June 7, 2018 § 11 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.
Literary Greatness at the Expense of Female Suffering: On Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop
June 6, 2018 § 23 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
On the morning Junot Diaz’s essay, “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” was published in the New Yorker, Carmen Maria Machado sent this tweet out to her followers:
Hi! Today, please meditate on how easily we accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery.
— Carmen Maria Machado (@carmenmmachado) April 10, 2018
While she made no mention of Diaz in her replies, many writers knew who she was referring to. That week, article after article would celebrate Diaz for his bravery while literary circles whispered about the possibility that his essay was actually part of a strategy to lessen the eventual blow of being outed, #MeToo style, by the women Diaz claimed to have hurt in the decades following his abuse. In just under three weeks, the same outlets who had originally praised Diaz for his candor would publish new articles reporting that several women, including Machado, had come forward and accused him of misogyny and sexual misconduct.
Machado’s tweet calls attention to the long-held belief that a man’s artistic journey is more important than the women he might hurt along the way, and that abuse is sometimes a necessary evil of the creative process—the basis of “good,” “real,” or “authentic” art.
To cite an older example, David Foster Wallace famously credited his obsession with Mary Karr as the driving force in writing Infinite Jest, stating, somewhat crudely, that the book was “a means to [Mary Karr’s] end, (as it were).” Wallace continues to be taught and celebrated today despite Karr regularly reminding us about the terrifying patterns of abuse she endured in the 1990s, including Wallace stalking Karr and her family members, violently kicking her during an argument, and, once, pushing Karr from a moving vehicle. His behavior is (under) documented in his biography, and well-known among writers contemporary with Wallace and Karr. Unlike in Diaz’s more recent case, Wallace’s abuse is not a revelation to the public, but an example of bad behavior consciously ignored. As readers, how do we reconcile love for our favorite books with the terrible acts of the men who wrote them?
This was the question still fresh in my mind when I went to see Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop at an independent movie theatre. As a composition instructor and a creative writing student, I was excited to see what looked like an excellent addition to the genre of French-language films celebrating the power of classroom community and rising above prejudice through writing—like Cantet’s previous film, The Class or Phillippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar.
**Warning, Spoilers Ahead**
The Workshop stars a writer named Olivia, who mentors a group of teenagers through writing a collaborative novel set in their town, La Ciotat. But one student, a troubled young (white) man named Antoine, continually disrupts the class, penning gratuitous murder scenes and taunting classmates with his willfully racist opinions about the Bataclan and Nice massacres. Despite Antoine’s perceptible lack of redeeming qualities, Olivia seems to have complete faith in him, citing his “potential,” and unsuccessfully attempts to unmask Antoine’s machismo façade, encouraging him to express himself to the group.
Olivia learns that La Ciotat, once defined by its now-defunct shipyard industry, has few opportunities for young people like Antoine who are looking for stable work. In this regard, one could draw parallels between La Ciotat’s empty yards and the small Appalachian towns decimated by the United States’ once thriving coal industry. The same palpable despair, misplaced anger, and directionlessness expressed by some young men in those communities are present in Antoine’s character, which serve as a kind of raison d’être—if not a justification—for his extreme beliefs and aggressive behavior.
At home, Antoine is shown to spend his free time playing computer games, watching military recruitment clips, and listening to the French equivalent of alt-right propaganda videos on his laptop. His other hobby consists of stalking his instructor, taking covert videos of Olivia swimming and reading without her consent or knowledge, and studying them later on his computer alone.
If this alarming behavior weren’t enough, the situation takes a turn for the worse when Olivia asks Antoine for an interview on the pretense of researching for a character in one of her novels, which she uses as an opportunity to grill him on his political leanings. Antoine storms out and returns later with a handgun. He forces Olivia at gunpoint to drive him to a secluded location in the dark, refusing to answer her questions about what his motives are or what he wants from her. At one point she tells him, her voice quavering, “I’m really getting afraid now.”
When they arrive at a cliff overlooking the ocean, Antoine sits on the rocks and tells Olivia, after a tense moment of silence, that she is free to leave. Once she is gone, he throws the gun into the ocean, symbolizing, perhaps, a change of heart. He arrives at the workshop the next morning (Olivia having not called the cops, apparently) and reads a letter to the group stating that even with no job, no friends, and an uncertain future, a man should still consider himself lucky to be alive. He leaves, and the film cuts to a scene some months later where Antoine is working on an ocean barge, a smile on his face.
This last scene makes The Workshop a perfect cultural example of how easily the abuse and terrorization of women becomes redeemable in service of a man’s journey to self-realization and fulfillment. Olivia, though a successful novelist, is largely a flat character, functioning as a female sounding-board for Antoine to bounce his male angst from without any real-world consequences. She always allows him to speak in class and patiently listens to his ideas, no matter how violent or vitriolic his rhetoric. She sometimes calls him out on his more racist statements, but only on the grounds that he is intentionally provoking the class and she finds it “exhausting,” rather than due to any moral objection of their content. Perhaps most pointedly, she disregards her own personal safety as well as that of her other students when she chooses not to call the police and report Antoine’s behavior.
With the support of Olivia’s character, Antoine can evolve from a bored, lonely teenager with no sense of direction to a happy, productive young man working on a boat. This outcome would be wonderful if he hadn’t subjected an entire classroom of peers to his violent outbursts and threatened to murder his teacher in order get there. Just like too many powerful abusive men in our world, the consequences of Antoine’s actions in The Workshop never seem to catch up to him. And we, the audience, are supposed to be okay with this: to excuse Antoine because he’s young, or lonely, or feels hopeless about the future. Who hasn’t felt those things at one time or another, the film seems to suggest; we are all human, and we make mistakes, do things we’re not proud of, hurt other people.
I see this same logic in those who exonerate Junot Diaz for his past behavior on the grounds that he was horrifically abused as a child, or David Foster Wallace because he struggled with mental illness for most of his life. Knowledge of these hardships provide context for the choices these men made, but it certainly does not exempt Diaz and Wallace from the consequences of making them.
Still others excuse these men on the basis of their literary genius. Could such nuanced sexist characters like Yunior and Orin Incandenza have been written if not for the abuse the women in these men’s lives suffered? Maybe not. But what do we lose in the absence of characters like these, borne of somebody else’s hurt? Some might argue that these works contribute to the greater canon of literature, but in the era of #MeToo, how much is “good” art actually worth? One woman’s trauma? Two? At what point does the value we place on the literature these men produced absolve them of the hurt they’ve caused? Of the suffering these women have endured?
We’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about “the artist versus the art,” especially in television and film with Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and so, so many more. Now the movement has come to literature, and it’s time to make a conscious choice about who we read, and why. Because the truth is that a man isn’t born into literary greatness. Greatness is ascribed by the value we readers choose to place on certain works, and the world is full of art worthy of our attention.
And while writers like Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Sherman Alexie may be some of the first men whose place in the literary canon is challenged on the basis of their character, it is important to anticipate that they will not be the last. To use Carmen Maria Machado’s words, we don’t have to accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery. As readers, we don’t have to promote the work of abusers, even well-regarded and widely-anthologized ones. We can choose instead to listen to voices whose art does not come at the expense of others’ safety and well-being. To those who have endured hardships and have chosen to rise above their trauma rather than to perpetuate the abuse they suffered. As readers, we can choose this. We should.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com or @zoebossiere
June 5, 2018 § 7 Comments
“What does it mean when your body cannot be one simple thing?” Gabrielle Bellot asks, in her essay “Volcano Dreams,” published recently in Unruly Bodies (a web anthology curated by Roxane Gay).
“Volcano Dreams” opens with an anecdote about a sexual encounter in which the author is pursued by an old acquaintance. Though the acquaintance is clearly flirting, the author questions his seriousness, explaining that her identity as a trans woman often renders her sexually invisible.
I was disinterested and yet vaguely, stupidly desired his desire, as if that would validate something of my womanhood—no but yes, an in-between uncertainty, like the grey smoky nightmares of a slumbering volcano.
This connection between yearning body and volcano, is an image that drives the rest of the essay. In fact, once the encounter ends with the acquaintance’s abrupt rejection of the author’s body—only halfway through the essay—Bellot sets aside the tools of scene and story. The rest of the essay is grounded solely in image and metaphor, in volcano and sea. She develops and balances these images:
My body, I sometimes think, like many bodies, is like Dominica’s. Waitukubuli, the Caribs declared our island before the colonists came, a mountainous world named corporeally: Tall is her body. An unruly island, rainforest one moment, melancholy ramshackle zinc roofs rattling under the metallic drums of rain the next… beaches of nothing but gray stones a hurricane hurled with its roiling rolling arms like a furious crazed cricket bowler, a rough Atlantic beyond the fins of sharks or whales where fishermen in bright-painted dinghies occasionally venture under the spells of their insomniac mermaid dreams and never return. Dominica’s body changes grandly, wider in potential than a Sargasso Sea, yet she is also one defined and whole.
When I left this essay, I found myself haunted by these landscapes, as if I had dreamt them, and as if that dream had lodged itself somewhere between my conscious and subconscious.
I can’t quite explain the meaning of these images because, as Bellot says about the body, they “cannot be one simple thing.” I can tell you that the volcano conjures both anger and desire, that the sea evokes both fluidity and grief. But I can also tell you that these landscapes hold more than that.
Bellot told me these images came to her in a conversation with a friend:
We began talking about volcanoes, and then the conversation shifted, but when I went home, I began to think again of volcanoes as a metaphor for the body, and, in particular, the special, uncomfortable uncertainty and false sense of security a sleeping volcano can present. A body can seem calm and quiet, yet be roiling on the inside, ready to burst. Volcanoes destroy and rebuild. I realised that my experience of the body was connected to that sort of unstable, unpredictable imagery. (I also grew up in sight of one of Dominica’s many dormant volcanoes, and the apocalyptic tales of Mount Pelee’s eruption in nearby Martinique at the start of the twentieth century was one I thought of often as a young adult.) I’ve also long been drawn to the ocean and to the colour blue. Both have long histories for me. A family member was swept by a riptide into the ocean and drowned before I was born, a story my mother repeated to me many times when we drove past a certain white estuary that had become known for its fatal pull. And ‘the sea is history,’ as Derek Walcott put it, a place as much of life as uncountable deaths from the horrors of the transatlantic trade. So the ocean was inevitable as an image for the body as a site of contradiction and open-ended possibility.
Somehow, all of the associations that Bellot describes here reached me as a reader. In one short essay, I absorbed pieces of histories and landscapes, and connected those pieces to the author’s experience of body, of moving between conflict and fluidity.
What makes these images work? It’s not their simplicity but rather their expansiveness. Bellot does not offer simple correlations, such as heart = love or bird = freedom. At the same time, the images aren’t arbitrary or random. As Bellot makes clear in her commentary, they are carefully, lovingly chosen and rendered, and interact with the essay’s topic in meaningful ways. Like the body, these landscapes contain multitudes.
The lesson I glean from Bellot’s work is to fully commit to the images that choose me. If an image truly belongs in a work, then it deserves some oxygen. When given room to grow, the right set of images can do more than enhance a piece; they can drive it.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
June 4, 2018 § 3 Comments
Author Penny Guisinger interviews Beth Ann Fennelly about flash nonfiction, micro-memoir, prose poems, the engine of the sentence, and the upcoming Iota Short Prose Conference:
Guisinger: Your new book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, consists of tidbits that you call micro-memoirs. I feel a kinship to this book because it shares some qualities with my own work, particularly the way it pushes at definitions of words we use to describe different forms of writing. You’re a poet laureate writing short prose pieces that aren’t prose poems; instead they are memoirs which are usually a book-length thing, but there’s this hyphenated modifier “micro” involved. I’d love for you to talk about this line between pieces like these and prose poetry. Does it exist?
Fennelly: I love prose poems and have written a bunch. I like how they look like a paragraph but still move the way a poem moves, which is to say a prose poem is often image-based, and it is held together by syntactical repetition and motif and sonic ligature. In the micro-memoirs, I was more interested in connecting the way fiction connects, through the engine of the sentence, building tension through plot, creating a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps I might simply say poetry has always felt vertical to me, and prose, horizontal. These pieces are heading toward the horizon.
Guisinger: You said in another interview that once you thought of the idea of the micro-memoir, it felt like permission to create these pieces. I’m curious about what came right before that. Was the book already in progress, and you were searching for a form? Or was the idea of the form what allowed you to even get started?
Fennelly: Yes, the book was already in progress, but I didn’t know it, because I was writing these weirdo little things and I didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t look like poems or essays or a novel, they didn’t look like anything I’d written before. Discovering a name for them helped me recognize them and then articulate my project to myself.
Guisinger: I love the boldness of the pieces that are just one sentence. What made you think you could get away with that? You totally do get away with that, but did it make you nervous to try it?
Fennelly: It wasn’t scary, it was fun. One-sentence pieces are so low stakes—if it doesn’t work, so what? Throw it away and start another! My goal was to see how much I could take away and still have a story. Also, the one-sentence pieces could sometimes make use of humor because, like a joke, they’re stripped of exposition and the bones become visible. So that’s another way they were fun to write.
Guisinger: I’d love to hear about the process of revising this book. Was there an urge to keep making all the pieces shorter: to keep tightening the bolts? The title piece is over four pages, and others are much shorter. What drove the decisions to keep the longer pieces long? Was it a conscious decision to have a variety of lengths in the collection or was each piece given the authority to spread out if it wanted to?
Fennelly: I’m attracted to books that have a pleasing uniformity. For example, British author Dan Rhodes has a book called Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories, which has this symmetry not only of form but subject matter, as every one of the 101 stories has 101 words, and every one is a love story about a different girlfriend.
Rhodes’ tidiness is very appealing. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted my book to have a lot of range and tonal variety, and I wanted the pieces to move at various speeds and densities, and to have different physical shapes on the page. I wanted them to be a short as possible, but not shorter, and in one case that means eleven words, and in another case that means four pages.
Guisinger: Was it a challenge to organize the collection?
Fennelly: Yes, very much so, in the way a book of poems requires a careful construction because it has lots of moving parts. The micro-memoirs span my life from birth to adulthood, but I didn’t want to order them chronologically They vary in length, but I didn’t want to group the one-sentence pieces, then the one-paragraph pieces, then the longer ones. And they vary in subject, but I didn’t want to group them according to subject matter, to have, say, pieces about grief in one section, love in one section, motherhood in another. And they vary in tone, but I didn’t want the funny ones separated from the bitchy ones from the wistful ones, etc. So organization was an ongoing challenge—if I ever removed one for some reason, I had to rethink the whole thing.
Guisinger: You brought multiple approaches to using titles in the book. One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes is part of the first sentence of the piece, while I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers is the set-up line for a one-sentence piece. Talk about how you approached titling these pieces and how you were able to put titles to work for you.
Fennelly: The shorter a piece is, the more heavy lifting the title has to do. Some of the one-sentence pieces wouldn’t even qualify as “literature” without the title.
Guisinger: Writers often sit down with a thing to say and we either don’t know how to say it or we actually end up saying something completely different. A small kernel of an idea often blows the door open to something enormous, or an enormous idea has to be honed down to a manageable, concrete image. The piece Safety Scissors opens with specific childhood memories and ends with this breath-stealing emotional punch. I just have to ask: which idea came to you first? The haircut memory? The loss? Which opened the door to the other?
Fennelly: The story of my sister cutting off my hair and eyelashes in my infancy is an oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote, one I also told myself, for laughs. But I felt unease when I told this story for a laugh because there was something about the anecdote that was darker, something that got simplified, in quest of a laugh. Revisiting the material in micro-memoir form helped me linger in the moment, and identify how that moment in our childhood explains something about our relationship now.
Guisinger: This book is receiving a lot of attention. It was excerpted on Oprah.com. You were interviewed on PBS. It feels unusual (and heartening!) for a collection of small, literary pieces to hit the big time. (Yay!) So, first of all, congrats! And secondly, since you are clearly a publicity Jedi, when will your seminar “How to Promote your Book” be scheduled? (I’d like to sign up.) Can you share your hottest tip for getting the word out?
Fennelly: Penny, I am astonished at your characterization of me as a “publicity Jedi,” and everyone who knows me would share my astonishment, because I’m kind of a publicist’s worst nightmare. Like, I just got on Facebook last year I met with my editor to discuss the launch of Heating & Cooling, and I said, “What can I do to help the book get out into the world? I don’t do social media, but I love to give readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” And she was like, “You have to do social media.” And I was all, “No, you misheard me, I don’t do social media, but I like to do readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” and she was like, “Oh, I heard you, but you have to do social media.” So, for her, I finally on got on Facebook. But when people talk about their “platforms” and their “product,” I kind of break out in hives. So I’d be the last person to give a book promotion seminar. That being said, I have had a lot of fun in introducing the micro-memoir form to various groups. It’s a teachable form; it’s low pressure. I know a lot of folks who’d like to write their life story, say, but don’t know where to begin, and they feel daunted. But to write a true story in a single paragraph? That seems manageable. My friend, the novelist Joshilyn Jackson, went to a micro-memoir craft class I gave and now teaches the form in a women’s prison in Georgia where she volunteers, because it’s possible to introduce the form and get great results in a one-hour class, even with students who aren’t allow access to computers. I love that.
Guisinger: This August, I get to welcome you as faculty at Iota: Short Prose Conference on the coast of Maine along with Sven Birkerts. It’s a generative, four-day conference on short forms. What does that mean and what can people expect from the experience of studying with you?
Fennelly: Oh yes I’m SUPER excited about the conference. Truly bucolic location. And I admire Sven Birkerts’ work a lot. I teach his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. It’s so smart. I’m excited to give prompts and share examples of short forms that really inspire me—including short form nonfiction pieces that I first read here at Brevity. Three cheers for Brevity! And for Iota!
Want to study with Beth Ann Fennelly and Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Her newest prose book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, published in October 2017 with W.W. Norton, and she published Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, a collection of essays with Norton in 2006. Beth Ann is the author of three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1996, 2005, and 2006. A contributing editor to The Oxford American, she also writes freelance on travel, culture, and design for many magazines. Recent nonfiction awards include the Orlando Award in Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own, the Lamar York Prize from The Chattachoochee Review and the Porter Fleming Award for Excellence in the Essay. She’s the first woman honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Distinguished Alumni in the Arts Award.
Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. 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 Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives with her wife and kids, two dogs, and a constantly changing number of tropical fish. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.
June 1, 2018 § 38 Comments
by Jennifer Lang
Last December, during my most recent visit home, I sat behind the wheel of my mother’s Prius, buckled my seat-belt, and helped buckle hers. The morning air was crisp, cool breezes swirled in the San Francisco fog.
“I have something to say to you,” my soon-80-year-old mother said. “And you’re not going to like it.” I recognized her tone: tough, tough love.
I remained quiet, concentrating on the road. Ever since she suffered epileptic-like seizures following surgery to repair a brain leak last August, she’s lost tremendous independence: unable to drive or take a trip or live wholly on her own terms.
“I know you wrote something about your father and me. Because it’s on Facebook, or it’s somewhere where everyone can read it. Why would you do that?”
I played dumb, passed the blame, telling her the editor at the publication publicized it, even though I was the one who posted it proudly.
“I will remind you your brother’s not speaking to you because of something you once wrote.” She wagged her pointer finger at me. “And I’m only going to say this once, so listen: you may not tell our story. It’s your father’s and mine—not yours—and it’s private.”
Her definition of private cracks me up. She broadcasts as soon as anyone asks why she and my father, still married, no longer live together.
“Uh hmmm,” I said, now decisively bound and gagged.
At that moment, in her car, I, a middle-aged woman with three almost-grown kids, felt fifteen again. Reprimanded. Called out. Put in my place. And guilty as charged.
Four months have passed. I’m 7,500 miles from my mother, but I can’t shake her words or unsee her wagging finger. I’m plagued by the role I’ve played all my life: Good Jewish Daughter. Good Jewish Daughter does what her mother/father says. Good Jewish Daughter does not cross familial boundaries. Good Jewish Daughter does not expose her parents’ messy marriage.
Last fall, I finished my memoir manuscript of a marriage—mine. But in order to put my relationship under the microscope, I examined my parents’ marriage too. Sixty-seven thousand words down on the page. Draft number two. Done.
I know what needs to happen. I understand the long road ahead. Yet, day after day, I sit at my desk unable to take the next step: query agents, research publishers, or create a complicated Excel spreadsheet.
I am also paralyzed by something else. Something new and foreign and so unlike me.
When people ask how my book is going, I change the subject. When people ask what I write about, I am vague. If they persist, I say creative nonfiction, memoir, essay. If they want to know the subject and I say husband, kids, parents, marriage, aging, home, I’m often asked how my family feels about my writing. At that point in the conversation, I lift my glass of cabernet sauvignon and sip slowly.
Before entering memoir territory, I wrote with abandon and submitted without second guessing myself. Now, I understand what Mary Karr and Dani Shapiro and Kathryn Harrison and so many other memoirists have stood on stages and spoken about and reiterated on panels. Now, I get the dilemma.
Lately, I’ve been fantasizing about writing fiction. About writing a novel. About making it up: characters’ names and physical features and habits and quirks. At the end of an online writing class, another student said my story would be a wonderful novel: There’s coming of age…love, history, politics… the human impact of the forces at work in the Middle East. When I responded that I yearn to write the un-truth, the teacher wrote: Fiction is truth on the deeper level. You can change the names, the setting and circumstance and still remain loyal to “the truth.” Tennessee Williams always said that his plays were “emotionally autobiographical.” I think that you can fictionalize your life AND write your emotional truth.
For now, I write the whole truth because it’s where my storytelling know-how started. Because I don’t know if I’m ready to cross over into fiction yet. Maybe I’m just nervous to change genres because writing my emotional truth allows me to shout out to the world: I’m here, I’m human, I’m flawed. And so is everyone else in the story. And that feels real, regardless of what anyone else thinks, including my family.
Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, The Tishman Review, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. She lives in Raanana, Israel, where she teaches writing and yoga, but her heart and soul reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, home. Find her writing at http://israelwritersalon.com/ and follow her @JenLangWrites [as she writes her first memoir].
May 31, 2018 § 8 Comments
On Tuesday, we talked about publishers soliciting authors in the guise of a publication offer.
That’s not a book deal. That’s a (slick) commercial for their services.
But for some authors, “hybrid” publishing works. Could it be right for you?
Old-school vanity publishers know their terrible reputations, and many have rebranded as “hybrid.” They charge authors a “contribution” that pays their costs and a healthy profit margin. They don’t care if your book sells—they already made their money. You may end up with cartons of unsold books, text badly or not-at-all edited, dreadful covers, crappy page design.
True hybrid presses offer a legitimate package of publishing services. It costs more than self-publishing—they still profit before selling your book—but you’re not doing it all yourself. Hybrids can provide a smoother publication process, bookstore placement, reviews, and some of the legitimacy of an imprint.
Is hybrid right for you? Well…
1) Do you want a long-term writing career?
“At least I’ll be published” is the worst possible reason to go hybrid. Low first-book numbers make it harder to sell a second book. It’s better to be a debut author than one who’s sold under 10,000 copies—publishers want a positive track record or no track record at all.
Going hybrid, at least one of you thinks you won’t sell many copies. If the publisher thinks you’ve written a bestseller, they don’t need your money. If you think you can do better, pursue traditional publication or explore self-publishing.
But if you’re up for tenure, a reputable hybrid press gives you a resume credit. If you’re launching a public-speaking career and selling books after every motivational speech, you’re busy marketing yourself—let them handle cover design and proofreading.
2) How much energy do you have for marketing?
Even Big-Five published authors end up marketing their own book. But hybrid (and small independent/university) presses often lack media contacts. Does your potential publisher display at industry events like the Frankfurt Book Fair or BookExpo America? Do they have readings or signings at regional book festivals? Do they have a list of radio station managers to contact? Check their social media for links to author interviews and reviews in national media. If they can’t market your book in places that cost money or connections to enter, they aren’t doing anything you can’t do yourself.
If you’re newsworthy in a way related to your book—you just summited Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen or Sherpas; you gave six organs as a living donor; you’re a former child actor just out of rehab—then marketing isn’t your obstacle. Hybrid away!
3) Are you in a hurry?
Traditional publishing takes time. Your book comes out much faster with hybrid or self-publishing—sometimes at the cost of lower-quality editing, design and printing. But good hybrids have an established editing and design pipeline to scoot your book right through. If you’re dying of cancer or facing a major book-selling event next month, you may want to pay for publishing.
4) Do you want your book in bookstores?
Traditional presses can get your physical book on a shelf. Bookstores have near-zero desire to carry self-published books, so that’s where an imprint helps.
Go to your favorite bookstores and check for books by your potential hybrid press. Give titles and ISBNs and ask a clerk they’d stock those books or only special-order them.
Ask the hybrid press about returns and the retail discount. If it’s not “we take returns” and the industry-standard 55%—red flag!
5) What’s the royalty split?
Self-publishing, you control the price and get all the profit. Traditional publishing trades a chunk of the net for marketing and reputation. Hybrids take what you agree to give them…on top of the money you paid to publish. Before buying their package, make sure you’re OK with your percentage.
6) Do they want subsidiary rights like audiobooks, TV/movies, or foreign sales?
Red flag. These should stay with the author who pays to publish. It’s unlikely the press will market these rights anyway, and they don’t have enough skin in the game to demand a percentage.
7) Will they edit? What are the editors’ qualifications?
Is your book really done? Like really, really done? Is there still a nagging feeling in your heart that it could be better? Ask what kind of editing will be done, and by whom. “Our in-house editor proofreads” is not the same as helping your prose sing and your story hang together.
8) What are their actual, printed books like?
Order a couple titles. Is the paper thinner than you expected? Do you see typos, blurry print, bad layout? Is the cover art just plain ugly? Pull out books in the same genre from your shelves and make a table display. Do the hybrid books belong?
9) Due diligence!
- The Independent Book Publishers Association has set guidelines for hybrid presses. This is the bare minimum of legitimacy.
- Search the publisher name + “scam.” Search again on Absolute Write (make a free account for better info).
- Check Writer Beware, a wonderful resource that details bad-faith agents and publishers.
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have a list of what to watch out for when approached by a publisher.
- Read Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer for a greater understanding of the industry.
Going hybrid might be the right choice for you. But go in with your eyes open. Hybrid publishing is not a “book deal,” it’s a package of services you purchase. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This summer she’ll be at Cedar Ridge Writers Series, VCFA’s Postgraduate Writers Conference, and Hippocamp. Come say hello!
May 30, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Anita Gill
On a chilly winter day in Oregon, Laura Hendrie, an award-winning fiction writer, gave a craft talk to a room full of graduate students on the topic of crafting the beginning lines of a story. She looked around the room and asked, “What is it about an opening that pulls me in deeper?” Then, she gave an answer: the authority of language.
Authority. Personally, I don’t feel I have authority over anything, let alone narrating my personal narratives in nonfiction. As I write, tension builds between my shoulder blades. I’m filled with worry. How in the world am I going to pull this off? I think to myself. It may seem funny—that I don’t feel I can carry authority when my storytelling involves personal experience, but my biggest concern comes from my faulty memory. I can remember an incident, but only the actual event comes back clearly. The edges are a blur. What color was the sweater my sister wore? What was the landscape out the car window?
When I sit at my desk and start to write, there’s a voice in my head doing everything in her power to stymie my progress. “Are you sure it happened like that?” she asks. “You might be over-exaggerating.” She’s a real pill. After therapy sessions and recommended reading of Embracing Your Inner Critic by Hal Stone and Sidra Stone, I’ve come to understand that she has a name. She’s the inner critic. She’s the part of me that casts doubt, and while it appears to be self-sabotage, she’s actually doing it to protect me from failure. What if I write this essay and no one ever reads it? What if I write this story and take flak from the literary community?
My inner critic tries to rob me of my authority to tell the story in the first place. Her presence is most visible in my first several drafts, where she’s usually successful in impeding my progress. My opening lines are dull and display a lack of confidence in my own words.
But memory is a muscle that requires daily exercise. When I return to an essay to revise, I’m revisiting that memory all over again. And as I make changes day by day, the blurry edges of my memory become vivid. And as I put words to paper, my steady typing drowns out my inner critic. My first several drafts are just drafts, normally going in chronological order. Once I’ve written them down, I’ve fulfilled my research. I know the story. I can tell it to you in a dimly lit bar while nursing my fourth glass of wine.
From there, I like to start from scratch and open a new document. I write the story again, confident in my knowledge, several drafts of proof saved in a file. My inner critic retreats into a corner, giving me the much-appreciated silent treatment. With my blank document, I feel liberated to write my personal narrative again without clunky sentences from my last draft holding me down. Now, I can start the story wherever I want. And the narrator “I” in my first lines is an expert. She carries that authority I’ve hoped for, the kind that Hendrie wants.
Fighting my faulty memory and my inner critic are struggles I face every morning. Even if I’ve figured out one personal narrative, it doesn’t mean the next will be easier. There’s a Sisyphean element to writing. But writing is enticing because of what we discover about ourselves through the daily practice. We have to keep showing up. And in doing so, we gain authority over our stories.
Anita Gill is a teacher and writer in Los Angeles. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She currently leads the Westside LA Chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that encourages women and non-binary writers to publish in literary journals. Her website is anitagill.ink.