February 5, 2018 § 13 Comments
Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.
Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.
There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:
It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.
When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.
Most of my “writing” days look like this:
- 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
- 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
- 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
- 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
- 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
- 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
- 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing
Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.
What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.
When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”
Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.
Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.
February 5, 2018 § 11 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
In fall of 2006, Facebook made its debut appearance, available to anyone with an email address over the age of 13. The following year, my 14-year-old son joined and helped me create a profile so I could monitor him. But I just wasn’t into it, and he didn’t need me there. “Why do you want all these people you barely know to see this post?” I asked him on more than one occasion. “It’s so public.”
When high school classmates I hadn’t seen since graduation in 1983 sent friend requests, I mocked not them but the medium. When people posted birthday wishes for worldwide viewing, I squirmed. When I missed a childhood friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, asked to see photos and she said check Facebook, I felt hurt.
By the time Facebook became a verb, my page had withered from inactivity.
When we moved from New York to Israel in 2011, another new immigrant said, “If you want to know what everybody’s up to in this town, scroll Facebook at the end of every day.” I’m not proud, but I turned into a Peeping Tom, skimming people’s posts on a still irregular but more often basis. I neither liked nor commented.
That same year, I opened my own yoga studio and started posting. I taught writing classes and started posting. I launched my blog and posted it. Using it professionally didn’t bother me as much as personally. One new friend teased me, calling me old-fashioned, and email—always my preferred means of communication—obsolete.
Three years later, I entered a low-residency MFA in the U.S. where I made writer friends every one of whom, it seemed, posted with abandon: links to essays, photos from residency, calls for submissions. Sometimes I responded. Sometimes I didn’t. Something still held me back from liking news about a friend’s pet passing or an old classmate’s cancer or a colleague losing a job.
During my second-to-last residency, I attended a panel on literary citizenship, a term I’d never heard before. Its gist: how important it is to support each other, to share each other’s work, to comment for the writer to know and others to see. When our class graduated, one of my friends gave a lecture on a related topic. A year out of school, I attended a writers’ retreat in Ireland, where the instructor insisted we devote a certain number of hours a week to social media, to reading our fellow writers’ stories, to responding to them, to understanding the give and the take in this community.
All throughout these years as writer, I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga too. Back in New York, I attended a weekly teachers’ practice offered by my teacher, Susan. She taught me how to jump from an arm balance called Crow to a low push-up, how to transition from Crow to headstand, how to jump into handstand with both legs. When a fellow yogi mentioned that she was scared to fall, Susan said, “I get it. Me too. Sometimes we might. And that’s okay. Because if we always stay comfortable in our poses and in our practice, if we never let ourselves fall, we’ll never grow.”
Now, whenever I open Facebook, I think about those who have taught me the meaning of being a good literary citizen and about Susan’s message. I think about how in order to grow I have to push myself to tread in uncomfortable territory.
Ten-and-a-half years after I created that first profile, I check it often, to read posts and pieces that otherwise might not have flashed before my eyes, to applaud writers for their beautiful words and to spread them around on social media. I’ve even joined Twitter. On the early vs late adopters scale, I’m on the extremely late, uber slow side, Jennifer Lang, the laggard. I’m not proud, but at least I’m present.
Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com and follow her @JenLangWrites as she writes her first memoir.
February 2, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Nicole Walker
There is among controversies, a controversy that can divide liberal from progressive, intelligentsia from academic, diversity embracers from intersectionality champions. It is the great issue of of Submission fees, especially via Submittable. And I am here to claim my stake on the wrong side of this story because I just spent three hours sending three submissions to three different journals. First, I googled the magazines and saw, to my distress, that they wanted me to send them via mail. But instead of saying no no no no no, I said, OK. I have half an hour before I pick Max up. I can do this. So I looked at the guidelines. I had to back into the document because some of the journals needed page numbers on the upper right hand corner and some wanted my address and my email and some wanted blind and that was just three so I said, OK, no more than three. I fixed the documents. I pushed print. I went upstairs to my printer. Forty-eight pages of different documents covered the carpet. Thank god the submission guidelines had called for page numbers. I collected the pages into their constituent essay and put a staple into each of them. And then I thought, I should check the pages to make sure I have them all. So I checked the number of pages and their order and page 12 was missing on one and page 5 was between 9 and 10 so I unstapled and went back upstairs to find page 12. I found page 12. Resorted. Restapled. Then I remembered, I have to write cover letters. So I went back to the websites to find the addresses and opened some cover letters I wrote in 2015 the last time I tried this experiment. Then, I printed each cover letter and went upstairs to get the cover letters. I came back downstairs and remembered I needed Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes and where do I keep envelopes? Upstairs. I addressed those envelopes and then looked around for some big envelopes for the big essays and cover letters and SASE’s but couldn’t find any so I said, that’ll do and I went pick Max up from school to take him to a haircut and while we waited our turn we went into the crappiest Family Dollar that ever existed and wandered and wandered until I found 6 big envelopes for, guess how much, one dollar. Max got Cheetos (Flaming hot. I tried not to look) that cost $1.50. Then we went to the car to address the envelopes and stuff the envelopes. I put one cover letter in the wrong envelope so I had to unstick it and pull out the wrong cover letter and restuff that one and restick the other one and also use the little claspy thing for safety. Then we went in to get Max’s haircut which took an hour because Great Clips is apparently the new Aveda and the woman cut each of Max’s hairs one at a time so we were late to get Zoe and she had been waiting in the cold and was frozen and I felt bad but we still had to go to the post office. Max and Zoe waited in the car and I just walked in right after some guy with nine envelopes headed straight for the self service machine, and even if you are expert with the machine you have to answer 19 questions for each envelope to certify no you are not a terrorist and I waited and waited and kept checking the nice-people-will-serve-you-but-you-might-die-waiting line and realized I was going to die either way and the woman inside did not care nearly as much about what I was mailing as the machine did and she said that will be $4.03 cents and now it was almost five o’clock and traffic was bad and I had to call everyone who was driving a jerk which my kids hate because it just makes me look like the jerk but I am here to say please, poetry gods, please allow me to pay you $3.00 a submission for the rest of my life from the comfort of my chair and with the click of two buttons.
Nicole Walker is the author of two forthcoming books, Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg (only every third book has the word “egg” in its title). She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.
February 1, 2018 § 25 Comments
1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:
- Open Advanced Find and Replace
- Check the box for Wildcards On
- Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
- Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
- Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.
2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.
I never considered that he would run away
I never considered he would run away.
3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.
Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.
Pat was also kind of mean.
When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:
Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog.
For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:
Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.
4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.
We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.
Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.
5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.
Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.
Happy writing–with or without inspiration.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
Simple Strategies for Getting Through the Hellish Landscape and Existential Loneliness of Memoir Writing
January 31, 2018 § 18 Comments
By Kelly Sundberg
In November of 2015, I placed my memoir proposal for Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival with an editor at HarperCollins, and in July of 2017, the final manuscript was accepted. Getting that email back from my editor—the acknowledgment that I was done — was one of the most validating experiences of my life, but can I tell you a secret?
It starts with this—almost exactly, a year prior, in July of 2016, my favorite writer had kindly offered to let me live and write in her beautiful San Francisco home for two weeks. I was stalled in my book writing at the time, and I thought that being in this writer’s home would be just what I needed. Her writing is so sharp, so insightful, and so beautiful. Surely, some of that magic would rub off on me? I sat at her dining room table with my laptop, and I did feel the magic. I wrote some of the most beautiful sentences of my book while surrounded by this writer’s energy.
At the same time though, my abusive ex-husband (about whom this book was written) was remarrying. One day, I walked to a nearby coffee shop and set up residency at a table. I started writing a chapter titled “I Love You” that was about my complicated relationship with the words “I love you.” I wrote about all of the times when men had told me they loved me, but the love hadn’t lasted. I wrote about feeling that my ex-husband’s love would last. And I wrote about the birth of my son and the love that grew from that. As I wrote about the birth, and about my husband holding my hand and telling me that he loved me, it suddenly hit me that the baby my then-husband had put into my arms was—at that moment—at his father’s house preparing for the new family that they would have. And right there, in that coffee shop, I burst into tears.
A young man was mopping the floor near me, and he stopped, looked at me hesitantly. I wiped the tears from my face. “Thank you” I said, then packed up my stuff and rushed out.
And that’s where my secret comes in—I rushed back to the generous writer’s house, and then instead of writing, I climbed into bed, and spent the next two days watching the entire first season of Grace and Frankie on my laptop.
At one point, I changed from my pajamas into cleaner pajamas (I only wish that I was kidding about that).
But, finally, on the day of my ex-husband’s wedding, a writer I had never met in person, a poet, Donna de la Perrière, asked me to come to Oakland so that she could take me out to dinner. I didn’t want to go, and messaged her that I was feeling too down. She gently messaged me back that she thought I should just do it, that it would be good for me. Since I’m not good at saying no, I agreed. I got out of bed, took a shower, put on some clothes, and took the BART to Oakland. She took me to a restaurant, bought me two fancy cocktails and a delicious dinner, and we ended up having a great discussion. After dinner, we walked around Lake Merritt, and she said, “I have something I want to show you.” She carefully selected a stone. She said, “This stones represents your regrets. I want you to think of those regrets, then throw the stone into the Lake. Watch it sink and let go.”
I stood there with that stone, and I thought of my regrets. I had so many. I threw it into the lake and watched it slide under the smooth, dark, water.
I went back to the house that night, and I stayed up writing this. The next day, I was back to book writing. A year later, the book was complete.
So, recently, when a friend reached out to me to ask if I had some advice for her as to how to get through the process of writing her second memoir without sinking into too much despair, I had some strategies for her. They’re not guarantees, and they might not work for everyone, but these were some strategies that got me through the hellish landscape of existential loneliness of memoir writing.
- I changed up my writing routine quite a bit–went on writer’s residencies, wrote in coffee shops, wrote at night in my loft office, wrote in airports. Changing the routine kept me from associating any one place with the pain of reliving the experiences I was describing.
- When I knew that I was going to be writing material that might make me cry, I wrote it at night. Something about writing at night made it easier for me to let myself lean into the pain, and I had to do that in order to write the scenes honestly.
- I gave myself permission to take lots of naps. I’m not a good sleeper anyway, and I tend to retreat from my feelings by napping, so I would let myself nap, but I set a timer. I couldn’t nap all afternoon, but I could nap for an hour and a half. That gave me the chance to get through a full REM cycle of sleep, but didn’t leave me groggy.
- I planned lots and lots of lunch dates and dinners with my friends, so that I had regular escapes.
- I did aerobic exercise almost every, single day. Getting my heart-rate going seems to be the most effective thing I can do for managing my PTSD.
- I created rituals that rewarded me, so for example, if I wrote during the day, then I would make myself a delicious meal in the evening and watch Nashville because that’s something I really love to do.
- I planned vacations with friends, so that I always had something to look forward to.
- If I stagnated and wasn’t producing, then I gave myself permission to take a break from the writing. Those were good periods for reading.
- If something from the material triggered me into a breakdown, I let myself break down.
- I reached out a lot–to my friends, my family, my therapist, my agent. When I was feeling overwhelmed, or anxious, or sad, I reached out. Writing is a necessarily solitary act, but that doesn’t mean that we need to do it alone.
Here I am now: I’m fifteen pounds lighter from all of that PTSD exercise. I’ve watched the entire run of Nashville. I still haven’t finished Season 2 of Grace and Frankie. I’m a better cook. I have more friends than ever because I learned how to really reach out when I needed it. My book is coming out in June, and I’m still alive.
If I survived it, so can you.
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, Slice Magazine, and others. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the same series. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and she has been the recipient of fellowships or grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and The National Endowment for the Arts. Her memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival is forthcoming from HarperCollins on June 5, 2018. She is, we are proud to say, a former managing Editor of Brevity.
January 30, 2018 § 3 Comments
This episode, we’re talking all things submissions, with The Rush‘s Jobeth McDaniel, Kenyon Review‘s Geeta Kothari, Brevity‘s own Alexis Paige, and writer Tim Hillegonds, with an essay about rejection from our host Allison K Williams.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Rhiannon Navin about her new novel Only Child and how fiction comes from fact; and with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Show Notes: Episode #8 People and Books
Find out more about:
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays by Michael Steinberg
Miss Manners (Judith Martin)
January 29, 2018 § 15 Comments
By Shannon Hageman
“Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of women writers,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, Professions for Women (1931). I’d like to believe that women have come a long way; I wasn’t even born until forty years after Virginia Woolf advised women writers to kill the Angel of the House. I know we’re not expected to be Angels anymore, but there are expectations. Expectations I picked up from the housewives in my family –grandmothers, godmothers, and aunts. Expectations I built while scorning my own mother who worked full time, let my father do most of the cooking and cleaning. There’s a constant nudging: be the mother portrayed on social media with her perfectly assembled outfit and frizzless hair in the carpool lane, who sends her kids to school with well-balanced, organic cold lunches packed in Bento boxes. Mothers who don’t just pin, but create Pinterest masterpieces. The mother who balances the full-time career while maintaining a full time housewife status. A mother whose children do as their told, look adorable, make the grades, and function without therapy. I’m supposed to be the Angel of the House; the mother, nurturing, accommodating, serving, sympathetic, pure, and utterly selfless.
I killed her, my Angel of the House, back in undergrad, so I could write essays for my creative nonfiction class. In a fit of frustration and procrastination, I etched her onto the lined paper that was supposed to hold my shitty first draft. I drew her, shaded her wings neatly. Then I jabbed that pencil right through the center of her tiny dot eyes. I pinned her to the cork board hanging above my desk. Every time I wanted to return to my domestic duties, I paid homage to Woolf and once again stabbed the Angel corpse hanging on my corkboard, killing her and my guilt. Eventually, the corpse was battered enough to earn her final resting place in the recycle bin.
But she’s back, haunting me from her grave, as I sit at this dining room table where my laptop taunts me: write something, anything. I worried this might happen, when I decided to register for the grad program at my local university. I worried she’d return to haunt me with guilt and expectations. There are laundry piles surrounding me, neatly folded and sorted by bedroom. There are homemade pumpkin energy bites cooling in the kitchen, something I’d put together for tomorrow’s breakfast, a request from my teenage sons. Across from the table, an overstuffed chair holds my sewing box and my youngest son’s school uniform shorts that still need the button reattached. Spread out on the other end of the table are an array of school papers needing checked over, a permission slip waiting for my signature, a handprint turkey drawing my daughter doodled while waiting for help with her homework. I have twenty minutes before I’ll pack my husband’s lunch and send him off to work the third shift. My middle son hollers from down the hall, “Someone grab toilet paper from downstairs! This bathroom is out!”
And the laptop taunts me: write something, anything, I dare you.
If I am to be a writer, what purpose does it serve? I’m a wife and a mother and a teacher and those vocations easily serve a purpose. But what purpose does writing serve? Most days I want to preserve specific moments, my side of the story, my view from this little corner of the world in which I live. That’s a selfish reason to write, that isn’t really the purpose. So I try to find purpose and put more intention to my writing. I set out to challenge myself to write better, to write more, to seek publication. Then the guilt seeps in. Guilt over perfecting my craft of writing rather than perfecting my mothering, wife-ing, homemaking. I should be nurturing my children, not writing about them. I should be cultivating memorable experiences, not preserving them. If writing serves no other purpose than self-preservation, then every time I sit at this computer, I am being selfish and avoiding my purpose-driven vocations.
When we have a spare moment, I’ll tell my husband about the Angel that haunts me. He’ll remind me we’re a team. He’ll throw in a load of a laundry. He’ll grill some steaks and help our kids with their homework. He’ll make sure that everyone has their school things ready before they go to bed. He’ll send me to my room, with a charged laptop and coffee he brewed fresh. “Write something, anything,” he’ll say. He’ll close the door and leave me alone with the Angel.
And then, I’ll kill her.
Shannon Hageman lives with her husband and their six children in a small town near Omaha, Nebraska. She is an English teacher at an alternative high school and is a graduate student at University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her essays have been published in Saint Mary’s Review and Catholic Digest.