January 21, 2020 § 1 Comment
There’s always that one time in our writing attempts when we convince ourselves a topic is too impenetrable to fit into essay form. For Sonja Livingston, it was her childhood church in Rochester, New York. But like all good writers, she searched for a method that would allow her to tackle the topic, eventually relying on the guiding force of the fictional character Nancy Drew. With the help of the teenage detective, Livingston transformed her essays into the book The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. Here is an excerpt from her intriguing and engaging craft essay:
An orderly world might be heaven in your child’s bedroom or at the dried fruit section of Trader Joe’s, but tidiness is the essay’s kryptonite. The essay thrives on chaos. Curiosity is its basic fuel. Confusion is its sweet spot.
Like Nancy, who undertakes multiple mysteries in one book, an essay often tempts us with seemingly disparate threads. “You’ve really lost it this time,” I said as I moved from statue-hunting to researching relics and holy water. Even when I began to write my essays, dark clouds of doubt hung overhead.
January 20, 2020 § 2 Comments
Our newest issue, Issue 63, is out this morning, featuring crisp, provocative essays from Maggie Smith, Lara Lillibridge, Joanna Brichetto, Natalie Rose, B.J. Hollars, Kelly Shire, Marcia Aldrich, Robert Julius, Natalia Rachel Singer, Amie Whittemore, Margo Steines, Matt Donovan, Mary Zelinka, Doug Lawson, and Jill Kolongowski and her Spring 2019 creative writing class. All of these, along with stunning photos by Mike McKniff.
Also new today, in our Craft Section, Jen Corrigan, Jennifer McGaha, Mary Ann McSweeny, and Sonja Livingston discuss impatience and restlessness in writing, the art of discovery, the role of compassion in nonfiction, and how to bring Nancy Drew into your essaying.
Meanwhile, we are still accepting submissions for Brevity’s upcoming special issue, “Experiences of Disability,” to be published in September 2020. We are also still actively seeking some financial support to make this issue possible, and even small amounts go a long way. Thanks to those of you who have already contributed, and to anyone who can help as we go forward.
January 17, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Jaye Viner
I recently finished Paul Tremblay’s collection of short stories, Growing Things. In the back matter, he talks about how he envies writers who always have more ideas than they have time to write. After graduate school, I was anxious about keeping my idea trough full. Neil Gaiman calls it the ‘compost heap,’ which is still stinky but has more positive associations with growing things than with pigs overeating in the mud. For four years prior to graduation, writing classes and the community of teachers and fellow students had provided that constant idea stream that Tremblay so envies. I didn’t have money to spend on more tuition and I had no idea what a writer does to feed themselves. What follows is a list of inexpensive ways I learned to add fuel to my compost heap after school.
The first thing I did was what every writer is always being told to do: read. ‘Best of’ lists, recs from everyone I’d ever met, every source listed in an article I liked. I tried to read about things I didn’t know. But it’s hard to find books when your only search parameter is ‘what I don’t know.’ It was easy to get overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities.
The second thing I did was pay for a year of Masterclass. This was cheaper than getting my hair done and it gave me access to the expertise of people I would never have thought to learn from like Jane Goodall, and Natalie Portman. Not only have these classes broadened my understanding of the world, they’ve given me specialized vocabulary and access into their worlds. Each class comes with a workbook and references, your own curated reading list on a topic you’ve just begun to explore. One caveat, the nonfiction writing experts on Masterclass are limited. But for school addicts like me, it can be a playground of new craft tools and new concepts.
The third thing I did was dedicated time to being online. Note: I do not mean procrastination or floating aimlessly on a newsfeed. This was a strategic, ten minutes in the morning, ten at night to do specific things. I followed the people whose books I read and set alerts so I would know when they texted, because otherwise you never see what you want to see, especially on Twitter. I also joined several Binders groups on Facebook to expand my network of writer friends. Binders groups are a great way to see what a diverse cross-section of people are doing and draw from their successes and stories of common struggle.
The fourth thing I did was download the Duolingo app and commit to studying Mandarin for fifteen minutes as a daily mental practice. Those fifteen minutes take me out of my reality. They give me access to means of expression that are fresh and vibrant. I come back to English seeing it differently.
The Fifth thing I did was take classes on Coursera. Many are free, college-like classes you complete at your own pace. I took a class on Transmedia Storytelling which transformed how I think about author branding online. I’m about to start an entry-level programming class. I’m terrified, but I’m also thrilled.
Obviously, sources of inspiration can come from anywhere. I might be the only person on the planet who worries about where my ideas will come from next. Well, me and Paul Tremblay. Maybe this list isn’t something to inspire so much as broaden. Another book I read recently, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David J. Epstein, argues that the most successful people got that way by doing more than the specific thing they’re famous for. In grad school, I believed that specializing in one genre, and studying only writing, would equate with success. These last two years have been about giving myself permission to generalize and trust that the broad can be just a valuable as the specific.
Jaye Viner is a dabbler in language and color and narrative. She likes cohabitation with walking fur bombs of the feline variety and eating the food. All of the food. She knows just enough about a wide variety of things to embarrass herself at the parties she never attends. Find her on Twitter @JayeViner or Instagram @Jaye_Viner
January 16, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Sweta Vikram
Remember the joy and pain of writing your novel or memoir or poetry book or short story collection or set of essays? Remember the pride, the emotional exhaustion, the enthrallment, and the physical pain of bringing your book in this world? The rush, the celebrations, the book events, the sleepless nights, the book tour, burning the midnight oil, the reviews, the media bytes, the interviews, the social media attention and all of that? But a few weeks or months later, everything begins to grow quiet. Initially, there might be gratitude for the breather but slowly the realization hits: the big day is over and there is an emptiness that envelops the author. Not everyone has a book come out every year, so how do you channel the creative energy in that moment of winding down?
My novel, Louisiana Catch was published by Modern History Press in April 2018. The book has gone on to win laurels and made home in many hearts. But let’s get real; while the book might exist forever in the literary ether, people’s minds only have so much bandwidth. Most of our books, unless you are Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway, are “forgotten” a few months after the book release day. And, if you work with a small to mid-size press, you don’t get a separate paperback release a year or 18 months after your hardcover book comes out.
But the creative heart feels restless. How do you keep your words, characters, story, and efforts alive long after the book birthday? No one but you can bring your book back to life.
Here are some possible ways to do so:
Collaborate: I recently went on a culinary and literary date with the characters in my novel Louisiana Catch. How did I do that? Well, I partnered up with culinary queen and chef Kulinary Karma. She read through the novel thoroughly and picked up on dishes and spices and herbs integral to the story—no, Louisiana Catch isn’t a cookbook. Kulinary Karma went on to create a fabulous spread based on what was mentioned in my novel Louisiana Catch. She hosted an elegant dinner party while I read from the book and talked about what each dish meant to the characters in the novel.
Innovate: I think it was Carrie Bradshaw in the popular television show Sex and the City, who said (I am paraphrasing here) that every fourth person in New York City is a writer. If you are doing what everyone else is doing, how does your book stand out? Create a niche. Not everything that we writers write is a tell-all tale about our lives unless you are writing nonfiction. But, even with fiction, there might be aspects of your writing that mirror your life choices and beliefs. What if they become your “signature” or professional identifier? For instance, having a daily meditation, yoga, and workout practice is key to my creativity. Both the female protagonist, Ahana, and male protagonist, Rohan Brady, in Louisiana Catch happen to be tuned into fitness. Mindfulness and wellness are integral to my work and teachings, which is something that my colleagues, peers, readers, and networks know. In early 2020, I will be teaching a creative and mindfulness writing workshop at an indie bookstore in NYC and creative-wellness workshops at a yoga studio in NYC. These are all opportunities for me to both directly and indirectly reintroduce Louisiana Catch to a room full of strangers.
Infiltrate: Indeed, it’s important to host literary events at bookstores and support both small businesses and your readers who shop from indie stores. Social media partnerships with book reviewers along with participating in book clubs and speaking at literary festivals are all integral to book promotions. But most of these aforementioned opportunities cross paths when your book is out. What happens a year later? You have to pay attention to the other markets your book addresses. What do I mean by that? Because the story in Louisiana Catch addresses impact of social media, women in leadership, violence against women, world cuisine, health and wellness, and women’s empowerment, I have partnered with yoga studios, organizations that empower women in leadership, restaurants, and nonprofits that fight to end violence against women to do innovative and informative events. Your readers could be in so many spaces, don’t forget that for one moment.
Educate: For the one-year anniversary celebrations of Louisiana Catch, a restaurant in Chicago hosted a party and created the signature drink—Sazerac—integral to the novel. We talked about why this drink is important to the male protagonist from New Orleans and the history behind it. I also highlighted the similarities between New Orleans and New Delhi—two out of the three cities I write about in Louisiana Catch. I have done Skype chat with book club members in Boston, Seattle, and the Bay Area 7-8 months after the book launch. Seattle Book Club organized a delicious dinner in honor of both the cultures. Yes, we talked about Louisiana Catch. But we mostly talked about current issues that were relevant to the book. Be it conversations around mental health, diversity, women’s safety, or wellness. The statistics and updates were startling to many. As a writer, having done your primary and secondary research on topics that pertain to your book, you can position yourself as a thought leader.
Honestly, you don’t have to do any of these things. But, I can promise you that your book being forgotten isn’t an easy feeling. Reviving it, every now and then, is encouraging. It takes work, but it’s worth it. Think of all the years you spent creating each sentence, section, and pages. No amount of work can be too much to reintroduce your work to the world. It can be on a small scale, but every bit helps keep your words alive. You need to do what works for you and feels authentic to you.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe.
January 15, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Sheila McEntee
Though I am an essayist, not a poet, I recently discovered that esteemed poet Billy Collins and I have much in common. For one, we both love words. For another, we are fellow alums of Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts. Third (and coolest of all), we both write haikus while walking our dogs. For Billy, it is a practical way to practice his art. For me, it is an avenue to awareness and to deepening my prose.
I’ve never met Billy Collins, but I know about his poetic promenades because he mentions them in his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Billy says he first discovered haiku in high school, when he was just beginning to explore Beat literature and Zen sensibilities. He dabbled a bit but then gave it up, considering his works “unwitting travesties to the ancient and honorable tradition.”
Decades later, he rediscovered the form after he rescued a dog from the local animal shelter. A mixed-breed female, he named her Jeannine, after a Cannonball Adderley tune. Billy and Jeannine take long, daily walks around a reservoir, she sniffing and he counting syllables on his fingers. He tries to return home each day with a new haiku.
“I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arise powerful moments of dazzling awareness,” Billy writes. “But I also like to think of it as something to do while walking the dog.”
I was both affirmed and delighted when I read about Billy’s haiku dog walking, for I had begun the same practice some months before. My loyal companions, Murphy and Missy, and I log many miles together, walking in our densely residential neighborhood. The dogs never fail to find fascinating scents, while I muse on countless haiku-worthy subjects, some of which find their way into my prose. Like Billy, I stick to the 5-7-5 syllable structure, counting them out on my fingers.
Most mornings, it is all too clear that the pups and I have different agendas:
Brisk walk or sniffing
expedition? Ever a
Here’s one from a walk in deep summer, when I thrilled to the light, lilting flute song of my favorite bird. The wood thrush and its captivating voice have appeared in my nature writing time and again:
July morning, baked
air too thick to breathe, and yet,
a wood thrush singing
Here is a lonely image I discovered on a recent winter walk:
At the tips of bare
branches, a tiny bowl of
twigs long abandoned
When I attempt a haiku while walking with Murphy and Missy, I begin my day with a small stab at creativity. I like the idea of preserving an image, a moment, that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. I also like being fully present to something. As Billy says, a haiku declares “that someone was present—actually there, living and breathing—at that particular intersection of sight and sound.”
The gentle gathering of ordinary moments is important to me as a writer. It keeps my mind stoked and attuned to the world around me. It also gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I sometimes think, “If I write nothing else today, I have recorded this.” My haiku collection has since become a sort of poetic diary.
When I get home, I quickly scribble down my haikus before I forget them. Often I marvel at their brilliance. Days later, I come back to them and see that they are clunky and utilitarian—indeed, “unwitting travesties.” Sometimes I refine them. Most times I let them be. I won’t enter them in a contest. It’s unlikely I’d publish them in a book, though I once used some of my better ones to introduce the sections of a segmented essay. In any case, they remain evidence of sweet moments I’d have otherwise missed or forgotten.
Of course, composing haikus can happen anywhere: on the subway, in the car, at the DMV. No need to be an esteemed poet, and no one will notice your gentle finger counting. You just have to remember to write them down, for
they vanish quickly,
like dreams, or dew, or wisps of
fog in morning light.
You may find, like me, that writing them heightens your awareness and primes you for deeper, richer prose writing.
Sheila McEntee is a writer, editor, nature lover, and musician living in West Virginia. Her articles and essays have appeared in Wonderful West Virginia magazine, Goldenseal, and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and aired on West Virginia Public Radio.
Author (with Murphy and Missy) photo by Al Peery
January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Lisa Kusel
A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing the novel about a character who suffers from anosmia, or if I should rewrite the WWII book; the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.
“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”
“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”
“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”
“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a whiny b—”
“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.
“Did you lose your marriage? What really happened?”
“Well, I guess I learned—”
“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”
“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”
“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.
As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.
Should I tell the Bali story?
More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.
Could I tell the Bali story?
I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for COOL IDEAS.
I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for a living? What are you reading right now? Do you believe in God?
I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.
By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.
But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.
And forget about making shit up: I’d need to deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.
I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH.
Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking the IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d have to to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.
So I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered two double lattes. I reminisced with it. Tried to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.
I gazed deeply into my own navel.
And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.
I lied to the Bali IDEA, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.
Making up Love Lies Here felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers breaking into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.
After I finished it I returned to the café where I found the Bali IDEA still sitting where I’d left it.
“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”
“No worries,” it replied with an expectant smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.
“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.
More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.
And I’m really glad I did.
Lisa Kusel s the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. You can find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LisaKusel12 and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lisa_kusel/
January 10, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Suzanne Fernandez Gray
The first few times it happened, I tried not to look at the clock. Then I decided to make a game of awakening in the middle of the night by trying to guess the hour at hand. 3:11 a.m? 4:13 a.m.? 1:45 a.m.? By checking things out like the shade of the sky’s blackness, the heaviness in my body, the level of silence on the nearby roads, my guesses sometimes hit the mark.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I read that if you wanted to fall back to sleep you should stay in bed and keep the light off, so I dutifully stared at a dark ceiling sometimes for hours, careful not to look back at the clock to confirm what I already knew. The night was long, and I was not sleeping.
As a writer with side hustles as a public art consultant and website manager for my husband’s small business, I already knew how to juggle a day. If taking care of pennies (so the dollars will take care of themselves) is an asset in finance, its chronological equivalent is managing spare minutes in a day, and I was good at that.
I carried a notebook in my purse just about everywhere I went to take advantage of an inspired thought or overheard snippet of conversation that might fit in my work somehow. If I stopped for coffee, I pulled a book or magazine from my bag to indulge in a short essay along with my beverage. And, I kept lists of things that needed to be done on a given day and inserted them into open pockets of time between bigger tasks (though I confess to losing those lists often). Still, I treated daylight hours with a kind of respect and value I had never given to those at night.
So, I decided to change that. I moved the clock out of the way and replaced it with a clipboard loaded with fresh notebook paper and a favorite pen. I don’t wake up every night, but the next time I did, I only lay in bed for a few minutes, still taking in the all the qualities of the night I had become familiar with, before switching on the light and writing. It started with a page here, two pages there. I journaled about my day or continued a thread I’d begun unraveling on a piece started earlier. In time, I added a small book of writing prompts to my bedside and on some nights started something new. I found that really good work sometimes comes when the house, my husband, and my three dogs, are deep in sleep. Paradoxically, my mind feels almost rested in the middle of the night and I write with a clarity that’s hard to come by in the course of a cluttered day.
I look at my sleeping problem differently now. Though I’d still prefer seven consecutive hours of shut eye, when I don’t get that, I get precious time for my writing. I know I’ll still be tired the next day, but the stress of having a sleep issue isn’t in the forefront of my mind anymore. There is too much good work to be done.
Suzanne Fernandez Gray’s work has appeared in several publications including Fourth Genre, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Huffington Post and Solstice Literary Magazine, where her essay “Bridge of Cards” won the 2017 Nonfiction Award. She holds an MA in Art History and an MFA in Creative Writing. You can find her at www.SuzanneFernandezGray.com.