May 23, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Karen Babine
I don’t believe in inspiration anymore.
I believe in compulsion.
I believe in friction. I believe in the energy of phrases pulled from a stranger’s conversation, of ideas that don’t quite match their contexts, a belief in being so aware that you stand next to Alexander Smith and become the world’s amanuensis because you have no choice.
I believe the world is an interesting place.
I believe in doing the work of being a writer, the work of studying at the page of masters to learn their brush strokes, how to mix that particular color of blue. I remember a conversation with the fiction writer Will Weaver and asking him if he had a writing schedule, and he said he did, that he wrote every day, because it would be a shame if the Angel of Fiction showed up and he wasn’t there. We may enjoy it, we may hate it, but what gets us to the page is the compulsion to translate what we see, what we think, what we imagine onto a page that is not suited for such tellings. We never see the iceberg of work that goes into a writer’s sentence, but we know it is there.
Pianists play scales, basketball players shoot free throws, and writers write.
Once, I heard a talk by a scholar of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and this man had combed through archives for the drafts of Heaney’s poem “Punishment.” He went through the changes Heaney had made, not just small-scale word-level changes, but structural changes, stanza changes, scything whole swathes, and planting new ones. And then, on the thirteenth draft, Heaney changed the entire poem into a sonnet, shifting his phrasing into iambic pentameter, confining himself to a rhyme scheme, tightening his fingers around those fourteen lines. Just to see what would happen. In the next draft, the sonnet had given way back to quatrains, where it stayed. But the point is that Seamus Heaney, one we might assume knew what he was doing, still did the dirty work of being a writer. He did not believe in magic, in poetry coming to him. He had to dig for it.
I believe in a writing practice. By that, I mean considering writing in the same mode as yoga practice: it is not something to be achieved. It is to be pursued. With practice, we are able to move our bodies and our pens in new directions not possible yesterday. Writing is a muscle, not magic, after all. If I think of writing as an embodied practice, the movement of my pen on paper, the click of my fingers on a keyboard, how tired my hand is when I’m out of practice, then I’m in a mindset of how my body is in the world is how my body is in the world and that is a place to write from. Because of this, I have long used Julia Cameron’s Writer’s Backpack, which consists of Morning Pages, Walks, and Artist Dates. I have come to believe in starting a day with what is most important to me. If I wait for inspiration, if I wait for a block of several hours to write, there will always be something else to do. If I start the day with writing, I will have always done the work of being a writer before the grocery shopping or lawn mowing or teaching. Because Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks are part of an active writing practice, the work of putting a writer’s body into the world, practicing looking and seeing before we put it on the page, we are doing what I consider the most important work of being a writer: writers are always writing; they are not always typing. For some, Morning Pages might look like 2am Pages, or fitting the work of the mind onto the page in the way that fits best.
I believe in the work of writing, of the writer priming the pump, so that the well is never dry. I believe in carrying a notebook and collecting observations, phrases, angles of light, the shift of air currents and what in the world is that smell??, and I believe that each writing project will create its own process. I believe in leaning into the writerly urge to collect notebooks, to let them stack on the shelf in pristine order, and I believe in that little internal tug that might be fear as I pull one out and put it to use. I believe in this paper-bag-brown Moleskine and I believe in the cheap pen which somehow leads to lovelier handwriting than the expensive pen next to it, because the drag of this pen against this paper is an alchemical combination that feels right.
I believe in the practice of being in the world, my body in the world, and my pen in the world. What I learned on the last project will not help me on the next one, but what I’m learning for the one I have not yet written is that by the time this book tells me what it wants to be, I’ll have everything I need, contained in that notebook. I won’t be starting from scratch, because I’ve done the work.
I broadly interpret Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks (sometimes it’s walking through a farmer’s market or the produce section at the grocery store with a writer’s eye, not just a cook’s) and it’s a good reminder that space is not neutral and the writer’s presence in a space is not neutral either. I believe in the attention of staring at a shelf of dishes you don’t need at the thrift store and letting your mind and sarcasm play against the colors, the ring of crystal you absolutely don’t need, but take home anyway because it’s beautiful. Your mind at work disrupts air currents, molecules, and that is a good place to start writing. Best not to pretend otherwise. Otherwise it’s like the old joke about the guy who prays please, God, help me win the lottery! over and over and finally God yells, “Then buy a ticket!”
Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Waxwing, and Terrain.org, and has twice been listed as a Notable in Best American Essays. Her nonfiction craft essays have appeared in Brevity and LitHub, and are forthcoming in the Writer’s Chronicle and CRAFT, She teaches at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
May 16, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Nina Gaby
There’s so much to do, “real” stuff, the endless “real” stuff of life that we feel we have to finish before we can go do the unreal stuff. Before maybe a stroll, or writing an observation about that stroll, or scribbling a color found on that stroll. Whatever. We put all that aside so we can finish the vacuuming or the taxes or the real stuff of the day job. Maybe because we feel lucky that we have a day job or a floor to vacuum, we pay penance and we disregard the stroll and the scribbles even though we know they’re important for our health. Then we even pay penance for our health.
And yet today I succumb to the pull of my studio to continue an old series of artwork for my own personal comfort. I don’t even take the time to justify this (after all I’ve had six months of medical tests that included a needle to my head and January’s Covid and February’s GI Flu and March’s Upper Respiratory Flu) so I could have excused myself for my own personal comfort. For a day.
A spate of stinging rejections has left me in front of the TV watching the news with bags of Skinny Pop strewn at my feet, thrilling the dog who licks up the wayward kernels so I don’t have to drag out the damn vacuum cleaner. I simultaneously scroll Instagram for images of others; others who probably don’t have that spate of rejection. I watch them cavort at AWP, which I could have of course gone to, but why.
I finally jump up and announce to the dog, “I’m going to the studio.”
I sit at the table my grandfather made for my grandmother a hundred years ago, in front of the scattered mess I left months ago. The dried up glue, the X-acto uncapped, gorgeous rolls of imported paper unfurling, the blade of the trimmer left upright. So much to get back to.
I tell myself, “You don’t have to listen to the news, you don’t have to witness everything.” So no news while I’m working, just old singer-songwriter playlists with words about Christopher Robin and two cats in the yard, ghosts and empty sockets. No paragraphs, just sentences that I like from old paragraphs maybe in that pile of rejections, in old notebooks, on old artwork that didn’t sell. I think of Sarah Manguso’s comment on the back cover of her 300 Arguments –“Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” And I laugh. Maybe I’ll use no words at all.
I smear some gesso and burn the edges of the tiny Italian cards that I’ll use for pages, sticking them, accordion style, in vintage mini-envelopes from the basement of a dead neighbor, and give myself a hint of migraine from the blending stick I use to do a design transfer. Little books emerge from the mess.
Before I know it I’m singing my heart out to “Graceland.” Yelling a bit, maybe. I love it all so. Again.
Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist and psychiatric nurse practitioner who has contributed often to the Brevity blog. In June she will be displaying her little artist books and mixed media collage with Abigail Thomas and Beth Kephart in a pop-up exhibition — Writers as Artists: Showcasing the Handwork of Abigail Thomas, Beth Kephart, Nina Gaby, and Friends — in Woodstock, NY, at Nancy’s of Woodstock Artisanal Creamery, Friday, June 10th, 12 PM to 4 PM.
Memoir of My Marriage: Finding the One [Version, Revision, Iteration, Incarnation] that Finally Worked
May 11, 2022 § 14 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
Six years ago, when I was confidently writing my first memoir, I broadcasted to the whole world, blogging about what I should—and shouldn’t—tell my teens about my cross-cultural, inter-denominational marriage, how I filled in memory gaps with old letters to my mother and friends, and why my manuscript eventually hit a wall.
Really, though, I started writing this story long before that. For my first workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts two years earlier, I shared “Root and Reach,” my essay contrasting my ungrounding moves with grounding yoga poses. The feedback: write a book. Each move should be its own chapter, and each chapter needed more scenes. Overwhelmed, I put it away.
After reading my essay about running for shelter during an Israeli military operation in 2014 and during the First Gulf War 23 years prior, my mentor suggested I write about my marriage, about love and compromise. By graduation a year later, I’d written 65,000 words. The facts were straight, my emotional truth was clear, but something bothered me. The writing was flat, uninteresting; the story overwritten.
Time passed. A writer-friend in northern California and I offered each other feedback on our manuscripts. She, like one of my VCFA mentors, suggested I ask a different question, write more my journey, less my marriage.
That same week, I read the British magazine Mslexia’s call for submissions:
J is for… a piece of creative non-fiction, up to 300 words.
A word jumped at me: jury. I opened my manuscript and found the sad day when my spouse and I sat in our White Plains, New York sunroom, deliberating about his need to return to Israel, where we met and married 20 years earlier, and my desire to stay stateside. I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled until my long, dull chapter reached 294 words and sang. Every month, I answered their calls for K (for Kasher), L (for Lire), M (for Mess), slowly working my way through the alphabet.
That spring, I took a flash workshop with Kathy Fish, responding feverishly to her prompts, each capped at 500/300/250 words. The result: the fewer my words, the clearer the writing. The group feedback: write a memoir-in-flash about my Israeli life.
On fire, I reframed my question, focusing on my search for my authentic self since landing in Israel in 2011, writing short vignettes of varying lengths, each under 1,000 words.
Then, last year, a reader-friend in southern California, encouraged me to consider putting together a chapbook. Did I have anything I’d already written centered on a certain theme?
I opened my first memoir. Zoomed in on the beginning, the middle, and the end: when my husband and I met in Israel in our early twenties, when we raised young children in America in our thirties and early forties, when we returned to Israel at almost fifty. Again, I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled, aiming for short and concise. I searched for prose chapbooks, entered it in competitions, and received a slew of rejections. Six months later and still submitting, I stumbled upon an open call for experimental prose. Clueless and curious, I opened my vignette called Zigzag and spread the text across the page to reflect the title. In Pro-Con, I formed two columns and used the + and – to show my list. On and on I went to follow one mentor’s sage advice and play on the page. The result: an experimental memoir-in-shorts (which I call memoir-ella), complete at not quite 10,000 words.
In early November, my manuscript was one of four finalists and received encouraging feedback from the editor. It didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. Later that month, I submitted it to Vine Leaves Press, a traditional publisher that prints vignette collections. A few months later, I awakened to an email with subject line: OFFER OF PUBLICATION and a two-page, in-depth letter of evaluation, highlighting everything that works and why. My heart bounced—with relief, with gratitude, with awe. For the learning curve, the process, the persistence.
One night, between REM and some other disturbing midlife sleep state, I realized that I have two memoirs: this shorter, playful part I about my marriage and a longer one, also in vignettes, about me part II. My greatest hope is that it doesn’t take me another decade and five more iterations to find a special press that says yes.
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat–practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003–with her legs up her living room wall. Her experimental memoir-in-shorts, Places We Left Behind, will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.
May 3, 2022 § 7 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
If you are anything like me, you have a partial or completed manuscript that you’re dreading getting back to. You have spent a lot of time writing, thinking about, workshopping, editing, developing, and fine-tuning this yet-to-be published project, but there are limits to your perseverance, so your darling has been stuck in the proverbial drawer for longer than you care to admit, even to yourself.
A memoir I am working on, My Body Remembers, started as writing assignments during my MFA in creative nonfiction. I’d woken up one night during my first semester with a terrible ache in my hip. Having just lost a friend to cancer I immediately felt gloomy about my pain, but also grateful for a body that had, after all, been my reliable companion for more than fifty years. Four semesters later, my thesis consisted of a “full-bodied” 270-page manuscript with chapters titled “breasts,” “hips,” “nose,” “hands,” etc. I felt stoked about the concept and my completed degree, but now what?
After a good while writing shorter pieces and publishing personal and craft essays about other topics (walking away from the body-project felt really good), I decided it was time to find a developmental editor who was willing to work with me and my manuscript. Her extensive notes and edits were what I expected: a frank and generous validation of my writerly abilities and a detailed outline on what needed to be improved and how to do it. Ah, the revisions. What a pain. Back in the drawer my manuscript went for another long while. Months. Seasons.
Then my friend Jennifer Lang, who runs a writers’ studio in Tel Aviv where I live, invited me to teach a workshop. There is nothing like having to prepare a presentation or workshop to whip me into shape around the topic I care about and have been working on. Give me a deadline and an (even small) audience, and I perk right up. Add some (even paltry) financial compensation to the mix, and now I also feel more professional about the topic.
I had a few weeks this winter to build “Writing the Body” into a 3-hour meaningful writing experience for the participants; now I was excited to unearth all that body material I had worked so hard on for several years. I re-discovered my carefully crafted introduction that could serve as a jumping-off point for the workshop, and all the body writing prompts I had created in my manuscript for the reader. Now the words, sentences, scenes and chapters in my manuscript served a new purpose, and this energized me about the work still to do.
Running a workshop will not only revitalize your own work, but your students/participants’ work can spark new insights and deepen understanding of your subject and yourself. One “Writing the Body” participant picked “vagina/labia/uterus” from the wild-card writing-prompt basket I had prepared, and what she shared with the group blew me away. I had never thought of (my) uterus in a cross-generational way, but she not only wrote with gratitude about her own, having carried three children, but connected this to the uterus of her mother who had given her life, and to that of her daughter, about to give the author her first grandchild. Suddenly, the idea of our bodies telling stories grew in scope as the writer evoked a whole new and meaningful perspective of bodily connections through time. How can this idea enhance my own work? I thought.
Thanks to the workshop I was able to prepare and teach, body parts—including what I call their muscle and emotional memories—moved to front and center in my consciousness again. This is where they belong if I want to finish revisions and take my project to the next level: publication.
If you need a kick in the butt (or a gentle nudge in the hip) to get moving on a project you’ve been writing for a while but grown tired or discouraged about, creating a workshop, conference presentation or session is one way to get re-invested and re-energized.
Participating in the literary community—being a good literary citizen—through teaching keeps me in the loop about our profession/field and helps me build relationships with other writers, which in turn bring ideas and opportunities. Often, and especially since Covid, this typically takes place online, but that is how I got to know Jennifer Lang, who runs the Israel Writers Studio and invited me to run a class. Go ahead, dive in and find your opportunity: you won’t regret it.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, who divides her time between Maine and Tel Aviv. She has a PhD in French literature and an MFA from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Tablet, the Brevity Blog, Hippocampus, Lilith, and AARP’s The Ethel, among other places.
May 2, 2022 § 14 Comments
By Nina Badzin
Almost 20 years ago, I gave my future writer-self a priceless gift. Pregnant with my first child and squeamish at the vision of future kids or babysitters finding my old notebooks, I spent every night after work transcribing many journals from my teen years and 20s into a password-protected Word document.
I was thinking more about privacy than searchability at the time of this carpal tunnel-inducing-project, but what I created became the research tool and inspiration behind several dozen published personal essays in my 30s and early 40s.
The notebooks began at the end of seventh grade, and that I ever worried someone might read them is laughable. Anyone interested after more than a few lines would deserve a medal. I expressed such depth of feeling. Life was only “incredible“ or “the worst.” Sure, the writing was honest and raw, but it was also predictable. As I typed my old feelings into the new, secret document, I winced more than I laughed. Regrettably, I was not a young, witty David Sedaris amused at the absurdity of life.
Rereading and therefore reconsidering those pages forced me confront myself as an unreliable narrator, something true of all essayists whether we like to admit or not. Before delving into the notebooks, I remembered and represented my younger self as a serious, studious person who was above the teen angst. Turns out that in middle school and high school I was boy crazy, weight obsessed, and practically auditioning for the role of “typical teen girl,” at least as recorded by my 13-to-18-year-old self. It’s hard to deny the evidence of my calorie counts and daily reports of passing “D” at his locker.
Still, I forced my late-20s self to type out every mention of “D,” “G” then “M,” every encounter with a 1990s fat-free Snackwells cookie, and every unkind comment I wrote about a friend or family member. Those facts and feelings mattered to me once and typing them out as an adult allowed me to bring different parts of my imagined and real personas together. More to the point, it gave me so many ideas for essays! And it gave me a structure to continue journaling, even if only occasionally, which provided more material later as I took my creative writing to new topics. Now my mid-40s self can read about my mid-30s self and so on.
The best part is this: I now possess a searchable document dating from 1990 to today. It’s 200,000 words of nonsense with bits of important (to me) truths woven throughout. I’ve used the search function many times for reasons large and small. When my dad passed away in December, I searched “dad” and found moments I would never have remembered otherwise, stories and thoughts not captured in photographs. Those details helped me write his eulogy and remember what he was like before several decades of Parkinson’s changed so much about how he lived. I’ve looked up petty, decades-old incidents with friends to help me with my current friendship advice column and podcast. The document is a treasure and the search tool, a technological wonder.
This unwieldy document hardly needs a password, but now with four kids, and I assume one day, some grandchildren to consider, I’m going to keep it locked. In case one of them can scroll through the pages to find the juicy parts, because no, it’s not all dreadfully boring, I’m going to save us all the embarrassment.
Three Important Tips for Transcribing Your Old Journals:
- No editing: I fixed egregious spelling errors because Word would scream at me with red lines if I didn’t. But I recommend not editing for content.
- Keep a side document with all the ideas this process inspires. While typing my old thoughts into this fresh document, my grownup mind had so much to say. I jotted those ideas into journal entires with the current dates, creating future material for years.
- Use the document to keep the journal going. Even if you only use it a few times a year, your future self will be grateful for your past thoughts.
Nina Badzin is a freelance writer and a creative writing instructor at ModernWell in Minneapolis. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Brain, Child Magazine, Kveller, Modern Loss, Moment Magazine, MotherWell, On Being, The Sunlight Press, The Wisdom Daily, The Woven Tale Press, and elsewhere. Find her podcast Dear Nina: Conversations About Friendship, anywhere you listen to podcasts. She writes regularly about friendship, books, and more at ninabadzin.com and tweets @NinaBadzin.
April 27, 2022 § 15 Comments
By Paula J. Lambert
For so long, I swore I didn’t know where the birds in my writing had come from. Their bones, beaks, feathers—so many kinds of feathers. The feet, toes, talons. Every odd, intricate detail of a bird’s anatomy would turn itself into a poem or appear in an essay—eventually, hundreds of pages. They keep coming.
I’m not a birder. I’m no ornithologist. When I finally remembered the birds in my grandfather’s yard, it seemed to explain…something. All those flashes of color: blue birds, red, golden-yellow. Pepe’s back yard was a pine forest, and the tables next to the webbed lawn chairs we sat on perfect stumps, just right for sweating cans of beer and Tupperware cups of Kool-Aid. Every tree had a bird house—some had two or three. I loved listening to the grownups talk and laugh through those spring and summer days, the birds around us so plentiful that, except for those flashes of color and the occasional drum of the woodpeckers’ hammer, they barely registered at all.
It was a year before I thought of the full bird skeleton I kept in a cigar box on the bottom shelf of my studio. I’d found it in the soft spring soil off the front porch just after I’d married into my husband’s family. I thought I’d write about it, that beautiful, nearly naked bird, one slim dark feather refusing to detach from its former wing. It seemed to have offered itself as a gift. I’d add it to a collage somehow, I thought—an assemblage. For a while, I tried taking photographs.
Eventually I remembered the shore-bird skull I’d found in Rockport, five or six years before I met my husband, it’s slinky cervical vertebrae still attached. We were there for a sibling reunion, and my oldest sister, horrified when I lifted it off the rocks, pronounced it filthy. She left me on the beach alone when I refused to drop it, trying to figure out how to carry it home.
Then there was the half-skull—no lower beak—I’d found at the racetrack in Gainesville, Florida. Or someone had. Who? I was still working as a sign painter then. It sat perfectly on the top of the guardrail where I’d left off painting Winston and Budweiser logos the day before. My boss, Nancy, working with me at the track that day, turned it over and over in her hands and held it up to the sky so sunlight shone through the sockets. All I wanted was to get back to work. She took it home in her kit.
I’m not sure what took me so long to see all this as a sequence, a bread-crumb trail, instead of just randomly firing synapses pinging one bird memory or another over the course of how many years, never explaining or even suggesting anything at all, not even the time I found that delicate-soft, newly dead thrush on the side of the road in Amherst, Virginia. I was in residence at VCCA, working my way through a painfully difficult personal essay. I studied the bird carefully and sent a photo to a friend I knew could narrow down the species: hermit thrush. I stared and stared at it trying to understand how something so perfect could just be…dead. And why, in spite of its death, so many other birds sang sweetly nonchalant in the trees around it. I wove that hermit thrush into the essay I was working on and, when I studied the photo for details, realized it wasn’t the only dead bird pic in my phone. There were actually quite a few. Thumbing through them, I tried to reassure myself that wasn’t weird: creatives do this kind of thing, right?
The photos might be what led me to remembering the first dead bird of my life—raggedy, stiff—the one my then-best-friend insisted we hold a funeral for, dropping to her knees and pulling me down beside her. All those synapses fired at once, and I saw the pattern of augury that had set itself before me all my life. Writers have always been drawn to birds, symbol of the spirit, connection between earth and sky. When a bird is dead, diseased, torn asunder? Surely there are days we feel that metaphor, too. Surely it’s important to write our way through it—to find the words that lead our spirit back to soaring.
Sometimes the obvious sails straight over your head. But those seemingly random, suddenly firing synapses are the very thing that has always defined my writing process—the poems for sure and now, I’m beginning to realize, the prose I’ve come back to, too. I follow what interests me, obsessively maybe, until it links lightning-fast to two or three or four other things and I write it all down. I can’t explain how the connections suddenly make sense in my head, all of them at once. But more often than not, when I write it down and set my words loose in the world, they find their way to someone who needs to see them, someone who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—have made the connections on their own.
Paula J. Lambert has authored several collections of poetry including The Ghost of Every Feathered Thing (FutureCycle Press 2022). Recipient of PEN America’s L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship, her poetry and prose has been supported by the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. She has twice been in residence at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Lambert owns Full/Crescent Press, a small publisher of poetry books and broadsides specializing in hand-stitched, art-quality chapbooks. Through the press, she has founded and supported numerous public readings that support the intersection of poetry and science.
April 22, 2022 § 33 Comments
By Gabriela Denise Frank
Can we strike shitty first draft from our vocabulary?
No wants to do a shitty job at anything. Writing time is precious and we know words matter, yet we erode our efforts with faux-cheerful statements: “I’m writing my shitty first draft this weekend!”
It’s just an expression, you say. It doesn’t mean anything.
Well, honey, self-talk matters.
We seek to move people with the same language we use to label our writing shitty. When this phrase infiltrates our thinking—that shit is part of writing—we denigrate our creative labor and the joy the arises from it.
Attend an artist residency, and you’ll witness the pathology: hands down, the writers will be the most tense. The visual artists will fill their studios with music and invite people in for chats over wine; the writers will be bug-eyed at 1 a.m. under the blue light of a screen, tearing their hair out because everything is shitty, shitty, shitty!
I get it. I’ve been in those workshops. The shitty first draft was a cockeyed badge of courage and a way to diffuse critique. If I call my draft shitty before you do, you can’t hurt me.
While potters work with clay and wheel, painters with pigment and canvas, and photographers with camera and film, writers must conjure our medium and our tools. The first draft is our clay, our canvas, our film, and through revision we add shape, color, and focus. Have you ever heard a sculptor degrade the material she’s chiseling a statue from? Look at this shitty marble! We can’t purchase our first drafts from catalogs or quarries, which makes how we set the foundation of our practice even more important.
When an essay lives in our mind, it’s perfect. When it becomes embodied in letters and words, it’s no longer idealized. This isn’t a fall from grace. In the first draft, our gauzy notions become more. Now we can do something with them.
Do we say shitty first draft because an idea made tangible isn’t immediately what we hoped for? It’s not a binary: writing doesn’t have to be perfect on the first try or it’s garbage. Artmaking is a durational practice. We work the material, and the material works us.
One year at the Tin House summer workshop, Jo Ann Beard said she doesn’t revise her work. She shapes language in her mind, then writes sentence by sentence. She’s the only writer I know who possesses this stunning capability. The rest of us need to see words on the page to work with them, otherwise our essays will remain ideas—perfect and unrealized.
How do I know if something is worth writing?
We don’t know what’ll happen until we write. If we knew, it would be a list.
I need my shitty first draft. Shitty lowers the stakes.
Risk is what making art is about.
It’s fine to risk and sputter. Maybe you’re still learning how to tell that story, or you need more emotional distance to see the undercurrents. Maybe it’s a building block that’ll help you write the next essay, or maybe you need to go deeper—you need more time in revision.
But what if this essay is a waste of time?
How can it be a waste if you learn something by writing it?
As artists, we’re here to move minds and shake souls with humor, grief, reflection, delight, wonder, and gorgeous language. Craft takes time and practice. The carapace of shitty—a brittle, cynical shield—stands in the way of us moving into deeper relationship with nuance and vulnerability. Flawless and gorgeous are not the same thing, by the way. Drop the guard and worry less about failure. Move that shit out of the way.
Ocean Vuong notes how our language is laced with hardness and violence: “You killed that poem. You came into that novel guns blazing. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The audience is a target audience. Good for you, a man once said to me at a party, you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ em dead.”
We hammer out shitty drafts.
We submit work.
We master language.
A podcast host asks, “Does your poem bang?” A cool kid’s way of saying, Do your words have resonance?
Consider how the mind internalizes these expressions, how we’re steeping ourselves in harmful language. I’ll repose Vuong’s question: why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration rather than defensiveness and violence?
The expectation that essays will spring fully formed from our heads is ridiculous. Even Jo Ann Beard revises, albeit in her mind. Uncooked doesn’t equal shitty. There’s no reason to preemptively shit-talk ourselves—or set low expectations. The point of writing isn’t to remove risk or to pen something perfectly on the first try. How would readers know? What difference would it make? Would that prove you are perfect? Would you stop writing then?
Writing is revision and the first draft a gateway.
Rather than aim for shitty (or perfect), write towards finishing the first draft. Write to the end rather than stop midway to polish those early paragraphs. Write to the end so you have clay to shape, so you can see where to layer pigment. In revision, the work teaches us what we’re trying to say and to get there we need a draft.
The next time you write a new thing, delight in the rolls and wrinkles of your infant words. Celebrate those tottering first steps. Give that squirmy first draft space to change and grow in ways you hadn’t planned when the idea twinkled in your mind’s eye.
What happens when you nurture your writing rather than call it shitty will surprise you.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her work has appeared in True Story, HAD, Hunger Mountain, Tahoma Literary Review, Bayou, Baltimore Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. The author of Pity She Didn’t Stay ‘Til the End (Bottlecap Press), she serves as the creative nonfiction editor of Crab Creek Review. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com
April 18, 2022 § 6 Comments
by Kate Walter
After writing and publishing a memoir in essays in less than two years, I felt my essay ideas had dried up. I had pushed myself hard because the subject of my book – a pandemic memoir – was timely, and because I had a firm deadline from my publisher.
By the time my memoir, Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter, was released last fall, I felt completely wiped out. Not just from writing and editing and proofreading during such a short window of time, but I was exhausted from living through the pandemic by myself, which is the subject of my book. I knew I was supposed to be writing related new essays to promote the book, but I just didn’t have any in me.
I did promotional events in December (a Zoom panel, a podcast, a radio interview). I even squeezed in one in-person reading before Omicron hit. Then I stepped back to work on scheduling events for the spring. I wrote copy for flyers for upcoming events. But no essays. I had gone from churning out personal pieces to no output. I started to panic a little.
So when an editor offered me a fun assignment reporting about a museum, I accepted. It was good to be back writing and I could use the money. I also realized that I’m like a farmer and needed to rotate the crops. Give essays a rest until that soil is fertile with ideas again.
Should go back to that novel I started years ago which includes outtakes from my debut memoir? When I read part of it in my writing group years ago (when we were still meeting in person) people really liked it, especially the younger writers. The story takes place in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, before their time. They loved the details about a friend throwing down the keys from the fire escape after we called from a pay phone because we didn’t have cell phones and some tenements did not have buzzers by the door. Or should I return to that queer murder mystery? I had moved away completely from fiction during the pandemic.
The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.
The strange thing is that after I came to this conclusion and stopped pushing myself to come up with essay ideas, I came up with three ideas. This happened organically which is basically how my process always worked.
So I’ve started a new piece about what it will feel like to take off the masks in my large New York City apartment building, starting April 1. What will it be like to step into the hall or elevator without a mask? And I realized this topic compliments my pandemic memoir.
I’ve learned it’s fine to rotate away from essay writing for a few months. If I take a break, I am composting and when I do that, ideas pop into my head. What a relief to realize that.
Kate Walter is the author of two memoirs: Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter; and Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, AM-NY, Next Avenue, The Advocate, The Village Sun and many other outlets. She taught writing at CUNY and NYU for three decades.
April 14, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Lynn Haraldson
A few months ago, my partner and I were sitting at the workbench in his garage, sharing a beer and talking about nothing in particular, when a 1970s Cheap Trick song, “Voices,” came on the radio. I was humming along until, halfway through, a lyric stopped me cold. I looked over at the man I’ve been with for nine years—now paging through a Polaris catalog—and thought, Oh no! I’m in love with someone else!
In the many years since my husband died, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in grief. When I started writing a memoir a few years ago about my experiences in the aftermath of his death, I knew I couldn’t write from a detached place. I planned ahead and established supports—my therapist on speed dial, Ted Lasso on the DVR— for those times when grief got overwhelming.
But it wasn’t grief that prompted a writing timeout. “Voices” made me realize that—while I’d never stopped loving my husband—I’d fallen in love with him again, on the page. And that, I decided, was a problem.
Sometime during the third or fourth round of edits, when I went deeper into my past in search of the tiniest details, the ones that prick the heart and make a scene more intimate, I’d added more physical details about my husband’s body, and the ways and times we danced, laughed, slept, showered, and made love. It was often emotionally difficult to write, as I expected it would be. It also reignited feelings I haven’t felt for him in a very long time.
I thought if I listened to “Voices” few more times, the feeling would go away, like when you rub a sore muscle and it relaxes. I found the video on YouTube, but as I sang along, the harder seventeen-year-old Me fell for the farmer boy who would become my husband.
I shouldn’t feel this way! I told myself, even though it was the same phrase that—for decades after his death—kept me from grieving at all, or at least grieving productively, openly, and honestly.
Guilt tagged along, and I felt like I was cheating on both my partner and my memoir. How could I stay true to my partner and to my central theme of normalizing grief, without saccharine, starry-eyed in-loveness screwing everything up?
I needed supports beyond Ted and my therapist. First, I opened my dog-eared copy of Hope Edelman’s The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Grief:
This is how the AfterGrief tends to show up…A random site or sound or smell pushes a memory up to the surface, and time does it’s funky little twitch. The future pulls back and the distant past rushes up close, both compressing into the present. Then is now and now is then, and later ceases to exist. The images are dazzling in their clarity. If I’d known they were coming today, I might have planned better.
Ah…so instead of identifying the song as a sensory trigger and letting it be what it was, I immediately jumped to, “This is bad!” OK, got it!
I went to Megan Devine’s website, Refuge in Grief: “Beauty doesn’t so much fix anything as it creates more space in your heart.”
Had I learned so much about grief that I forgot how it intersects with love? Love is beauty! I took a deep breath and indulged the in love, and let it sit in my heart in all its bubblegum gooiness. It was…lovely. Love and grief intertwined like helixes, rotating in unison, one strand no less than the other.
After addressing the what and why of this love feeling, I addressed my memoir as a writer. I opened Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book and reread “Memoir: Character” to remind myself not to turn my late husband into a “Mary Sue”—a too-amazing, too-special character, too good to be true. To make my late husband—and our relationship—real for readers, I must include—along with love—moments of vulnerability and conflict, to show, rather than tell, the story of our life together in all its messy stickiness.
I could do that.
Just when I thought I’d earned that Ph.D in grief, I had to relearn that feelings aren’t bad guys. If I feel guilty or tell myself to “get over” a feeling, then it’s me, not my feelings, creating the problem. Feelings—the good and the ugly—give authenticity to writing. Blame, guilt, and “shouldn’ts” contribute nothing. In the next draft, I faced my feelings, and—after a generous break and offering kindness to my experience—let my words do the rest.
P.S. When I told my partner I was in love with my late husband, he hugged me and said, “Yeah, I’ve known that since I met you.” Hunh…
Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. Her memoir, An Obesity of Grief, is currently in the hands of the query gods. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. She writes at LynnHaraldson.com and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @ZenBagLady.
April 13, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Caroline Stowell
I first heard the phrase “leave it at the door” from my high school choir teacher. Forget about that math test you have next period, she’d say as she plunked out some bright chords. You’re going to leave that at the door. This space is just for singing. Years later, I was in my church’s basement when the leader of the weekly moms’ group asked, What is one thing you are going to leave at the door? I understood that she was giving us space, and then she was going to move on to keep us on time. I played along, but I realized that if I had to verbalize the most awful thing I was dealing with that day, it would have been nice to tell the entire story.
The amazing thing about writing is that I don’t have to leave anything at the door. Whatever I’m going through, I can put it on the page. I can let it make a mark in the world. And then I can share it with my writing group. I can jump right into the hardest stuff, because in an essay you have to get to the hard stuff quickly and try to make sense of it before the end. There’s that hope that maybe if I figure out how to write the essay, that maybe I can figure out the solution in my life too. But before that happens, I generally need a space to sit in the hard stuff, to let it soak in before I am forced to race to a conclusion, and what better way to sit in the tension of the hard stuff than teasing out the central question of an essay with your writing group where no one asked you to leave it at the door. We may discuss mental illness, misplaced desire, or existential crisis, and we can do so in a way that acknowledges there are no fast and easy answers to these struggles. We can probe our feelings and circumstances somewhat obliquely as we critique the writing. And perhaps, in doing so, through improving the writing, they will help me tease out what it is I’m trying to say, what questions I’m trying to answer, what solutions I’m searching for.
At my writing group gatherings, we may not always have time to circle back to small talk and what else is going on in life or current events or what books we’re reading, but the time remains immensely satisfying because we have discussed what matters most. We have discussed the hardest thing, the thing that is too often relegated to the doorway because it could otherwise distract us from our purpose . But with writing, processing the hard stuff often is the purpose. We can say, here, here is a space for that. It’s on the page, and I will work through it with you.
It’s been a long time since I had a weekly moms’ group at my church, and many of the casual or planned interactions with people I care about outside of my home have simply vanished because of the pandemic. My writing group, however, which formed in 2019 after we met during a course at GrubStreet in Boston, has continued to meet semi-regularly. While we are all women, we cover a breadth of female experience. We’re single, married, divorced, mothers or not, gay or not, working or not or on disability, and yet, each devoted to the writing craft. In the beginning, we met at Pat’s office in Central Square, nervously getting to know each other beyond the structure of the classroom, finishing our sessions with a drink around the corner at the Plough and Stars, later sharing some of the last hand sanitizer to be found in February 2020 before retreating to Zoom. When we finally emerged from our homes later that fall, we all laughed around a firepit in Sylvia’s driveway in Roslindale, and in whatever form we have met since, we have found connection with each other through our work. We have also celebrated first and subsequent publications in poetry and personal essay, as well as acceptances into advanced courses at GrubStreet.
But, my dear writing group, I am moving away. In a few months time, I won’t be able to see you in person without getting on an airplane, and I know we are all Zoom weary. I cannot leave you at the door. How will I keep you with me? Will I find similarly supportive writers in my new home?
When the writing gets lonely, I’ll think of you and how encouraging you’ve been. When I don’t know what to do, I’ll hear your voices murmur: Write it down, love. Write it down.
Caroline Stowell’s essays have appeared in The Other Journal and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. In May, she will graduate from the Memoir Incubator, a competitive year-long program at GrubStreet in Boston. You can follow her at evenincambridge.com and on Twitter @evenincambridge. She lives, for now, in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.