October 8, 2019 § 3 Comments
Query letters. A necessary evil towards the great good of publication. A hoop to jump through towards representation; a lure to draw in the publisher perfect for our story.
Some lucky authors have essays go viral, build enormous social media platforms, or have NYT-bestselling cousins willing to refer us to their own agent. Most of us undertake the slog, often querying a hundred or more agents and revising our query and the manuscript itself many times along the way.
There are some terrific querying resources out there, notably Query Shark, which focuses on fiction but teaches powerful query-letter lessons for writers in all genres. Jane Friedman’s website has information on memoir and narrative nonfiction queries. Absolute Write’s forums are a place for honest chat about specific agencies. QueryTracker helps us chart our progress. Manuscript Wish List shows us which agents might be right for our book. And here at Brevity, we shared suggestions for the actual process of preparing and submitting to agents.
But it is generally more difficult to learn best practices for memoir, rather than fiction, queries—and Brevity is here to help.
That’s where you come in.
Podcast host Allison K Williams will discuss memoir queries with Janet, using some examples from Brevity readers & podcast listeners. We’ll assess your clarity and style, how you cover the standard query-letter elements, and talk about what you might do differently (or are already doing well!) to increase your chances of representation.
If you’d like to send in your query for a shot at having it discussed on-air, please paste it into an email, followed by your first two manuscript pages (also pasted), to brevitymagpodcast at gmail.com. Deadline for consideration is October 20th. We won’t use author names on the air, but we will be reading all or part of the query letters chosen, so only submit if you’re willing to have your words read on the podcast, please.
Querying can be overwhelming, intimidating, and depressing. But you don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to do it without guidance. Help is out there—and it’s coming to your ears.
Brevity Podcast Host Allison K Williams, and Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore will also be leading a retreat in Costa Rica in May 2020.
October 7, 2019 § 12 Comments
by Sweta Srivastava Vikram
If you are a writer, you have most definitely met your worst enemy: writer’s block. Aside from the inner critic that wins at ripping apart the writerly confidence, writer’s block can be a real catastrophe too. It can make you question your creative abilities, send you into a spiral about your identity, and make you ponder over your future, amongst other things. Writer’s block, like the indignant cold & cough, is impartial; it impacts most writers from time to time. Be it because of waning passion or unrealistic expectations or burn out or real-world distractions, most of us get stalled in our creative work.
Getting out of this sterile, uncreative funk is in the writer’s hands. While some might think that procrastinating or waiting for the muse to show up or writing only when you feel inspired or wallowing in self-pity or watching nonstop television or making excuses for the dry, creative spell might help overcome writer’s block…that’s not the case. Overcoming writer’s block takes sincere efforts. To get out of the funk, you have to take active steps and create momentum:
- Create a routine: After months of not being able to write because of personal and professional commitments in life, I open my laptop and a journal. Guess what? Nothing happens. Not even a word. For six days in a row, I show up. I swallow my pride (After having written and traditionally published 12 books inside 9 years, battling writer’s block isn’t easy for me), embrace my frustrations, and deal with another non-creative day before leaving for work. On the 7th day, I show up to my words and this time, my words transform into sentences and inside an hour, I write this essay. I am not trying to tell you that I am a genius: This productivity is attributed to conditioned response, something I learned from studying Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov’s, experiment with his dog. In a nutshell, whenever the dog heard the bell, he started to salivate. This was an association that Pavlov cultivated. I don’t have the luxury of being a full-time writer, so I have been training my mind to make an association when it sees my laptop and/or journal at the same time every day. A simple trick to get words moving on the page using conditioned response. The only guaranteed way of overcoming writer’s block is by writing. So, create a routine and follow it diligently. Practice. Practice. Practice.
- Free write: I was telling a dear friend of mine—who happens to be a psychotherapist—about the unintentional distance between me and words of late. Between my day job, running a business, and managing the home front, I don’t always find the creative juices flow instantaneously. She suggested changing how I envision writing. “Write for the joy of writing. Write for yourself. Not for the editor or publisher or to sell a piece.” She continued, “It doesn’t always have to be a completed essay or a blog post or an article or X number of words from a new book. Don’t try to say or produce anything; just get some words on paper or your laptop. A scribble in the journal. A tweet. An Instagram post—they all make for writing.” Aah, the power of free writing. I have to say…there is something liberating about writing without an agenda or a deadline or filters. The catharsis is real. You start to see words pour onto the page and morph into sentences and then paragraphs.
- Create bullet points on paper for ideas and brainstorming: I always bring a tiny journal with me wherever I go. Writing by hand connects you with the words and allows your brain to focus on them, understand them, and learn from them. Bullet points helps to stay organized and work as sunken treasures you can dip into when looking for ideas on a barren day. Writing down ideas in an organized way by hand gives your brain the space to think and concentrate on what it is you are writing about. Handwriting can be particularly useful during goal setting and brainstorming because it’s slower and more deliberate. It also helps improve memory. Research shows that writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters…the sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information. Writing on paper also allows us to break predefined formats and layouts.
- Change your environment: One other thing that helps me get out of the non-writing funk, aka writer’s block, is being mindful of my environment. What do I mean by that? Given that I haven’t hit the jackpot yet (*inserts sarcastic smile*), there is only so much space my New York City apartment can offer. I find parks and coffee shops and trains and make them home to my writing. But here is the deal: I keep each environment sacred to a particular genre. For instance, if my favorite coffee shop in the neighborhood is where I write nonfiction, I would never bring my poetry or fictional writing into that space. If poems pour in subways, nonfiction and fiction stay buried during the commute. Changing the environment can help with creativity.
- Walk away the block: Walking offers unique advantages to improve health and boost creativity. Research tells us that when a creative professional doesn’t get to write and express their creativity, they can get into depression. A nice brisk walk might be just what you need to stimulate your brain’s creativity and get you back in writing mode as walking unleashes creativity. Researchers from Stanford University have found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined the creativity levels of persons while they were walking and while they were sitting down. On average the creativity level of the walking people increased by 60 percent. Walking helps release creative juices along with endorphins. It circulates more oxygen and blood to the brain.
In the end, don’t wait for the perfect moment, optimum word, or seamless spot to start writing and overcome writer’s block. Start somewhere, anywhere. A few words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Write something. Anything. Definitely don’t make excuses or justifications for not writing. Don’t be bogged down by perfectionism and eloquence. Start today wherever you are. It’s easier to pick up speed when you are in the habit of writing. You’ll be writing before you know it—conquering writer’s block and returning to creative work in due course. The idea is to get words on the page. Eventually, the writer’s block will become a distant memory.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a mindset & wellness coach, global speaker, and best-selling author of 12 books, including, the recent Louisiana Catch. She helps entrepreneurs and creative professionals increase productivity through health and wellness. Winner of the “Voices of the Year Award” (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton and founders of the #MeToo movement), Sweta is also a five-times Pushcart Prize nominee. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications, across nine countries on three continents. A graduate of Columbia University, Sweta lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is also the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, which helps women share their stories, heal from trauma, and empower their mental health and lives using Ayurveda, yoga, and storytelling. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
October 4, 2019 § 9 Comments
By Wendy Fontaine
When the man who made Thor’s hammer asks if you want your book to be in the next Avengers movie, you say yes, even if your book is not yet a book.
In the summer of 2017, after querying more than forty literary agents about my memoir, Leaves in the Fall, I decided to stop and write something new. Querying had become a slow and frustrating process. Responses took weeks or months, and most of the replies went something like this: Your writing is lovely, but memoir isn’t selling right now.
In the meantime, I decided to write a novel. I’d never written a novel before, but my husband, James, who works as a computer playback engineer in film and television, was pr
eparing to leave our home in Los Angeles for a year-and-a-half to shoot back-to-back Avengers movies in a small town south of Atlanta, Georgia. We’d been apart before but never for that long, so the idea of starting a new project gave me something to focus on while he was away. I’d write the novel and care for our daughter, Angie, who was ten years old at the time.
Every day, after dropping her off at school, I carried a legal pad and three Ticonderoga black pencils into our bedroom and sat on the bed drafting the story – a murder mystery about a girl who falls from a lighthouse during a school field trip. With only a singular image in my head, I asked myself a lot of “what if” questions about the plot, the characters, the dilemma and its solution. Some days, the pages came easily. Most days, they came hard, with lots of scribbles in the margins. All my pencils lost their erasers.
I had nearly forgotten about the memoir queries when, one year later, while my husband was home during a break in filming, our friend Russell Bobbitt made his request. As a prop master for Marvel, he conceptualizes and creates all the moveable objects featured in the films, including Captain America’s shield and that famous hammer. The crew members of Marvel movies (or any movies, for that matter) amaze me. Their dedication to detail and authenticity is remarkable, from the dents on the blade of a sword to the handwritten Post-it notes on a character’s desk. Nothing is overlooked. For Avengers: Endgame, Russell needed to make a book for a scene with Gwyneth Paltrow. What if, he wondered, that book were my book? My memoir. The one not yet published.
Leaves in the Fall is about moving home to rural Maine with my daughter after discovering my first husband’s infidelity. She and I lived in a rented apartment with barely any furniture, both of us struggling with loss and grief. I juggled part-time, minimum-wage jobs and battled tantrums and potty training, then stayed up late studying for the graduate school entrance exam, hoping to find our way out of what would otherwise become a life of poverty. I tell people it’s Eat, Pray, Love but with food stamps and a toddler.
Russell is a talented man with a big heart. He often travels the world with his props to share them with disadvantaged youth and budding filmmakers. His idea shocked me with its kindness and its coolness. That he’d remembered I’d written a book made me feel like my work mattered. Sometimes, as writers, we toil away in our self-imposed solitude, forgetting that anyone cares.
Only one problem: my memoir was in manuscript form, unpublished, in literary agent limbo.
James and I went to work anyway. He designed and printed a glossy book jacket with my title and my name. I wrote the summary and a blurb for the back. I took the blurb from one of my beta-readers, from an email she’d sent after trading manuscripts. Then James and I wrapped the jacket around another book that was just the right weight and just the right size (actually two books, since property masters like to have multiples of everything). James went back to Georgia with both of my “books” in his suitcase. Leaves in the Fall was ready for its big Hollywood moment!
In the movie, Gwyneth’s character, Pepper Potts, sits on a couch with a book in her lap, a cup of tea and a candle by her side. Another character enters the room and asks, “Hey, whatchya reading?”
This is the part where I’d like to tell you she named the book’s title. That she held it up and plugged my work, and then every agent within cinematic earshot raised their eyebrows and googled me, eager to represent me and get my story published.
Pepper’s response: “A book about composting.”
In a way, she was right. The story is about composting – about breaking down one life and growing another. Her answer made me laugh, though, one more close-but-not-quite moment. You won’t see my book in her lap unless you are looking for it. Even then, you probably won’t find it. But it’s there, for a few fleeting seconds.
In thirty years of being a writer, I’ve published hundreds of news articles, personal essays, columns and short stories. Still, there’s nothing like seeing your name on a book, even if the book isn’t technically real. Today, the jacket sits in a golden frame over my writing desk as a source of inspiration and a reminder that anything is possible.
With my writing, I’m learning about patience and narrative arc, about complex characters and the power of conflict and tension. I’m also learning that sometimes it takes a village to make art. You might write alone at first, but later you need spouses, coworkers and friends who care enough to help you get the work out into the world. To live a creative life, you must always be making something, always be asking the “what if” questions. Then you keep the faith that what you’ve made will one day make its way to others, either as a blockbuster movie or a quiet little memoir or a book jacket in Gwyneth Paltrow’s lap.
For now, my book is a prop, but it won’t always be that way. Someday it will sit on a shelf in a bookstore. It will get checked out of the library, tossed in a handbag and shared among friends. And if it doesn’t, then maybe the novel will. Or perhaps it will be my next project that gets published. Or maybe even the project after that. Until then, I’ll keep lugging around the legal pads and the Ticonderoga blacks, telling stories and making art.
Wendy Fontaine is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Passages North, Readers Digest, River Teeth, Compose Literary Journal and elsewhere. In 2015, she won the Tiferet Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Los Angeles and is currently seeking representation for a memoir, Leaves in the Fall. Find her at wendyfontaine.com or on Twitter @wendymfontaine
October 3, 2019 § 23 Comments
“Could you just look over my pages?” she asks.
I am delighted to help. She’s a good writer, I like reading her work, she’s read my work and she’ll read it again. I dive into the document and realize there’s a problem—not with her writing, which is solid, but with the dramatic structure. The book starts in the wrong place. I work through the first couple chapters, commenting as I go, editing a few errant sentences along the way, then think through ideas and questions and put them in an order I think will best help her. Everything gets typed up and emailed back.
In my inbox are four people who need information or a connection. I like them all, they all deserve my time. Send-send-send-send.
My husband asks if I’ll tape a voiceover for his company’s training video. No pay. The company has an office in a co-working space, and they have generously invited me to use the co-working space any time I want for free, so this is a no-brainer. I’m grateful to be able to return a favor.
And then it’s 1PM. Still on my list: the due-today manuscript for a paying client, the due-yesterday pages for a paying client, the due-tomorrow pages for a paying client. A workshop to plan. My own book to write. Kindness has cost me the entire morning.
Literary citizenship is important. It’s also time-consuming. If I work from home, I have 7 hours of working day, and I usually do laundry or vacuum in there somewhere (running up and down the stairs is also good for my terrible writing posture). If I’m in the co-working space, I lose another hour to the commute. Roughly half my workday is spent on my wonderful clients’ manuscripts and another quarter on the business of being a writer: website maintenance, social media, blog posts. The last couple hours are the time I have for my own work, which I habitually (unwisely!) put last unless I’m on a deadline. If the deadline is for a client, I don’t do my own writing at all.
I’m not quite at the stage of No I Don’t Want to Read Your Manuscript, but I did add a category to my time tracker: “Kindness.” I’ve started hitting the button to see how long I’m actually “just looking something over for a friend.”
I believe in literary citizenship, and I believe in generosity (I’m a Friday’s Child). I also believe in making deposits into the Bank of Good Will against the day I’ll need to make a withdrawal. But I’ve also started thinking about how to keep doing the kindnesses I value without sacrificing too much of my own time.
- Do Less Stuff. I’m an overachiever. But when my writer friend asks for a beta read, they probably don’t want line editing. In fact, too much critique can be worse than too little. Ask before committing: “What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you in the process?”
- Do Stuff Faster. Which for me is also, do it more confidently. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t trust my skill/opinion/voice-over ability, so I don’t need to check every step of the way if I’m doing it right. Stop second-guessing every comment. Trust my friends are grown-ups and they know my brand is “Unkind Editor,” so if some of my sentences are phrased less elegantly than I would for a paying client, they’re gonna be OK.
- Don’t Do All The Stuff. Just because I’d be good at teaching that class/responding to those pages/critiquing that website doesn’t mean it has to be my job. When someone asks if I have time, it’s OK to say “No, I’m in the middle of another project.” It’s not even my job to direct them to someone else. They have agency, too. I’m not their only friend.
- Ask For Stuff. Remember that Bank of Good Will? It’s not an immediate quid pro quo. Literary favors have a long lifespan. When I needed beta readers for my last novel, some of them were people whose book I read 10 years ago. When I needed someone with good social media to promote my writing retreat, I was glad I’d promoted that person’s work for years.
Literary citizenship runs in cycles. We spend a long time helping our friends, then one day the book deal comes and it’s our turn to ask for their eyes, their email lists or their presence at our launch party. Do favors when you have time, say you can’t when you don’t. Your writing friends will understand—just as you would for them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore at the Rebirth Your Book finish-your-manuscript retreat in Costa Rica, May 2020.
October 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Penny Guisinger
Disorder is rarely static. The word implies a certain kind of motion: erratic, unpredictable, chaotic. This is only one of the reasons that this thing we commonly call “addiction” is, perhaps, better referred to as substance use disorder. It’s a condition that keeps the afflicted in that certain kind of erratic, unpredictable, chaotic motion.
In his debut memoir, The Distance Between, Timothy J. Hillegonds captures the terrible and terrifying motion of the life of his younger self: a self trapped in a state of ricocheting between chaos and control. The book chronicles four years of the author’s life, opening when he was only 18. Hillegonds spent these first four years of adulthood diligently trying to self-destruct using whatever tools he found: drugs, alcohol, teen fatherhood, violence, toxic masculinity, and a finely-developed skill in the art of running away from, or at least deftly steering around, the smoldering ruin of the life he was creating. In constant motion, the story starts in Chicago, then whisks us off to Colorado, then comes back. The problems that get started in Chicago multiply exponentially in Colorado, then further fail to resolve once back in the Midwest.
But before all that, Hillegonds craved a healthier flavor of motion. A teen inline skater with aspirations of turning pro, he spent his days spinning, shifting, sliding and sailing over the heads of his teammates in gravity-defying acrobatics. He explored the outer rims of self-preservation, then went farther, faster. He writes with such grace about the thrill of being airborne, just off the edge of a skate ramp: “I began to flip forward just as I cleared Dan, the last person in line, and the world disappeared, but I could still feel it, the world, could still feel where I was in relation to it, and then my eyes found the blue they’d been searching for, the horizon, and my body slowly unfolded.” Hillegonds’ writing is at its best when he releases into these long, momentum-filled passages that evoke the sense of motion present throughout the book.
His journey to Colorado was meant to start his new life as a snowboarder. Instead, he jumped into a toxic relationship with a woman with whom he drank, drugged, fought, and had a child. Then they drank, drugged, and fought some more. Enraged by the phantom pains of a father who walked out on him, Hillegonds tries to fill that empty space with stuff that could not do the job: substances, violence, arrests, jail time. He is guilty, twice, of violence toward his girlfriend. He breaks a lot of things. He enacts a lot of pain onto others and himself. Not surprisingly, nothing about this turns out well.
Except that to someone with substance use disorder, it actually can be confounding when nothing works out. The illogical, flawed thinking is one of the many things that makes it a disorder. I read this book as I achieved 2.5 years of my own sobriety, and I thought so many times about one of the first things my therapist said to me in treatment, “This disorder makes you do things that are against your own values.” It’s one of the truest things I’ve heard in recovery, and it’s writ large in Hillegonds’ memoir. He didn’t want to be an angry, violent man, just as I never wanted to be a risk-taking, irresponsible woman, but there we were anyway, in spite of our own moral codes. If addiction is a bowling ball, a good moral code is a perfectly-placed set of pins.
When Hillegonds writes about the most shocking, violent events of his past, his prose takes on the frenetic energy of those moments, as in this passage in which he’s kicking in someone’s door: “I was kicking at the door, black scuff marks that looked like exclamation points, my voice rising, getting louder, and I was screaming and pounding, and the door was groaning, the space next to the doorjamb widening each time I kicked it, and it seemed that it might break under the pressure. And then I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, and I turned, and it was Austin. He was saying something to me, his mouth opening and closing, but I couldn’t hear him, could only hear myself, my breathing fast and hard and violent.” Interestingly, the violence reads with an effusiveness that comes close to the joy expressed during the passages about stunt skating. The prose takes flight.
How easy it would have been for Hillegonds to present this as a self-congratulatory study in overcoming a glorified, misspent early adulthood, but he resists. Instead, he presents this as a study in toxic masculinity and he writes with great awareness that it was his whiteness, and possibly only his whiteness, that afforded him second and third and fourth chances that eventually got him back to Chicago and into residential treatment. It would have been similarly easy for him to blame circumstances around him – his girlfriend, his absent father, the high school that expelled him, his mother and stepfather, his dead-end job as a waiter, the dealers who sold to him, the friends who used with him even though they saw he was in trouble – but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he unflinchingly keeps us focused on the things he did and can’t undo, the pain he rained down on everyone around him. He doesn’t understand his own rage, but he doesn’t let that lack of understanding free him from responsibility.
Those of us in recovery live in a delicate balance. We have to be accountable for the doors we kicked in and the people we scarred, while also understanding that our inability to quit using, or even to moderate our behavior while we’re using, is the result of a disorder. We have to take a long, painful look at the chaos we created while simultaneously learning how to forgive ourselves. It’s not easy. I feel like the title of this book – The Distance Between – captures, not only the miles travelled and the motion created in the story it tells, but as the ending of the book asks us to look forward, the title also conveys something about that space between who we used to be and the people we can become. The afflicted, after crossing that distance, can find stillness.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the memoir Postcards from Here. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is a former Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She is blogging about sobriety at: mycrankyrecovery.com. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.
October 1, 2019 § 4 Comments
Submissions are now being accepted for Brevity’s upcoming special issue, “Experiences of Disability,” to be published in September 2020. You can submit your flash essays here.
For this issue, we invite brief nonfiction submissions (750 words or fewer) that consider all aspects of illness and disability: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of disability is changing. We want essays that explore how disability is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of disability shapes the way we experience ourselves and others. We are looking for flash essays that explore the lived experience of illness and disability, as well as encounters with ableism, and that show readers a new way to understand the familiar or give voice to underrepresented experiences.
The “Experiences of Disability” issue will be guest edited by Sonya Huber, Keah Brown, and Sarah Fawn Montgomery (shown above). Huber is the author of five books, including the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Brown is a journalist and author of the essay collection The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture & Other Reasons To Fall In Love With Me. Montgomery is the author of the recent memoir Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir.
Our anchor author, Esmé Weijun Wang, is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), for which she won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018.
Submissions will be accepted through Brevity’s Submittable page until March 1, 2020. Those for whom Submittable is not accessible or for whom the reading fee of $3 would be prohibitive can email their submissions to email@example.com with the subject formatted as SUBMISSION: (Title) by (Name).
Editors gladly accept donations on the GoFundMe for the Experiences of Disability issue, which has a $1,800 goal for the special Brevity issue. This will pay authors and provide honoraria for anchor authors. Any additional money above this amount will be contributed to Brevity, to help with web-hosting fees and other ongoing expenses.
September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments
by Marcia Trahan
I’d always heard that writing a book was a grueling process, something you certainly didn’t take on alone.
After I got my MFA, I struggled, the way I thought I was meant to. I slowly, joylessly built essays about well-worn topics like living briefly in New York City during my twenties. With the help of a mentor, I tried to form a book-length collection, but I couldn’t find a cohesive theme.
Then I got lucky, at least from a creative standpoint. Dramatic things started happening to me.
At thirty-five, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and sixteen months later with pulmonary embolism. Both diseases warranted invasive medical procedures that left me physically and psychologically scarred.
Once I started writing about these experiences, I couldn’t stop. The words came easy and angry, bitterly humorous and filled with fear. I no longer had to force myself to sit at the desk. Rather, I had to force myself to leave the desk. The pages were piling up.
I brought an early draft of a chapter to a workshop at a writers’ conference. I wasn’t sure that I actually had the beginnings of a memoir, or the tenacity to finish one. As a freelance editor, I could cheer on clients when their motivation flagged, and help them break through the obstacles that kept them from completing their own books, but I didn’t know if I could give myself this kind of support.
I was stunned when my fellow students praised the chapter, which was about my hospitalization for pulmonary embolism. I was even more stunned when the instructor turned to me at the end of the discussion and said, “Marcia, you must write this book.”
I immediately knew she was right: I had to do this.
The feeling that I had experienced medicine as violence had led me to binge-watch true crime TV, the kind of lurid programs I had always avoided. I urgently needed to discuss what had happened to my body; and I needed to explore connections between life-saving treatment and this strange new preoccupation with bodily torment at the hands of criminals.
I returned to the same conference year after year, new chapters in hand, and always came away with fresh ideas and insights. During the twelve months in between workshops, I kept in touch with the writers I’d met, desperate not to disappear into the solitary labor of chiseling my story sentence by sentence—for that early intensity kept vanishing, and when it left me, writing was as hard as ever. With the support of others who struggled, I could face the gray days of revisiting terrifying medical procedures, of analyzing the darkness of my own mind.
Until the year when my workshop left me feeling lost.
It was no one’s fault. I had so much material by that point that selecting a twenty-five-page excerpt was a frustrating task. I ended up submitting parts of chapters, which made it hard for the other students to see where the story was going. They could only make suggestions about what was in front of them. They couldn’t possibly give me the big-picture analysis I needed.
I realized, with sadness and with no small measure of anxiety, that my workshop days were over, at least for now.
Could I actually finish the memoir without my annual boost from the group?
The universe seemed to be pushing me in that direction. But this went against all the advice I’d ever heard: Get feedback. Join critique groups. Find a mentor. Didn’t I promote the same ideas to my editing clients?
To my surprise, I found I needed to leave behind the multiple voices that had offered insight so that I could see what I thought of my book. At this stage, only I could make decisions about what succeeded and what didn’t. I would always be grateful for the generosity and the energy of the workshop, but now I had to depend on myself.
Freed from the desire to please readers, I was soon writing ecstatically about my illnesses and my subsequent obsession with death. I gloried in long afternoons at my desk, in late nights with the laptop on the living room couch. I was thrilled to discover the right words and images, glimmering in the light of day and glinting in the dark. Electrified by working hard and taking risks.
Of course, I had my painful days too, when I wept and cursed over seemingly unsolvable problems with structure, and doubted if I would ever finish the memoir. I still wanted to find my own way through obstacles. I wanted to resolve my own doubts. I was certain I was making mistakes, lots of them, but they were my mistakes.
Granted, I wasn’t totally alone. I sometimes showed portions of the book to my partner, Andy, an astute reader. And when at last I had a full draft, a year-and-a-half after my last workshop, I showed it to one writer whose judgment would be tough if it needed to be. She told me that after a few edits, I would be ready to submit the manuscript.
The memoir was accepted by a publisher in April 2019. I’m now working with my editors on changes—I was never so foolishly besotted with the writing process that I imagined my draft wouldn’t need revisions. Again, I’m immersed in insightful, challenging feedback, and actually relieved to have help once more. I’m taking pleasure in creative collaboration.
But I sometimes long for the sweet days and nights when it was just my memoir and me, for the almost holy passion of those hours. And, bundle of contradictions that I am, I also long for the excitement and comradery of the workshop. I trust that with my next book, I’ll know when to embrace the group and when to go it (almost) alone.
Marcia Trahan’s essays and poetry have appeared in Fourth Genre, anderbo, Connotation Press, and other publications. Her debut memoir, Mercy, a story of medical trauma and true crime obsession, is forthcoming from Barrelhouse Books in spring 2020. Find her on Twitter: @MarciaTrahan.