June 29, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Josh Sippie
You’d be surprised what people say. I know I was. When I took my first memoir class at Gotham Writers Workshop, the third week of class was designated to dialogue and the homework assignment was to go eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it to share in class the following week.
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical. What could people actually say? But I did my due diligence, headed to Union Square, sat on a bench and stared blankly at my book, focusing my ears like antennas to pick up a conversation that I could then write into a page of dialogue for class.
There, I heard two women talking about how they were sick of pho because it was too widespread. They liked the Vietnamese soup back when it was unique and hard to find.
It may seem pointless. Who cares about the popularity of pho (other than these two women)? But it’s not about the subject matter. It’s the passion, the context, the subtext, the dialects, the manner in in which they speak. The woman who I heard the most from was incredibly impassioned about pho and being a frontierswoman of the great pho wilderness, while the other woman mostly just nodded consent and agreed with her. Though even without looking, I could tell that she probably enjoyed pho just as much as she used to.
Hence, subtext. On the surface, it’s just two women agreeing that pho has become too popular and thus the taste suffers. But when you actually break down the dialogue, it looked like this (what these women actually said, by the way):
“Can you believe that there are four pho places in Union Square now? I don’t even want to go anymore because everyone goes now. Y’know what I mean?”
“I mean, it’s ridiculous. I remember when you actually had to look for pho.”
So yes, these two women are agreeing about the prevalence of pho. But is the other woman really agreeing, or just actively listening? And what does she think about pho? Is she annoyed with her friend? Because it seems so. Maybe there’s something elsewhere. Does she suspect her friend of doing something unsavory? Are they up for the same promotion at work?
When you read dialogue, if it’s written in such a way to reflect how human beings actually talk, you don’t have to overstate. You don’t have to tell your reader how to read it. They’ll hear it.
Using context and the actual conversation, the reader knows what that “Sure” means. And maybe it also cues up how you might have done things differently. Would you have gone along with the conversation, or would you have taken a different approach? By letting your dialogue outside of its comfort zone, you are opening it up to improvement. The kind of improvement you don’t often get from talking to your television screen or cat. It’s actually a hard thing to listen to yourself talk in a natural, human voice. That’s what other people are for.
Dialogue is at its peak when it is truly human, but you’re not going to get it human through guesswork and writing it according to the Chicago Manual of Style. People don’t pattern their everyday speech based on a manual, they pattern it based on emotion and impulse. If you want your narrative nonfiction to reflect the humanity of the situation, then there better be some actually humanity in it.
Hearing how actual people talk will let your mind start piecing together your own dialogue the way you have heard actual people talk. And it all starts with having open ears. So take out your headphones on the subway and just listen. Maybe you’ll hear something that triggers your imagination, or reminds you of a conversation you had. It doesn’t have to be about pho either (thankfully).
Remember, there is nothing that you overhear someone saying that can then become “unrealistic” dialogue, or an unrealistic way to speak. It’s as real as it gets. And while it’s unlikely that you can just pluck a conversation from your walk to the grocery store and plop it in your essay, actual human voices will be floating through your head, not just words on a page. You’ll hear the inflection of voices, the subtext obtained through simple, curt responses, accents, dialects, made-up words, made-up words said in funny dialects. Every day is an opportunity to improve your dialogue writing if you just put yourself in a position to actively listen.
And what better way to try to cure writer’s block then by sitting yourself in the middle of someone else’s story and hearing the way they tell it? The world is full of voices; you just have to be willing to listen to them.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
June 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Ian Maxton
Drones are probably killing someone right now. These words appear in small print at the top and bottom of each page in Sarah Vap’s most recent collection Winter: Effulgences and Devotions. These words are like an alarm going off quietly in an apartment that one searches for everywhere, but cannot find. They are the nagging sense one has forgotten something. They are an earworm of imperial decay. Someone is probably being extra-judicially dispatched, but between those moments, Vap attempts to write. That is to say, she tries to live and work, just like the rest of us.
Winter presents itself as a collection of prose poems, but really, it is a collection of fragments toward a poem. For twelve years, Vap attempted to write a poem about winter. This book is the result. Written in the stolen hours right after waking, her sentences often cut off. Thoughts are left hanging. She keeps getting tripped up on the “I.” “O, the tenderness, I – ,” goes a typical invocation of the self. And these are invocations. Vap is trying to get to the “I” with which Whitman sings himself.
However, things keep getting in the way of poetry. The drones, for one. The death of whales by sonar is another. Her young sons intrude, and she keeps having more of them and loving them anyway. Their voices and hers meld in the same way their bodies once did. She and her family move. She and her partner work degrading adjunct jobs. They keep losing their health insurance. They live, for a time, in an out of the way shack on the Olympic peninsula, a logging road their only connection to the outside world. In the background, winter itself is coming to an end in this region. The impetus for the poem, its occasion, is disappearing.
One of the ways Vap tries to cut through is by putting all of this anxiety on the page. Trying to make visible this country’s vile, invisible wars is an obvious example of this, but whole pieces are devoted to stray thoughts: that the valley they live in may flood irreparably one day, that the flu ripping through their home may never end, that her father’s illness will lead to his death. These last two items are part of how Vap accesses the “I.” It is not through poetic transcendence, but through the body and its daily, grotesque functions.
Vap’s sons are shit-obsessed. They sing odes to poop. They play in chicken feces. They find it all very funny, but in that way that children’s humor is deadly serious, too. They rely on their mother (and Vap’s role in the household as primary caregiver is hard not to notice in the book, even if it goes mostly unremarked upon), after all, to wipe their butts and laugh at their jokes. The asshole becomes a site of both humor and vulnerability. As an absence, Vap transforms it into symbol of the inner self—a place of potential enlightenment. Because it is a site of abjection, as well, enlightenment never quite comes.
The language in these pieces can be haphazard, flat, and rough. It is thrilling to read precisely because it feels unfinished, because it feels as though it has not been worked to death of a dozen years, but accumulated—like mold. Vap’s style can be direct at times, withholding at others. She can indulge in archaic poeticism or blank diarylike entries.
Winter can, at times, feel overwhelmed by guilt, by the knowledge that even the stolen moments that make up its composition are a privilege that comes at someone else’s cost. In an essay for N+1, published in 2006—right around the time Vap began to conceive her winter poem—Elif Batuman wrote that “the single greatest obstacle to American literature today” is guilt. This, she says, “leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence.” Batuman contends that this has led to the stunting of our national literature, that our collective way of dealing with this guilt has been an obsessive focus on “craft,” which whittles our writing down to nothing. Writers, she says, act “as if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits.”
But it is difficult not to feel guilty. I sit down to write and the attack begins. My cat is dying. The cupboards are getting empty. There is too much work to do. There is not enough time. Drones are probably killing someone right now. And they are doing it for me. They are doing it for Sarah Vap and her children, too. So we can all enjoy the last few winters we’ve got left. Things keep getting in the way of enjoyment. Shit keeps getting in the way, literal shit. And for some reason we are writing at the same time that drones are probably killing someone.
This is the logic of capitalism. It is perfectly happy to heap its guilt on individuals. And because there is nothing you or I or Sarah Vap can do, on our own, to amend the deep wrongs of our time, despair becomes the status quo. In this perverse logic, if the whales are dying, if the drones are bombing, if winter is ending it is all your fault and there is nothing you can do about it. Vap writes, at what seems to be the end of the book, “Tomorrow, I think, I just won’t try again.” These words read, at first, as a resignation to this logic, as a final defeat. Because if writing is self-indulgence, if writing is a useless act in a world collapsing around us, then the only logical—the only moral—thing to do is to stop writing.
The book does not end with these words, though. In the epilogue, Vap sets the scene for the reader one last time. She is at her desk. It is a dark winter morning—“the fire is burning, there is a cup of coffee in front of me, I am having a thought: I am happy.” Thus, the book ends.
There is perhaps nothing more perverse in our time than to admit to happiness. But it is essential that we find it, because despair cannot fuel revolution. Happiness, as a kind of hope, can do just that. Batuman ends her essay with a similarly buoying injunction: “Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things . . . write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.” Winter is, ultimately, the rare book that can take up writerly guilt as its subject and achieve not just dignity, but happiness.
Ian Maxton is a communist writer and critic. He is an associate editor at Passages North and a contributor at Spectrum Culture. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Protean, and Cease, Cows.
June 25, 2020 § 11 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore will be offering a one-hour webinar next week, titled The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay, as part of Creative Nonfiction‘s virtual education program.
The online webinar will examine the craft elements that can transform a memoir or essay from a mere collection of scenes or observations into something powerful, and how writers can create a dynamic, compelling whole greater than the sum of its many parts. The goal, as Langston Hughes writes, is to tell a story that is “older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”
- FIND the power of story and discover how locating your “Invisible Magnetic River” will insure that readers stay engaged and curious from beginning to end.
- LEARN how story can help to solve many of the frustrations and obstacles that can interfere with both writing and revision.
- DISTINGUISH between a chain of events and a compelling story that contains a dynamic emotional flow.
- UNDERSTAND that the surest way to make your book or essay one that readers want to read–and, in that way, one that editors want to publish–is to tell a damn good story.
Writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process, are welcome.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
2 pm – 3:15 pm EDT
Advance registration required. REGISTER HERE.
About the instructor: Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoir Between Panic & Desire and the writing guides The Story Cure and Crafting the Personal Essay, among many other books. He has published essays and stories in the Georgia Review, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He is founding editor of Brevity, the journal of flash nonfiction, and teaches master classes and workshops across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, and Mexico.
June 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Victoria Buitron
In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Adriana Páramo a mentor and friend, who I met as a student while attending the MFA program at Fairfield University. Now that this is out of the way, I must admit that her most recent memoir, Unsent Letters to My Mother, has been one of the few quarantine gifts I’ve received while bound to my home. Like Páramo’s previous books, My Mother’s Funeral and Looking for Esperanza, I identified with the underlying feminist themes, how the sentences are cloaked with a sensual tone, and the way facets of home are continuously explored. All of this, of course, has some Spanish sprinkled in to remind us where the writer hails from.
Páramo, born in Colombia, begins her story in the mid-1990s as she and her husband depart from Alaska to Kuwait. We follow her journey in a stifling hot country, as she struggles to fit in among the American and British expats, and falls in love with a man who isn’t her husband. Every few chapters a letter is addressed to her mother, confessional in tone, which demonstrates how the narrator reconciles the woman she has become with the woman her mother would like her to be. She writes, “Mami, please don’t judge,” the inherent message those of us have aimed for right before ripping up a revelatory letter to our parents. Maybe some of us hide these letters in a cabinet drawer, a firecracker that will only detonate when read by its recipient, but Páramo inserts them throughout her explosive book while allowing us to remain invested in all facets of the story.
Although the memoir details the disintegration of a marriage, an affair, killing cats, becoming a DJ and a teacher, plus much more, the different threads of the story come together to create one whole and complete canvas. The braided chapters ground the memoir in an exquisite way, and due to the writer’s background in anthropology, the interactions with the women she meets shine and provide intriguing cross-cultural perspectives. There are vivid descriptions of Elena, the English woman whose voice confounds a nation; the feisty and domineering teenage Salma; and the withdrawn Rina, who gives up all she knows in India in search of a better life in Kuwait. Each has to face the challenges of a country founded on patriarchy, where the extreme levels of wealth are contrasted with modern slavery and discussions of honor killings. Páramo recounts their poignant stories, even the devastating event when she finds her maid close to death from a back-alley abortion, and acknowledges how her definition of injustice isn’t universal.
What captivates me most is the narrator’s search for home. Much like Páramo, I left my birth country in South America to work and study in faraway places. I’ve often asked myself, in a city much different from the one I took my first breath in, “Is this my home or just a place I’m living in right now?” Páramo writes:
The word “home” resonated with all its accommodating possibilities: noun, adverb, adjective, verb, but its linguistic elasticity gave me no comfort. Alaska was never home for me, Kuwait was definitely not home, I no longer had a home in Colombia. I was homeless. Sin hogar.
The narrator sees all facets of home collapse. Her life unfurls, and she is faced with grave choices that will shatter some homes but will go on to shape her own.
In this book, Páramo does what many are afraid to do—bare the truth—without embellishing or demanding an exculpation: “I knew that every encounter with my lover was a simple act of pure thievery, that I was stealing time from his wife, from Hunter, from the lives we were committed to.” She delves into her affair with sharp candor while juxtaposing it within the sociocultural backdrop of a country where her actions beget more than mere gossip. Somehow, she does all of this incisively, while weaving in the lives of women who become her sisters. Unsent Letters to My Mother is a memoir with profound layers, but most of all, it’s a love letter addressed to anyone who has had to decide how to lead their most genuine life while eschewing the judgment of others.
Victoria Buitron is a translator and writer based in Connecticut. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Brevity Blog and more. Find her on Twitter @kikitraveler30.
June 22, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Sue Hann
- Respect each other’s privacy. Although someone might be writing about very personal things, this does not mean that you have free rein to ask all about their lives.
‘So spill!’ Faye says to me, seconds after we are introduced. ‘What’s the dirt you’re writing about? I’m going to find it all out anyway, that’s what we’re here for right?’ She laughs at her own joke.
‘Oh, I’m writing about the body,’ I say vaguely, taking a step back, hoping that will suffice. Shouldn’t we at least start off with the weather and how bad the transport links are in this part of town?
- Engage with the text on its own terms, don’t try to suggest how you would have written the piece.
‘I would have written this as a poem,’ Faye says at the first feedback group, flicking through my manuscript of two thousand carefully chosen words, describing the ache of an early miscarriage. I look around the group, hoping someone else will chip in and break her flow. The others look down, unwilling to interrupt Faye. We are all playing at being polite.
‘Yeah, I definitely thought you could have turned that into a poem,’ she nods, agreeing with herself, ‘Cut that right down’.
- Don’t forget that your role is to encourage the writer to write their own story.
‘Hmm,’ she continues, ‘And I’m just not sure if this is universal. Not everyone wants to be a mother?’ Her voice rises in upward inflection. ‘Like, what does this say to men? Or to LGBTQI+?’
I try my best to remain neutral in my face, though my bones are murderous.
‘It’s meant to be a memoir,’ I don’t say. I remain silent. I am following the rules of How to Receive Feedback.
- Pay attention to what is written and what is not. Subtext is important.
‘And this stars thing’ she says, ‘Well, it’s just a bit of a cliche really, isn’t it? Looking at the stars and thinking about your loss?’
Kris is meant to be chairing today, but he says nothing. Slumped on his chair, his face is expressionless, and I have no idea if he is even in the room. Faye is enjoying holding the floor, now that she has her teeth sunk in deep, the taste of blood has invigorated her. The subtext is clear: Faye does not like me. Her feedback is the gun under the table, the knife in the back, the torpedo in the water.
- Remember to point out the parts you like, as well as the parts you think need more work.
‘Yeah, and on that note, I just didn’t think that the grief was portrayed that accurately’.
‘I mean, I thought the emotions weren’t really what you’d expect’.
Apparently, even my own feelings are failing her test. I scan the room, wondering, hoping that someone else might have a different or even constructive opinion.
‘I thought it was incredibly moving actually,’ said Mark. ‘And I’m a man,’ he adds, softening the parry with a smile, as he pushes his trendy glasses up his nose.
- The key to giving constructive feedback is empathy.
Bouyed up by Mark, and taking hold of the gap he created in Faye’s monologue, I try to wrestle the discussion back from Faye: ‘I’d really like to hear some specific feedback on the structure. Did it work for people?’
‘Mmm,’ says Kris, finally coming to life. ‘It’s got to have an arc. It’s got to have some movement’ he says, scrunching his nose, lips dragging downward. ‘We already know that you can’t have kids, from this early chapter, so that’s not much of an arc…’
Wait, did he really just say that? My mind is behind, still emerging from its protective coma brought on by Faye’s kicking.
Kris steeples his hands in front of his face, while looking at the ceiling.
‘Maybe the movement is whether you and your husband stay together?’ he says as if it’s the plot of the BBC soap opera EastEnders that he is talking about, and not my marriage.
The circle of heads turn to look at me. One of them glances at my ring finger.
- Try to end the feedback group on a positive note.
The session ends at last, a merciful release. Faye stands and stretches. ‘That was really fun! I enjoyed that! I can’t wait to submit next week,’ she says. I gather up my things, mumble my thanks to the group for their feedback, while simultaneously thinking that I can’t imagine ever writing another word again. Almost touching my shoulder, hand hovering mid-air, she stage-whispers into my ear ‘Just make it universal, yeah?’
Sue Hann’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in Popshot Quarterly, as well as online journals including Ellipsis Zine and Litro. She lives in London with her partner and a problematic number of books.
June 19, 2020 § 21 Comments
By Melissa Hart
My mother was a professional writer as I am now, and when I was young, she created an office with a thrift store desk and a bookshelf in her garage. She wrote at dawn before my siblings and I woke up, the door thrown open to birdsong and backyard cats, a table lamp illuminating the page tucked into her electric typewriter.
When I woke, I brought her coffee spiked with cinnamon and slipped away to read whatever kids’ novel captivated me at the time. But the details of a writer’s life—the purr of the typewriter in its circle of light, the coffee, breeze blowing in through the door and cats winding around her ankles—made an impression, and I could think of no more fulfilling career to pursue than the creation of stories where there’d been only blankness before.
My mother desperately needed that hour to refresh and heal, to fight off the wild dogs of depression. My father had abused her for years until she fled with her kids to a girlfriend’s house and came out as a lesbian. In 1979, the judicial system regarded homosexuality as mental illness. The divorce judge ordered us to live with our father so we wouldn’t be tainted by our mother’s love for a woman.
Those mornings I brought her coffee and left her alone to write came few and far between; we were only allowed to visit her every other weekend. Her writing represented both financial and emotional survival. For money, she edited a small newspaper and freelanced articles. For solace, she wrote stories at dawn. Some were published, and some weren’t. Publishing wasn’t the point.
This is the part of the writer’s life that has nothing to do with rejection or promotion. It’s not about building platform or networking or attending conferences. This is the part that’s about focus and creation. It’s about donning metaphorical blinders and earplugs in order to concentrate, whether that means waking up before the kids or installing distraction-blocking software or turning a corner of the garage into an office with a desk and a lamp. It’s about respecting yourself and your work enough to provide tools so that both can survive.
I’ve been thinking about my mother and her writing a lot. She passed away a year ago of cancer at age 73, leaving file cabinets of rough drafts, magazine articles, the murder mystery she’d published in her sixties. Her other love was psychology; a PhD scholar, she knew the necessity of developing a habit and a reward system as a writer.
Every day for 39 years, she showed up at the same desk at dawn. The electric typewriter gave way to a word processor, and then a PC. Cats died, and she adopted new ones to wind around her ankles. She sold one house and bought another. Regardless, she woke up and sat down with her cup of coffee and honored her need for solitude and story.
A similar hour has sustained me for decades, as well–as a teen spending nights at a friend’s house after police showed up at my father’s door to cite him for domestic disturbance, through my tumultuous first marriage and my own cancer diagnosis, and last year, the death of the woman most important to me in the world.
My mother was also a runner, as I am now. At a certain point in a workout—Mile Six for me—there’s euphoria, the “runner’s high.” It’s an endorphin flood, a feeling of well-being, a sense that everything in that moment is aligned and joyful no matter what’s happening in the world. That’s the feeling I chase as a writer, as well–a sense of being in the zone, of breathing in contentment for an hour in the midst of chaos.
In the midst of pandemic, of heat waves and police brutality and job insecurity, I’ve been up early each morning to write. My daughter, home from middle school, wakes up later and pads barefoot to my backyard office. I watch her beautiful brown eyes absorb my thrift store desk, sunlight streaming through the open window, the cat curled beside my computer.
I hope I’m showing her what resiliency looks like. She’s been struggling with her history as an infant relinquished by her biological mother and adopted from foster care. As a Black biracial teen, she’s been grappling with news stories, and also with the loss of friends, of teachers, and her dance studio.
This morning, I left my office to help her with algebra, and found her on the couch, laptop open and brow furrowed as her hunt-and-peck fingers found the keys.
“What are you working on?” I asked her, anticipated Spanish verbs or emails to friends.
She looked up, eyes misty with concentration and calm, focused joy. And then she said the words that let me know that she would be okay in this unpredictable and tumultuous and brutally unfair world.
“I’m writing a story,” she said.
Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). www.melissahart.com
June 18, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Shiv Dutta
For years, like Steve Jobs, I looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I still want to do what I am about to do today?” And when the answer was ‘No’ for far too many days, I knew I had to change something. So, in 2013, I asked myself the same questions that had held me back from pursuing a full-time literary life since my adolescence: Am I financially solvent enough to support myself for the rest of my life? Yes. Does anyone depend on me financially? No. Would a full-time literary life keep me sufficiently engaged? Yes. Would I enjoy such a life? Yes. Armed with these reassuring answers, in January of that year, I bade farewell to a life of physics, computers and corporate world that had sustained me and my family for so many years.
At the time I parted with my job, I was close to retirement. That I was setting a new goal rather late in life was of no concern to me. All my life I held the belief that one was never too old to have a new beginning. I took to heart George Eliot’s advice: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” More importantly, I didn’t want to find myself in a situation years later when I’d suddenly realize I didn’t have much time left to do the things I wanted to do and feel sorry for myself.
I had a vague idea about what it was that I wanted to write about. I remembered what Flannery O’Connor had famously said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And I believed it. I could write on myriad of topics—essays based on the sciences, commentaries on current events, short stories etc—but I really wanted to write about my journey at a very young age, almost penniless, from an obscure small town in India to an alien culture in the late sixties for a PhD in nuclear physics. I wanted to write about my subsequent decision to settle in a foreign land as a new immigrant, far from the folks I grew up with, and what impact it had on me, and on the family I left behind.
While I wrote and published a few stories and poems during my high school years and some political commentaries during my college days, I never really had a serious training in the literary arts. But I read voraciously: Maugham, Hemingway, Lawrence, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Wodehouse, and any other writer I could find a book by in the local library.
My literary training began in earnest five years before I quit my job. I devoured books on literary crafts like a glutton. I attended many writing classes, workshops, and writers’ conferences where I had the privilege of meeting and making friends with many writers. We discussed and debated the tips, tricks and techniques of good writing. From them I learned their first hand experiences of what a writing life was like.
Above my writing desk up against the wall, I posted two quotes to keep me grounded: “Perfectionism is the enemy of creation. – John Updike” and “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett.” With these two quotes as my guide posts as well as talisman, I started writing personal essays and submitted them to literary magazines. The rejections started coming. I didn’t give a damn. I wasn’t discouraged because I was in it for the long haul. I persisted, and the persistence paid off. Soon, along with the deluge of rejections, acceptances started coming in dribs and drabs, some of them from magazines and journals of some repute. I felt inspired and encouraged and continued writing.
It has been exciting since I turned to full-time writing. I am currently working on my memoirs which will contain many of my published personal essays. I wrote these essays because I wasn’t willing to agonize over untold stories tearing me apart inside. I didn’t want these stories to be forgotten and lost either. Many of these stories are family stories, and I wrote them because, as Lee Martin says, silence wasn’t an option. I didn’t know any other way to get them out of me. They are my stories. I owned them, and I alone could write about them. There have been moments during the writing of some of these stories when I felt they saved me. I wrote many of them when I couldn’t speak. By writing them, I wanted to live my life once more. I wanted to find out who I was growing up, who I am now, and who I want to be going forward. Does anybody care about these stories? Who cares? Paraphrasing Abigail Thomas I say, “I care!”
Should my memoirs remain unfinished for any reason, I can still say it has been a fascinating ride, this literary life. I made so many writer friends and earned their love and encouragement. They accepted me as a member of the community of my tribes. My mentors, echoing Albert Schweitzer, I gratefully say, “At times when my own light went out, it was rekindled by a spark from them.” With my published essays, I’m already leaving something behind for posterity to remember me by. I wouldn’t just be dead, gone and forgotten.
Shiv Dutta’s publications have appeared in several magazines including Tampa Review, Under the Sun, Tin House, Hippocampus Magazine, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage, Connotation Press, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Eclectica Magazine. He has also produced 45 technical papers and co-authored two technical books. Two of his personal essays were nominated for Pushcart Prize. He is currently writing his memoirs. When not engaged in literary pursuits, Shiv spends way too much time on CNN and Facebook.
June 17, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Mimi Jones Hedwig
When I was working as an editorial assistant in my first job at Viking Press, an eminent book publisher, one of my tasks was to handle the slush pile – the unsolicited manuscripts that arrived as actual pages, wrapped in brown paper and twine, in those quaint days before the personal computer. It was so certain that they would be rejected that I was expected not even to read them.
But I was curious and idealistic. Day after day I would browse the pages of the manuscripts that weren’t obviously amateurish or deranged, hoping for that electric surge up my spine that compelled me to keep reading.
It took two full years for that to happen. One day in 1976 I opened a package and began reading, and, unable to stop, brought the book home with me that night, and the next day gave it to my supervising editor and said, “You have to read this.” The book, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, was the first manuscript to be published from Viking’s slush pile in twenty-seven years and became a blockbuster bestseller and a multiple Academy Award-winning movie, Robert Redford’s directorial debut.
But during the two years leading up to that happy discovery, after a few minutes’ perusal I would pack each manuscript up for mailing back to the author, including an ivory colored card printed with the publisher’s colophon and the brief message: “The Viking Press thanks you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We regret that it is not quite suited to our present needs. With best wishes, The Editors.”
If the author had not included return postage, the archaic courtesy that still prevailed back then required that I type up an envelope and send the rejection slip that way. Even that neutrally polite form letter sometimes provoked wrathful reactions; once I opened a letter to find the rejection card inside, smeared with some suspicious brown matter and the scrawled words: “Take a taste of your own sweet medicine.”
Nevertheless, authors knew at least that their manuscripts had been received, opened, and seen by someone. They were given the respect of a response and could cling to the hope that their work might “suit another publisher’s present needs.”
Publishing has changed greatly since then. There is no longer any hope for an author of being plucked from the slush pile of a major or midsize publisher; these companies do not consider or respond to unsolicited manuscripts, but rely on literary agents to be the gatekeepers. Thus, agents are besieged by hopeful authors. Now that computers have taken much of the toil and expense out of producing a book-length manuscript – no more typing, white-out or correction tape, retyping, photocopying, packing up, and mailing – everyone can relatively easily act on their certainty that they have a story or a theory or a self-help formula that the world is waiting for.
Most of the time the only way to present your work to an agent is a one page query letter, sometimes with a permissible inclusion of a few pages of the manuscript. Agents get hundreds of these letters each week – and somewhere along the line many of them, out of self-defense, adopted the policy of “no reply means rejection.” In other words, in response to their submissions most writers can expect to experience complete, invalidating silence.
The frustration of the querying process drives many people to writers’ conferences where, for an extra fee over and above the conference registration cost, they can meet one on one with agents to make a ten-minute case for their projects. Many authors line up sessions with as many agents as their budget and schedule will permit. If the agent is interested in your description (or, possibly, if he or she wants to avoid the awkwardness of declining the project on the spot), you will be invited to submit some or all of your book.
Filled with hope, you rush home and send each agent what they have requested, in the various forms they require. And then, you wait. And as the waiting goes on into the months, you begin to suspect that you have been – in the current parlance – ghosted, that is, treated as if you and your project were a mere waft of vapor dissipating into the chill mist of utter oblivion.
I think a lot of writers get disheartened, both by the submission process and the new requirement that they come to an agent with an established, robust social media following and a body of short work published in periodicals ranging from the obscure to the major. Also, with our vivid, writerly imaginations, we may speculate that the reasons behind those mute dismissals or pro forma responses are all the criticisms and deprecations that, in our worst moments, we level at ourselves and our work.
The end result of all this is that we may begin to doubt that there’s any point in trying to get published, or, perhaps, continuing to write at all. In effect, we reject ourselves.
Here are the steps I have resolved to take to avoid engineering my own failure and becoming one of the literary ghosts doomed to hover forever on the outside of the publishing world, looking in with haunted, yearning eyes:
- Write daily, always probing for what moves or excites or holds risk, my own truth, the kinds of stories I want to read.
- Seek every day to renew my passion for the process, because I believe that is the writer’s best and surest reward, no matter how little or much worldly success we achieve.
- Repel the sense of futility that discourages me from beginning a new writing project, knowing the huge amount of work it will require and the likelihood of rejection.
- Formulate a publishing strategy: for me, now, a tiered process, starting with querying every agent who handles the genres I’m writing in; moving on, if necessary, to independent publishers who don’t require agents or monetary contributions by the author; and, if no success with those, considering a financial partnership with a carefully vetted hybrid publisher.
- Compartmentalize this process as if, when undertaking it, I commute to a separate room, a bright, efficient, and emotion-free office that is not even in the same building as the sanctuary (solitary, hushed, low lit, mysterious) that shelters and nurtures my creative work.
- Believe in the possibility that someday my work will come before a curious, idealistic publishing professional — who, scrolling through my pages, will sit up straighter at the electric surge that compels them to keep reading and then to tell someone else, “You have to read this!”
After three decades as an editor at Viking Press and Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines, Mimi Jones Hedwig is working full-time on four novels and a memoir.