May 4, 2015 § 2 Comments
Some days it seems as if everyone who has ever written a book is also writing a book on how to write books, but author Julianna Baggott has added a fun twist, first writing a novel – Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders – about a fictional novelist name Harriet Wolfe, and then, penning a short bit of craft advice purporting to be letters from Wolfe to a young Flannery O’Connor. The letters are not only fun to read, but packed with real (not fictional) good advice. For instance:
Dear Miss O’Connor,
You are quite right. And it’s not really fair. The traits a writer needs for survival are at odds.
To show the real world – in its honest beautiful grotesquerie — you should be vulnerable, sensitive, laid bare. Yet, to accept the criticism and rejection that you need to endure and improve, you have to be tough, hardened. A cicada’s thin husk will not be enough.
It helps if you wallow and brood – the more you can wring out of an experience the better – but professionally, it’s better to be resilient and bounce lightly.
It’s helpful to be good with words and equally helpful not to think of words as something with which one should be good. It’s great to have an intellect, but better if you think you know nothing.
It helps if you’re fascinated by your fellow human beings and helpful if you crave solitude. (I crave it too deeply.)
… It’s helpful if you’re not crazed. And it’s helpful if you see the world off-kilter, as a crazed person would.
… The question isn’t: How to survive? The question is: Why survive?
For me the answer is that writing makes my heart pound, my hands flutter. It still makes me hungry and desirous and fearful.
Because I need the honest beautiful grotesquerie of the world, because I want to stay sensitive. I want to wallow and bounce.
That’s only a brief excerpt, but Baggott is offering readers who pre-order her novel a copy of the mini-craft book, aka the fictional letters. All the clever details can be found here.
April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
Micah McCrary interviews Maggie Nelson, author most recently of The Argonauts, in The Los Angeles Review of Books, delving into her thoughts on the difficulties of tone, her use of ‘autotheory,’ and control and surrender in the writing process. Below is an excerpt followed by a link to the full interview
Which brings us back to the subject of autobiographical writing. How do you personally know what to aim for when writing about the self, as opposed to writing in order to react to what you’ve read or seen?
I don’t make a big distinction between writing about “myself” and writing about “larger issues.” (Maybe I’m Emersonian in that way, or just feminist.) I guess I treat myself as a sort of mystery or microcosm or materialized fulcrum for the larger issues in a project, be they justice, fear, spectacle, voyeurism, heartbreak, sadism, masochism, happiness, perception, pain, privilege, injustice, etc. I focus on aesthetic problems as I work, rather than on psychological ones. Because in my experience, if you resolve the aesthetic issues in any given piece, you’ve also worked out the psychological ones, albeit through the back door. For some reason I keep thinking of the great ending of Fred Moten’s poetry collection The Feel Trio: “when the water come I come to the unprotected surge / and division in my old-new sound booth. I am fmoten.” The use of his name makes a claim on the political and has also become pure music. This kind of autobiography, I like.
April 27, 2015 § 5 Comments
Wouldn’t it be nice?
Sure, your literariest of literary essays are coming to Brevity (don’t disillusion us!), but it’s also great to get a personal essay into a major market–high circulation, millions of clicks, sometimes a fat check. It can be intimidating to get started, though.
You probably already know the first step: read everything you can in the specific venue in which you want to publish. As Sara Mosle wrote in The New York Times,
Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first “Talk of the Town” story. “Talk” articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 “Talk” pieces, one after the other.
I’ve done the same with the New York Times Modern Love column, even sitting down and analyzing story structure like I did back in high school English class, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I have pages in my notebook with lists of potential stories, organized by where I think might buy them. When it’s time to write, I flip through and choose an idea to work on.
But what next? How do you pick the story that suits the venue, how do you make your pitch (selling the idea) or submission on spec (selling an already-written piece) stand out? At Writer’s Digest, Susan Shapiro has a great list of guidelines and helpful tips for getting a personal essay into a major magazine or newspaper. She covers what to write, how to write it, and how to send it. My personal favorite:
6. Take Action
Often I see pieces by beginners about a conflict that isn’t resolved. They are stuck in a bad relationship or lousy addiction that has no ending or solution in sight. It’s hard to write well about drinking or drugging unless you’re sober and drug-free, and it’s hard to have perspective on your dating woes if you’re still single. Instead of staying stuck, chronicle your plan to change. I’ve written humorous essays and even books about visiting my worst old boyfriends to get their take on why we broke up, interviewing my mentors for advice, quitting all my addictions, and seeing eight shrinks in eight days (going speed shrinking instead of speed dating). A.J. Jacobs famously spent 12 months getting healthy, and another year “living Biblically.” Gretchen Rubin searched for happiness. Ryan Nerz traveled around the country trying to win eating contests. Maria Dahvana Headley said yes to any nice single guy who asked her out (and met her husband along the way). My student Kayli Stollak joined JDate with her divorced Jewish grandmother and wound up with a blog, book and TV pilot called Granny Is My Wingman.
As an editor myself, it’s always more interesting to read an essay about taking action and succeeding or failing than it is to read a more ruminative piece in which the author literally or figuratively sits still.
Whether you’re ready to submit to a national mass market or not, Susan’s advice is solid for writing any personal essay. Focus, be timely, know your audience, get feedback.
Check out Susan’s piece here.
April 27, 2015 § 2 Comments
Isthmus, a biannual print journal based in Seattle, is seeking more submissions in creative nonfiction.
From the editors:
We read year-round and are looking for memoir, personal essay, hybrid essay, experimental or traditional in form. We seek engaging writing and thought-provoking work. Please visit our website for more information or to submit through our submission manager: www.isthmusreview.com/submit.
April 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
Here at the Brevity blog, we like to boast that we are the single best resource for all things nonfiction, but we are boasting a lot more softly these days, sort of whispering actually, because the new website Assay — a magazine, blog, pedagogical resource, research hub — is doing such a stellar job. Assay just completed its first year and has published an Annual Report outlining what has been accomplished and great plans for the coming year.
Hint: Blog reports from NonfictioNOW, an exploration of Best American Essays (both critical and statistical), more syllabi and topic lists for classroom use.
Someone’s breathing down our neck. And we couldn’t be happier.
April 23, 2015 § 31 Comments
All my life I’ve been trying to communicate. The funny thing about wanting to say something is that no matter how articulate you become, how presumably skilled in getting across your point, you may never feel you’ve nailed it. I’d guess most writers are plagued with the impulse to make themselves understood. I know I’ve been that way since, well, forever.
I wrote my first short story when I was six. By the time I was sixteen, I decided music was the medium and wrote all sorts of original songs, including music and lyrics for school productions. After graduate school and a short stint on Capitol Hill, I was slaving away as a “singer-songwriter” before falling back into the less glamorous but more lucrative career of public relations. Along the way and relatively late in life, I got married. I was forty.
A dozen years later, my husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Impelled by the need to express my sorrow and find my healing, I wrote. The very public death of my husband along with thousands of others gave me a platform. I produced essays, editorials, speeches, delivered via major outlets. I was fifty-two.
I then wrote a book about post-9/11 contemporary culture. Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal, published in 2010. I also began publishing on a now-defunct platform called Open Salon. Two years later, another book I wrote was published about my search as a skeptic for a version of hope I could believe in. Hope in Small Doses was published when I had just turned sixty-three.
After nearly three years of practicing on short stories, some of which were published and many of which were not, I published my first novella, Don’t Move, a suspense thriller. Now I’m working on a novel. I’m . . . well, you do the math.
Second chance vocations, avocations and passions are all the rage nowadays with organizations like ENCORES and AARP promoting opportunities. A recent New York Times article focused on people finding (and defining) success “well past the age of wunderkind.”
I have yet to discover whether I have a literary career ahead of me. I’m occasionally appalled to find my chosen field so very crowded. Everyone is a writer; really, ask anyone: they will tell you they’re writing. #amwriting is a more popular hashtag on Twitter than #amreading, which begs the question: are there any readers for all the writing being put out there?
No matter—well, most of the time, no matter. I’m human after all, still searching for a way to be heard above the din. Age has possibly made me a little less competitive, though, I never really was.
And I’m financially secure enough in my retirement that I don’t need to scramble for $50 in order to supply “content” to some website that makes no distinction between good and not so good writing.
Good writing—including my own—is paramount to me. I delight in putting words on paper but I’m a deliberate sort. Although I’ve written dozens of essays and short stories, I;m not a “high producer.” Not only that, I’m a very compact writer—I say what I have to say in a few lovingly crafted and carefully edited words. Industry standards say 40,000 (sometimes 50,000) word count is the necessary minimum for a non-fiction book and 80,000 words for a novel. E-publishing and even improvements in printing, along with varied delivery systems allow us to blur, if not challenge those numbers.
Good, because I’m not about to spend ten years on a novel.
Age is not just a number; it’s reality. I have fewer years ahead of me left to write and possibly fewer than most of you. I fight some anxiety about having the time and the cognitive ability to send into the world a decent number of thoughtful, interesting and above all entertaining things to read. Writing helps, though; it gives me purpose and focus.
Age may make you wiser, but in my case, not less sensitive. I sense my age may make me irrelevant to the world at large, until I turn eighty-five and turn out a book and have everyone ooh and ahh and say, “Isn’t that amazing! At her age!” probably while I’m in the room and can hear them saying it.
Oh well. I need writing and I hope to discover that writing needs me. So full speed ahead. BTW, I’m almost cool with my impending role as elder writing statesperson, should that be an option. Almost.
Nikki Stern is the author of Hope in Small Doses, an Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal Finalist and Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal. She’s also written several short stories published at Fictionique Magazine and elsewhere and has published Don’t Move, the first in a trilogy of novellas about a retired assassin. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, Humanist Magazine, CBS Sunday Morning, Salon, and many other venues. Follow Nikki @real nikkistern or visit nikkistern.com.
April 21, 2015 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Morse, examining the work of Claudia Rankine, one of the anchor authors for our forthcoming Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization:
When the world all around is calling for clear distinctions, loyalties to Self and hatred of others . . . . —smooth narratives—what greater threat exists than that voice which rejects such easy orthodoxies with their readily understood rhetoric and urges, instead, the most difficult readings, those that embrace the painfully impossible in the human heart?”
– Maria Rosa Menocal, from Shards of Love: Exile and Origins of the Lyric
Lyrical writing, like the lyre it originally accompanied, holds its heart in song and in the address of another. It is an observation shared with someone else, when the ‘I’ of the singer births a ‘you’ in the form of an audience, or a writer a reader. However, there’s a funny trick that happens with lyric: a blurring begins. The pronouns get mixed up. It occurs every time you sing your favorite song – the ‘I’ of another enters your mouth. You temporarily share someone’s else’s identity, their turn of phrase, and you want this moment, because this ‘I’ has captured something that feels true to you, even if the story being told is outside the scope of your regular life.
Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and the mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
Recently, Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was nominated for both the poetry and nonfiction categories of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. This has never happened before in the award’s forty-year history. Thought it eventually won the Poetry Award, the dual-genre nod was the only one appropriate to the hybrid nature of the collection. ‘Collection’ works doubly hard here: Rankine gathered anecdotes of racist moments people of color have experienced when they felt most safe, amassed quotes from CNN reporting on Hurricane Katrina, collected World Cup audience transcripts, curated images of art that speak to the experience of being black in America. As she explains to an interviewer:
The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.
Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ approach to short prose pieces (most log in at a page or less), to my mind inhabits the world of lyrical flash nonfiction. At the heart there is an elasticity of experience. As Marcia Aldrich writes, “The lyric essay does not narrate a story so much as express a condition – often named, sometimes called human, but still to us unknown. It reverses foreground and background, cultivating leaps and juxtaposition, tensing between the presentational and the representational.” Rankine seeks to understand, a word that in its etymology means ‘to stand between, among; to be close to’. Rankine tries to make the reader ‘understand’ her pieces by narrating micro-aggressions from the intimate, close place of ‘you’.
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so.
With lyric, you may be suddenly seeing with multiple sets of eyes. In Rankine’s case, pronouns become a transitional space for a reader, especially if he is white; through his imagination he inhabits this racialized ‘you’, but at the same time the very foreignness of this experience serves to highlight the fact that he as a white person has never been treated this way. The blurring of ‘you’ and ‘I’ is disorienting; this painful impossibility echoes in the narrator’s refrain of What did you say?
A condensed layering of the self is what lyric flash holds in its heart. “The lyric essay doesn’t care about figuring out why papa lost the farm or why mama took to drink,” writes Sue William Silverman. “It’s more interested in replicating the feeling of that experience . . . the reader accepts the emotion of the piece itself as the essential ‘fact’.” Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ asks a reader to explore what it means to have a black body in this world. She actively destabilizes her own text, asking her reader to cross lyric’s transitional space over and over again. Rankine: “I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image.”
This trembling and doubling and wandering between what each small ‘I’ knows to be real and the possibility of what each ‘you’ suggests, this lyric nonfiction, is more important than ever. Smooth narratives are dangerous ones, if not deadly. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” How can we express our griefs, our outrages, our complicated hearts, if not by breaking silence, breaking into song? When the verdict of ‘not guilty’ was announced in the Michael Brown case, over and over I saw a line from Rankine’s book being shared on Twitter:
And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?
The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.
Kelly Morse is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Quarter After Eight, Linebreak, Flyway and elsewhere. Her translations and reviews of Vietnamese poetry appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, and she recently won Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize for Translation. Kelly has had work nominated for Best of the Net, is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient.