February 20, 2015 § 8 Comments
I’m at an artist residency, at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, which I highly recommend. A small group of “associate artists” are chosen to work with a “master artist,” someone notable in our field. There’s a daily class meeting, provided meals, and a lot of free time in a beautiful location to work work work…or relax and let the ideas flow.
I’m a work-work-work-er. And when I was here last year, I finished a book, so I came this year ready to rock-and-roll. Except…for the two editing projects that were overdue. And the last traces of bronchitis dogging my mornings, making it hard to get up and go. And of course the initial awkwardness of always feeling like the uncoolest kid at the party, any party. It’s been three days, and I haven’t actually written anything yet. But I’ve sure aced that quiz on the periodic table, my current time-suck when I know I should be doing something else. (Yttrium, ytterbium, rubidium, zinc…)
I feel like a failure. Like I’m wasting this incredible gift of time and space.
At Essay Daily, Peter Grandbois writes, in Ode to Failure:
We are the kings of catastrophe, the queens of ineptitude. Princes and princesses of disappointment. We pile the shattered bones of our missteps on the pyre of our imperfections. Our national anthem sings of soot-black air and beaten dogs. We pledge allegiance to distant shores we will never reach and storms that drag us away from any sight of land.
He writes about the difference between fencing as a young man and fencing now, his old style of “rhino” attacks giving way to running out the clock, to the wily practice of feints and false openings. He writes about how a novel that sold four hundred copies felt like more of a success than the one that sold thousands. About how the openings created by failure can be more valuable than the immediacy of success. He quotes the Japanese proverb, Fall down seven times stand up eight, which brings me back to the time I created a show based on that proverb, a show that burned through $200,000 without making anything back, and what my money bought was learning how to fire people. Tuition, so to speak.
Grandbois rhapsodizes on failure:
Lord deliver us from the ugly hands of “success.” Take us, instead, down the road of failure in the trunk of a dead car. We beseech you to protect us from paths with a pot of gold at the end, roads that appear too easy. Let us wake to the blank page each and every day and not be sure how to fill it. Let us enter our daily tournament knowing each and every person there can beat us. We ask that you pluck out our eyes so that our black sockets can roll back into heaven. Grant us scorched earth that our dying weeds might grow. Only then can we know strength. Only then can we understand character.
OK, then. Failure it is. Failure today doesn’t mean failure tomorrow, or maybe it does and I’ll learn something from that, too. Maybe I’ll write faster, or write something else, or walk the paths here in quiet despair and write something from that.
Bring it on. Let’s fail. Let’s stand up eight times, nine times, ten times, until falling itself becomes an art, until the ground speaks when we land.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
February 18, 2015 § 3 Comments
Brevity is excited to announce that it’s 49th issue will focus on experiences of gender. We are looking for work that considers gender: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how gender is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of gender shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
This special issue will feature new work by Kate Bornstein, the original gender outlaw. Ms. Bornstein’s books include Gender Outlaw, My (New) Gender Workbook, and Queer and Present Danger. In her long career as an author and activist, she has been at the forefront of the revolutionary changes to our understanding of what gender is, what it isn’t, and why it matters.
This issue will be guest edited by Silas Hansen and Sarah Einstein. Silas is an assistant professor at Ball State University and has published personal essays that explore his experiences as a transgender man in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Sarah is the past Managing Editor of Brevity, author of the upcoming book Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015), and a queer writer whose work explores the murky spaces between formal identity and lived experience.
We are looking for flash essays (which we define as 750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of gender, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open from Feb. 20th-April 20th and the issue will be published in mid-May.
February 16, 2015 § 1 Comment
Crab Orchard Review will be awarding $1000 and publication to a graduate or undergraduate student in each of the three categories. There’s a modest fee of $5 to enter, and the prose limit is 4000 words. Entries must be unpublished, though they allow work that has appeared only on a personal blog or site.
February 13, 2015 § 2 Comments
After a long hiatus Granta, one of the world’s most prestigious literary magazines, is again accepting unsolicited submissions.
Granta’s history can be traced back to 1889 when a student politics and literature magazine called The Granta was founded at Cambridge University. Since its relaunch 35 years ago, Granta has been a quarterly literary journal, with the aim of publishing the best new writing.
Granta publishes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. There are no strict word limits, though most prose submissions are between 3000 and 6000 words and the editors advise they are unlikely to read more than 10,000 words of any submission.
February 11, 2015 § 9 Comments
Here in America, we don’t value our artists, but in Europe, the situation is so much better, because in France, in Ireland, throughout the continent, there is a deep respect for culture and literature. Right? Nice fantasy, but it seems to be equally hard on both sides of the pond. Listen to Sara Baume, winner of Ireland’s 2014 Davy Byrne’s Short Story award:
Recently, on more than one occasion, I’ve met people who seem to think that, because I won a lucrative award, because I’m about to have a book published, this means I’m doing well financially. In fact I still live in a flat without central heating; I still have a 1998 licence plate, I still drive to my parents’ house every Sunday to squash a bag of rubbish into their wheelie bin.
Last summer I won €15,000, a massive sum by everyone’s standards, but as anybody trying to pursue a career in the arts will tell you, it isn’t going to be spent on continental holidays and cutting-edge gadgetry, or central heating for that matter, or bin charges. Every cent goes back into funding new projects, or towards freeing up the time in which to realise them. So long as I’m thrifty, my prize fund can be eked out for the best part of two years of rent, groceries and petrol. Even though I know I desperately need to buy a new laptop, a new phone, a new car; I haven’t the courage to spend a lump sum on any of these things because I’m afraid I’ll soon find that I need the money just for living, and my utmost priority is sustaining a daily existence in which I can write and make, the only things which matter to me, which provide any sense of accomplishment, which have any meaning.
This news from Ireland dialogues nicely with the recent posts here and elsewhere by Michael Nye, Ann Bauer, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison Williams, and Brevity‘s Managing Editor Kelly Sundberg on how writers are supported/support themselves.
February 10, 2015 § 21 Comments
In fourth grade at Sand Lake Elementary School, I wrote an essay for a contest. I won. My prize was a month of ski lessons plus equipment rental at a resort an hour away. I’d ride an early morning bus on Saturdays, sharing the bench seat with an older girl who’d let me listen to her Bon Jovi tape on her Walkman. It was the only bright spot on freezing, dark Alaska winter days.
The next year I entered the same contest, confident I could refine my downhill technique. The principal called me into her office for a chat. I was certain I’d won again. Instead she suggested it wasn’t really fair if I got the prize a second time.
That early boost of confidence planted the idea of success deep in my mind. I inscribed all my paperbacks with “Eliana the Great” in shaky cursive letters. I sat with my fellow literary dreamer friend Annemarie in a tree fort behind her home. We’d talk of the dedications we’d put at the front of our novels.
In ninth grade I entered and won another essay contest. I put little thought into school writing assignments, always getting A’s, and dashed off the ones for college applications. These stories of hiring someone to write for you, people who stressed about the AP English test, made no sense to me at all.
The real life standard for writing is far different from the k-12 one. I worked all semester in ENG 292, Intro to Creative Writing, on pieces that won acclaim from teacher and fellow students. So I was shocked when my prized essay, one from the heart that had been through many drafts, didn’t even place in a university contest.
I shut down my creative side then, spending the next ten years writing only the facts with no adornment. Boring, dry, well organized professional pieces that were functional but unfulfilling.
In 2008, with one small child and a new embryo growing in my belly, I got a call from a national magazine. The winner of a contest couldn’t go through with her assignment—a travel piece by a reader. Was I interested as their second choice? I didn’t notice the implicit rejection, just said yes, and jumped at the opportunity.
My first draft about a trip to Louisiana with my best friend was completely amateur. When the editor sent the kindest possible email requesting revisions, I was embarrassed and devastated. How could I have thought I could possibly do this? Clearly I had no talent, was nothing more than a wannabe hack.
I did my best to improve, stressing myself out. I tried to muster enough confidence to pitch other magazines but my efforts were frantic rather than well thought out. Over the next year I did progress, using my postpartum depression to fuel the non-mom part of my brain. Assignments came, few and far between, but enough to keep me on the path.
I stopped writing commercially again after agreeing with an editor that a large story should be killed. Her criticism broke me. I couldn’t imagine being able to get the piece where she wanted it so I gave up, closing off a major doorway forever.
I hated myself for thinking I could do this writing thing, commercial or literary. I’d place a few pieces in journals by then but decided to stop submitting anything anywhere.
I cut back on rejection of course but I still wasn’t happy. Not until I kept writing, just not sending out my work. I stopped looking for validation, for the gold star of approval from a stranger.
That of course is how I finally found my voice.
February 9, 2015 § 8 Comments
It’s a privilege.
I often joke that I wish I was a writer in the old days. Non-specific, old days where artists had patrons who took care of their expenses and living, and all they were responsible for was writing, creating, painting. My husband likes to remind me that I do: him.
This is true. Much like Ann Bauer admits in her Salon piece I, too, must confess that I do not have the pressures that come from having difficult financial circumstances. I live in Dubai in a nice neighborhood. I have help at home, I drive a nice car; I had never considered the word exactly, but I fit the description of being “sponsored.” I work, too, but it has been mostly as an adjunct and let’s face it, that is not the chosen path towards affluence. I have the luxury to be an improviser, be involved in theatre, run a comedy sketch-writing workshop. These are things that being “kept” affords me.
Am I still jealous of other writers? You bet I am.
You see, privilege comes in many different forms. It is true that I don’t have to think too much about shelling out money for conferences, or that I don’t have the pressure of making ends meet. But what this also means that I am at the mercy of someone else’s schedule: Last minute meetings, work trips, a deal that requires furious emailing back and forth. For the sake of my husband’s job, I live thousand of miles away from my writing community without access to “contacts” and “networks” and meetings and readings and all the things that make a writing community.
I am envious of writer friends who do nothing but churn out novel after novel, story after story without being distracted by sick kids and football games. I will admit this out loud: being a mother and a writer is hard work. Probably as hard as “rotting in a cubicle” like Laura Bogart says in her response to Bauer. And yet writers like Jane Smiley, Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison (the list goes on) make it work.
The lack of privilege of a certain kind is no excuse. It just is what it is. I suspect it is much like anything else: Being a lawyer and a writer, being a doctor and a mother. Two professions in one lifetime is a lot for anyone.
I, too, am making my way through.
What I am suggesting is that there are enough challenges in the writing life without the added guilt of having a particular kind of privilege. As if a lack of financial struggle means I haven’t quite earned…something. A status, perhaps? A badge of merit? Or legitimacy as a writer?
The things Bogart speaks of, the “selling cardigans at Lord & Taylor; a graduate student tutoring kindergarteners on the alphabet and prepping high-school seniors for their SATs; an adjunct with a five-class courseload across two campuses” are indeed difficulties. But just as she has made room for writing in her life, so do I, so do we all.
And in some ways, I feel that anyone’s success as a writer comes despite the privilege, and not completely because of it. The debate about the different challenges writers face is out there and if we are to spend more time exploring it, perhaps the discussion could use a focus on the different aspects of the shared experience of struggle, and not just the idea of making a living. Yes, it is important to acknowledge where we are and what the things are that make our lives easier, but if I look around, if I ask all the writers I know, most would say they are making their way through in one way or another.
A writer friend and I had this conversation over text in the wake of the debate over acknowledging privilege.
“I feel our desire to write is equally legitimate,” I was saying, “not related to what we have.”
“Well, it is,” she goes, “somehow even more so that we are willing to create art despite not having all these struggles. Besides,” she said, coming back from a brief disappearance, “I am kept and I am still cleaning the bathroom.”
Hananah Zaheer writes, lives, and teaches in Dubai. She is an Associate Fiction Editor for the Potomac Review.