The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

June 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

Gentle Readers, you may have noticed our Brevity Editor-in-Chief’s new book, The Story Cure. Perhaps you’ve even been moved to hop over to Amazon or pop in to your favorite indie bookstore to pick it up. Or maybe you’re still wondering, what the heck is this book all about?

Over at HuffPo, “certified writing geek” Stephanie M. Vanderslice has the dish.

What I appreciated most was Moore’s personal take on the most essential elements of the major prose project: the primal story or the problem of the heart, and the invisible magnetic river. The problem of the heart is the primal element of the story, the human current that runs deep within its core that pulls the reader in and makes them care about it, makes them unwilling to put it down. The invisible magic river is, likewise, the current that carries this story and that every single element of the work—”word, element, scenes, snippets of dialogue, reflection,” should be drawn toward.

Vanderslice and Moore talk about keeping the focus on the reader, and the advice Dinty W. Moore now would give his younger writer self. Her interview is a fast, thoughtful read–check out the whole conversation here.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast.

Finding Your Writing Fix in Online Classes

June 14, 2017 § 10 Comments

x rae_mosaicBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ll admit it — I’m a little bit of a conference junkie. I love using writing as an excuse to go places and meet people and yes, take a little time off work. I go every year, without fail, to Hippocamp, situated right in the middle of charming Lancaster (and filled to the brim with other CNF lovers like me), as well as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, a small–but–mighty conference that lets poets take over Salem for a weekend of words and witching. So earlier this year, when I first learned about the Iota Conference, where Penny Guisinger has been hosting weekends of writing on the beautiful and scenic coast of Maine each summer. I was instantly wooed. I cyber-stalked the Iota website, trying desperately to come up with ways my hectic schedule might allow for it, but no matter how many things I rearranged, I couldn’t make time with a brand new job and several other immovable commitments to contend with.

Right around the time I was seriously considering having some of my organs harvested so I could afford a last–minute trip to Iceland for NonfictioNOW (be careful not to search for the conference attendees’ posts on social media — you’ll die of jealousy), I saw that Iota was starting a new online component. I could get my fix with a short class about an interesting topic, AND I could stop researching the value of a black-market spleen? It was a no–brainer.

The key to success in online learning lies between two things that are notoriously hard to control — technology and humans. Without easily navigable technology that makes logging in, communicating, and accessing resources simple and intuitive, as well as a group of people who are dedicated to remaining engaged — posting in the discussion boards, responding to their classmates’ questions, ideally paying attention to the class for more than an hour per week — you’ve got little more than a good idea and a WiFi connection. Thankfully, the class I decided to take from Iota Online had both. For four weeks, myself and nine other writers dove into Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction with Penny.

Each week, Penny posted a link to a YouTube video lecture and uploaded a handful of readings that supported the week’s focus. For a short course, it was comprehensive — we looked at the form itself and what was possible within it, and discussed situation, story, scenes, revision, and the senses. After reading the pieces each week, we discussed them, argued about their merits, and sang their praises. The discussions could have landed flatly, after each person uploaded their paragraph-long summary. But our instructor, even from afar, was able to be diligent about challenging us, asking questions, and suggesting additional readings or craft articles. It kept the conversation moving, and it kept me from mentally logging out of the course site after my “assignment” was done. I wanted to keep talking, and debating, and finding new authors to obsess over. The interactions I had on that message board mimicked the ones I craved as a conference junkie, but were somehow better. Here, I could debate the finer points of sensory detail and sentence structure with a New England psychologist, a Midwestern academic, a European expat artist, and a Canadian freelancer — and no one would know if I wasn’t wearing any pants.

At first, I was afraid that I would have trouble finding things to write about. I tend to be a tad long-winded when it comes to my CNF (which is why I was drawn to this course in the first place). What if I couldn’t rein myself in enough to keep it under 1,000 words? But by reading a TON of great flash CNF, I started to process my thoughts in short, vivid bursts, looking for brief but undeniably rich moments where before, I might have seen pages of exposition. Stories that seemed impossible to tame (too much backstory! all that context!) suddenly boiled down to handful of telling moments — watching a movie with a crush, looking for Christmas lights in a dingy basement, shoveling snow on a Saturday. With feedback from my generous classmates, and personalized feedback from Penny, I kept honing those brief moments of light and color into what they were meant to be — flashes.

Writing itself is the ideal activity for distance learning. Diverse opinions from new writers and readers are what make my work stronger. But it’s not always feasible to take a week off work and travel to a conference or residency. Online writing classes do the hard work for me — they collect individuals who are passionate about writing and share an interest in learning this new thing (scene work, dialogue, speculation, character development, whatever), and create a space where we can gather. Interestingly, having all our feedback posted publicly seemed to encourage my classmates and I to dig deeper with each subsequent week. By reviewing each other’s insights on a single person’s work, we could agree on an excellent point, and more importantly, offer unique insights that would complement what had already been addressed.

In a somewhat surprising way, I was able to access this jolt of creativity and energy — the kind I usually only find at conferences — without leaving home. At moments when I craved a change of scenery, I committed to completing my Iota classwork at a coffee shop or collective work space, where I felt able to focus completely without worrying about the laundry, or the bills on the table, or the many, many teen dramas I have yet to binge on Netflix.

Maybe it was poetically appropriate for a flash CNF class to be brief, but it was clear that by the end of our four-week class, my colleagues and I had barely scratched the surface, and better yet, we’d all gained this new toy that we wanted to keep playing with. In the end, I was left with pieces of writing that made me more excited than I’d been since I finished my MFA thesis. I couldn’t wait to get them out into the world. So far, they’ve been to a couple of readings, been submitted to a handful of online magazines, and helped me gain admission into – you guessed it – a writing conference.

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** Iota’s upcoming classes are now open for registration.
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Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as an editor for online magazines, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

Getting In: Writing the Perfect Residency Application

June 13, 2017 § 2 Comments

They all rocked their Artist Statement

It’s residency application season!

Well, it’s always application season. Spring applications for fall residencies, fall for spring, summer whenever, and that really prestigious place we apply to a year in advance and just figure we’ll cancel everything else in our lives if we get in. The joy of looking at our calendars and trying to figure out whether we can legit send the kids to camp and get someone to watch the dog six months from now! Nothing says fun like summarizing one’s job history, publications and self-worth in a one-page statement, CV, and work sample!

Glendaliz Camacho understands, though–from the Other Side of the Desk, she describes jurying applications and the delicate balance of Writer-Needs-This-Time-to-Succeed vs Writer’s-Already-Good-Enough-to-Be-Here:

-All I look for from a resume or CV is continual involvement, effort, and learning. Not publication in The New Yorker.

-That’s not totally true. Maybe that’s all I look for but I do notice if there are honors and publications I recognize. Too many of them and it does give me the feeling that this person is swimming along just fine and will do so with or without this residency. Too few and I wonder if it’s due to the quality of the writing.

I’ve been accepted to a few residencies, and rejected from a few more, and literally the same application packet–same work sample, same artist statement, one paragraph revised to say why I want to study with that writer/at that place–has led to both those results. Once you’ve got a solid application you’re happy with, it really isn’t personal.

As a theatre professor, I told student actors they only needed one strong minute of monologue–the auditioners know right away if they want to work with you. That’s true about writing, too. Readers can tell from the first paragraph if they’re in good hands. I also taught that, as terrifying as it feels, auditioning is not an adversarial process. Jurors want you to be good. Each time someone opens a residency application and flips to the work sample, what they’re hoping for is “Yes! This is the person who is going to be perfect!” They are looking for reasons to accept you. And you can give them those reasons:

Send your best work. Check the guidelines carefully–if it says, send what you’re planning to work on, send the very best pages of that. Run those pages past a writer friend, even if the whole piece isn’t ready. If the application doesn’t require what you’re proposing to work on, send your very best pages in the genre of your application. Unless they specify unpublished, it’s often worth it to send something published, because that’s been polished under a stranger’s eye. It doesn’t matter if that’s not the project you’re working on–this where they want to see results. If you don’t have many (or any) publication credits, this is the time to show how your work is so good, it’s going to be published sooner or later.

Speaking of publication credits, know your level. Near the beginning of their writing career, a writer is unlikely to get in to Yaddo, Macdowell, Hedgebrook or the Millay Colony. Don’t waste your time and application fee; apply to a place that’s within your same general accomplishment level. Find this out by looking at profiles of past residents. If the website doesn’t list bios, search for Name of Residency + “author” and see who pops up. Do they all have Pulitzers? Maybe wait until your book deal. Are they publishing in the same literary magazines you are? Full steam ahead! If you’re still uncertain, ask your mentor/teacher/workshop leader. I was surprised to hear that my teacher thought it was a good idea to apply to a residency I’d assumed was beyond my reach; I would also have valued him saying, “Maybe wait until you have more publications.” If you’re worried about your qualifications and it’s within your financial reach, try a pay-to-play residency, where the odds of getting in are better and then you have one residency already on your CV. Some paid residencies are income-sensitive, too, and that’s worth looking for or asking about.

Be honest–within limits. A pure, direct statement of your need and ambition can be captivating on the page. But this is not the time for pipe dreams or raw discussion of the faults we all have. Don’t tell them you have a hard time finishing work at home. We all do. Focus on what that specific venue, geographic location, philosophy of work, or master teacher has to offer you. Tie in something unique to that residency to something unique about you. “I want to work with Writer Who Makes Collages A Lot because I’m eager to expand my work in collages and build a chapbook from my publications in Journal of Collage.” “I’m working in soundscapes and want to bring my equipment and use it in the music studio available at this residency site.”

Glendaliz Camacho’s blog post is full of brilliant, reassuring, enlightening information on reading and writing applications (and a wonderful digression into telling-vs-showing in describing setting). In particular, she points out “A great artist statement tells a story,” and “A great work plan is plain and direct.” Go read the whole thing.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her favorite residency venue is Atlantic Center for the Arts.

 

 

A Response to Jia Tolentino’s “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over”

June 12, 2017 § 15 Comments

zoeBy Zoë Bossiere

A couple of weeks ago, a piece by Jia Tolentino came out in The New Yorker called “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” The title alone was enough to deluge social media feeds with writers stepping forward to defend the vitality of the personal essay in spite of the article’s assertions, or otherwise agreeing with Tolentino that the personal essay is, in fact, “dead.” The only problem is, the article isn’t actually about what we writers know as the personal essay at all, but rather a separate subgenre of nonfiction called the “confessional essay.” If we want to get even more specific, Tolentino’s article is talking specifically of the confessional essays typically printed in online “women’s” publications such as xoJane, Jezebel, Salon, and others. To compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.

I can recall one of my first nonfiction professors drawing a line on the board, labeling its two ends “Self” and “World.” From there, we students worked to fill in the line with subgenres of nonfiction such as memoir, journalism, personal essay, critical essay, and so on. Every subgenre has a place on this spectrum, and the personal essay, I learned, falls squarely in the middle. Contrary to what many might believe, the personal essay is not a self-absorbed, naval-gazing reflection pool. Rather, the signature of the genre is its use of the self to comment on something larger than. The personal essay cannot, by nature, be strictly personal, as that would delve into “confessional” territory.

A confessional essay focuses exclusively on the self, usually in the form of an anecdote—“This one thing that happened to me this one time.” One convention of the genre is to explore taboo subjects (incest, rape, the female body) to grab reader attention, which some have likened to the writing equivalent of internet “clickbait.” I appreciate how Tolentino addresses the practice of publishing such sensitive material as potentially exploitative, writing that “so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return” except harassment from strangers. This is undoubtedly one of the hazards of the confessional genre, and one that editors who publish such stories should be aware of. I disagree, however, that this kind of essay holds no currency in a world where even the most innocuous statements on Facebook and Twitter can and are interpreted as in some way political.

While Tolentino remains critically neutral in her article, relying on quotes from those she interviewed to do most of the hard-hitting for her, it’s clear the current trend is to lambaste the confessional essay (again, under the false moniker “personal essay”) as narcissistic or “too personal.” But I’m here to remind you there’s really nothing wrong with writing like that. After all, writers like David Sedaris have built a career on essays that might be labeled “confessional” if he were a woman. And we love David Sedaris. So what’s the problem?

According to Tolentino: “Put simply, the personal is no longer political in the same way it was” before the election. Before Donald Trump. Historically, though, there’s always been a reason why the public thinks women should not be writing, and least of all about their own experiences, which as young girls we learn are somewhat trivial to the rest of the world. Movies centered around the lives of female protagonists are routinely dismissed as “chick flicks” and stories showcasing the ways women can be strong are dubbed exclusively “for girls” as though they have nothing to offer any other audience. Tolentino says herself that the writers of the confessional essay are almost exclusively female, so to say that the personal is no longer political seems like just a new way of telling women to shut up about themselves because there are more important things in the world to talk about.

If the nonfiction spectrum has taught me anything, it is this: The world is large. The self contains multitudes. Of course there is enough room on the internet for the personal and the political to be happening simultaneously. And during a time when women and immigrants and people of color can see the effects of the current administration in their day to day lives, to say otherwise is absurd.

But frustratingly, implicit in articles like Tolentino’s is the sense that men who write about their experiences are writers, while women who do the same are simply selfish. This is an idea women have been rallying against for a long time, as Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in “On Pandering” and Rebecca Solnit in “Men Explain Things To Me.” These essays remind us that for some, it will never be a good time for women to freely write and publish about their own lives without offending the current political or social climate. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who say that no one wants to hear about your lost tampon when there’s a crazy man in the oval office are the same people who wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.

And though Tolentino claims to be among those who like the genre but “aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance,” she does admit to missing the prevalence of the confessional essay on the internet, writing that, personally, “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason.” Of everything I’d read in Tolentino’s article, this gave me most pause. To make a value judgement about the existence of the confessional is to categorically dismiss all of the writing, and therefore all the writers, within the genre. In truth, the fact that women are driven to write essays like these is good reason enough.

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Zoë Bossiere is an incoming Ph.D candidate at Ohio University where she will study creative nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com.

Matador Review Seeks Alternative Work

June 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

From The Matador Review‘s Public Relations Liaison, Mandy Grathwohl:

Alternative art and literature magazine The Matador Review is now accepting submissions for the Fall 2017 publication. We publish poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction, inviting all unpublished literature written in the English language (and translations that are accompanied by the original text) as well as many forms of visual art. The call for submissions will end August 31.

Our purpose is to promote “alternative work” from both art and literature, and to encourage the new wave of respect for online publications. In each issue, we offer a selection of work from both emerging and established artists, as well as exclusive interviews and book reviews from creators who are, above all else, provocative. For us, alternative is a way of voice and experience. It is the distinction from what is conventional, and it advocates for a progressive attitude.

Editor-in-Chief JT Lachausse spoke to the Aerogramme Writers’ Studio about Matador’s aesthetic:

For every piece of quality art or literature, there is a home. Some ‘homes’ include work that is regionally or culturally inspired, and some are reserved for particular genders, sexualities, or ethnicities. This sort of exclusivity creates an environment for distinct voices, and due to its distinction, these magazines are considered ‘alternative’ (syn: ‘different’, ‘nonstandard’). What we wanted to do was to open up a home for art and literature that is, in every capacity, unconventional; this could mean a ‘fresh’ voice, or perhaps a peculiar style, or maybe a bizarre subject that would otherwise struggle to find a place willing to parade it. …The Matador Review wants all of your redheaded stepchildren, but we want them on a damn good hair day. And they better not behave.

We look forward to seeing your work!

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The Matador Review acquires First North American Serial Rights, and is a non-paying market. More information and contact info on their submissions page.

 

The Value of Getting Sh*t Done

June 8, 2017 § 28 Comments

Gosh, is this race even worth finishing? thought no sprinter ever.

First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.

You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.

Thinking time counts.

Reading counts.

Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.

But there’s still value in completion.

Process is great. We all need process. But every now and then, we embrace process to the point of avoiding finishing. We dive into six projects at once, knowing in our under-soul there’s no way we’ll get through even two of them. We embrace multiple genres or venues as a way to write what we’re “in the mood” to write, whichever essay or proposal or article or chapter calls to our heart at the moment we’ve finally cleared our mental decks and sat down.

Some days it’s important to be our beautiful wayward writer self. Explore! Play! Freewrite!

Other days, it’s time to sit our butt down (“the only secret to writing is ass in chair” as the saying goes) and bang out some words. Some good words, maybe. More likely some crappy words. But remember how much easier it is to turn shit into something passable than it is to turn nothing into shit? No? If that’s not a memory you hold, maybe next writing session is a good time to pull out something you gave up in despair and take another look at it with a cold editorial eye. Perhaps there’s one sentence in there worth saving. Perhaps there’s a whole new piece based on the third paragraph. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the whole thing’s nowhere near as bad as you thought when you walked away. If there’s truly nothing you can find in there worth working on, you have two options: send it to a friend and ask if there’s anything they think is worth working on; or toss it.

Seriously.

Hit delete. Crumple it up and put it in recycling. Burn the notebook. Make room for something else you want to write. Get the unfinishable crap off your desk and call it practice. Be grateful you learned what that piece taught you and move on. The practice of writing is also practice. It is the height of arrogance to scold ourselves for not putting something perfect on the page in a first go–what other job, what other sport, what other art gets things right the first time, every time they start something new? Wow, Mozart, that was awesome and you wrote it once, in pen! Gee, Usain Bolt, now that you’ve run as fast as you ever will around the track this morning, you’ll never need to train for the Olympics again!

Practice/rehearsal/training involves mistakes, screw-ups, wrong paths, poor choices and loss of interest. We don’t save a videotape of every time we go to the gym, we count ourselves happy if we hit that second pull-up, or stay on the seated bike checking Twitter until it’s suddenly been twenty minutes and hey I’m done! Now I can do all the fun things I’m bothering to get in shape to do!

Practice also involves sitting our ass down and deciding we’re going to finish something. Now. Today. This week. In fifteen-minute increments while waiting for carpool, or in one wild coffee-fueled weekend.

I will ride the bike for thirty minutes.

I will clean this closet.

I will purchase these six items.

I will put dinner on the table.

I will get to the end of this sentence, this paragraph, this page. This essay. This book.

Be a beautiful free-spirited artist. Be a tortured soul contemplating the horror of the page not living up to what’s in your head. And then sit your ass back down and write to the end of the page. Set a day, or a week or whatever interval works for you, aside to finish your shit. Pick up a piece and decide if you want it or not. If you want it, finish it. See what it feels like to do whatever it takes, to revise or seek help or break it apart and rebuild, or let it go and move onto something else you want to finish. Let go of the hundred weights of half-pages that once seemed like a good idea. Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas, hundreds, thousands of them. Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.

Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Don’t settle for half-finished.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Blogging makes her finish shit. Find her on Twitter @guerillamemoir.

That Writer

June 7, 2017 § 25 Comments

Dorothy Parker showed a lot of wtf smilies to fellow members of the Algonquin Round Table.

That Writer. Every writing group or class has one. The person who talks more than everyone else combined. Who comes in stoned, or just high on life. Who interrupts the teacher we’ve all paid big bucks/gone through a tedious application process to hear. Who comments as if they themselves are the teacher. Who says things like “Well, you know what Flannery O’Connor said” as if we all know exactly what Flannery O’Conner said, and it wasn’t “Nobody cares, shut up.”

Look around the table. Do you see That Writer? No no, don’t point—Instead, draw a smiley face expressing pain and show it to the writer next to you by turning your notebook on the table.

If you can clearly identify That Writer, I’m sorry, there’s nothing you can do. Practice your expressive smileys, and how to say “could you unpack that a little more?” with respectful seriousness for the days you haven’t done the assignment and are trying to run out the clock (That Writer has their usefulness!).

Wait—what? You don’t see That Writer? Oh dear. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you carry a bag of pens? Do you rummage in this bag more than once per class?

Have you ever cut your nails in class, you know, just that once when you had a bad hangnail and it was under the table and really quiet, not at all like it might be additional punctuation in the story of whoever was reading out loud at the time?

Does your jewelry make a delightful collection of wooden and metallic sounds?

Have you ever entered the room prior to class to find a previously arrived fellow-writer typing vigorously, earbuds in, and signaled that you need their attention? When they remove one earbud and say “yes?” in a sharpish tone, have you then courteously let them know you just need to use the printer and will that be OK? Did you then sing quietly to yourself while printing?

Have you written a chapbook of poetry, not self-published by any means but issued by the small independent press you own that has published several of your chapbooks and those of two other writers? Would you like to give a copy of that chapbook to every member of the class, and a few days later discuss it over coffee?

Do you often have a different interpretation of the work being discussed, possibly rooted in Freudian theory or any psychology named after a dead Slav?

Do you make sounds that people think indicate you are about to speak, but you are in fact just signaling agreement or a blocked sinus?

Have you ever started a comment with, “Well, this may be a little far afield, but this just puts me in mind of Wittgenstein, when he says…” and ended that comment four hundred words later with “does anyone else get that?” Were you discussing a humorous parenting memoir?

Have you come to a class where the guideline is five pages and indicated that your twelve pages of 1.5-spaced, 10-point sans-serif is “really a pretty quick read”? Is there an explicit sex scene on page 9? Does it have anal? Do you need to discuss how anal sex symbolically represents your relationship with the patriarchy/your creative muse/your mother?

Look at the body language of the person on your right: is that writer scooted to the extreme other edge of their chair, tilting toward the teacher as far as possible without falling off? Are you sure the chair-legs are uneven?

Have you ever said, “I know we’re not really workshopping today but perhaps we could just talk through my pages sentence-by-sentence?”

Are you disturbed by the number of questions you’re answering yes to? Are you just trying to help? Have you noticed other writers angling their notebooks towards each other, scribbling what can only be pictographs of the deep emotional reaction they can barely contain in response to your work? All is not lost!

First, take your pages for today’s reading. When you get to page six, rip it off and any following pages and throw them in the recycle bin. Trust that your lengthy story summary prior to reading will cover it. If there are any chapbooks in your bag, remove them. Have you smoked pot yet today? Skip it. If that horse is already out of the barn, maybe consider taking a sick day and coming to class next week instead. Or smoking later today, especially if it’s a 10AM class. Now remove your jewelry. Select a single pen and one additional backup pen, leaving your pen-bag aside. Check your manicure. Once in class, open your writing notebook. Every time you think of something to say, write it down. Make a tick mark by anything you thought that anyone else says. Now you don’t have to say it. Of every five remaining un-ticked comments, speak one of them. Then bask in your Buddha-like silence and smile wisely.

And don’t ever quote Wittgenstein again.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’s been That Writer at least once. Find her on Twitter @guerillamemoir.

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