June 14, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Jodie Sadowsky
“El titulo è Panic at the Bus Stop.” The professore, a balding painter in black jeans, handed out sketchpads and pencils and watercolors.
My heart fluttered with panic at the art studio. I peeked at my classmates deftly sketching in the dusty classroom in Florence a few cobblestoned streets from the Duomo.
In keeping with the assignment, the out of proportion, Picasso-like passengers I created were unnerving. Thankfully, they were waiting for the bus, so I didn’t have to draw an actual bus.
I slid through that first week, relieved I hadn’t been found out as a complete novice. I dreaded every Thursday, comfortable only during lunch, which I spent with an oily hunk of focaccia. For our independent project, my flatmate sketched stills to stitch together for an animated short of the crucifixion. I picked something more practical: creating a logo for the city’s first Jewish deli. Late one afternoon, the professore leaned over my page, sighed at the cartoonish bagel boy holding a “Ciao! Bagel” banner, then erased everything between the rounds. He hastily redrew the eyes, mouth and hands I’d spent all day fashioning and I mumbled an embarrassed grazie.
By the end of the term, I settled on this: I was creative, but not artistic. So what? I thought, I can’t draw. I was smart and had good ideas. A year later, I headed to law school, a not-so-creative place where lots of people who like to read and write and think end up.
Now, after twenty years of lawyering and many mommy-and-me art classes later, I’m trying to write and publish for the first time. I’m haunted by my old view of myself as someone who is not artistic, and I’m terrified it’s true.
In writing workshops, I learned about “pitching” the idea of an essay, selling the notion of a piece instead of the work itself. This seems easier to learn—and teach—than the craft of essay writing. It’s an art form with a formula: lead with a catchy or timely headline, compliment the editor’s work or the publication, keep it short and get to the heart of the story.
Sometimes, the formula works. Still, as soon as I celebrate having a pitch accepted, the insecurity takes over. What have I promised? Have I shared a vision for something I can’t possibly pull off? I begin writing, with two rivers surging: one, a happy endorphin stream that celebrates the acceptance (“I’ve got this, it’s working. I’d doing IT!”) alongside a powerful stream of self-doubt (“I’ve fooled them. I’ve sold something I can’t deliver. I’ll be found it.”)
The drafts I’ve held onto the longest, the pieces I’m not submitting or even pitching, are about the ultimate imposter in my life. My biological father played the part of being my dad until I was six. He built a swing set in our backyard, set up a darkroom to print stunning black and white photographs of my sister and me and developed a hilarious repertoire of Sesame Street character impressions for bedtime stories. Then, diagnosed as a sociopath and mixed up with drugs and affairs and bad business dealings, he walked away without looking back. I know his leaving was about him, not me, and that my life turned out beautiful without him, but there’s an ugly undercurrent that doesn’t wane: I wasn’t enough.
After one essay I wrote was approved on a pitch, it took three months of slow correspondence and several rounds of edits to publish, each pause opening space for me to question my worth. The day the piece published I couldn’t look at it. I was certain I must have bamboozled the editor, that she felt bad I’d tried so hard and buried it on the website somewhere as a bit of charity. But there it was, under the Personal Essay banner, with a custom illustration to match. And there it was in the newsletter and on social media.
Soon, I shared it too. Writing—and putting my work out there—is an act of fortifying myself. I’m building a dam against those negative thoughts. I notice them, and given the endless articles a new writer can read on imposter syndrome (I liked this and this), I’m beginning to accept that this insecurity may never dissipate. I work through the edits (and the panic), opening myself to critique, to tracked changes and the abrasive rub of erasers. I’ve given up charcoal and watercolor, but I’m painting my thoughts into words, revealing myself, hoping each time that they are enough, and on my way to believing that finally, I’m enough.
Jodie Sadowsky lives in Connecticut with her high school prom-date husband and their three children. Jodie’s writing centers around her life’s biggest roles–daughter, sister, mother, partner, friend. Some of her work has been published online at The Kitchn, Tablet, and Cottage Life Magazine; the rest exists on her laptop, her notebooks and in her head. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
June 13, 2022 § 26 Comments
By Cathy Shields
Forty years ago, while taking a college course in children’s literature, I set out to write a children’s book. But my career as an elementary school teacher interfered, and my publishing dreams evaporated. When I became a mother of a child with a disability, the next twenty years blurred the boundaries between order and chaos.
By the time I took another creative writing class, my children were teenagers, and I was in my late forties. The teacher wielded his pen like a sword, a grizzled old guy who yelled at students when they couldn’t explain where to place a comma in a sentence. Still, he walked around the room cajoling us with, ‘write what you know.’ I wrote about my chaotic life. The idea for my book jelled with a theme which revolved around raising a child with disabilities.
I joined writing groups to help develop my skills; I learned about first, second, and third persons; first, second and third drafts, how to identify weak verbs, how to self-edit, how to revise, and the differences between passive and active voice. Fast forward another two years. I attended my first writing conference, ready to query my manuscript. I met an editor who taught the craft of memoir. After I described my book, she told me the next step should be a developmental edit.
I did not yet understand what an editor could do and, unwilling to make the financial commitment, I relied on my writing groups and scores of beta readers for feedback on whether my book was ready before I began researching agents. Responses bounced between form rejections and silence. After fifty queries, I got one request for a full manuscript and within two weeks, a rejection.
Would I ever get my book published? I thought my story about how I faced an internal struggle to accept my child with intellectual disabilities, had universal interest. The theme: learning acceptance. I had fought my child’s diagnoses until I gradually came to the realization that my daughter did not need to change, I did. Perhaps I had revised the story so many times that I had become shortsighted. Maybe it was time to find an editor.
The one I found appreciated the story I was trying to tell, and with her help, I revised and sent out a new round of queries. A well-known press showed interest; I had a request for the full manuscript. I am still astounded that I emailed them to get more insight into the rejection.
Too much reporting about doctors and specialists.
I sought out a new editor. This time I asked writer friends for recommendations. The person I chose, Monica, taught creative writing at a university and had published a memoir about a difficult subject, the imminent death of her baby. Although her editing wouldn’t guarantee I’d get my book published, I believed her insight could add a new perspective to the narrative arc of my story.
Two weeks later, I received the revised manuscript. The sculpting almost made me cry. The opening scene disappeared; the one everyone told me had to remain for my hook, the one where the doctor labels my child profoundly retarded.
In her editorial notes, she wrote: Don’t give the whole story away in the first chapter.
She moved scenes and pointed out where I needed to build scenes or add dialogue, but she hadn’t twisted my voice into her own words. What she had done was fiddle with structure. That’s when I finally understood the power of a good editor. Monica was the surgeon, I, the intern. She taught me what to cut away to repair and restructure.
I sent out the newly edited version in my next batch of queries, surprised when I received multiple requests for the full-length manuscript. None of this would have happened without my writing community, the previous editors, my beta readers, and the editor with eagle eyes. Last week, I signed a contract to have my memoir, The Shape of Normal, published with Vine Leaves Press. The book will be out in the fall of 2023.
Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir THE SHAPE OF NORMAL A Mother’s Journey from Disbelief to Acceptance, (Vine Leaves Press 2023), Catherine explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her stories have appeared in Mother Magazine, 50 Give or Take, Kaleidoscope, Uncomfortable Revolution, Write City, and Manifest-Station, and her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. She resides in Miami, Florida with her husband who she’s been married to forever. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking in Biscayne Bay. She blogs at www.cathyshieldswriter.com or you can follow her on Instagram @cathyshieldswriter.
June 10, 2022 § 24 Comments
By Kelsey Francis
As a writer living in a 100-year-old house with too many windows and not enough insulation, I’ve gotten used to wrapping myself in fleece and wearing a wool hat at my writing desk. In the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, the temperatures frequently plummet to below zero for months, and you learn to drive on snow packed roads for half the year. As such, we talk a lot about the weather with neighbors and friends and those conversations often lead to an important question: what kind of heat do you use?
We began heating our house with a woodstove in 2006. I was newly pregnant and we worried about the rising cost of heating oil. So, we ordered a truckload of firewood and watched it dumped on our front yard during a steady October rain. So began my relationship with stacking wood.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the various species of wood and the best way to build a fire in the woodstove on a cold January morning. But the most important lesson of firewood is that the drier the wood the more efficient the fire. And the way to ensure dry wood is to stack it in the spring, so it has plenty of time to “season” before you need to start burning it in the fall.
In my now 15 years of wood stacking, I’ve discovered an unlikely connection between the logs and my writing. I began to find the repetitive nature of lifting each piece of wood from the wheelbarrow and figuring out how to position it on the pile required a physical focus, but also allowed my mind to wander. I could think about a new idea for an essay or work out a conclusion in a short story that had been giving me trouble. I could occupy a writing space in my head, while my body moved. It was different from going for a walk or run or my commute to work. Using my arms to lift pieces of wood and then using my hands to position those pieces, so that they “fit” became an exercise in prewriting. Whole stories were taking shape in my head. Dialogue. Motivations. Background. The smell of a hospital room. The itch from the neck of a wool sweater.
And it wasn’t just the ideas that seemed to come while stacking. I began to see that the stacking itself had a lot in common with the actual writing. Building piles of maple, birch, ash, and poplar was like building sentences and paragraphs in a story. Different species of wood had different textures and weight, just as the weight and texture of a sentence can vary–in length, in structure, in word choice, in function.
I knew this sounded strange to my friends and family: You actually like stacking wood? they would ask.
Yes, I do. I get to write while I stack! I would reply.
Stacking wood has become a form of writing meditation for me. Better than any other activity I’ve tried to release writer’s block. It’s both calming and productive. Yes, it leaves me tired and with an achy back, but no more so than sitting at my desk pounding away at a keyboard only to abandon a new piece in frustration. Stacking firewood has become my annual personalized DIY craft of writing pep talk.
I now eagerly look forward to our springtime firewood deliveries because firewood means stacking and stacking means both a break from the long, dark Adirondack winter and a breakthrough in my long, dark winter writing slump.
Kelsey Francis’s work has appeared in Porcupine Literary, HAD, Twin Pies Literary, The Washington Post, Adirondack Life Magazine, and the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, among others. She lives, teaches high school English, and writes in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. She can be found on Twitter @ADK_Kelsey
June 9, 2022 § 11 Comments
Memoirists have it rough. Be a great writer. Tell a compelling story. But first, shake your tail on TikTok until a million people know who you are!
I’ve written before about how platform isn’t social media—social media is an amplifier for messages you’re already sharing in other venues, and a way to stay casually in touch with your audience and your literary community. I divide platform into two categories:
- Audience grown from the author’s entire life’s work and career, in which the book is a logical next step conveying their existing mission to the world.
- Audience created to support a forthcoming book, built from more intense work over a shorter time
Ideally, both kind of platforms build on what you already love to do and have spent your life caring about. But you don’t actually need any platform at all. Memoirs can sell with very little public presence: perhaps a few essays establishing the author’s public affiliation with the topic; an awareness of where the audience for that topic exists and how the book can reach them before and after publication; just enough social media that the author understands how to use it when the time comes to amplify their messages around the topic.
The key word here is topic.
A memoir exclusively focused on a personal story is almost impossible to sell—to an agent, to a publisher, to the reading public—without either an enormous public platform, existing connections in publishing, and/or National-Book-Award-level prose. Sorry. That’s the breaks. Work on your writing, figure out the reader takeaway, query small presses, consider self-publishing.
But a memoir centering a topic—an issue percolating through the zeitgeist; a closer look at a past cultural moment; something wrong with society that you personally experienced and impacts a lot of other people—is much more likely to gain the support of a traditional publisher.
In a topic-centered memoir, you’re not just the narrator—you’re a witness.
Your story is still important, but in the larger sense, it’s not about you. It’s about the reader, and a larger issue they’re already fascinated by, or that it’s important for them to become fascinated by, as told by someone with personal experience. Your story weaves in and through the topic, paired with research, interviews or anecdotes, with thoughtful commentary, and importance beyond your level (or lack of) personal fame.
Unlikely to sell: This dead person meant a lot to me and gosh it took a lot to move on with my life.
More likely to sell: Planning for death in a climate-crisis world.
Unlikely to sell: I tried to kill myself and recovery was financially incredibly hard.
Unlikely to sell: I survived a violent crime.
More likely to sell: How our nation handles this particular violent crime is deeply wrong.
Each of the selling authors is not just the narrator, but a lens on a larger cultural concern. Their story is an example of why we should care, or an illustration of how we could handle our own situation. Not just what happened, but why it matters.
What does writing a topic-centered memoir look like before and during the writing process?
Brian Watson recently wrote about starting out with hybrid intentions but generating a personal-story focused draft:
My outline followed a unique format—one I know now is called hybrid memoir. I wanted to intersperse the things that I experienced with some thoughts about the culture as it shifted around me. There was data on the number of AIDS cases and fatalities swelled in the US. I could describe how Japan’s gay community evolved in the years before the Internet. And so much more.
When I started writing in September, however, the memoir—its original title, I Should Be Dead By Now, was grim—almost wrote itself. My first draft, completed on the last day of 2020, set most of the interspersions aside. The exorcising of memory consumed me to the tune of nearly 110,000 words.
But early readers (including me!) loved his now-few digressions on the history of gay porn, Japanese culture, and coming out in the 1980s. Watson set out to revise his entire draft, even though it felt like an enormous undertaking:
The research might have struck me as too much work when the actual, coherent transcribing of my memories was already a lot of work. Or I might have worried that those cultural backgrounds and deep-dives would bore readers.
Will it sell? We’ll find out soon (go Brian!). But many agents and editors I’ve spoken to agree: it’s much easier right now to sell a memoir with a larger cultural focus, one that illuminates something we’re all thinking about right now—or should be.
Ask yourself, how does my story reflect an important moment in our history or a problem we should all be aware of? How are my experiences reflected in and reflective of my culture, and how should that culture change? What will I need to research or investigate to support my point of view about this topic?
Traditional publishing is far from your only viable path. Maybe the memoir you personally feel called to write centers entirely on your own story. Maybe you already write National-Book-Award-level prose, or have 8M followers on TikTok (go you!). But if what you really want is to traditionally publish, to see your book in the wider world, and to reach more readers who need your words, it’s time to explore—and write!—how your story speaks to culture.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Struggling with getting your book into the world? Tired of form rejections? Join her and publishing expert Jane Friedman for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected—a sharp, honest look at what your concept, query and first pages need to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Webinar June 23 (yes, there’s a replay!). More info/register here.
June 8, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Katherine Arnup
I write in bars.
Not just any bar will do. Fancy places seem to think my presence will discourage business, as if suddenly an army of students will invade the bar to do their homework. There, waitresses bring my bill too quickly, trying to give me what my father would call “the bum’s rush.” Sleazy bars with lecherous men are equally bad.
Buffalo Charlie’s was my first regular bar in Ottawa. It was conveniently located in the same mall as the grocery store, liquor store, drug store, and stationers, the only places a working mother needs to shop. There was plenty of free parking and a good selection of dry California wines.
One side of Buffalo’s was a family restaurant that seated well over a hundred people. The tables were covered with brown paper, and every table had a glass mug of crayons for drawing. The waiter would introduce himself by writing his name what was for him backwards and upside down. Then he would bring a bowl of Buffalo chips for snacking. The menu was huge, impossible to get through, and the food, generally tasty. I often took my children there, especially for birthdays because the birthday girl gets to eat for free.
The bar was on the other side of the restaurant. Families almost never ventured there. At either end was a barrel filled with roasted peanuts. Customers scooped them up by the handful and took them to their table or their seat at the bar. The floor was dangerously slippery from the shells customers would shovel off their tables. When I first started drinking there, I would gather my shells on a small plate, trying not to make a mess. One day, when the waiter brought my bill, he took my plate and threw all the shells on the floor. “We clean up later. It’s just easier this way.” After that, I started throwing my shells on the floor too, though it never felt quite right.
I never sat at the bar. I chose a high-top table with a twirling, hard-backed bar stool. I would put my writing materials – a journal, my writing pad, my reading glasses and pen out on my table, leaving room for the glass of wine and tall glass of ice water. The music blasted and TVs blared from all four corners of the room. The noise never bothered me. You see, it wasn’t my noise. More importantly, I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. Not my children (at least not until 6 pm), not the faculty members in the university department I chaired, not the students begging for a re-evaluation of their grades. I was only responsible for writing, and for getting home at a reasonable hour with the chicken for dinner.
Most nights this worked out just fine.
One day, however, one of the regulars, a man who always wore a green John Deere baseball cap stained with grease from his straggling hair, decided it was time to pay attention to me. At first, I didn’t realize that’s what was happening. I felt something strike my leg, but, deep in my writing, I ignored it. When something struck my arm, I looked up in time to see John Deere preparing to throw another peanut at me. A peanut, I thought. Is he really throwing peanuts at me? What does he expect me to do?
As he prepared to hurl his fourth love object, I stared straight at him. “Don’t you dare throw that,” I said in what my children call my teacher voice.
“Huh?” he said, looking at me from under the brim of his hat.
“Don’t throw peanuts at me. Ever again.”
“Oh,” he said, turning back to his beer.
I have had many encounters in bars. Men have pulled a stool up to my table, and, failing to see the invisible shield that surrounds me, they’ve tried to strike up a conversation. Sometimes they buy me a drink without asking my permission. But no one has ever thrown something at me. Certainly not a peanut, as if I were a trained elephant.
The next time I ventured into Buffalo’s, John Deere approached me. He’d been sitting at the bar, as he always did, and he slipped off his seat to come over to my table.
“I think I offended you the other day,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “You did.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Uh huh,” I said, turning back to my writing. I knew well enough not to encourage the conversation for one more second. I wanted to scream, “What were you THINKING? Do you usually find that peanuts are a real turn on? Has that worked for you before?” But I just kept writing, as he slunk back to his spot at the bar and nuzzled up to his beer.
Katherine Arnup is a writer, retired professor, and singer living in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of the award-winning book, Education for Motherhood and editor of Lesbian Parenting: Living with Pride and Prejudice. Her most recent book, “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for your Parents and Yourself, is a hybrid of memoir, research, and helpful advice on accompanying the people we love at the end of their lives. She has received residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. She loves walks by the river near her house, hanging out with her grandchildren, and playing her ukulele.
June 7, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
We may risk being disappointed by meeting someone we admire, but if that someone inspired us to become who we are now, don’t they merit a closer look no matter what we’ll find?
This was my thinking after Joan Didion died. She was among a small handful of women writers who inspired me to study personal narratives. Like Joan, I began my writing career as a journalist and was drawn to the ‘I’ after writing a monthly newspaper column that ultimately became an essay collection. In my essay and memoir writing workshops, I always include at least one Didion essay on our reading list—oh the many ways readers respond to “Goodbye to All That”!
But with her death, I felt she deserved a deeper dive.
So I took the plunge.
I’ve been rereading her essays, devouring what’s been written about her, rewatched “The Center Will Not Hold,” and revisited her interviews.
Didion was an innovator. In the 1960s, she boldly brought herself into her reporting in what was later dubbed the new journalism movement along with Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer. The idea was to let readers know who was guiding them and where the writer’s lens was located. She was an early adopter of flash cuts and quick scene changes separated by white space in what would become known as a collage structure. Didion was known for punctuating her prose with a great many proper nouns and observing her subject (s) without joining them.
In “Goodbye to All That,” she writes
To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has always spent several hundred Saturdays at F.A.O. Schwarz being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live.
She was also a stylist. In “Why I Write,” she wrote, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” In that same essay, she added, “…images do shimmer for me.”
In the opening of the Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion shimmers indeed:
The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.
In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller points out her mastery in that passage:
There’s the entwining of sensuous and ominous images. And there’s the fine, tight verbal detail work: the vowel suspensions (“ways an alien place”), the ricocheting consonants (“harsher . . . haunted . . . Mojave”), the softly anagrammatic games of sound (“subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies”). Didion worked hard at her sentences, and no magazine journalist has done better than her best. But style is just the baseline of good writing. Didion’s innovation was something else.
As for what she did it all for, she famously wrote that she writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” And she has been—and will likely continue to be—imitated for decades.
But digging around into her work and life also reveals contradictions.
Didion confessed in interviews that though she saw herself as an outside observer much of the time, she didn’t always understand what she was seeing. Her essays have been critiqued for leaving the reader without a sense of the meaning of what she was reporting.
There was also finger wagging at her inspiring young reporters to do less reporting and more opining. But at the same time, she was lauded for allowing the vulnerability of the writer to be more transparent.
Some have called her work romantic individualism. Others say she held an unsentimental gaze.
So, you might ask: What is the merit in taking apart the work of a beloved writer?
The value is in acknowledging that our writerly heroes are not larger-than-life, cardboard cutouts. Didion was a human being with a pen in her hand whose “most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.”
As it turned out, my deep dive into Didion’s words did not disappoint. Her voice on the page was authentic.
Besides her body of work and the beauty of her craft, there’s much to learn from Didion’s journey away from words, too. She brought her life, her own baggage, to the page, a reminder that in spite of her literary status, she was made of flesh and bone.
Ellen Blum Barish will be teaching a virtual one-day workshop on “Deconstructing Didion” at Story Studio Chicago on June 29.
Ellen Blum Barish’s essays have been published in Tablet, Lilith, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio.. Her memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) was published in 2021 and she is author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.
June 6, 2022 § 21 Comments
By Victoria Lynn Smith
A couple of weeks ago, within twenty-four hours, both Stephen King and my mom told me I needed an office for writing. I decided if Mom and Mr. King agreed about something, I needed to listen.
Of course, Mr. King was talking to me from the pages of his book On Writing. He advised me (okay, he was talking to all writers) to have a space of my own with a door that closes. He wrote Carrie and Salem’s Lot in the laundry room of a trailer, but there was a door that closed. He never mentions if he ever threw a load of dirty clothes in the washer. I would have washed and dried clothes and written between the cycles.
Then Mom called. I felt too blue to just put a smile in my voice and chitchat about weather and family and the latest movie she had seen. Spurred on by Mr. King urging me to have an office with a door and frustrated by the traffic patterns in my writing space, I was weepy about not having a quiet place of my own to write.
My office space in the living room had worked if I was home alone, but my amygdala had begun to associate it with interruption and chaos. The living room is a thoroughfare from one side of the house to the other. When my husband is home, he likes to stop off and chat as he motors through. My grandkids also play in the living room three days a week. They inhabit the space with toys and voices and nonstop movement. While playing, they chatter with delight and argue with rancor, all of it mall-level noise. So, it didn’t matter if my husband and grandkids weren’t in the house when I tried to write because my brain would anticipate interruption and commotion anyway, leaving me frazzled. Logically, I understood why I was antsy, but it’s not easy to calm down a fired-up amygdala.
Mom suggested I turn the spare bedroom, tucked at the front side of the house, into an office with a pullout couch. “You can take a nap on the couch when you’re tired, and you can use it as a bed when the grandkids sleep over.” I wondered what Mr. King would say about napping in one’s writing office.
I rejected the pullout couch solution, but Mr. King’s and Mom’s advice started me thinking. Over the next several days, I wandered in and out of my two spare bedrooms with a tape measure, sizing up the dimensions of the rooms and the furniture, arriving at a solution. I swapped a desk and dresser and bought a bookcase. For the first few days, I would wander into my new space and stare at it with wonder and love, the way I looked at my children when they were newborns.
It’s not a whole office, but I like it that way. It’s a little cramped, but when I sit at my desk, it feels like a hug, and in a pinch, the bed right behind me serves as a table. Mr. King says a writing office should probably be humble, so my space measures up. I can shut the door, so I’m not interrupted. And when the grandkids visit, they aren’t allowed to play in my room.
My amygdala does yoga. I breathe and write.
Victoria Lynn Smith writes fiction, and creative nonfiction. She lives by Lake Superior, a source of inspiration, happiness, and mystery. Her work has been published by Wisconsin Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television’s Moving Lives, Brevity Blog, Better Than Starbucks, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and several regional journals. To read more: https://writingnearthelake.org/.
June 3, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Mary Kay Jordan Fleming
In THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle, a larva nibbles plants for five days, binges on Day 6, samples a single leaf on Day 7, and emerges from its cocoon two weeks later as a perfectly proportioned butterfly.
The reimagined manuscript features a female caterpillar who eats healthy foods in moderation for five days, commits a minor indiscretion (a single-dip ice cream cone) on Day 6, and then repents, starves, and does CrossFit on Day 7. Two weeks later, the sweaty, bloated insect furiously hacks her way out of the sweltering cocoon, spots her skinny spouse swilling beer and eating his weight in Doritos, and declares all of this “bullshit.” Her head explodes.
In WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak, a rambunctious, wolf-suited youngster is sent to his room where he enjoys a wild romp with imagined monsters.
Retooled for midlife, this story introduces a mature female protagonist who goes to her room only to discover the “wild thing” in the mirror is her own reflection complete with jowls, wrinkled saggy skin, and lots of hair but not where it’s supposed to be. Her spouse joins her but there is no romp because she has been exhausted since her first pregnancy.
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff features the humorous escapade of a small rodent who eats a cookie, requests milk, develops a milk mustache, naps, and needs another cookie.
After a minor plot tweak, readers discover a middle-aged woman who eats a cookie, drinks decaf because menopause has rendered her unable to sleep, and develops a real mustache. She consoles herself by hiding in a closed pantry with an entire sleeve of Thin Mints.
THE GOING TO BED BOOK by Sandra Boynton illustrates the nightly routine of animal characters who bathe, brush their teeth, and rock to sleep on their little boat.
After a light reworking of this plot, readers observe the nighttime routine of a pitiable middle-aged woman in desperate need of sleep. After a quick shower, she moisturizes for an hour using products costing at least $300, assembles sheets and blankets of various weights and materials, and turns the ceiling fan on high, defying anyone to comment it’s “so cold in here I can see my breath.” Between mopping up neck sweat and determining which limbs she must hang outside the covers to achieve a bearable temperature, the heroine opens 37 browser tabs on her phone in search of moisture-wicking pajamas, silk pillowcases, and wrist thermostats that promise to lower her core temperature. She stumbles on the suggestion that last Tuesday’s headache might have been an aneurysm. She never sleeps again.
CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault sees letters of the alphabet crowd to the top of a coconut tree, overwhelm it, and fall to the ground with minor scrapes and bruises.
Retitled Chicka Chicka Doom Gloom, the updated story portrays a beautiful coconut tree ravaged by time. The tree’s only two coconuts hang progressively lower as it ages, especially each year when a radiologic technician climbs the trunk to compress the coconuts almost to the bursting point. The tree dries out, her trunk shortens, and a new ring of fat appears around her middle. The tree drips when exercising, coughing, or sneezing, and threatens to crush the next person who says she is “living her best life.”
THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown showcases a bunny dissuaded from running away after his mother promises to bring him back no matter where he goes or how he disguises himself.
Retitled I’ll Let You Run Away If You Take Your Father with You, the modified plot finds a rebellious teen threatening to spend Spring Break on a party bus to Florida. His exhausted mother pledges not to stand in his way if he takes his father along as “chaperone.” When the teen protests, she explains he can drop off his dad anywhere along the route as long as she gets one quiet week alone in the house.
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO! by Dr. Seuss portrays a fanciful character who overcomes loneliness, temptation, and fear with kindness and optimism—a strategy “ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed” to succeed.
The new version portrays an early-60s character who rids her home of mirrors, cancels magazines that feature Size 0 models, rejects chemical fillers that turn her face to plastic, and declines to dye her hair because she’s good enough as she is. The book identifies several places disagreeable housemates can go, including one destination that would make routine hot flashes feel like air conditioning. 100% guaranteed to succeed.
Mary Kay Jordan Fleming is professor emerita of psychology and a multi-award-winning humorist with publications in McSweeney’s, Next Tribe, Next Avenue, and elsewhere. Find her essays at the pinned posts here: https://www.facebook.com/MaryKayJordanFleming and in several anthologies including Sisters! Bonded by Love and Laughter.
June 2, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick
Interested in strengthening your funny bone?
Whether you want to write a short conceptual humor piece, infuse a serious essay with moments of humor, or just send an impressively funny text, these reliable techniques can get you started.
The Rule of Three
This popular comedic device is based on the idea that words and ideas are funnier in threes. The first two ideas set up a pattern; the third idea deviates from the pattern in a way that surprises and delights the reader. One way to do this is making the first two items in the list relatively serious or straightforward, then breaking the tone with a sillier third item.
From Phoebe Robinson’s Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes:
Being from the Midwest and attending a private Catholic prep school, even though I’m not religious, meant a lot of things—having a sense of humility, caring about the greater good, eating at Wahlburgers more often than I care to admit to…
The silliness and unexpectedness of the third idea are supported by the setup of the first two ideas.
Heightening is critical to humor writing, and especially funny when describing internal thoughts and emotions. Especially when they are embarrassing.
“I’m gonna friend you on Facebook!” I blurted at the back of her red shirt and mom jeans, feeling my bones weaken and my arteries calcifying as I aged forty years in one second.
Did Irby actually age 40 years all at once? Of course not. But the description matches the writer’s feelings in the moment, not her literal physical experience. The hyperbolic description lets the reader experience the cringe factor with Irby—and recall an embarrassing moment of their own.
A lot of writing can be punched up by using specific words and details. Hard consonant sounds are often funnier (eating with a spork is funnier than eating with a spoon) and specific quirky details can often lead to laughs.
In Wow, No Thank You, Irby also writes:
And I hear you — how could a person who still has a blog on Al Gore’s Internet in the year of our Lord 2020 possibly delude herself into thinking that she is notorious enough to be recognized in a mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan?
Just writing “restaurant” wouldn’t have had the same funny specificity as “mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Describing something with a specific detail works well, especially if it paints a funny image in your reader’s mind.
Simile and metaphor are often used in serious writing and those same devices can be used for comedic effect. Funny comparisons can be unexpected or relatable (or both). They can pull a reader into a scene, provide imagery, or reference anything from pop culture to obscure moments in history.
In comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat:
I explained what it was like having a fourth kid very simply: imagine you are drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.
In The New Yorker, humorist David Sedaris describes his sister’s perfume as,
A combination of five different scents, none of which is flowery or particularly sweet, it leaves her smelling like a strange cookie, maybe one with pencil shavings in it.
Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is a gold mine of funny comparisons. She describes her singing voice:
I could hold a tune, but only the way you hold a stranger’s cat: not closely and not long (not to mention the strange yowling noises).
End on a Joke
How many times have you heard “save the best for last”? This is especially true for humor writing. Formatting choices can make a reader skim over a joke or pause to belly laugh. As much as possible, put the best part of the joke at the end of the sentence/paragraph/essay. Building to the funniest part is a great way to engage (and surprise) the reader. And what is humor without surprise?
Author Courtney Maum builds up to a joke in this essay about publishing a first book:
You know that people are entitled to read books you haven’t written because you’ve been reading those other books your entire life…. You’re aware of this. You’re just not sure why your friend’s mommy blog post about perfect gift ideas for 2-year-olds didn’t include a link to your first novel is all.
Analyze Comedic Pieces
Find a piece that you find funny and take a highlighter to it. Examine the spots that make you laugh. What techniques did the writer use? Was there a specific funny word choice or a humorous aside or commentary?
Looking at the underlying techniques in a piece can help you create your own humorous writing. You can also notice these devices in other types of comedy, like stand-up or sitcoms. And we promise—absorbing any kind of humor absolutely counts as writing time.
Julie Vick has written humor for New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Real Simple; and most importantly, one of her tweets once appeared in In Touch Weekly. She is the author of the humorous advice book for introverted parents, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?) and is an English instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Read more of her work at julievick.com
Sarah Garfinkel’s writing has been featured in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus, where she is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column. She has taught writing at Harvard University and Columbia University. She also leads humor writing workshops for teens and adults. Read more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.
June 1, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Patrice Gopo
At my husband’s grandmother’s home in rural Zimbabwe, I watch my toddler marvel at chickens scampering through the yard. The drizzle on our skin, the aromas in the air, the color of the foliage, the bed in the back room, together these images return me to a moment in my history. My mind reaches for hazy memories of a single childhood visit to my grandmother’s home in rural Jamaica.
Two years into my journey as a writer, I am puzzling through an essay. My daughter in rural Zimbabwe. Myself so long ago in rural Jamaica. I have rich scenes of being in Zimbabwe and Jamaica. I also have paragraphs of endless reflection, a desperation to explain why these experiences matter. There are essay attempts falling short, essay attempts I struggle to finish.
Two years into my journey as a writer, I am puzzling through an essay. My daughter in rural Zimbabwe. Myself so long ago in rural Jamaica. I have rich scenes of being in Zimbabwe and Jamaica. I also have paragraphs of endless reflection, a desperation to explain why these experiences matter. There are essay attempts falling short, essay attempts I struggle to finish. Still, the story lingers, waiting for a pathway to emerge.
My daughter sits near a map hung at the eye level of a three-year-old. She points to South Africa and says, “That’s where I was born.” She points to Zimbabwe, her father’s birthplace, and Alaska, my birthplace. Finally, her index finger rests on Jamaica, my parents’ homeland. An essay begins to take shape, an expansive essay covering continents and countries, reaching across decades, weaving together generations past and future. An essay that speaks of love overcoming borders. An essay portraying the loss that exists when people leave their places of origin.
When I submit that essay, I receive a polite rejection. When I ask a friend for feedback, she tells me, “Patrice, this is five essays and not one.” I shelve that project because I think my friend is correct. However, I’m not ready to start over and see what I’ve written as a launching place for something more. An image remains, though: my daughter’s index finger touching a map of the world.
A writing teacher asks the class to write about a memory associated with a bed. I choose my grandmother’s bed where I napped long ago in rural Jamaica. Later I write about my husband’s grandmother’s bed where my daughter napped in rural Zimbabwe. I structure the words in a braided fashion, moving back and forth between each moment.
The final paragraphs of reflection arrive when I sit in the balcony of my church. Words tumble into me, the connective tissue for the essay arriving when, in theory, I should be singing the song lyrics and listening to the sermon. Instead, I listen to the words filling my mind, capturing them as if they were a divine message.
The essay “Before” is not my first piece of flash and certainly not my last. However, writing “Before” unlocks something within me, and I find a writing flow I’ve never experienced in the past. Essay after essay after essay, each encompassing similar themes about race and immigration, place and home. The themes are golden threads linking the work into a much larger story. My friend was correct when she told me my one essay was five essays. Or perhaps she was wrong. My one essay was actually a book of essays.
With my essay collection in the world, “Before” accompanies me to nearly every reading. “My favorite essay,” I explain to each audience as I begin or conclude with images of my daughter napping in rural Zimbabwe and me napping in rural Jamaica.
During a conversation with a few fellow writers, one mentions her forthcoming children’s book. An idea skirts around the edge of my mind, a seed wanting to grow. Could “Before” become a picture book?
A flash essay is not the same as a picture book. Surely, though, they aren’t strangers. Perhaps distant cousins of some sort. Both rely on compression and the weight of each word. Still, there is much for me to learn. This story, though, is asking that I study the craft of writing picture books. This story is asking that I continue to tell it in this new form.
I’m struggling to translate “Before” into a fictional picture book. I’ve already changed the perspective from the mother’s to the child’s. I’ve shed the braided structure. But I need a reason this little girl’s mother talks of naps in other countries. This need is a puzzle without a solution. Until a day arrives when I remember my daughter’s index finger pointing to a map of the world. I give a version of this feature to the little girl in my manuscript. Once, I thought that detail meant for an essay. Instead, it was meant to be reimagined in a picture book.
A UPS envelope arrives on my doorstep. For days, it waits in my office because I know the contents I will find. A book. A picture book. My picture book. An early copy my editor mails to me. And so I wait for a day when the frantic activities slow to calm, and I can sit with my family and unwrap this story of us. Because that is what this book is: moments captured in my memory, emerging into an essay and later transformed into a picture book.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon with my daughters (now plural) near, I slide the book from its package, open the front cover, and read them a story as familiar as a map of the world.
Patrice Gopo is an award-winning essayist. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Catapult, Creative Nonfiction, and Charlotte Magazine. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her debut picture book, All the Places We Call Home, will release in June 2022. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina. Please visit www.patricegopo.com/subscribe to learn more and subscribe to her newsletter.