sketches made their way into the narrative itself. In this craft essay, she explains how drawing can inform the writing process and bring more nuance and texture into the narrative and maybe even become part of the finished work.

An excerpt from Ewan’s illustrated essay:

When you make marks on a blank page, you create meaning, either through words or pictures. By hybridizing these two mechanisms for creating meaning, you can explore alternative ways to communicate thoughts and stories.

Read the full essay in Brevity’s new issue.

Writing While Secure

September 13, 2018 § 20 Comments

Photo of an aerial silks performer in black leotard and green tights, upside down with arms out

Technically, my hands are still full

When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.

Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.

On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.

Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”

Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.

I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.

At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”

He’s right. He’s wrong.

I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.

I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Florida Writers Conference October 18-21 in Orlando.



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