June 18, 2018 § 8 Comments
By Maddie Lock
Three years ago I fell in love with Rebecca Solnit. It was at the start of my re-decision to become a writer. A bibliophile with a BA in English and high hopes to make my mark as a writer, I had allowed myself, many years ago, to be distracted by the business world. As I reached a definitive age and had acquired all the things that society says you need in life— a career, family, home, things to fill the home, a second home, vacations, and so on—I woke up one morning and said “enough.” Actually, it was “ENOUGH!”
Let me tell you, it shook life up; my marriage, my business, my circle of friends all had to come second for now. I sat down to write, allowing the strained and shaken pieces of my life to settle in.
I began with a children’s book about a dog who wants love and understanding. I self-published and won a small award. Encouraged, I wrote a few fiction stories which didn’t excite me or anyone else. Then, a friend gave me a book, a memoir, that in my brain begat fireworks. Now dog-eared, filled with yellow highlights and notations, spine struggling to hang on to worn-out pages, I keep it close to me as a talisman when I write.
The Faraway Nearby was a revelation to me. It fired receptors of desire and weepiness no other book had ever done. I wanted to write like this! When I finished the book, I immediately read it again. And again. And began my first essay.
It was about a trip I had taken recently, a solitary two weeks, off-season, on Monhegan Island, isolated from people but enfolded by nature. Into the essay I poured the story of my life changes and conflicts that had sent me away, of my husband’s confusion at the changes in me, the pulling away from the business I had worked so hard to build, the practice of meditation and study of Buddhism, and, mostly, my desire to be alone. It was a masterpiece in the Solnit style: meandering, contemplative, exploring the intricacies of life, revealing bruises and broken parts, threads reaching out and over and beyond, only to meet up again for a new revelation. I couldn’t wait to send it out for publication.
I googled the top nonfiction journals and, since I knew it would be snatched up immediately, I chose just one to submit to. I received a form rejection via email—about two weeks later. Shocked, I tried another top publication; another quick rejection.
I was devastated. I stuck my 5,500-word masterpiece into My Documents and simmered. I began my second children’s book. Every few weeks I picked up The Faraway Nearby, opened it randomly to read a few pages before my eyesight became bleary from tears and I tucked it away again.
I signed up for an online writing class: Writing the Personal Essay. Once again, convinced of accolades, I submitted “Sojourn in Solitude” as my first project. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I envisioned a stunned and ecstatic review from my teacher. With a flushed face I opened up the highly-anticipated critique, and…cried. Honestly, I did. Although carefully worded, the message was clear: boy, do you have a long way to go. It also told me there was potential.
As with any skill, to be good requires hours and hours—10,000, it is said by many—to become a master at anything. So I began writing. And writing. And I’m still writing, because, according to the statistics, I’m looking at seven years at four hours a day before I can clearly see what my skills are.
I have this fluttery feeling I’ll still not be writing like Solnit; her meandering and my meandering share a big difference: her brilliant mind knows where the maze is taking her and can illuminate the path, whereas my only-adequate mind stumbles around, relying on hope and determination to find snatches of brilliance. An online teacher gently suggested a sizable gap between my writing skills and my reading tastes.
In the worn-out copy of Solnit’s beautiful book is a torn-out inside flap from a paperback copy of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. I use it as a bookmark. At the top is a quote: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” I use this as encouragement.
And I’ll keep on writing, tallying my hours. I’ll call it practice.
German born and American bred, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Now a semi-retired business partner, she is putting her BA in English to good use. Lock has published an award-winning children’s book, has essays published in Gravel and Narrative Map, lamented about her writing obsession on Brevity Blog, and is working ardently on a memoir about her scattered roots.
June 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
By Julie Vick
Interrupting bird wh–
Tweet. You really must read this Tweet.
What do you get when you cross a writer with a deadline?
A really clean house.
What did the writer who was told they have no platform do?
Buy much, much higher shoes.
Writers go who?
No, writers go, “Why did this seem like such a brilliant idea last night?”
Where would a writer never want to live?
A writer’s block.
A writer walks into a bar. The bartenders says, “Have you written 1000 words today? You told me to not sell you a drink until you hit your word count goal for the day.”
A writer walks out of a bar.
What is black and white and red all over?
A writer’s latest draft that ended up in the trash with some V8 juice.
Why did the writer cross the road?
She was supposed to be revising an essay, so she crossed the road to run some errands, and go for a quick walk, and maybe buy a new toaster.
Orange you supposed to be finishing your current draft instead of reading jokes for writers?
Julie Vick’s writing has appeared in New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Rumpus. She teaches writing at the University of Colorado Denver.
June 7, 2018 § 11 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.
June 1, 2018 § 38 Comments
by Jennifer Lang
Last December, during my most recent visit home, I sat behind the wheel of my mother’s Prius, buckled my seat-belt, and helped buckle hers. The morning air was crisp, cool breezes swirled in the San Francisco fog.
“I have something to say to you,” my soon-80-year-old mother said. “And you’re not going to like it.” I recognized her tone: tough, tough love.
I remained quiet, concentrating on the road. Ever since she suffered epileptic-like seizures following surgery to repair a brain leak last August, she’s lost tremendous independence: unable to drive or take a trip or live wholly on her own terms.
“I know you wrote something about your father and me. Because it’s on Facebook, or it’s somewhere where everyone can read it. Why would you do that?”
I played dumb, passed the blame, telling her the editor at the publication publicized it, even though I was the one who posted it proudly.
“I will remind you your brother’s not speaking to you because of something you once wrote.” She wagged her pointer finger at me. “And I’m only going to say this once, so listen: you may not tell our story. It’s your father’s and mine—not yours—and it’s private.”
Her definition of private cracks me up. She broadcasts as soon as anyone asks why she and my father, still married, no longer live together.
“Uh hmmm,” I said, now decisively bound and gagged.
At that moment, in her car, I, a middle-aged woman with three almost-grown kids, felt fifteen again. Reprimanded. Called out. Put in my place. And guilty as charged.
Four months have passed. I’m 7,500 miles from my mother, but I can’t shake her words or unsee her wagging finger. I’m plagued by the role I’ve played all my life: Good Jewish Daughter. Good Jewish Daughter does what her mother/father says. Good Jewish Daughter does not cross familial boundaries. Good Jewish Daughter does not expose her parents’ messy marriage.
Last fall, I finished my memoir manuscript of a marriage—mine. But in order to put my relationship under the microscope, I examined my parents’ marriage too. Sixty-seven thousand words down on the page. Draft number two. Done.
I know what needs to happen. I understand the long road ahead. Yet, day after day, I sit at my desk unable to take the next step: query agents, research publishers, or create a complicated Excel spreadsheet.
I am also paralyzed by something else. Something new and foreign and so unlike me.
When people ask how my book is going, I change the subject. When people ask what I write about, I am vague. If they persist, I say creative nonfiction, memoir, essay. If they want to know the subject and I say husband, kids, parents, marriage, aging, home, I’m often asked how my family feels about my writing. At that point in the conversation, I lift my glass of cabernet sauvignon and sip slowly.
Before entering memoir territory, I wrote with abandon and submitted without second guessing myself. Now, I understand what Mary Karr and Dani Shapiro and Kathryn Harrison and so many other memoirists have stood on stages and spoken about and reiterated on panels. Now, I get the dilemma.
Lately, I’ve been fantasizing about writing fiction. About writing a novel. About making it up: characters’ names and physical features and habits and quirks. At the end of an online writing class, another student said my story would be a wonderful novel: There’s coming of age…love, history, politics… the human impact of the forces at work in the Middle East. When I responded that I yearn to write the un-truth, the teacher wrote: Fiction is truth on the deeper level. You can change the names, the setting and circumstance and still remain loyal to “the truth.” Tennessee Williams always said that his plays were “emotionally autobiographical.” I think that you can fictionalize your life AND write your emotional truth.
For now, I write the whole truth because it’s where my storytelling know-how started. Because I don’t know if I’m ready to cross over into fiction yet. Maybe I’m just nervous to change genres because writing my emotional truth allows me to shout out to the world: I’m here, I’m human, I’m flawed. And so is everyone else in the story. And that feels real, regardless of what anyone else thinks, including my family.
Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, The Tishman Review, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. She lives in Raanana, Israel, where she teaches writing and yoga, but her heart and soul reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, home. Find her writing at http://israelwritersalon.com/ and follow her @JenLangWrites [as she writes her first memoir].
May 30, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Anita Gill
On a chilly winter day in Oregon, Laura Hendrie, an award-winning fiction writer, gave a craft talk to a room full of graduate students on the topic of crafting the beginning lines of a story. She looked around the room and asked, “What is it about an opening that pulls me in deeper?” Then, she gave an answer: the authority of language.
Authority. Personally, I don’t feel I have authority over anything, let alone narrating my personal narratives in nonfiction. As I write, tension builds between my shoulder blades. I’m filled with worry. How in the world am I going to pull this off? I think to myself. It may seem funny—that I don’t feel I can carry authority when my storytelling involves personal experience, but my biggest concern comes from my faulty memory. I can remember an incident, but only the actual event comes back clearly. The edges are a blur. What color was the sweater my sister wore? What was the landscape out the car window?
When I sit at my desk and start to write, there’s a voice in my head doing everything in her power to stymie my progress. “Are you sure it happened like that?” she asks. “You might be over-exaggerating.” She’s a real pill. After therapy sessions and recommended reading of Embracing Your Inner Critic by Hal Stone and Sidra Stone, I’ve come to understand that she has a name. She’s the inner critic. She’s the part of me that casts doubt, and while it appears to be self-sabotage, she’s actually doing it to protect me from failure. What if I write this essay and no one ever reads it? What if I write this story and take flak from the literary community?
My inner critic tries to rob me of my authority to tell the story in the first place. Her presence is most visible in my first several drafts, where she’s usually successful in impeding my progress. My opening lines are dull and display a lack of confidence in my own words.
But memory is a muscle that requires daily exercise. When I return to an essay to revise, I’m revisiting that memory all over again. And as I make changes day by day, the blurry edges of my memory become vivid. And as I put words to paper, my steady typing drowns out my inner critic. My first several drafts are just drafts, normally going in chronological order. Once I’ve written them down, I’ve fulfilled my research. I know the story. I can tell it to you in a dimly lit bar while nursing my fourth glass of wine.
From there, I like to start from scratch and open a new document. I write the story again, confident in my knowledge, several drafts of proof saved in a file. My inner critic retreats into a corner, giving me the much-appreciated silent treatment. With my blank document, I feel liberated to write my personal narrative again without clunky sentences from my last draft holding me down. Now, I can start the story wherever I want. And the narrator “I” in my first lines is an expert. She carries that authority I’ve hoped for, the kind that Hendrie wants.
Fighting my faulty memory and my inner critic are struggles I face every morning. Even if I’ve figured out one personal narrative, it doesn’t mean the next will be easier. There’s a Sisyphean element to writing. But writing is enticing because of what we discover about ourselves through the daily practice. We have to keep showing up. And in doing so, we gain authority over our stories.
Anita Gill is a teacher and writer in Los Angeles. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She currently leads the Westside LA Chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that encourages women and non-binary writers to publish in literary journals. Her website is anitagill.ink.
May 15, 2018 § 48 Comments
I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.
I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.
An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.
I flipped through.
The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.
In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.
I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.
He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”
I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”
It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.
I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.
I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.
I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”
Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.
I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.
My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.
But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.
Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.
May 14, 2018 § 25 Comments
By Laura Rink
“When we go home and shoot the bolt on the door, we like to think we’re locking trouble out. The good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in…with them.” ~ Stephen King
My husband is going on a fishing trip for twelve days. What I hear is twelve days of unlimited writing time, twelve days to finish a short story, to dig through old journals for the memoir I’m working on, to write a much overdue blog for my website. Twelve days.
Day one, I make coffee, and settle in to write. Which means first checking email and Facebook. I have rationalized this checking as part of My Process: let my brain jump around and then it will settle in for the writing. My brain never settles in—it has, I have, Attention Deficit Disorder. I must wrestle my brain into focus, repeatedly direct my eyes and thoughts to the writing task at hand. What’s worse is after writing for thirty minutes or an hour, I’ll go back to email and Facebook. This is a problem. But not a new one as I embark on this twelve-day writing retreat.
What is new is this:
Sitting in my writing chair, I can feel the empty space where my husband is NOT sitting at his desk. His desk is a flight of stairs, two rooms, and a hallway away, there are usually two closed doors between us. Today I feel the interruption of him NOT working in his office while I work in mine. An anchor has been weighed. I begin to drift.
I go downstairs for a glass of water. I decide to take the trash out. Fill the bird feeders. Water the potted plants. Later I will get the mail, pull some weeds, and put cheese in the mousetraps. I write a bit, here and there but I am unable to keep my seat. I recognize this resistance, this part of my brain that does its best to sabotage my writing. I just thought it would be less noisy during my self-imposed writing retreat.
At least I have all day AND all evening at my disposal. Usually, my husband and I watch a show together and then I announce no more TV for me—I’ve got work to do. This work is usually not writing, it is household chores that I don’t want to be tempted to do during my writing time the next day. For this retreat, I’ve decided that searching through old journals for memoir-relevant parts is the best use of this slightly brain-dead time of day.
But my husband is not here, continuing to watch TV why I self-righteously get stuff done. Instead of moving to my desk, I sign up for a free month of Netflix and search for a TV show I started watching years ago. The show isn’t there. Sulking, I stare at the Netflix offerings: all those creative shows everyone has talked about.
Instead of something new, I start re-watching The Office (the U.S. version). There are nine seasons. When one twenty-two-minute episode ends, I hit play for the next episode. If I do nothing, the next episode starts in fifteen seconds. And then the next. And the next. I feel the death spiral of my hyperfocus kick in, and who will break this focus?
In seven days, I watch thirty-six episodes. Thirteen hours. And it’s not just the thirteen hours not spent writing, it’s getting to bed too late, waking up unrested, dragging through the day. Even when I get a decent amount of sleep, the guilt bogs me down. I flit from one writing project to the next, making little progress on any of them.
As much work as I have done—counseling, medication, meditation—to be successful with the brain I have, I still have ADD. I am the biggest obstacle to my writing, and for this twelve-day retreat, I have locked myself in with my brain.
Day seven I have plans to go to dinner with two girlfriends. I organize my day accordingly: write, gardening, shower. My writing sessions are short and disjointed but I sit in the chair, I show up. At dinner, we talk about a variety of subjects general and personal, and I feel refreshed. I go home and watch six episodes of The Office, the amount of time a movie would take and I don’t beat myself up about it.
The next day I have a walk in the afternoon with a writer friend and a play in the evening. I plan my day around these events. My focus on writing is better. I feel the prickly emptiness of no husband less. The walk is the best exercise I’ve had all week, the conversation writerly and convivial. At home, I page through a journal before attending the play. After, I read, and lights out by ten.
Friday has the goal that every Friday has: polish a piece of writing to read this afternoon at my critique group. I have a rough draft of the second half of the short story I read to them last week. The beginning of the story was inspired and begged to be written. I have a last line. But in-between has been a struggle and it reads as such. I revise all morning, knowing full well I could have been better prepared for this day.
As my so-called writing retreat slogs to an end, I realize that I used to have to take a chisel and a mallet to hew out writing time but now I have a daily life that supports my writing. When my husband returns, I need to view him not as a disturbance but as a fortification I can write against.
Laura Rink is working on a memoir about being diagnosed with ADD at the age of thirty-six. She distracts herself from that work by writing short stories, essays, and sporadic poetry. Her website LauraRink.com features an occasional blog and a picture of her calico cat. She lives with her husband in Bellingham, Washington.