January 27, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Jill Quandt
I was raised on Texas Hold’em, and knew the odds of faceless, suited hole cards winning
the hand were too low to raise pre-flop before I knew how to do long division. I could hold my own in poker games with my dad’s friends, all engineers, before I knew the formal word for what my brain was doing: statistics. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still a proficient poker player, but betting on cards is only a hobby. These days, my real vice is betting on words.
You see, I’m obsessed. My family, even my dad, is starting to wonder if I have a problem. “It seems like all you do is stare at that laptop,” they chide. They are not writers, except my little sister who is working on her doctoral project and has been writing a lot lately. She will be a nurse anesthetist come August. She will make more than thirteen times the thirteen thousand I make at my current job. Her bet is a safe one, so no one worries she is wasting her time.
But as for me, I’m a gambler. That’s why after five years of teaching seventh graders, I quit that low paying, difficult job to go back to school and take an even lower paying, difficult job. I’m an almost-thirty-one-year-old graduate teaching assistant in the English department at my local university. What can I say, I like a little risk. I already threw all my chips down on the table, and now I have to play.
The problem is even when I think I have a good hand, sometimes the river card comes out of nowhere to mess everything up. The other day, I was getting ready to submit this very piece of writing. The submissions guidelines for Brevity Blog require a short bio, so I was skimming through the blog looking at other writer’s bios and trying to decide if I should add a little humor to mine. I happened to come across Kathy Stevenson’s “On Playing Cards and Literary Rejection: Betting on the Come.” With the exact feeling I get when think I might just win a hand, and my opponent turns up her cards to reveal the nuts, I start wondering what the odds are two posts that compare being a writing to gambling would be published on this blog within one year’s time. They can’t be high.
Unfortunately, the only things that seem to be high are my stakes. Oh Baby! The stakes are high in this dangerous game of learning to be a writer. Lots of people, many of them with much bigger stacks than mine, are chasing the same pots: articles, books, awards, and the biggie — jobs. I’m the little stack at the table, and boy I know it. I hear there will be more than eighty people applying for the job in my department I desperately want, the one that pays ten grand less than the job I could take teaching English at a high school. I definitely wouldn’t bet on those odds in a poker game, but I’m not a problem card player. I guess I’ll admit that I understand why my husband, a lawyer who won’t prosecute a case he can’t win, thinks I have a problem. Heck, maybe I do.
Luckily, I have a masterful poker face. When people ask me what I’m going to do with my degree, I say I’m going to be a writer. The really nosy ones will probe deeper: “Can you make a living doing that?” At moments like this, a convincing bluff is key. “Yeah,” I respond casually, “I’m working on a couple pieces that have some potential, and my university is hiring composition instructors for the fall.” Then, I get out of there and cry over a glass of wine with the other TA’s in my office, the ones who know the odds. Later, I lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and ruminating on the first rule of gambling which is, of course, never risk anything you can’t afford to lose. I’ve lost countless evenings and weekends, hours I could have spent being present with my husband, snuggling my baby, or getting some much needed sleep. I’ve forfeited job security, a living wage, and a decent retirement. The kicker is I spend most of my time typing words destined to be deleted.
So why do I do it?
It’s simple, I suppose: I’m hooked — couldn’t stop if I tried. Even when I’m losing (harsh feedback from a professor, rejection letters, writer’s block), I am thinking about the next hand because what if it’s a winner? It’s not that I’m an optimist; I’m realistic enough to know that I might never hit the jackpot. Then again, when my Grandpa Dale was sixty-one years old, he spent a nickel and won a $117,000 prize on a slot machine, so you never know. All I know for sure is that I’m a gambler. For better or worse, richer or poorer (almost definitely poorer), I’m going to keep betting on my words.
A former middle school teacher, Jill Quandt is working on an M.A. in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she is currently teaching Composition II and helping facilitate the Oxbow Writing Project. Her work is forthcoming in the Kenneth Burke Journal. When she’s not writing or playing cards, she enjoys other precarious activities such as wakeboarding, skydiving, and trying to get her kid to eat veggies.
January 24, 2020 § 1 Comment
For Jennifer McGaha, writing a book is like hiking. The journey will envelop you in foggy haziness, unexpected visitors will creep up along the way, and hopefully others will be there to push you when you’re floundering. She finds joy in not knowing what will happen on a walk or where an essay or book will lead her. After all, we all want to get to the end of the trail and finish writing a story in the same way: tired but satisfied with the process of exploration. Here’s an excerpt from McGaha’s craft essay:
You can write without discovery, of course. You can write to a scripted conclusion, and it will be easier. Maybe no one will even notice. But why on earth would you? Why, with as hard as it is to write anything, with all the time and love and grit you put into the creation of your art, would you settle for anything less than two stunning bighorn rams rising out of the mist?
January 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
How did we become so desensitized? What was the turning point? Is it now too late? These might be some of the questions that Joanna Brichetto’s profound essay will evoke. She uses a moment watching nature unravel from her porch to contextualize how a facet of our nation’s social fabric has become both extraordinary and commonplace. An excerpt from Brichetto’s essay follows:
The robin dipped, raised, dipped, raised, again and again. When his beak was in the water, ripples radiated to the edge of the plastic. When his beak was in the air, the surface of the saucer had already stilled. It was as if there was room only for one set of ripples at a time: either the water or the throat. I kept watching both—the taking of turns, the shimmers of wet, the shivers of feather—when would the pattern break? I was afraid to move or blink. I was afraid he would stop drinking, and I was afraid he would never stop drinking. And when at last he fluttered up to the hackberry tree in his own good time, I found that I was crying.
Read the full essay in our January 2020 issue.
January 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
In her new craft essay, Mary Ann McSweeny illustrates why compassion should be one of the underlying components of all stories, and she explains how it is only when the writer remains a “detached witness” that compassion can flourish. McSweeny provides a list of questions and a brainstorming exercise for writers to immerse their characters and narrators in substance and compassion:
When I read my own work and that of others, I ask myself: Does the writer have compassion for the character on the page? Does the writer know the character’s life history, background, biography? Does the writer understand how the character has arrived at the point where the story begins? Has the writer somehow entered into the character’s struggle? With the personal “I” narrator: Does the writer portray the narrator’s struggle with an understanding of the narrator’s weaknesses, fears, or defects without trying to control the outcome of what’s happening?
Substance is not writing about compassion; it is writing with compassion so that the reader feels the writer’s authenticity.
Read the rest of this exceptional craft essay in our latest issue.
January 22, 2020 § Leave a comment
After you read this piece, write down a list of things that scare you. Toss the paper into a fire, maybe cut it into tiny pieces and bury it, or leave it as a note in a book at your library. Like Professor Jill Kolongowski’s Spring 2019 creative writing class did with this compelling collaborative essay, set the things that scare you free. Here is an excerpt:
Being yelled at. Being yelled at. Being yelled at. People who can’t won’t be reasoned with. Initiating confrontation. People who are overly aggressive. Conflict. Conflict. Confrontation. Confrontation. Getting into a fight unwillingly. My anger. Guns. School shootings. Not being able to fight back. Seeing a crime happen in front of my eyes. War.
Global warming killing me before my time. Natural disasters.
Driving. Drunk drivers. Car accident. Car accident. Car accident. Car accident.
January 21, 2020 § 1 Comment
There’s always that one time in our writing attempts when we convince ourselves a topic is too impenetrable to fit into essay form. For Sonja Livingston, it was her childhood church in Rochester, New York. But like all good writers, she searched for a method that would allow her to tackle the topic, eventually relying on the guiding force of the fictional character Nancy Drew. With the help of the teenage detective, Livingston transformed her essays into the book The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. Here is an excerpt from her intriguing and engaging craft essay:
An orderly world might be heaven in your child’s bedroom or at the dried fruit section of Trader Joe’s, but tidiness is the essay’s kryptonite. The essay thrives on chaos. Curiosity is its basic fuel. Confusion is its sweet spot.
Like Nancy, who undertakes multiple mysteries in one book, an essay often tempts us with seemingly disparate threads. “You’ve really lost it this time,” I said as I moved from statue-hunting to researching relics and holy water. Even when I began to write my essays, dark clouds of doubt hung overhead.
January 17, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Jaye Viner
I recently finished Paul Tremblay’s collection of short stories, Growing Things. In the back matter, he talks about how he envies writers who always have more ideas than they have time to write. After graduate school, I was anxious about keeping my idea trough full. Neil Gaiman calls it the ‘compost heap,’ which is still stinky but has more positive associations with growing things than with pigs overeating in the mud. For four years prior to graduation, writing classes and the community of teachers and fellow students had provided that constant idea stream that Tremblay so envies. I didn’t have money to spend on more tuition and I had no idea what a writer does to feed themselves. What follows is a list of inexpensive ways I learned to add fuel to my compost heap after school.
The first thing I did was what every writer is always being told to do: read. ‘Best of’ lists, recs from everyone I’d ever met, every source listed in an article I liked. I tried to read about things I didn’t know. But it’s hard to find books when your only search parameter is ‘what I don’t know.’ It was easy to get overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities.
The second thing I did was pay for a year of Masterclass. This was cheaper than getting my hair done and it gave me access to the expertise of people I would never have thought to learn from like Jane Goodall, and Natalie Portman. Not only have these classes broadened my understanding of the world, they’ve given me specialized vocabulary and access into their worlds. Each class comes with a workbook and references, your own curated reading list on a topic you’ve just begun to explore. One caveat, the nonfiction writing experts on Masterclass are limited. But for school addicts like me, it can be a playground of new craft tools and new concepts.
The third thing I did was dedicated time to being online. Note: I do not mean procrastination or floating aimlessly on a newsfeed. This was a strategic, ten minutes in the morning, ten at night to do specific things. I followed the people whose books I read and set alerts so I would know when they texted, because otherwise you never see what you want to see, especially on Twitter. I also joined several Binders groups on Facebook to expand my network of writer friends. Binders groups are a great way to see what a diverse cross-section of people are doing and draw from their successes and stories of common struggle.
The fourth thing I did was download the Duolingo app and commit to studying Mandarin for fifteen minutes as a daily mental practice. Those fifteen minutes take me out of my reality. They give me access to means of expression that are fresh and vibrant. I come back to English seeing it differently.
The Fifth thing I did was take classes on Coursera. Many are free, college-like classes you complete at your own pace. I took a class on Transmedia Storytelling which transformed how I think about author branding online. I’m about to start an entry-level programming class. I’m terrified, but I’m also thrilled.
Obviously, sources of inspiration can come from anywhere. I might be the only person on the planet who worries about where my ideas will come from next. Well, me and Paul Tremblay. Maybe this list isn’t something to inspire so much as broaden. Another book I read recently, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David J. Epstein, argues that the most successful people got that way by doing more than the specific thing they’re famous for. In grad school, I believed that specializing in one genre, and studying only writing, would equate with success. These last two years have been about giving myself permission to generalize and trust that the broad can be just a valuable as the specific.
Jaye Viner is a dabbler in language and color and narrative. She likes cohabitation with walking fur bombs of the feline variety and eating the food. All of the food. She knows just enough about a wide variety of things to embarrass herself at the parties she never attends. Find her on Twitter @JayeViner or Instagram @Jaye_Viner