April 24, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Heather O’Shea
When I moved to Florida, one of my goals was to avoid getting a “real” job. I wanted to cobble together a life and an income that moved the act of writing from the fringes of my life to the center. Then I spent about seven months with more than enough time. So much time, in fact, that I had plenty left over to worry about money. Instead of writing essays, I’d develop elaborate business plans, trying to figure out how to support myself in the manner to which I’d become accustomed.
During that time, I thought a lot about my novel. I sent a few things out. I read and re-read Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer and Ellen Karsh’s The Only Grant Writing Book You’ll Ever Need. Notice the verb that’s missing from those sentences. Then one day I picked up a copy of a local magazine. I was at a swanky Fidelity office in one of the swankier parts of my swanky new town, trying to open an account to house my 401k from my old teaching job. I flipped through beautiful pages, found myself interested in the stories, seriously considered “accidentally” taking the magazine with me when we left. And then I saw the sidebar that said they were looking for writers and creative people. “This,” I said to my husband. “This.”
We started hunting for a store where we could buy the magazine but kept striking out. Then one day as we drove down the main drag, I saw the sign on the building. “Stop,” I told Fred. “They’re open.” I rang the bell. A friendly woman gave me an armful of back issues and the email address of the owner. In my third interview, we debated the use of the Oxford comma. I knew it was a good sign.
And that’s how I surprised myself by becoming the managing editor of a magazine. Now I spend my days reading, writing copy, editing copy, hunting for story ideas, interacting with writers, and working with delightful colleagues who share my love for all things made of the alphabet.
It’s making me a better writer. It’s making me understand what I missed during all those years when I eschewed journalism in favor of creative writing. It’s making me wonder why that dichotomy even exists, or why it existed so clearly for me as a teenager and young woman.
During the week, I’m back to my old work-day habit of shaking myself out of bed at five a.m., a discipline I couldn’t maintain when I had all the time in the world. I’m remembering how much I love writing in a dark house and being awake for that moment when the emptiness outside the window begins to fill with the first outlines of things.
On the weekends, you just might find me writing outside on the lanai. That’s where I was last Saturday when the wood storks came. The flash of a black-tipped wing made me look up, and I watched as the pair of them bounced across my back yard, gaining a little height and momentum with each hop, until the air finally caught them, and they flew.
Heather O’Shea is the managing editor of Vero Beach Magazine. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Daily Good, the Notre Dame Review, Blue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review. She believes that if your goals concerning your writing life are sufficiently flexible, you just might surprise yourself by achieving them.
April 15, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Iris Graville
Quotidian. I read that word in an essay I critiqued during my first semester in my MFA in writing program. I had to look it up. Ironically, it’s a fancy word for something that’s not, well, very fancy. Here’s how the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it:
- of or occurring every day; daily : the car sped noisily off through the quotidian traffic.
- ordinary or everyday, esp. when mundane : his story is an achingly human one, mired in quotidian details.
While this word hasn’t become a regular part of my vocabulary, its meaning resonates for me. Apparently it does for some other writers as well.
Patrick Madden wrote in praise of “Quotidian Nonfiction” in Issue #44, Spring 2012 – Creative Nonfiction:
I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.
Madden, an essayist and writing teacher, claims to lean toward quotidian nonfiction “because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism.”
I know the feeling. It crops up often for me as I write personal essays and especially did so as I drafted my memoir, Hiking Naked (okay, that might not sound very quotidian, but the title is mostly a metaphor). My life has been shaped by ordinary experiences of birth, loss, work, parenting, friendship, and spiritual seeking. Experiences described by many of the synonyms that the New Oxford lists for quotidian: typical, middle-of-the-road, unremarkable, unexceptional, workaday, commonplace, a dime a dozen. In short, “nothing to write home about.”
And yet, I do write about these everyday experiences. I’m compelled to craft essays about community, listening, patience, simplicity. I’m led to tell the stories of “ordinary, everyday” people whose voices often aren’t heard. Patrick Madden attests to the value of such writing:
This, for me, is the placid beauty of the best creative nonfiction writing: the opportunity to settle one’s buzzing mind for a few brief moments, to meditate on a focused subject, to escape the plangent assaults of the beeping, blinking world and find respite in the thoughts of another human being… I think we have a right to (and a hunger for) art that is quieter, more enlightening and uplifting.
Fortunately, an abundance of nonfiction writers create the kind of quiet and uplifting art that many of us yearn for. One of them, Ana Maria Spagna, was my thesis advisor at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. She taught me in the classroom how to tell my story through well-crafted scenes, settings, and characters, as well as through her own “quiet” writing (such as her essay collection, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness).
Another is Scott Russell Sanders, who I studied with one summer at Fishtrap on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. I had met Sanders at my first residency in my MFA program and have become a devoted reader of his writing. Work that springs, as he explains in Writing from the Center, from accepting “the material that my life had given me, and… learning to say as directly as I could what I had to say.”
Also on my list of quotidian writers are Kathleen Dean Moore , Brian Doyle, and Brenda Miller. All of them practice what Madden urges:
…each of us, I dare say, can do with a little more wonder in our lives, can benefit by shunning the artificial and superficial to spend more time contemplating the quotidian miracles that surround us.
What quotidian miracles surround you? Perhaps it’s time to write about them.
Iris Graville is the author of three nonfiction books: Hands at Work, BOUNTY, and a memoir, Hiking Naked. She lives on Lopez Island, WA where she publishes SHARK REEF Literary Magazine, writes essays and blogs, and teaches. Sometimes you’ll find her on the interisland ferry, working on a new essay collection about the Salish Sea, climate change, and Washington State Ferries.
March 29, 2019 § 7 Comments
Sherilyn Lee has been traveling away from home since 2016 to provide hands-on caregiving for her family and loved ones. She started #sherilynwritesapage to overcome the isolation of caregiving, to face her grief of several losses, to witness the kindness and joy in her world, and to remain connected to her writing practice. She handwrites a single page in a Canson Mix Media spiral bound sketchbook daily and posts it to her Instagram feed (@sherilynwrites).
Sherilyn Lee is the Poetry Editor at Angels Flight • literary west and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is currently working on a memoir about being a road warrior caregiver — providing full-time care for four loved ones within eighteen months in three different locations — none of whom live near her home in Los Angeles. Her clips are at sherilynlee.com and she blogs daily on Instagram as @sherilynwrites.
March 28, 2019 § 34 Comments
Many people think I’m an overachiever with everything under control. If you’re also an overachiever, you probably understand the hollow laughter that inspires in me. So often, the symptoms of organization—paper planners, to-do apps, regular social media appearances—mask what feels from the inside like abject laziness.
But Allison, you reassure me, you do a lot. You blog! You edit! You write! You travel all over!
Thanks. That’s true, and I’m privileged to get to do those things. Paradoxically, I often feel the most lazy when I’ve gotten the most done. Sure, I checked six things off my list…but I know in my heart I did them because they were easy instead of working on a larger, more difficult goal. I vacuumed instead of working on my proposal. Ran errands instead of analyzing the structure of my novel. Read 100 pages for clients instead of writing one of my own.
Often, what feels like “laziness” is actually procrastination, anxiety about the outcome, or not knowing where to start. And no matter how many tasks get accomplished, I feel lazy when the most important thing isn’t done. When I’m avoiding something with big stakes, or that takes a skill I don’t have yet. Sure, I’ll learn the skill as I go, but I’ll start out uncomfortable with my own incompetence and unsure how I’m going to finish. Or I’m faced with a big job I don’t yet know how to break into steps. I’ll move it to tomorrow’s list instead of tackling any part of it, because starting would also mean admitting I might not know how to do it.
Here’s what helps.
The cartoonist Jessica Abel, who also runs workshops for creatives learning to control their time, pointed out in a recent webinar:
Priority means one.
You can’t have multiple priorities on a list, because a priority is one thing. Sure, your priorities may change throughout the day, or as you shift from your artist self to your family self or from the office to the studio to the home. But at any given time, you can only have one priority. Likewise,
Many projects=no projects.
The amount of great ideas we have and are capable of executing far exceed the number of hours available to work. Being able to do a thing well doesn’t mean the thing fits our plans. It’s OK to put great new projects on the back burner while focusing on one project until it’s done.
About two months ago, these two ideas changed how I work. I started picking one project and doing it until it was done. I hedged a little: one personal project and one client project at a time, but rotating lets me rest my brain. I can work for 6-8 focused hours, but I can’t really do more than 4 hours in a day (plus breaks!) on one thing.
The third key to feeling less lazy?
Like, ridiculous tiny. Like instead of “be healthier” which is not a doable goal, because really, what would you do if I pointed and said “your job right this minute is to be healthier”? Um, I’ll get right on that?
So I backed up. I want to drink more water.
Still not a doable step.
I need a water bottle I can carry around and also wash out and re-use.
That I can do. I figure out it needs to be small and lightweight, because I won’t carry it if it’s heavy. Step one isn’t even “buy water bottle”—it’s “look online to see what lightweight water bottles exist,” so when I walk into the store I know what I’m looking for.
The last piece that finally fell into place, that helped me feel less “lazy”?
I wish I could put “finish X by this date” on my calendar, but I just don’t. It doesn’t always have to be a deadline imposed by another person, but I need a reason beyond “I want to be done by then.”
I want to finish my new writing retreat website before attending a festival where I’m talking about writing retreats.
I want to finish my book proposal before going to AWP so I can meet small presses and be ready to send to anyone who seems interested.
Are these actually any more solid than “finish X by this date”? Nope. But it works, so I’ll keep doing it.
My one-project-at-a-time-with-a-deadline plan is working so far. I finished the website. The proposal is well under way. I’m flying through client pages. At a cafe, my writing buddy looked at my water bottle and said, “It’s so tiny!”
“Yeah, but it’s a doable goal!” I said. “It’s little enough I can drink two or three refills while sitting here, and that feels like I’m getting something done!” Then I went and peed for the third time in two hours.
Next time you’re feeling lazy, ask Am I anxious about the outcome? Worried I don’t have the ability to do this? Overwhelmed by where to start? Made helpless by too many ‘priorities’?
Then pick one tiny step.
March 27, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Laura Jackson Roberts
As an autoimmune disease sufferer, I face a lot of physical limitations. Things hurt, I’m tired, and I don’t accomplish as much writing as I want to. My two unpublished manuscripts are more than enough to sow the seeds of despair-by-comparison as writer-friends surge forward while I “get some rest” and “take it easy” as I’m always advised to do. Perhaps the worst thing about autoimmune disease, though, is the brain fog. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes it, but it’s described as fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, and depression.
I feel compelled to explain brain fog with more figurative language than WebMD offers. Brain fog means my head has filled with sludge. Physically, the bones of my skull feel as though they’re pressurized and bulging; mentally, I’m sifting through oatmeal. Thoughts are in there, but when I reach in to grab one, it slithers away and the ooze closes around it.
Off the page, I’m the mom who forgets to send snacks. I haven’t signed my son’s nightly reading folder since he was in first grade (he’s 12), and the mailman brings a daily stream of you-forgot-to-pay-us reminders printed with tomato-red ink to tell me what a failure I am.
On the page, a sentence takes ten minutes to write, and what comes out makes no sense. Yes, we all produce wretched first drafts, but a brain-fog-draft reads a lot like a seven-year-old recalling last night’s dream: We were in our house but it wasn’t our house and there was some guy but not really and then we went to this other place where there were zebras and Grandma was there except she was fourteen feet tall and had celery in her purse.
I can delete incoherent drafts and nobody will know I’m having brain fog. But I can’t hide it so well in person, and that’s a tricky problem. After all, what do writers do when we get together? We talk about what we’ve read.
I’m terrified of other writers. Of the conferences I’ll attend and speak at this year. Of public interactions in which I might be required to recall an author’s name and book title. Because I don’t remember what books I’ve read. Moreover, I don’t remember who wrote the books I’m not sure I read. And I sure as hell don’t remember the precise titles of the books I’m not sure I read by the authors whose names I can’t recall.
“Brain fog is not a real thing,” one doctor told me. Oh, but it is, and I wish I could remember his name and write him a poorly-worded letter with little-to-no narrative tension and an under-developed conclusion. And then forget to put a stamp on it and find it under the fridge in 20 years.
Aristotle said, “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a certain way.” In other words, fake it until you make it.
As per his advice, I’ve developed tactics to get through literary events and discussions, even when the oatmeal thickens between my ears:
Use your befuddlement to your advantage.
Befuddlement can easily be mistaken for laser-focus when you employ the right eyebrow angle. Raise one, lower the other, as though you’re trying to wear a monocle. Gaze at people’s knees. Any higher and it looks like you’re staring at their crotch; any lower and you’ll appear narcoleptic.
Writers who know what they’re talking about always look at ease. Practice the nonchalance as fervently as possible beforehand. Hold a cup of coffee in your non-dominant hand. Use the dominant hand to thoughtfully touch your chin as the conversation unfolds. Hmm. Yes. Indeed.
Add generic thoughts as appropriate:
“That was a brave choice.”
“I visited that city. It’s just as he described it.”
“I wonder if she envisioned the socio-political ramifications of that particular passage…” Make sure you trail off.
Be the first to leave.
When in doubt, bail the hell out.
“I have some thoughts on that book, actually, but I’m meeting someone at the bar.”
(This one may backfire, as writers often follow one another to watering holes where discussions expand in subject and volume. Use your best judgment. Other choices include “Advance Auto Parts,” “the alley behind the hotel,” and “church.”)
Fake it ‘till you make it.
I’m trying, Aristotle. And no matter what happens in public, the real work happens in the quiet moments. Sometimes, what I want to say just has to wait until my body can help me say it. I’m learning to be okay with that. On clear-headed days, I know that the words on the spines of the books don’t matter as much as the words within them. With patience, those ideas do seep in through the fog and take hold. And eventually, their idea-children find their way back out though my fingers as I write. In those moments, I know why I’m writing, and I know it has value.
And if we meet at a conference, just let me stare at your knees.
Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in West Virginia. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She lets her kids play with sharp objects, hates earwigs, and has unusually small feet. Find her on Instagram at @thatwvwriter or at www.LauraJacksonRoberts.com.
March 21, 2019 § 13 Comments
In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.
It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.
Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.
Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.
In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.
My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.
It might be The One.
Or it could be just another lesson.
What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.
Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.
In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
March 20, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Elaine van der Geld
I have always been terrible at drawing. I’d planned to drop art after the mandatory 9th grade course, but then, in our last year of high school, my best friend talked me into signing up for 12th Grade Art. She was talented— effortlessly drawing portraits while I mucked around with stick figures, but I was interested enough in theory and history that I figured I’d scrape by.
We landed an amazing teacher who wore black leggings and Doc Marten’s everyday. She was fresh off of a three-year job teaching art to juvenile offenders and did not expect us to possess any particular talents or skill, but neither did she stoop to assigning dumb activities, as previous art teachers had. Instead, she invested time in teaching us to be artists, which, for her, meant teaching us how to see.
On the first day she held up a landscape painting and asked us to sit quietly and observe the colours. After a couple of minutes she asked us the colour of the trees. We said, “green.”
“And what else?”
One person ventured, “forest green.”
“And what else?” our teacher said, a keen smile on her face.
“And?” She looked so hopeful we had to keep going, but, frankly, the whole thing seemed silly. The trees were green. Lots and lots of shades of green.
Finally, somebody said, “blue.”
“Show us,” the teacher said.
The girl hesitantly pointed to a couple of spots where, as if by magic, navy blue suddenly popped off the canvas. How had I not seen that?
The teacher proceeded to show us a painting of an apple, a sparrow, a lake. Each time, the pieces started out looking simple—the apple was red, the sparrow brown, the lake blue. Then, slowly, we’d come to see straw yellow, maroon, jade.
The world cracked open. Prior to that, I’d gone through life seeing only the straightforward colours of a crayon drawing. Now I could see as Rembrandt had, or, if not Rembrandt, then Bob Ross.
When we finally got to the actual art-making, we started with figure drawing, using live models. We were not to draw the model per se. In fact, if we did that, we were doing it wrong. This was a relief—it bought some time before anyone discovered the fact that I could not draw. We started with timed gesture and line drawings. Volunteers climbed up on a wooden platform and struck various poses. Sometimes they’d hold for 30 seconds before moving into the next one, other times they’d hold for a few minutes. We were to look at the model, rather than the page, keep our hand moving, and, most importantly, we were to look— really look. At first we were told to notice the shades and light. Then we were to notice line. Then we could put it together. We would do 10, 20, 30 drawings a class. They were quick, partially finished things with only abstract resemblance to the model. We were to keep our hands and bodies loose, move quickly, making true marks on the page.
I’ve since called that class, “the one year I was good at art.” No longer reaching for what I expected to see, but instead, putting down what I actually saw, the drawings improved. I no longer automatically kept the whites of the eyes white, but noticed the way light hit on the sclera, iris, pupil. Amazingly, after a couple of months I could draw reasonable portraits simply by focusing on lines and the light and dark planes of a face.
At the time, I was also taking creative writing, and immediately put my new sight to work in stories, boring down into specific surface details. When characters or settings fell into cliché, I’d use pictures to get down accurate, yet surprising, details. There, too, it was a revelation.
Twenty years later, when starting mindfulness practice, I remembered that art class. It occurred to me that while the artist’s eye allows us to see the external world, the mindful eye allows us to see the internal world.
In mindfulness, practitioners are invited to observe the way the mind works, without judgment or resistance; how thoughts leap from one to the next to the next in tangents, but also how emotion lives and moves in the body. The simple act of sitting with what is, the observation of granular detail, the separation of what one expects from what exists were all familiar. Mindfulness requires us to attend to the world of external detail, but also invites us into the rich world of internal detail by noticing the workings of our own minds and bodies.
The body scan, a cornerstone of mindfulness, revealed my internal world, just as Grade 12 Art revealed the external world. In a body scan, you start at one end of your body, noticing how it feels, spending time with whatever is there— hot, cold, numb, sore, itchy, whatever, just noticing. Not resisting, not wishing it were any other way, but simply feeling it. Then move on to the next body part, going through bit by bit until you’ve felt your whole body.
The body scan helps me find fresh descriptions for interior states. Instead of writing clichés about how my heart pounded or breath caught, it reveals the other, more surprising, ways emotion moves in the body. How vulnerability tingles in the shoulders, or how fear bolts down the hips.
When writing, small, mindful pauses help when I need to access some interior state. I close my eyes, get quiet, and breathe. It takes less than a minute, but in that time I often find a step forward. The mindful pause helps me to sustain attention and maintain access to wilder, unconscious, creative states when I’m getting tired or lazy and want to settle into easy, automatic clichés. When editing, it helps me to cut through to small details, to a moment’s essence. I simply close my eyes and sit with the scene. With memoir, I try to re-experience how it felt in the body.
The artist’s eye and the mindful eye grant authors clear-eyed vision of both inside and outside, revealing, in the quiet, the places where the two meet.
Elaine van der Geld’s fiction has recently been published in Kenyon Review online. Her nonfiction writing has been shortlisted for the EVENT Creative nonfiction award and has been published in Off Our Backs. She works on the editorial board of PRISM International, and is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Find her on Twitter: @elainevan.