The Sanctity of the First Read

September 29, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Alyson Shelton

“What are you working on?” Someone new in my life might ask.

“An essay.” I’ll answer.

“About what?” 

“Something.” 

And that’s that.

I’m actually a decent conversationalist but not when it comes to my writing. Perhaps I’m superstitious, worrying that the heat of the idea will cool with sharing, but I also cherish that time when my idea is nascent and full of promise. And so, I don’t read very early drafts and I don’t ask anyone to read mine. It is a mostly unspoken policy and one I hold dear. The last thing I need is your pained look, which could be related to stomach cramps or the reverberations of some stupid thing you said to a cashier, to register with me as questioning the validity of my concept.

I didn’t like sharing baby name ideas either. I didn’t want to hear about that guy you once knew, the master manipulator, who had the same name as my soon-to-be-born son. Instead, I wanted to dwell in potential.

I’m still like this. Potential keeps me going on the darkest of days. 

The promise of eventually sharing a work in progress with my most trusted readers keeps me going. The first read is a thing of great beauty. 

And I know they only have one first read to give me. And so, I use it wisely.

I’ve been writing long enough to know when my writing is ready for readers. It’s that beautiful and maddening moment when there’s nothing left to change without feedback. In my eagerness for validation, I have fumbled the hand-off many times.

When I was younger and greener, I craved validation before I put too much time into a draft. I wanted to know I was on the right track. Little did I know that the less time I put into it, the less validation I could expect. It’s harder to love the early idea; it’s muddy and lacks the specificity and punch that rewriting brings. 

I wanted to be “good” at writing. I wanted to be “good” at everything. And I wanted the growth to sting less. 

After decades of writing and receiving feedback, here is my formula for reduced sting:

1, Write that first draft, even if you have to trick yourself. Just get started. Try not to judge yourself. Try not to get in your way. Try not to hate how the words on the page are not matching the idea in your head.

2. Return to it. Make it better. Show, don’t tell. Lean into the pieces that are uniquely you. Your writing superpowers. Don’t try to be anyone else; they already wrote something, this is yours.

3. Read it out loud. This is a great time to refine voice, yours as the writer and your characters’.

4. If you’re thinking of sharing it, consider the questions you’d ask. Would they be about plot holes? Character arcs? Word choice? Connective tissue? Voice? If you know the answers to your questions, or even have an inkling, you’re not ready to share it. Take your own suggestions. Fix it.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you don’t know the answers to your questions. I know something is ready to share when I’m at the crossroads. When I feel with certainty that if I continue to edit my work, there is a decent chance I will make it worse. I will dilute it, editing out the very thing I am trying to capture. 

6. Find a trusted reader. Someone who treats you and your work, with care. Someone who never ever starts notes with, “Well, what I would do here is—”

No. Full stop.

Find someone who always, without fail, begins their notes with all the things to love about your work. Someone who sees what you are trying to do and works with you to make it more of that very thing.

I bet you’ve read more than once that trusted readers are gold. They are, which means they might not be easy to find.

Please know that reading with the care you’d like, the kind that stings the least, takes time and energy. It’s best if it’s not done as a “favor.” It’s best if you are acknowledging someone for the service they are rendering. You can pay them in kind, by exchanging work, or other agreed upon services, or of course with money. People do like paying bills with the work they do. 

Clear expectations and boundaries make for the best notes. These conversations could feel awkward, especially at first, but wouldn’t you rather it get weird before you show them the work you hold dear to your heart?

Yes, yes, you would.

Also consider how much a cheap or free read might “cost” you emotionally. Is it truly a free read if you walk away feeling deflated, worthless and discouraged?

No.

I’ve received all of the reads there are from the best, where they get it, love it and have ideas for how to make it better, to the absolute soul-crushing worst. I say this without reservation. Receiving an MFA in a truly toxic environment gives me this confidence.

Guard your work. Care for your voice. Believe in yourself and never squander a first read.
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Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award-winning feature, Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, which successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp Little Old Lady (LOL), Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From.

Anatomy of a Reader 

September 28, 2022 § 28 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

To write is one thing, to be read — deeply read, seen on the page for the writer we can be — is another. 

Words on a page amount to something or nothing, until someone other than the writer reads them, and then those words amount to a whole new world. A world of response. A world in which the words give shape to life beyond the writer’s hopes and dreams and take hold as the reader’s. 

The ultimate reader is one who, like you, reads the piece in published form. But before then, the wise and the brave writer asks for feedback on the early, pre-published drafts. If it takes courage to write, it surely takes courage to ask for feedback and then more courage to receive it: Courage and calm and confidence. Not always present in good measure, but even a scrap of each will do to get the process going. 

To be a reader of a writer’s early draft is no less daunting, for it is to be both honoured and burdened: honoured to be asked for comment and burdened to do so, and not everyone is up to the task. 

I categorize draft readers into three groups: the surfer, the pedantic, and the bold. 

The surfers are willing to read, though are most comfortable on the surface of your words; they lack the interest in or capacity for substantive response: “Oh, it’s good,” they might say. “I like it. The dog is funny.” How disappointing when your reader doesn’t match the courage it took for you to ask them to be your reader. The surfers’ feedback — well meaning but in its vagueness void of value — is, if not irrelevant, then dissatisfying and especially so at the early stages of testing out a new piece of writing. In those early stages, writers need bold comment and naked assessment. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Next up, the pedantics. These are eager readers, pencil in hand, happy, so happy, to slice and dice your words. In short, they copyedit, even proofread, well before those important tasks are needed — or wanted. Your work comes back to you with changes marked, tracked, and shouting off the page: “Typo on page four.” “Break up the description of the neglected garden; it’s too much as one chunk.” “Fix the comma splice in line 3.” These comments — commands, really — are well meant but as disappointing as the surfers’. They come too soon: the trees in sharp relief while the beauty — or potential beauty — of the forest is unseen and unremarked. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Finally, the bold. Now, these are the treasures among a writer’s early readers, for the bold understand that feedback on a draft is more than mere opinion and is less, indeed quite different, than detailed editing. It is a commitment to be clear, honest, and constructive in response to what is (or is not yet) on the page. Such a reading requires time and skill, and respect for the writer as someone whose work deserves substantive assessment by a discerning — a bold — reader. Music to the writer’s ear is feedback something like this: “The idea is sound, but you have not written the story you are hinting at. You have sidestepped it with the frippery of the dog’s behaviour, which is amusing but not needed as foreground here. What I want more of is the woman’s childhood and her obsession with the house on the corner. Tell me who lives there and why is the garden so neglected?” 

Perhaps, finally, I asked the right person. 

The feedback from a bold reader gives us substance to work with and to build on. It proves to us that we are creating something of value with our writing, something worth reading and responding to, and, therefore, something worth continuing to work on. Alternatively, of course, it might be something to ditch, to move on from. Having even only one such reader in our circle makes a writer fortunate indeed. 

The lesson? Know the anatomy of your draft readers and choose them wisely. Keep the surfers and pedantics in your circle, for they each have their place later in the writing process. And nurture the bold readers in your midst, for they are few and far between. Be brave enough to ask for their feedback, courageous enough to receive it, and smart enough to heed it. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in Steering the Craft (2015), her gem of a book on the craft of writing: The critique is a response to your work, to your writing. It is not personal. Learn from it. However, you are the final arbiter. The discipline of art is freedom. 

So, at the end of the day, to write is to be free to work with words as we see fit — to choose them and shape them; to work alone when necessary and, equally, to connect with others when needed: Wise is the writer who asks for comment and feedback and input along the way. And fortunate is the writer who has even one reader in their circle willing to be bold and in so being to invest in us their time, their insight, their skill. And when we find you, dear bold reader, beware, for we shall never let you go. 

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Amanda Le Rougetel lives in the heart of the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A retired college instructor, she blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches writing workshops through Writing as Tool.

Carving Joy From Grief

September 13, 2022 § 32 Comments

By Sally Jane Smith

My life has been blessed with pleasure and privilege. Like everyone, I’ve also had my share of troubles: there was a rape attempt that left me damaged for decades, the deaths of both parents in my twenties, the break-up that uprooted me from my home and shattered my illusions of romantic love, upheavals at workplaces I valued, a Sri Lankan collision that broke my body and robbed me of my wanderlust for ten years.

Not one of these came close to the agony of losing my niece, Carly, to a road accident in Hanoi.

There’s a quote I’ve been unable to source: “The only thing harder than writing about grief, is not writing about it.” (1) Carly, a fellow nomad, crept into the periphery of my travel tales again and again. But I shrank from the rawest story of all. Of how she died. How I chose not to go to her funeral. How I fled to Turkey instead.

Then an online Binder (2) community introduced me to a poem:

     Why Bother?

     Because right now, there is         someone

     out there with

     a wound                                    in the exact shape

                                                        of your words.

(Sean Thomas DoughertyThe Second O of Sorrow, 2018)

The shape of Dougherty’s words gave me permission to carve into my own devastation, then whittle at its most intimate moments until my voice splintered. The fractured story that survived was either the best thing I’d ever written, or complete gibberish.

*

Last month, I set out to draft a newsletter titled The Best Rejection. I was mulling over the topic when I came across distracting news: the announcement of finalists for a prominent Australian writing award.

After a recent slew of rejection, I’d resigned myself to yet another failure. “Eleven-Thirty”—an experimental exploration of travel and grief—was only one of my pieces out on submission, and it had already been rejected (or ignored) eleven times. The only reason I bothered to run my finger down the page was to see if I knew any of the shortlistees.

The thrill, when I touched my own name, teetered on the edge of darkness: a rush from jubilation, through Maybe my work isn’t total garbage, to the punch in the guts when I realized my celebration owed its existence to Carly’s death.

It doesn’t take much to plummet into a rabbit hole of brutal heartache.

Not knowing how to reconcile such powerful conflicting emotions, I reached out to a Binder contact, memoirist Casey Mulligan Walsh. Casey, who asserts that grief and joy can and do coexist, was generous in her support. She urged me to recognize that grief writing is a tool to find meaning and embrace empathy, not only for those working to mold prose around their pain, but also for their readers.

I’m still struggling with this.

But Carly? I believe she’d be excited for me.

I’m choosing joy because that’s what she’d tell me to do.
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(1) If anyone knows the author, please @ me and comment below.

(2) If you identify as a female or gender-nonconforming writer, there’s a Binder for you. They tend to attract like-minded women: politically left-of-center (the name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to that unfortunate phrase from the 2012 US presidential debate) and committed to supporting both each other and, outside the safe spaces of the Binder communities, creatives of all genders. My entry point was through two of their many Facebook groups focused on different genres, interests, and stages of the publication journey: Binder Full of Memoirists and Binders Building Platforms. Search Facebook for “Binder” and click on “Groups” to see the full array.

___

Sally Jane Smith is an immigrant Australian who has lived on five continents and journeyed through thirty-three countries. Bylines include Gulf News, TripFiction and Women’s Ink! magazine. An excerpt from Sally’s memoir manuscript Unpacking for Greece achieved First Place Nonfiction in the 2021 Port Writers Open Literary Competition, and “Some Leafs”—the story of her great-great-grandmother’s extraordinary life on four continents—appears in the anthology Itchy Feet: Tales of Travel and Adventure. As a finalist in the 2022 Newcastle Short Story Award, “Eleven-Thirty” is included in the Hunter Writers Centre award anthology. Connect through www.linktr.ee/SallyJaneSmith

On Keeping a Journal, and the Act of Forgetting

September 12, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Eunice Tiptree

“It’s important that you remember everything.” 

I heard the commandment as I bee-lined for the living room. The voice came from my head, yet seemed to speak from the air. I was eight- or nine-years old. 

I may have paused a second, but I did not wonder at the statement or ask myself why was so important to remember. I went on my way — the Flintstones were coming on.

The commandment only survived as a curiosity. It did not influence my course in life. Yet looking back through the tunnel of three-score years, I see I have striven to remember everything. By remember, I mean by writing in a daily journal begun the day I turned 21. 

I’ve kept that journal for 47 years, a means of talking to myself through time. As if the journal wasn’t enough, I later started outlining daily events in a datebook, useful as an index to the journal and as a quick overview of my journey through the months.

I pictured my inner self as some medieval scribe in a tower ringed by windows. The scribe follows the clock of the sun from window to window for the light to write, window to window through the arc of the day and the swing of the seasons. 

It’s all there, births and deaths, my career as a journalist, at first on a small-town newspaper, later developing a magazine on the space program. And it’s also there, hidden and sometimes glimpsed, submerging again and finally surfacing, decades of gender confusion that preceded my journey from male to female beginning in 2010. 

After completing my transition, I thought myself a natural to write a memoir of my experience. I went over every journal entry for the two years that culminated with surgery. From the bible of my journal, I made detailed notes about each small step, lifted extended quotes, charted events to the exact day. I filled three notebooks with artifacts, an undigested digest of my transition. And began to write . . .

And write. And write. 

I became trapped in what came next. Call it “Then-ism,” as in: and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened. A slow, turgid stream of “and then.” 

Surprise, the entire work fell apart. I found myself lost in a swamp of 140,000 words.

I’d ignored something I learned studying at the Kenyon Review Writing Workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore: Autobiography attempts to include most of a life; memoir attempts to exclude most of a life. And, the bigger the subject, the smaller the keyhole through which you want to enter it. 

A keyhole? I’d left the barn doors wide open, the silo stuffed with more mementoes than a hoarder.

I should have known better from my own experience long ago as a beginning newspaper reporter. In those days I lugged around a bulky cassette tape recorder at the ready for interviews. One time doing a feature, the tape failed. I didn’t discover it until afterwards. Forced to write the story from memory, I discovered the important points and quotes remained lodged in my mind. I didn’t need the tape. After that, I gained the confidence to trust myself — that the important stuff sticks.

Details form a seductive trap, especially when you have them all before you, in bright colors like a jar of jellybeans. Who can stop at one or even a handful?

I still have a hard time weaning myself off the sugar high. I’ll open the journals. But only to refresh my memory. I’ll go for a walk, away from temptation. As I stride along without the crutch of my journals, the bulk of details fall away, which opens space for the truly important scenes to surface. I see new relationships, connections, and hidden meanings. I see something come alive. All the while getting some good exercise.

Remember everything? Why listen to an eight-year-old? Forget everything. That’s the only way to begin to remember. Let your memory roam the seas, not get trapped against the rocks.

I’m nearing the completion of a new memoir, less than half the length of the old one and much stronger — at least a little voice tells me so.

___

Eunice Tiptree’s essays have been published in Brevity, Crack the Spine, Weave, Older Queer Voices and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published in The Kenyon Review and elsewhere.  She writes a blog about the space program at TLI-Tiptree.com.

The Other Side of the River

September 5, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Morgan Baker

I’m at an impasse. I’ve carved out time to write in a beautiful setting with a pond and ocean before me. Just me and my two dogs. I walk them almost every morning on the beach before towels and coolers cover the sand and people run in and out of the sea.

I walk watching the ground under my feet as we traverse the curve of the cove. Is there anything there that is going to trip me and send me flailing and falling? What I discover however, as I gaze at the ground, is that I often miss what’s in the distance—the shoreline I can walk towards, the birds protected in the sand, the dogs running in circles and jumping in and out of the water, or the other side of the creek that flows from the pond to the beach.

I find a piece of seaglass, harder and harder to find in a world of plastics, that reminds me to keep putting the words down. Don’t stop. Keep going. 

The dogs bolt up the dune to the path home, as I huff my way behind them. The puppy leaps in and out of the tall grass that looks like wheat waving in the wind. If she stops for a minute, I can’t find her. She’s hidden from view.

I return to the cottage, lay sheets on the sofa and futon to absorb the water and sand from the dogs, and open my computer. The dogs will nap. I eye them with envy. Napping is one of my joys. 

I have exactly what I’ve been waiting for and wanting—time and a new location in which to write. My own private writing retreat.

But, it’s not working. What’s wrong? I want to scream to the field of tall grass in front of me. 

I know what I want to write about. I know what I want the next project to be, but I can’t seem to connect what’s in my head to the words on the page. Like wading across a great river rushing by, I’m afraid I’ll be dragged down the rapids. It’s safer to stay on one side or the other.

Maybe I’m afraid of what’s in those rapids, of what memories are churning around in there that I need to reach in and pull out. 

I am easily distracted—text messages from my family bounce all over about scheduling meals for when they join me and the dogs. My writing time, alone, is coming to an end and I haven’t done what I planned to, but a family vacation I have been dreaming of is about to ensue. 

Sometimes writing plans get derailed, but other opportunities present. A potential client reached out to me the second week about helping him write some of his story. Didn’t see that coming.

I remind myself that I’ve read five memoirs during these two weeks. I don’t have that kind of time during the school year as I juggle my in-person classes and online workshops. 

I’ve even written several magazine assignments on this retreat. For pay, I might add.

And riding on top of all this, I must decide whether to sign with a small independent publisher for the memoir that took ten years to write, edit, stick away, edit again and now set free. 

More fear rises in my gut. I’ve wanted to write and publish my memoir for a long time, but now that it might happen, I want to hide in this cottage forever. What if it’s not good, what if no one reads it, what if I can’t finish the next one. What If?  What if?

Time, I’m reminded, is not on my side either. I’m in my mid 60s. 

So, I return to my writing. I know I have to start every essay with tenderness. I need to be kind to myself as I barf all over the page and pretend someone is holding my hair back, but the words won’t come out. Like the last toothpaste at the end of the tube, no matter how much I squeeze, the words are just not going to move. 

Writing is often about facing my fear—of stepping into that rushing water and realizing I will get to the other side. 

I don’t have to be fearless to move forward with my writing. Bravery doesn’t mean I’m not afraid, it just means I’ll keep going looking to my right and left to make sure I’m not going to trip on a rock or branch floating in the water.

I climb out of the rapids, I start to write. I bark at the fear the way my dog barks at rain and wind.  

__

Morgan Baker’s work can be found in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, Under the Gum Tree, Expression, The Brevity Blog, and The Bark, among other publications. She teaches at Emerson College and privately online. She was the managing editor for Thebucket.com. She is excited that her debut memoir will be out in Spring 2023 from Ten16 Press. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA. For more information on workshops visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

Advice on Writing Through a Book’s Mushy Middle

August 25, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

A eulogy I wrote for my father expanded into journal entries and eventually my book, ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets. I long dreamt that those loose collection of journal entries might become a book, but for many years they were arc-less and therefore not coalescing. There was no discernible beginning, middle, and end. But those entries, the impetus to start a writing project — I wouldn’t dare call it a book at the time — formed my literary North Star. 

As Emily Dickinson wrote: “I am out with lanterns looking for myself.” I searched for myself in every corner of my memory, soul, in every rare photo I had, in every journal entry I wrote, and in notes I jotted down. In that process, I found profound, surprising things about myself and the other protagonists in my life story. 

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a friend was this: Find people who knew your father back in the day. I won’t give away the secret at ASYLUM’s core but researching my father’s life blew my memoir open. My nascent book was no longer all situational — I had a story to tell. 

So, I threw away many pages of false starts and bruised prose. Then, armed with knowledge from my research, I began to write again. A word about research. In my case, there was little or no paper trail about my father so, I learned about him in his university library. There I read his alumni magazine class notes beginning in 1940. I sussed out facts casually mentioned, which led to an astonishing connection. But mostly, I talked to people. Many of them claimed to remember nothing. However, their foggy memories did not deter me. I gently asked questions and found gold to mine in those conversations. 

And research — don’t be daunted by it. For me, it was the skeleton key that opened submerged parts of my family history. Research takes many forms. It can be as accessible as reading someone’s favorite book or rereading your favorite book. The bottom line is we are the experts on our stories. Only we can tell a particular story. Bearing that in mind sustained me in slogging through my book’s “mushy middle.” And when I reached the other side, I found my research had buoyed my story. 

The importance of ongoing note-taking sparked memories and ideas. Again, this doesn’t have to be daunting. For my next project — notice superstitious me is hesitant to call it a book— I’m keeping an ongoing hodgepodge of notes on my Notes app. I did that to some extent while writing ASYLUM, particularly when I needed to keep track of who I had to talk to, where I had to go to find my father. Write everything that pops into mind. Those words, those lines will beckon again and enable you to go deeper into your book. 

In the mushy middle, all kinds of characters will be vying for attention to include them. Invite them into the book — it doesn’t mean they will stay. But getting to know a crowd of characters enabled me to know myself better. I love this Joan Didion quote: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Didion’s observation is a manifesto for the memoir writer. 

A character, usually not the writer, constantly lurks and then threatens to take over the narrative. My mother is necessarily a major character in ASYLUM. But, my goodness, she threatened to hijack the book at so many points. And maybe she did occasionally. In the mushy middle, give the characters and yourself permission to roam around the narrative. That’s what revision is for. And speaking of revision — do not go down the revision rabbit hole in this tender middle. Instead, generate, generate, generate material with which to sculpt. Nothing is wasted – think of it as literary compost to enrich the writing, the story, yourself. 

A few words about the last part of the book: the ending is embedded in the narrative, it’s embedded in you, the writer; it always has been. You will realize it was hiding in plain sight. I wrote my ending at what felt like the last moment. But it wasn’t the last moment; it was a cumulative moment for me and my book. 

I’ll be more specific — I end with returning to where my parents were married and say the Kaddish for my father there. This worked in that my parents’ marriage is front and center in the book and saying the Kaddish — the Jewish prayer of mourning — was central to the stages of grief I went through. It was also a significant strand in the book. 

And last words of advice — no matter how tempting, and I know the temptation well — do not abandon your book. It needs you and you need it. This is your story, your moment. You’re important, and so is your story. Keep taking notes even if it is on the back of a restaurant menu while your dinner companion is in the loo. Those bits will happily surprise you as you come upon them again and welcome them into your writing.  

And journal your way out of conundrums. Free write, and if possible, handwrite in a notebook. It makes a keen impression on the mind, on memory. Truths and images and insights will inevitably emerge. And remember, you did not write to bury anyone but to bring them to life. 

___

Judy Bolton-Fasman is the author of ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets from Mandel Vilar Press (2021). Her essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers, essay anthologies and literary magazines She is the recipient of numerous writing fellowships, a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. Find more of her work at: www.judyboltonfasman.com 

To Tell or Not to Tell: The Conundrum of the Nonfiction Writer

August 24, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Holly Hagman

TW/CW: Mention of sexual assault

While I was in the process of earning my MFA, constantly drafting but never sending out any pieces, a friend of mine announced their first acceptance to a literary journal. While celebrating over dinner and white wine, they told us the essay was about their mother’s alcoholism. I asked them if they had told their mother about the piece – its existence, acceptance, and pending publication. 

“Hell no,” they told me, “And I don’t plan to.”

The concept, to me, was foreign and bizarre. At least, that’s what I thought, until I wrote the piece I never expected to write. 

About halfway through my MFA after most of the writers in my close friend group had been published, I was spending my down time on Submittable, sifting through calls for creative nonfiction writing when a title labeled “Recipe for Healing” popped up in my feed. It was a call for submissions to a magazine that published true stories from survivors of sexual violence and assault. Suddenly, my fingers moved across the keyboard involuntarily. Before long, I had a completed draft in front of me that shared a story I hadn’t told anyone – not even myself – since the night it happened. 

I agonized about whether or not to send it out. I closed my eyes and clicked submit, then breathed a sigh of relief. I figured it was a rite of passage to get rejected before the idea of publication was even a remote possibility. Soon, I would be sure to receive a form email from Submittable telling me this work was not ready to be shared with the world.

“Thank you for sending us your piece,” the email read, and where I expected to see a “We regret to inform you…” instead was a “We are delighted to let you know…”

Flabbergasted. Astonished. Bewildered. Someone wanted work that I wrote? An editor read my writing next to a bunch of other talented writers selected me?I wanted to shout it from the rooftops or pass out business cards to random passersby on the street that read “Holly Hagman – Published Author.” When taking into account the fact that the editor could have slept poorly the night before or gotten into an argument with their spouse or spilled their morning coffee on their pants before reading submissions, it’s a miracle when anyone gets published.  

In my excitement, I responded that I would be happy to publish this piece, which was both true and false. I was happy that my work was being recognized, but I was terrified to share this work with anyone, especially my family. The “Hell no, and I don’t plan to” from the year before seemed more appropriate now than it did at the time. I no longer wanted to rush to Staples and invest in business cards. Instead, I wanted to wake up from this dream, check my email, and find it had all been a figment of my imagination. 

Leading up to the publication date, I thought of my options. I could email the publishers and pull the piece, which, let’s face it, was not a real possibility for my “hungry-for-a-publication” self at this time. I could reach out and change the name associated with the essay to a pen name, like the one I made up for the time I almost got a job as a ghostwriter. That didn’t seem fair either, though, because, after all, this was my story, and if anyone was going to share it, it seemed like it should be me. 

I decided to tell. Luckily, it went surprisingly better than I expected. Since then, my confidence has been bolstered such that I’ve published work about my strained relationship with my father, my mother’s physical disabilities, a toxic workplace, my period, and many other proverbial taboos. 

The desire to share our stories is innately human, as is the instinct for self-preservation. In the end, it can be nerve-wracking to make ourselves vulnerable, our skeletons in the closet exposed in black and white for all the world to see. The option to remain anonymous can only be determined right or wrong by the sharer of their story. 

There is something to be said, however, about the sense of community surrounding the subjects that seem impossible to write. I find that the stories that are hardest to share are often the ones that are most needed. 

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Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in creative writing and an MAT in secondary education. She also earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University where she has been an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. She is a former nonfiction editor for Variant Literature and the current nonfiction editor for Porcupine Literary. She teaches high school English at a therapeutic school for students with emotional and psychiatric illness. She tweets @hollyhagman.

How to Write a Personal Essay With Facts

August 22, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Dian Parker

To write an essay, an engaging, attention-holding essay, is to write with focus coupled with the ability to meander, consider other terrain, remember other times, appreciate small details, follow your intuition and curiosity ‒ in other words, be creative.

Women can have babies and therefore are usually good caretakers of other people, along with an uncanny ability to multitask. Men like my husband tend to be more singularly focused and are less adept at doing two things at once. Ask any woman who does most of the cooking in a household. She can hold the baby, talk on the phone, and make stir fry. Ask a man what he did that day while he chops the carrots, and he’ll either stop chopping or stop talking. I’ve asked many women if this is their experience, and they all roll their eyes and say yes. You, the reader, may rile at these generalities but in my 70 years on this planet, I’ve found this to be the case. 

In the Atacama Desert of Argentina, the driest place on earth, with temperatures reaching 104 during the day and down to 40 at night, long distance runners test their endurance. The grueling race takes seven days, with an ascent and descent of 11,500 feet. My husband, if he chose, would be up for this task. It would feed his uncanny ability to hold his focus on one task for as long as it takes, like opening our vacuum cleaner to figure out why it’s not working (it is 20 years old, but that is not a consideration for him).

If, on the other hand, I ran that race, I’d want to examine the particles of sand beneath my feet, stop to sift the tiny stones through my fingers, revel in the colors of ochre, sienna, and umber. I’d want to feel the heat under my body as I lay stretched out at night, taking in the brilliant high-altitude sky. As I was running, I might think about the high school play I was in where the bench flipped over and knocked me out. Or maybe about the frigid night I spent lying on the frozen ground without a sleeping bag because my brother said we wouldn’t need one.

Whereas my husband, running the desert race, would focus so completely on keeping his feet moving and his breathing regular that he’d never consider memories of other times to interfere with his goal – to finish, and maybe even to win.

In one Atacama Desert race, the fastest runner took 24 hours, shy 11 minutes. He is Vicente Garcia Beneito from Spain, a firefighter. Being from a hot country as well as fighting fires must have helped him run in the desert. Lest the reader be concerned, women have also won races in the women’s division of high-intensity races in the Mongolian, Namibian, Antarctica, Lapland, and Georgian deserts. 

But when writing an essay, it’s best not to run, let alone be too hot and thirsty. It’s best to take your time. Sweep the floor, give the kid a bath, cook dinner, and read lots. To write an essay takes time and endurance, a single-minded focus along with a willingness to riff in the imagination without trying to win.

Now, a man can do this too and plenty of great writers have been men. We all are alike in so many ways. It’s only that some of us would want to run in the driest place on earth for 155 miles, whereas others of us would want to write an essay, sitting down with a cup of coffee, while a soft breeze plays across our typing fingertips. 

If I could only be more like my husband, I might know when my essay is finished. If he were more like me, our vacuum would still be broken.

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Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in 3:AM Magazine, The Rupture, Epiphany, Tiny Molecules, Burningword, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She has traveled extensively in the desert and can be reached at www.dianparker.com. She tweets @dian9parker.

Befriend Your Inner Critic

August 12, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Deborah Sosin

Headshot of Deborah Sosin smiling. She is wearing a pink top, with red glasses on and looking at the camera.

You might be familiar with your Inner Critic—the nasty voice that says you’re not good enough. Or talented enough. Or compares yourself to others. Or expects nothing but perfection. 

For writers, the voice might sound like this: I’m stuck. Again. Obviously I’m undisciplined, untalented, unmotivated, stupid, delusional about my prospects. I suck. Others are better than I am. I might as well give up. What’s the point of trying? Blahblahblah. 

No wonder our instinct is to push that voice away. In fact, an entire literature exists around that notion—books such as Bitch in Your Head: How to Finally Squash Your Inner Critic; Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done; Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk: And Other Truths About Being Creative. 

But here’s the paradox: trying to vanquish the Inner Critic (IC) doesn’t work. The more we try to ignore it, the stronger it gets. It might take a temporary timeout, but, as the saying goes, it’s just gone to the basement to lift weights. 

Why? Let’s look briefly at the brain. The amygdala, the reptilian part of the brain that triggers fight-flight-freeze responses, tracks our universe for threats 24/7 and warns us of danger by activating stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This is a good thing in the face of real danger, such as an oncoming car or an attacker. But not so good when it fires up in the face of imagined danger. 

The primary intention of the amygdala, and the IC, is to keep us safe—not just from physical harm but from emotional harm in the form of humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, failure, and abandonment.

As you can guess, the roots of the IC usually develop in childhood when we absorb overt or covert negative messages from parents, teachers, friends, or society in general. Those negative messages can linger, sometimes forever, blocking our potential, our artistic urges, our true selves. 

To make matters worse, neuroscientific research shows that the brain adheres to negative thoughts and experiences more powerfully than to positive ones. Some say the brain is like Teflon for positivity and Velcro for negativity—what Rick Hanson, PhD, and others call the “negativity bias.” Ouch. 

What if we were to move toward that critical voice? Listen to it with curiosity and compassion? Befriend it? Life would be more pleasant, yes? And here’s a bonus—recent research suggests that those well-entrenched negative neural pathways can literally shrink as we grow new, positive ones. 

So where do we start? Every time you become aware of your IC, pause, sit quietly, and breathe. Instead of Shut up, you might think, Oh, there you are. I know you. Tell me what’s on your mind. 

This strategy immediately interrupts any automatic negative thoughts. It can feel awkward at first. Keep breathing. Tell yourself that those thoughts (and associated feelings) are not true. They’re just thoughts! If your kind voice lacks credibility at first, another strategy is to “fake it till you make it.”

Talk to your IC as you would talk to a friend. Notice the difference in tone and content—would you ever berate a friend in the way that you berate yourself? 

Get to know the IC’s habits and routines—when does it show up the most? When is it the loudest? Softest? What are its main themes and variations? Try taking notes as a way to interrupt the negative thought stream—practice phrases such as “I’m OK as I am” or “I don’t need to be perfect,” or create your own. Thank your IC for trying to protect you. 

Notice what else is going on in your life when the IC kicks in. Are you tired? Hungry? Aggravated? Depressed? Stressed out? Are your writing and productivity goals realistic right now—or is it OK to take a break or switch things up for a while? 

Befriending your IC takes awareness, patience, persistence, and, above all, repeated practice. If you notice the urge to flee or distract yourself, try hanging out a bit longer with your IC each time. If difficult feelings arise—shame, anger, guilt, fear, sadness, regret, envy, despair—that’s normal and understandable. But nothing dangerous is happening. Pace yourself. There is no right answer. Ask for support as needed. 

Befriending your IC is not a one-and-done event—it is an ever-evolving process. One that can both fuel your creativity and also offer you a lasting, reliable, joyful relationship with a previously unwanted part of yourself.

“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
—Winston Churchill

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Deborah Sosin is a Boston-based writer, editor, psychotherapist, and GrubStreet instructor. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, Brevity Blog, Salon, Cognoscenti, Writer’s Digest, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She wrote the picture book Charlotte and the Quiet Place, which won the Gold INDIEFAB and Silver IPPY awards, among several honors; and a clinical workbook, Breaking Free of Addiction. Since 2009, Debbie has led “Write It Like It Is” free-writing groups. She also offers individual and group motivational coaching for writers and other creatives, with a special focus on the Inner Critic. On September 24, Debbie is teaching a three-hour Zoom workshop, “Befriend Your Inner Critic: Skills for a Productive Writing Practice,” through GrubStreet, Boston. Find more on her work at www.deborahsosin.com

How to Make a Strawberry Cheesecake Pie in Three Days (While Writing a Book Review at the Same Time)

August 10, 2022 § 42 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Photo of Victoria Lynn Smith sitting at a desk, with her laptop. The desk is at a window, with the curtains open and Victoria is looking at the camera.

Friday

Decide to make strawberry cheesecake pie. Announce this to your husband. Dig out the recipe and read the list of ingredients. You need strawberries. After he leaves for work, go paddle boarding. Walk the dogs. Finish reading the nonfiction book you’re reviewing. Start a rough draft of the review. Take a nap. Buy strawberries. Finish the rough draft.

Your husband returns home and asks about the pie, tell him, “Tomorrow.”

Saturday

Announce you’re making the pie today. After your husband leaves to golf eighteen holes, talk to a writing friend for twenty-four minutes. Walk the dogs because it’s a cool morning with a charming breeze.

Think about making the pie.

Read the book review draft. It’s too long—start revising. Wander around the house completing small chores. Work on the draft. Read a novel. Take a nap. After the nap think about making pie.

Ditch the book review. Start a blog about walking your dogs on a midsummer morning that felt like fall.

Your husband returns from golf and asks about the pie. Tell him you’ll make it this evening so it will be ready tomorrow. Offer to ride with him to the meat market because he wants to grill something.

After supper revise, edit, and post the blog about walking the dogs. Give up on the book review and pie for the day.

Your husband asks about the pie before he goes to bed. Tell him you’ll make it in the morning while he’s at the driving range.

Sunday

Your husband leaves for the driving range. Take the dogs for a walk. Keep revising your book review. Be amazed, and not in a good way, at how long it takes you to write something so short.

Read the recipe for the pie crust. You forgot to have butter at room temperature. Remove a stick from the freezer. Decide to make the pie after grocery shopping.

Return to the book review.

Your husband returns from the range and asks about the pie. Suggest you go grocery shopping first. Don’t offer up that you forgot to take butter out of the freezer.

Blend 1 cup heaping flour with ⅓ cup powdered sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Use your fingers to mix in the butter until the ingredients bind together. Press dough into a 9-inch pie or tart pan.

Double check the recipe and realize you forgot to add the salt to the crust, which is now pressed into the tart pan. Consider taking the crust out of the pan, putting it back in the bowl, and adding the salt. This might overwork the crust, which might be worse than forgetting the salt. Use your chemistry knowledge (baking is chemistry). There’s no yeast or baking soda in the crust, so salt isn’t needed to counteract a rising agent. Skip the salt because your husband is on a low-salt diet. Give yourself kudos for being a good wife. Don’t tell him you forgot the salt. You can hear him say, “This is good, but the crust could’ve used a bit of salt.” Then he’ll laugh because he’s funny. And you’ll laugh because he is funny.

Prick the crust all over with a fork then refrigerate pie crust for 30 minutes.

Return to editing the book review. Think about words and sentences that, like the salt in the crust, are expendable.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Read the book review out loud. Continue revisions.

Bake the pie crust for 20 minutes.

You loved the nonfiction book and want to make sure that comes across without sounding cliché or sappy. Hit an editing stride. The review is leaner, more concise, nearly matching the version in your head.

It’s 2:30. You’ll be lucky to finish the pie by 3:30. It needs to chill for at least four hours.

Slink into the kitchen. Stay out of the family room because your husband will ask about the pie. But he isn’t in the family room. He comes up from the basement, into the kitchen and says, “I thought you fell asleep in there and forgot about the pie.” Because you’re laughing so hard, don’t remind him that you don’t sleep in your office. Finish laughing and tell him you hoped to avoid him because you’re embarrassed the pie isn’t done yet. Start laughing again. You’re punch drunk from writing.

Begin the pie filling. Realize the cream cheese needs to be room temperature, but it isn’t because when reading recipes, you’ve become a pantser instead of a plotter. Open the cream cheese, put it in a bowl, and smush it with a spatula to soften it.

Beat 8 oz. cream cheese with ½ cup powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Spread the cream cheese filling on the bottom of the cooled crust.

Later while drafting this blog, realize you forgot to add the vanilla to the cream cheese filling because you were writing in your head. Don’t admit this to anyone.

Clean, hull, and dry 1½ quarts of strawberries.

While cleaning the strawberries, dash between the kitchen and your office. Write down ideas for this blog. Be thankful your husband can’t see you. He knows you’re a bit looney. He needs no more evidence.

Slice half of the strawberries and spread them on top of the cream cheese filling.

Jot down more ideas for this blog.

Mash the other half of the strawberries. Place them in a saucepan with 1 cup granulated sugar and 3 tablespoons cornstarch. Boil until clear and thick. Don’t leave unattended. Let it cool a bit.

You get this part right. Go ahead, brag.

Keep blogging.

Pour the sauce over the strawberries in the pie. Refrigerate for at least four hours.

Go to the store and buy whipped cream for your husband because you feel sorry for him. It’s not easy being married to a writer. Not because you’re temperamental, but because you can’t keep track of time when you write. He’s a good sport. And after three days, his reward is whipped cream on strawberry cheesecake pie.

To change the point of view of this recipe, use raspberries instead of strawberries.

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Victoria Lynn Smith writes fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives by Lake Superior, a source of inspiration, happiness, and mystery. Her work has been published by Wisconsin Public RadioTwin Cities Public Television’s Moving LivesBrevity BlogBetter Than Starbucks, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and several regional journals. To read more: https://writingnearthelake.org/.

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