December 12, 2016 § 1 Comment
It’s time once again for the Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #3 features an interview with Rick Moody on form, function, life coaching and how to handle the part of depression that makes one want to walk in front of a bus, without losing access to one’s creative spirit. We also speak with Athena Dixon, editor-in-chief and founder of Linden Avenue Lit, about where and how to find new voices of color, and the evolution of her writing from R&B fan fic to establishing a strong new literary magazine.
Our episode sponsor is the recorded webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir – useful for authors and editors, and available at Editors Canada (note that the price is in CDN$).
Show Notes: Episode #3 People, Books and Places
Athena’s favorite poem, Euphoria by Major Jackson
Athena’s favorite Another Bad Creation song, Jealous Girl. (The band looks like they’re about 9 years old!)
Crossroads: the story of Robert Johnson and the Devil, on Radiolab
August 18, 2016 § 24 Comments
Last weekend I spoke at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference (round-up post coming!) in Lancaster, PA. It was a fantastic experience full of ideas and inspiration, and I knew I’d want a couple of days to decompress. My next destination was Louisiana, and I took the train.
There is a formal “Amtrak Residency,” where writers are chosen from a pool of applicants to receive a free train trip. I’d considered applying, but the first year there was some dubious language about Amtrak owning copyright in submitted work samples, and last year it seemed like a lot of hoops to jump through for a short residency period. And most of the winners looked either more famous or more social-media-gifted than me. Instead I bought my own trip.
It didn’t start well. I gave up my seat so an older couple could sit together, and went to work in the café car, where I got trainsick while typing and had to stop. The café car closed, and I wandered the length of the train looking for another open seat. Downtown Pittsburgh is no doubt charming before 10PM, but finding a restaurant on a four-hour night layover was tough. The guy next to me in the charmless waiting room spent an hour explaining smart phones to an Amish family, who patiently smiled and nodded while clearly understanding modern technology they were choosing not to use. I felt my bedtime ticking away.
But once on the train to Chicago, tucked up in my “roomette”–basically a bunkbed with just enough room to put on shoes before staggering to the WC in the night–all was forgiven. The rocking of the train really was soothing. The next morning hit the observation car, enjoying huge windows and morning light while working away. Turns out I need to face backward on the train, contrary to all my instincts.
A morning layover in Chicago let me scoot to Walgreens for snacks, and the afternoon-overnight-morning to Texas was gorgeous. There was technically wifi on the train, though I barely used it, and just sitting and thinking was peaceful–I felt meditative watching the world go by. The showers were as clean as a gym’s, and the bedding was comfy. Seating at meals is communal, and I met people who gave me their emails to let them know when my book came out, a lady who’d lived in Istanbul, and a man who was riding every train line across the country as his bucket list. (He recommends the Southwest Chief as the most beautiful route.)
Now, I’m a freelancer with no kids, I live in a country where I don’t have a work permit so I don’t have to hustle back for a job, and my husband is deeply supportive and understanding, so it’s possible for me to say, sure, I’ll randomly take a few more days for myself! which is not everyone’s experience. But if you have a couple of days, consider a self-made mini-residency. You don’t have to pass an application process or bother your references or agonize over which pieces to put in a work sample or guess which dates you’ll be available 18 months from applying. Doing your own can cost less than flying to an established residency.
- Airbnb makes renting an apartment doable just about anywhere. Pick a place that’s unpopular or small and reasonably cheap. I’m planning on Baku, Azerbaijan because for me it’s a short flight; you might try a landlocked town in a state known for beaches, or a college town during spring break, or a farm community, or the “boring” suburbs of an exciting city.
- State parks often have cabins to rent at a reasonable price, and during shoulder season can be easier to get a reservation.
- Bring your own Lysol and rent in one of those seen-better-days mom-and-pop motels along the highway that used to be the main highway before they built the interstate. Bonus points if it’s walking distance from a truck stop. You’ll almost certainly encounter people you can refer to as “denizens” in your essay.
- Ask your friend who has a vacation house if you can use it. Start with “No is a totally OK answer, but I’m looking for a place to do a three-day mini-retreat to write. Would you ever consider…” Leave the place sparkling and drop off a couple of nice bottles of wine or a restaurant gift card.
- Off-seasons in general are usually quiet–a ski resort in September, the less-popular part of Cape Cod after Labor Day (try a ramshackle cottage within walking distance of great chowder in Onset, MA).
- If you have children, see if you can team up with another writer with kids: rent a place for a week. You take the kids for three days, they take them the other three, and in the middle you spend one family day doing something fun all together.
- Stock up on snacks and don’t be shy about eating out–it’s worth it to open up the mental space that would be spent choosing, cooking and cleaning.
I didn’t actually write very many words on the train. But I found some open spaces in my brain that I needed to write when I got home, and it was wonderful to think over what I learned at the conference. 4/5 stars–recommend.
Have you done a self-made residency? Tell us what worked (or didn’t) in the comments!
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better, is now available on Amazon.
July 19, 2016 § 8 Comments
My beloved life coach sent me a link to Shut Up And Write–business consultant Karyn Greenstreet heard about a method for generating work in silent company with other writers, and she’s now (mildly) monetizing it for writers who need to get their work done.
People who had to write their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation would agree to get together on a regular basis, spend a few minutes getting settled, and then “shut up and write” for 25 minute sprints. Then they’d take a 5 minute break and do another 25 minute sprint.
This technique of 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break is a proven method for working within your brain’s normal rhythms. Add that to the group support and accountability of working quietly together, it’s a real win-win.
Greenstreet charges $20 for five sessions–about what I’d save on coffee if I Skyped into her meetings instead of running down to Starbucks for the afternoon.
I mentioned Shut Up And Write to a writer friend, who wrote back “Sounds like a great way to collect money for doing nothing. Pay me 20 bucks and then stfu and do what you should be doing by yourself.” A bit snappish, yes, but is that true? Should writers be doing it by ourselves? Are we less-able if we rely on the real or virtual presence of another person, an appointed time, outside accountability? Is creation solely a personal responsibility, to be generated through will alone?
Tools to support writing abound. Apps that turn off our internet or blacklist social media sites. Apps to keep writing steadily (or lose your work!). Approving kittens. Over at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost reviews the Freewrite, a “smart typewriter” that he describes as
…the latest and most extreme entry in the distraction-free writing wars. The idea: by stripping down a computer to its basics, writing can be simplified and improved.
…the mechanical keyboard inscribes text to an e-ink screen (like the Kindle’s), and a physical Wi-Fi lever activates networking—but only to send your documents to services like Dropbox or Google Drive. The lowly writer, plagued by the torment of Facebook, Twitter, and browser tabs, can finally get down to business and just write.
Bogost talks about the effect of writing tools and methods on the writing itself, going back to Nietzsche on typewriters–“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts;” tools change their users. Brevity‘s own Dinty W. Moore strongly recommends his workshop students write in-class exercises by hand, since the veins in the hand flow up through the arms, connecting to the heart. Many writers would say they need a certain notebook, a particular pen. I don’t know how I’d finish this essay without being able to websearch every few moments–to check a quote, find support for a point, look up another word for trick. What’s a crutch or a ploy or a gimmick and what’s an assist from a teammate?
Writers and painters are the most solitary of artists. No matter how we get the work done, in the end, one person (usually) is responsible for what ended up on the paper. Dancers and musicians and actors go into a room together. Rehearsal has a beginning and an end and a structure enforced by a leader. Shit gets done. If you’re not on your A-game today, you fake it as best you can, someone else picks up the slack, and you do the same for them tomorrow or next week.
I realized a few weeks ago, I work on the rehearsal/performance model. I want to pound out work in a sixty hours before a hard deadline, then lie around and play Bejeweled for a week to recover. I’ve known for much longer that I, too, am a Shut Up And Write person. My writer friend in Florida, my writer friend in Louisiana, my writer friend in Dubai–we sit together in a coffee shop, sometimes different coffee shops with Skype on. Write for an hour, chat for a few minutes or read what we have so far, write for another hour. I can do this six days in a row, and writing with a teammate makes me show up, helps me start. The presence of another person encourage-shames me into continuing to type past when I’d quit alone. Sure, it’s a trick. But the rabbit coming out of the hat is pages.
It’s not the only way I write. “Need to post a blog for Brevity” is a strong motivator. So is “I want to finish this book so I can sell it when I speak at a conference next month.” Or a contest deadline. And sometimes, on a lucky day, “Because I’m passionate about this project and sitting down to work feels good.” Those days are the best, the most joy-filled, the most creative. But they wouldn’t add up to much if they were the only days I worked.
Why trust to luck when I can stock a toolbox? Carpenters don’t think less of the cabinet that needed a bandsaw as well as a screwdriver. Stockbrokers aren’t shy about whipping out calculators and whiteboards. Dancers show up to rehearsal whether or not they’re in the mood, because rehearsal is the tool to get work done. They don’t look back at the choreography and say, “Yeah, but someone had to tell me to show up to learn that.”
Writers (and visual artists) often work without any of the tools we see as a “normal” work framework. No hours, no co-workers, no desk where someone will notice if you’re watching Samantha Bee. So why should it feel weak or dishonest to use tools most everyone else uses to get our work done? Because art is supposed to feel like “play”?
We can desperately want the feeling of having created, we can love the passion of wanting to create, and still have a hard time sitting down to work. Writing can feel like a job as well as a joy. And it’s OK to need a tool–even one that feels like a trick.
February 6, 2015 § 11 Comments
The moment I remember most from grad school was sitting at a local restaurant, after a reading from a noted writer. I was at that time fighting my biological clock, at the stage where babies passing in strollers and babies in the arms of others and even babies in saccharine television commercials made me weep with a weird, unwelcome longing. The noted writer had a child, and I asked her, or rather told her in the way that grad students assert their beliefs, “I’ve been thinking about having a baby but I worry that it will take all my writing time.”
The writer said, “I worried about that, too, but actually he makes me use my time more wisely. I used to wake up whenever, read the paper, make breakfast, linger with a cup of tea, and now it’s like He’s down for a nap I have 20 minutes GO! It really is how you use the time.”
It’s been years since grad school, and I’m in the process of leaving my more-than-full-time job to focus on writing. The leaving is harder than I thought it would be, given that I’m self-employed and trying to pass a successful business to another person. Plus, I like it. I’ve freed up some time, but more writing does not seem to be happening. I’ve taken on hundred-hour editing jobs, desperate to still make money despite having a supportive partner with a decent salary, despite having saved for years to make a cushion large enough to give me a year, perhaps two, without having to hafta-hafta-make-money.
Clearly, it’s not a need for solitude that’s hindering me. Yet moving into a new life, accepting writing as my job, feels strange. Shouldn’t I sit at a desk, contemplating wildlife through my window until the spirit moves me? Shouldn’t I be taking X hours per day, five days a week? Going to the coffee shop without having to escape anything doesn’t feel like I’m doing it right.
At the Los Angeles Times, Susan Straight writes on the mythos of a room of one’s own, and how she instead fit writing into the physical and temporal spaces that she could:
I wrote in my green Mercury Villager van, with headlights that made it look like a shark at night, according to the girls who waited for me to pick them up from practice for everything children can practice for. For 24 years I wrote not while driving but while waiting in parking lots for hours — basketball and tennis and doctor appointments and hospitals, Girl Scouts and plays, driving exams and prom nights (2 a.m.! A whole chapter!), writing in my notebooks.
…The whole time, I waited to be alone. Writers were alone. They woke with the sunrise, drank coffee, wrote alone, thought alone, listened to music they chose, and in the evening drank something impressive while writing into the night. Alone. Real novelists, those we admire, those we consider timeless in their language and character and scene, those who receive accolades for inventive language and form, have writing lives we imagine in specific ways. I imagine these, even now, listening to writers being interviewed.
I joked all the time about writing in my car, about never having been to a writers colony but having finished my third and fourth novels in cheap motels…
I write in coffee shops, having found the quietness of my own room unbearable. I want to look up and see other people also writing, or studying, or thinking, or chatting. I write in my car on long stretches of interstate, irresponsibly scribbling one-handed on a napkin against the steering wheel, trying not to honk the horn. I write while walking, repeating a sentence or a story over and over to remember it until I get to paper or the keyboard. And I try to remember, it’s OK, as long as you’re doing it, you’re doing it right.
Read Susan Straight’s essay On Learning to Write Without a Room of One’s Own.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
March 4, 2014 § 5 Comments
Sonja, a panelist, painted it for us with words. Naked railroad tracks under empty sky. Trains roaring past in stink and noise. Sonja parked down there, because who’s going to pay to park on campus? So every work day she walked past it, the saddest place on Earth. Beside the tracks. A squat, windowless, cement-block building. Its parking lot cracked and fissured. A blood-bank; a place to sell your blood. Scattered across the busted asphalt, dented cars, where people sat with a window, or maybe a door, wide open, music wafting, waiting their turn to sell their blood. Across the parking lot, Scutties. Walking past, one glance told you Scutties sold beer and lotto tickets. Convenient.
Sonja Livingston walked on, to the writing workshop she teaches. One morning, as the group sat sipping take-out coffees, waiting for workshop to begin, a student mentioned the blood bank. And it seemed someone did pay to park on campus, because a second student asked, “blood bank?”
“You know,” Sonia put in. “The saddest place on Earth.”
A third student looked up from her paper cup. “I know that place,” she said. “When I was a single mother, I used to go there to sell my blood.”
Sonja sat there kicking herself in the butt until the start of workshop let her be busy and in charge. “I’m telling this story now,” she told us, shame still in her face, “because I used to be Catholic, and I still love to confess.”
The place she had dismissively called the saddest place on Earth belonged, in a deep and intimate way, to somebody. That place was a complicated place, full of memory and resonances. A place a single mother might sit in a dented car, if she had one, maybe thinking about her little one left with a neighbor, maybe leaving with enough to get by until payday.
Locate beauty in the hard places, the panelists reminded us. Resist easy labels. One panelist recalled pearls of moonlight seeping through outhouse walls. Light and shadows on a single sunflower. Dialect? Yes, use it—to create poetry.
Panelist Karen Salyer McElmurray told us, “The first time I was a hidden population I was in 4th grade.”
Her 4th grade teacher asked the class to write about their family and their house. What is the name of the street you live on? What is your Mama’s name? Your Daddy’s name? asked the 4th grade teacher.
So great was her dread, the shy child slipped up to the teacher’s desk, desperate for a way out of the assignment. Yes, she had a mama and a papa. No, she didn’t mind telling the name of the street she lived on. But she didn’t want to tell her mother’s name. None of the others would have a mother’s name like that. A mountain name. A back-woods name.
“Don’t get above your rasin’,’” one panelist was told. But others were told: You can do anything, be anyone, in this world.
“Grandpa told me I could do anything,” blogged a student who had given permission to a panelist to share her story. “But what he didn’t tell me is that if I did it, if I made it, I would be angry almost all the time.”
Angry to be the only student at the mandatory 5 am dorm meeting called to impress upon students that dishes need to be returned to the kitchen. Her dorm-mates instead paid a $25 fine, and were sleeping blissfully. Angry as day after day she carried others’ dishes to the kitchen. Angry that the other girls never seemed to wonder, or notice, how dishes magically clean themselves away.
Angry that her classmates went to poetry readings in the evenings, as she headed to one of her jobs. That her classmates applied for unpaid editing internships while she spent the summer waiting tables and cleaning houses.
And back home? “No one wanted to hear about someone who made it out,” she wrote. Back home was a lot of anger too. Things stolen, friends gone cold, even punches thrown. Anger, she concluded, is the unspoken side effect of social mobility.
Panelist Lee Martin told us the rural working class /poor whites may be the most under-represented population on America’s elite campuses. He asked: how can we be deliberate in adopting a pedagogy of inclusion? Do we want literature to be filled with outsiders? Then start by making the writing workshop a safe place.
First generation college students, children of the working class—for whom hard work may be one of the highest values—often must deal with deep skepticism from their communities of origin that learning is truly work. “Writer” is an identity their families may not recognize or understand.
Have you ever been tempted to “pass” as some who has always had a subscription to the New Yorker? How much greater this pressure on writers from the working class, and/or below the poverty line. These writers may face even more difficulty than most of us in claiming our identity.
The rural poor, just like [insert population of your choice here], wish to be neither ridiculed nor mawkishly romanticized. Instead, as in all good writing, celebrate complexities and contradictions.
As a writer, the greatest challenge for me, and I suspect for many of us, is to both claim and critique our own heritage. If this is hard for us, how much harder might it be for a quiet woman beside us in workshop who, we may never have suspected, has sold her blood to pay the electric bill.
The panelists turned the question back to us: How do we live in a broken economy?
Creative writing, the panelists reminded us, can be that rare place of meritocracy. So invite outlaws into the classroom, they said. Kill the silence around social class. Create, says Claire Watkins, a culture of inclusion within this structure of exclusion.
One panelist recalled the ache in her legs after standing all day on hard, cold cement, bent over trays in a greenhouse. A five-dollar-an-hour ache. Exhausted, she did not write at the end of those days. Still, she saved up the stories.
Back then, she says, the question she stood on every day was never “is this worth my time?” The hard, cold, but strangely untrue question that defined her everywhere she went and every choice she made was: “am I worth it to spend this much money?”
Sitting in the audience, we had the opportunity to wonder, to notice, whether we are worth it. What might it mean for us as writers to be worth it? We sat there, silent for just less than the time it takes to poke one hole in the greenhouse tray and slip one seedling inside, pondering the worth of one human story. And of stories about places, of the human home, our planet. Of moonlight through outhouse walls, of rage, of the saddest place on Earth.
All the panelists in the “Hidden Populations” panel R223 were fabulous, and I can’t wait to get hold of their books. Dorothy Allison was unable to attend. Nonfiction panelists: Sonja Livingston (award-winning Ghostbread). Authors of both nonfiction and fiction: award-winning Karen Salyer McElmurray (memoir: Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey) and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin (latest memoir: Such a Life). Fiction panelists: Claire Vaye Watkins (award-winning Battleborn) and Carter Sickles (award-winning The Evening Hour).
Jacqueline Haskins is a biologist of wild wet places, from cypress swamps to glacial cirque swales, and has a forth-coming essay collection, Eyes Open Underwater. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest. Her non-fiction, fiction, or poetry appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Raven Chronicles, Cirque Journal, and elsewhere.
March 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
By Allison Schuette
Ava Chin, Dawn Raffel, Marion Winik
I’m sitting here at the Corner Bakery not far from the Palmer House, trying to refuel for the second half of the day. On my left, a woman is negotiating with someone about adoption (going that way, with the whole enchilada, would be too expensive); on my right, another woman eats salad while reading the news. (She looks like another AWP attender, at least of one sort: sensible shoes, loose scarf, soft turtleneck, ah, yes, and the ubiquitous lanyard.) I’m eating my own salad: spinach with oranges, grapes, strawberries and goat cheese. I tried to order this salad as a combo, you know, like they serve at Panera. No deal. You want the half sandwich, you’re stuck with just greens. And I’m a sucker for goat cheese, so I went with the salad. But now I wish I’d just gone with the Panini. The salad doesn’t live up to its name.
That’s almost how I feel about Prettying Up the Baby. What I expected: a panel on how you take your CNF manuscript and tweak its cheeks into a ruddy complexion that publishers will coo over. If not that, then a panel on how you think commercially without selling your soul. Instead I got a panel on how the field of freelance writing has changed.
I blame myself. I didn’t read the description in the big AWP book, only the title from the easier-to-manage planner. Maybe I should have spent a little more time with the menu at Corner Bakery as well. That doesn’t mean, however, I left totally unsatisfied. Here are a few morsels.
- · The market today presents far more opportunities for writers (good news!), but at less pay (bad news). In addition, the stuff you love to write doesn’t earn the kind of money that service pieces do (advice columns were mentioned twice). Winik recommends asking for more than you think you should ask for; editors won’t hang up on you.
- · The opportunities of the Internet have had a positive impact even on print. Readers expect personalities online and this has transferred to the page; magazines don’t edit down to the house’s voice. You get to keep a bit more control over your work.
- · Online presence is absolutely necessary now. Publishers and editors will ask how many friends and followers you have. You need an online brand to push and promote your materials—use Twitter, Facebook, a blog.
- · All the writers affirmed that you should write what you love and persevere in it. This commitment will lay the path for where you need to be, and it will keep your soul alive.
And now I think I’ll go order a cookie.