August 16, 2018 § 14 Comments
Here’s what I remember about high school: General name-calling, a particular pejorative yelled and hissed, shoving, spitting, dating a lot of too-much-older guys. I finished (minus a week or two), but I didn’t graduate—I’d skipped too many classes, due to what I now know was clinical depression.
Here’s what I wrote about high school: An award-winning, profitable one-woman show; a recently-completed novel; several published essays.
I wouldn’t trade back.
If my conception of the Almighty Being came to me in a burst of light and said, “You can go back in time, and you will be popular and liked and have a fantastic high school experience,” I’d say, “No thanks.”
If the Almighty Being came to 13-year-old me and said, “You know how middle school really sucks right now? Well, you can either have a terrific high school experience or you can wait 10 years and perform a show audience members love and send emails about, and wait 10 more years to finish a book you’re very proud of,” I’m pretty sure 13-year-old me would say, “I’ll take the work. Bring on ninth grade, mofo.”
I tell this to another writer at the conference we’re at, adding, “If you’re OK with where you are, you have to be OK with how you got there.”
She nods. She tells me, maybe if you’re not OK with your past, you’re still on the journey. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace or closure that makes the past OK.
Another writer chimes in. One of her students just emailed. The student was finally able to finish the memoir that seemed unfinishable in last year’s class, because the closing event was something in her life this year. Her story literally hadn’t finished. The end was unwriteable because the ending hadn’t happened yet.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by the people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memoirists stick to the truth, and if the truth isn’t done yet, we’re still stuck with it. But the truth is a gold mine of details and happenings that we’ve survived, and that survival is itself the story.
My first memoir was unsellable, largely because I hadn’t finished living the story I was trying to tell. I couldn’t wrap up a plot about depression while I was still depressed. I wasn’t at the destination; I hadn’t reached closure.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing on the page, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down what happened, checking facts, realizing, That happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we can embrace what happened.
Am I still hurt by the actions of kids around me? Yeah, a little. But mostly, my past is a rich trove of information. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Every terrible detail I tease out to make a novel deeper, every time I use a bad experience as a good essay, puts me in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m OK with what it took for me to get here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past helps you recognize and own it. Maybe you’re still living your memoir with no end in sight. Flip back through your pages. Can you tell book-you: Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and processing and release still to come.
Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be presenting Writing the Memoir Proposal and Twenty-Five Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life at Hippocamp in Lancaster, PA, August 24-26.
August 7, 2018 § 10 Comments
I got sucked into a carpet shop last night. Wandering the old medina in the center of Tunis, my husband and I came across the clerk who’d checked us into the hotel, now on his day off. He’d love to show us a handicraft exhibit! Right here in the souk! Only one day! Closing in an hour!
We let him shepherd us down alleys and through hallways lined with shops closed for prayer time. It’s a little sketchy, but he’s from our hotel, and there’s two of us. He takes us to a souvenir store built into a former palace, and the shop owner escorts us through shelves of turquoise jewelry and caftans and mini-mosaics. We go up more stairs, and outside there’s a reasonable view of the roofs of Tunis and a terrace covered in fantastically painted tiles. The colors and patterns are some of the most beautiful decorative work I’ve ever seen. Absolutely worth getting dragged to the back of the souk. Going back downstairs, we turn left instead of right, into a room full of rugs. The “exhibit” is a carpet showroom.
Tea is brought. The merchandise turns out to be lovely, authentic, government-certified to be exportable, and reasonably priced. Still quite expensive, but $750 for a large handmade Berber, beautifully designed in 100% wool, is not bad if you’re a person who buys really nice home decor (I’m not).
We’ve considered a carpet before. It would be a nice souvenir of our years in the Middle East, something we’d own forever, something hard to get somewhere else, something not touristy and awful. So we consider the carpets here.
After half an hour, we are genuinely interested. But after another half hour, the blue ones we like are too large for the room in our house that would suit a blue carpet. The green ones are too small for the room that could host a green carpet. I don’t want a white one—one juice spill and we’re screwed. That pattern is great but not that color. That color is great but those embroidered lozenges are a little busy. But the shopkeeper and his three assistants have worked so hard to sell us these carpets, and they are truly beautiful. I’m pretty sure that with a starting price of $750 (“Includes shipping! If you take it with you, we give already 20% off!”) I could walk out of here with a $400 rug.
The mint tea is strong and sweet, and my husband and I discuss our budget in rapid-fire undertones. Everyone in Tunis has a minimum of three languages, but speaking very quickly gives a little privacy. We are now firmly in the market for a gorgeous rug.
Just not one of these.
I am truly sad to walk away from the beauty of this traditional craft. I am impressed and moved by the care and effort that have gone into 20,000 hand-tied knots per square meter. The price and time are right, but I do not have a suitable space in my home for any of these particular carpets. We thank the shopkeeper profusely. We elude the guy from our hotel (who wants to take us to a perfume shop next) by saying we’re late for dinner, and lunge randomly into a dark passageway because we are so embarrassed and sad we had to say no, even though saying ‘no’ was the right choice. Let the carpet find a home where it will sparkle with beauty instead of clashing with my walls. With someone who loves that exact pattern and color, who also appreciates the workmanship and investment of the craftswomen who made them.
When we finally reach a well-lit and charming area of the market, I turn to my husband and say, “Those rugs were so lovely and I wish we had the right place to really show one off. Let’s keep an eye out for another one?”
He says, “I really hoped we’d want one of them.”
“Me too,” I say. “You know how yesterday I was trying to explain what it’s like rejecting essays, how there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not the perfect match? That’s exactly what it feels like. I wish writers knew that.”
He says, “Tell them about the carpets.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She highly recommends Tunisia. Keep up with her adventures by joining the (free, occasional) I Do Words TinyLetter.
July 27, 2018 § 10 Comments
You may have seen Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg’s excellent investigation of Anna March in the L.A. Times. March, as she was most recently known, ripped off writers by selling phony coaching/editing packages, offers to read their work and connect them with agents, and expensive writing retreats that didn’t happen.
March branded herself an intersectional feminist, sensitive to issues of race, class and LGBTQ concerns as well as gender, and also supportive of victims of trauma. She positioned herself as a connection between worlds: the published and unpublished, the successful and the hopeful.
Anna March crossed my path in a Facebook group for women memoirists. As a moderator, I messaged Anna a few times asking her to stop posting frequent, pushy ads for her services. I told her once privately, “Honestly, you might sell more coaching if you sounded a little less urgent/needy.” Finally, myself and the other moderator made a new ad policy: no more than once every two weeks. I ended up counting days for Anna. But I still tagged her in discussions about writing coaches.
Anna conned writers who took her at face value. But the literary world is all about face value. You are who you know; you are where you’ve published. Waving the “published in Modern Love” flag creates instant cred. Speak at enough conferences and you’re an expert. We’re told to overcome imposter syndrome, trumpet our own accomplishments, sell ourselves for the best price we can get.
We’re also told to invest in our careers. Spend our precious time reading widely and keeping up with literary news. Be good literary citizens. Pay for conferences and workshops where we make connections and find mentors. Get an MFA. Read for others so one day they’ll read for us; or hire an editor to tell us how to fix our work.
After the revelations of Anna March’s literary grifting, Roxane Gay tweeted:
No. You never at any stage of the writing process need to pay someone to read your work. Don’t do this. Money flows to the writer not from the writer. Period. https://t.co/n0L8QAwILK
and talked about learning to write (read the whole thread, it’s great):
Guys, look… there are good and great writing coaches out there, but… you do not need a writing coach. You don’t need an MFA. You do need to write and read a lot. Feedback CAN help you improve as a writer. There are virtual and real writing groups out there
Even when I was a young writer who did not know shit about shit, who did not know that you could get a degree in writing, I did not pay someone to read my writing. I just wrote, constantly. And I am not special. This is how most writers develop.
She’s right. You don’t ever have to pay anyone to read your work. I say this as a professional editor, as a writing coach who has helped people write better and get published, and charged them money for those services. But that’s not ever required.
You’re not on the outside of some magic literary community because you’re broke, or a parent, or can’t get time off. Writing’s just plain lonely. You do it by yourself. No matter how many conferences or mentors or writing buddies you have to sit down with, in the end it is you and the page. You and the story. You and the words.
It feels lonely because it is.
It feels hard because it is.
It feels like it takes forever because it does.
There is no way to get better at writing besides sitting down and doing it.
Can it help to hire someone or go to a workshop or take a class? Absolutely. It helps to have accountability and assignments and exercises. It helps to have an outside eye, whether you pay them or trade manuscripts. It helps to feel like someone is listening. It helps to bounce ideas around with someone whose creative instincts you trust.
You can protect yourself:
- Get a sample edit and references. If you’re in a Facebooks writers’ group, ask who’s worked with this person. Usually people who feel good post publicly and people who know something shady will message you.
- ONLY pay through PayPal’s “goods and services” option (not “friends and family”) or with a credit card. Don’t pay a lump sum; start with a couple of sessions, or a deposit or percentage.
- Insist on accountability from people you pay. Missed deadlines should have a definite reschedule and a reason. Missed meetings should be promptly rescheduled. If you sign up for a writing workshop, email the hotel and ask about the rooms before you purchase travel.
Does it help to spend money on your writing career? Sure. But it helps like a personal trainer helps you get fit. If you’re focused and ready to work, money can help you over some speedbumps. But if you’re focused and ready to work, you can get over them alone, too.
No amount of money replaces your own hard work. Don’t try to buy your dream. You don’t have to. You can’t. But you can make it happen for free, one word at a time.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
June 21, 2018 § 29 Comments
A writer asked me:
Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.
I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.
I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.
All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?
Nobody I know wants to read my work. Should I quit writing?
The short answer is no.
Writing is a skill. Anyone who puts the time in can learn to write, the same way anyone can learn to draw from life or play the cello. We won’t all become Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma, but anyone can be taught to make a recognizable portrait that’s pleasant to look at, or competently execute a sonata and bring enjoyment to an audience.
What about talent? Aren’t some people naturally better at writing than others?
Yes. Some writers start out better at making sentences or telling stories. Some writers discover their unique voice earlier in their work. But “talent” isn’t what makes a writer good—talent just makes practicing and learning more pleasant. A tennis player who can already consistently hit the ball and instinctively see where it’s going will have more fun practicing, and learn more subtle techniques faster, than the player who is still learning about trajectories and having to process each bounce anew. But if the less-talented person puts the time in, they’ll learn to see the angles too. They may have to practice more, and that time may be more arduous, than the person with a head start. They may be headed for a coaching job or 106th seed rather than Wimbledon’s Centre Court. They may work a 9-5 job to support their practice costs. But they’re still a tennis player.
As writers, we look for the magic triangle:
- Competence in sentence construction and dramatic structure
- A story to tell and the honesty and bravery to tell it
- A unique, genuine voice
Writing competence and a solid story make compelling work on the page, whether or not the writing is “great” by some subjective literary analysis. Strong voice can compensate for messy syntax or a less-intriguing story. All three of these elements can be honed and improved with practice, careful reading, writing workshops, and seeking out and accepting quality feedback.
It’s a lot of work to be good in all three areas. I’ve let go of editing clients who weren’t putting in the work—they were plenty capable of improving, but they felt they’d already done enough and wanted me to pick up the slack. Another writer commented about my Seven Drafts process, “Seven drafts? Just kill me now, save me the agony.” But part of being a “good” writer is accepting the enormous amount of work, including the 40-50% of the work that happens after we think we’re “done.” Part of writing is overcoming constant discouragement, and that’s a learned skill, too. Part of writing is our own idea of “success”—we’re not all going to be New York Times-bestsellers and have our books made into movies, but there are lots of happy working writers whom most people will never read or hear of. What’s your own realistic path? Writing a thriller? Sure, a NYT list might be in the future. Writing a quiet memoir? A more-achievable dream would be to influence people’s lives and connect with readers having similar experiences.
It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble. Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people with less skill are unable to recognize their lack of ability, like reality talent-show contestants unaware they’ve been made finalists to be mocked. It’s frustrating to advise changes and have an author dig in their heels in the belief their work is perfect and all the readers “just don’t get what I’m saying.” Generally, the more sophisticated work we’re capable of, the more we’re also able to recognize our own shortcomings. It’s a good sign when we see the flaws in our writing, because problems can’t be worked on without knowing they’re problems.
I’ve never told anyone to quit writing. I’ve never read anyone’s work who I didn’t think could improve with practice and time. Yes, writing well is hard and frustrating and discouraging and probably a lot more work than most of us originally expected.
No, you shouldn’t quit.
June 12, 2018 § 6 Comments
Clickbait much? Here at Brevity, our Shameless Self-Promotion Department loves this terrific talk on applying for grants, cultivating patrons, and other sources of funding for your projects and your writing life.
Getting financial support isn’t exactly no-cost—grant applications are time-consuming and crowdfunding takes real planning and dedication. But with an understanding of the process and what appeals to public, private and organizational funders, chances are you’re going to be able to drum up some cash for a project that needs more support than you can give it alone.
Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer, gives this great (free!) webinar for the Alliance of Independent Authors, about the nitty-gritty of writing grant applications, key steps in setting up crowdfunding campaigns, and other sources for financial support. At 33 minutes, it’s a great listen while you’re getting ready for the day or commuting this morning. If you’re a visual learner, her slides are clear on the major points, too.
Two major takeaways:
…Writing a grant is telling a story. It should have a plot [this is where I am now and where I want to go], a protagonist [me, and since the panelists don’t know me, I have to create a memorable character], stakes [this is why you should care], and a strong theme [this is the significance it will have in the world].
…most successful crowdfunding campaigns are funded 25-33% in the first 24 hours, and by donors who have been cultivated in advance.
Getting financial support isn’t a mystery or reserved for a special few. You can do it, too, with a little planning and a chunk of prep work. Jane lays out how and what to do—and even if you aren’t ready to apply for a grant or start a Patreon, she gives great, specific advice on how to present who you are and what you do to your own community and your professional world.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and a big fan of free money.
May 31, 2018 § 10 Comments
On Tuesday, we talked about publishers soliciting authors in the guise of a publication offer.
That’s not a book deal. That’s a (slick) commercial for their services.
But for some authors, “hybrid” publishing works. Could it be right for you?
Old-school vanity publishers know their terrible reputations, and many have rebranded as “hybrid.” They charge authors a “contribution” that pays their costs and a healthy profit margin. They don’t care if your book sells—they already made their money. You may end up with cartons of unsold books, text badly or not-at-all edited, dreadful covers, crappy page design.
True hybrid presses offer a legitimate package of publishing services. It costs more than self-publishing—they still profit before selling your book—but you’re not doing it all yourself. Hybrids can provide a smoother publication process, bookstore placement, reviews, and some of the legitimacy of an imprint.
Is hybrid right for you? Well…
1) Do you want a long-term writing career?
“At least I’ll be published” is the worst possible reason to go hybrid. Low first-book numbers make it harder to sell a second book. It’s better to be a debut author than one who’s sold under 10,000 copies—publishers want a positive track record or no track record at all.
Going hybrid, at least one of you thinks you won’t sell many copies. If the publisher thinks you’ve written a bestseller, they don’t need your money. If you think you can do better, pursue traditional publication or explore self-publishing.
But if you’re up for tenure, a reputable hybrid press gives you a resume credit. If you’re launching a public-speaking career and selling books after every motivational speech, you’re busy marketing yourself—let them handle cover design and proofreading.
2) How much energy do you have for marketing?
Even Big-Five published authors end up marketing their own book. But hybrid (and small independent/university) presses often lack media contacts. Does your potential publisher display at industry events like the Frankfurt Book Fair or BookExpo America? Do they have readings or signings at regional book festivals? Do they have a list of radio station managers to contact? Check their social media for links to author interviews and reviews in national media. If they can’t market your book in places that cost money or connections to enter, they aren’t doing anything you can’t do yourself.
If you’re newsworthy in a way related to your book—you just summited Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen or Sherpas; you gave six organs as a living donor; you’re a former child actor just out of rehab—then marketing isn’t your obstacle. Hybrid away!
3) Are you in a hurry?
Traditional publishing takes time. Your book comes out much faster with hybrid or self-publishing—sometimes at the cost of lower-quality editing, design and printing. But good hybrids have an established editing and design pipeline to scoot your book right through. If you’re dying of cancer or facing a major book-selling event next month, you may want to pay for publishing.
4) Do you want your book in bookstores?
Traditional presses can get your physical book on a shelf. Bookstores have near-zero desire to carry self-published books, so that’s where an imprint helps.
Go to your favorite bookstores and check for books by your potential hybrid press. Give titles and ISBNs and ask a clerk they’d stock those books or only special-order them.
Ask the hybrid press about returns and the retail discount. If it’s not “we take returns” and the industry-standard 55%—red flag!
5) What’s the royalty split?
Self-publishing, you control the price and get all the profit. Traditional publishing trades a chunk of the net for marketing and reputation. Hybrids take what you agree to give them…on top of the money you paid to publish. Before buying their package, make sure you’re OK with your percentage.
6) Do they want subsidiary rights like audiobooks, TV/movies, or foreign sales?
Red flag. These should stay with the author who pays to publish. It’s unlikely the press will market these rights anyway, and they don’t have enough skin in the game to demand a percentage.
7) Will they edit? What are the editors’ qualifications?
Is your book really done? Like really, really done? Is there still a nagging feeling in your heart that it could be better? Ask what kind of editing will be done, and by whom. “Our in-house editor proofreads” is not the same as helping your prose sing and your story hang together.
8) What are their actual, printed books like?
Order a couple titles. Is the paper thinner than you expected? Do you see typos, blurry print, bad layout? Is the cover art just plain ugly? Pull out books in the same genre from your shelves and make a table display. Do the hybrid books belong?
9) Due diligence!
- The Independent Book Publishers Association has set guidelines for hybrid presses. This is the bare minimum of legitimacy.
- Search the publisher name + “scam.” Search again on Absolute Write (make a free account for better info).
- Check Writer Beware, a wonderful resource that details bad-faith agents and publishers.
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have a list of what to watch out for when approached by a publisher.
- Read Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer for a greater understanding of the industry.
Going hybrid might be the right choice for you. But go in with your eyes open. Hybrid publishing is not a “book deal,” it’s a package of services you purchase. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This summer she’ll be at Cedar Ridge Writers Series, VCFA’s Postgraduate Writers Conference, and Hippocamp. Come say hello!
May 29, 2018 § 12 Comments
You open your email, and O frabjous day! A publisher has come calling! They’ve seen your work in a literary magazine and wonder if you have a chapbook, or would like to be in their anthology. Or you didn’t win a contest, but your work “shows merit” and “deserves to be published.” Maybe you wanted a faster process than querying agents, or figured your work better suited a small press, so you cast out to a few publishers, and one has bitten.
You read a little further. This publishing house “considers work for both traditional and hybrid publishing.” If your book is seen as better suited to a hybrid deal—perhaps due to “the difficulty in placing the books of new or untried authors, as well as the general increased competition in publishing today”—the publisher feels “that it may be necessary to ask for a contribution from you.”
Maybe it’s even right up front: We’re a hybrid press. Our package costs $XXXX, and you can add on additional services at $XXX, $XXXX or $XXXXX.
The email is reassuring. Someone has recognized the quality of your work. After all the hype about “platform,” someone wants your book based on your writing. You don’t have to hit 10,000 followers or make mailing-list spreadsheets. It’s a relief.
But most of the time, it’s not true.
Not (technically) a scam or a fraud. But a well-designed system to separate hopeful authors from hard-earned dollars, waste their time and leave them with unsold, often un-edited and poorly-designed books.
Remember the old saw about things that seem too good to be true? That maxim goes hand-in-hand with another cliche: You can’t cheat an honest man. You can only sell a five-dollar diamond ring to someone who thinks he’s ripping you off.
Writers who seek hybrid publishing “deals” aren’t grifters. But they are to some extent sidestepping the work of getting published. Submitting and pitching to small magazines, medium journals and mass media. Blogging/newsletter-ing to build their core audience. Going to readings and events, collecting names and emails. Being a literary citizen. We’re all looking for a lucky break, and lightning may well strike, but it usually strikes while we’re in the middle of the process. The process that sets us up to be able to sell books once we do get that publishing deal.
Most authors who pay to publish end up doing the real work anyway. Pounding the pavement to get their book in a few stores. Emailing the target audience (key demographic: “everyone I know who has ever read a book”). They’ll do that work with a larger cash investment than traditional publishing and far less potential monetary reward than self-publishing. Their copyright may end up in the publisher’s hands—the publisher who may also now own all their subsidiary rights.
Remember that part about “the process that sets us up to be able to sell books”? Memoir, creative nonfiction and self-help are hard to sell without “platform.” Basically, the number of people who will buy your book or spread the word about it. Platform can be:
- social media followers (10,000+ real followers who engage with your posts)
- a speaking career (at major events where books can be sold)
- group membership (i.e., a nationwide service club or large religious organization; a class of people like “patients suffering this disorder”)
- writing articles or essays about the book’s subject matter, and publishing them in medium-to-major mass media or significant literary journals
- a public career like radio show host or TV presenter
Without platform, a traditional publisher doesn’t want to buy the book because they can’t sell the book. It’s also hard to self-publish without enough people to sell the book to. Unfortunately, so many books come out each year that, without a built-in audience, it’s rare for readers to discover and purchase any single book. Novelists still market hard, but for some there’s an existing base of blogs, reviewers, and genre fans to help the book get momentum and word-of-mouth. Nonfiction books by non-famous people are usually not newsworthy, so the writer needs an existing audience who will spread the word and buy the book themselves.
One of the things you can do to start momentum for your work is to revise sections of the book as possible magazine or newspaper articles, and seek publication in mass media. You can also turn chapters into self-contained essays to submit to journals. Whether you end up with a traditional publisher or a self-supported plan, getting your work out there will help future sales, and help you gauge your audience. Memoirists who publish a “hot essay” (the legendary venue is Modern Love, but there are plenty more places) often get offers from traditional publishers, or have agents seek them out.
Legitimate publishers have writers beating down their doors. Unless a writer recently did something very newsworthy, made a big splash with an essay, or regularly speaks at large events, publishers don’t come to us. We go to them. Self-publishing is totally legit, but you can coordinate it yourself, and publish with Createspace, Lulu, Smashwords and/or Ingram. That’s more work, but usually costs less, and you make all the money and keep all the rights.
Sometimes a true hybrid publishing deal can be the right choice for some authors. On Thursday, we’ll talk about what a good hybrid deal looks like, why you might want one, and questions to ask the publisher.
May 15, 2018 § 49 Comments
I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.
I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.
An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.
I flipped through.
The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.
In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.
I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.
He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”
I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”
It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.
I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.
I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.
I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”
Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.
I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.
My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.
But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.
Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.
May 8, 2018 § 23 Comments
We’ve all been there.
Friend of Friend: What do you do?
Writer: I’m a writer.
Friend of Friend: Hey, I have a great idea for a book! Why don’t you write it and when it gets published we split the money?
Writer: [weak smile]
Ideas are the easy part. Sure, “high-concept” pitching is a thing—It’s Speed, but on a boat! It’s the Wizard of Oz, but in space!—but it’s a thing for writers with a few airport-ready books under their belt and a relationship with a major publisher. Everyone else has to actually, y’know, WRITE THE BOOK.
That’s the hard part.
Ideas ignite passion and inspiration. But getting 60,000+ words on the page takes time and craft. That guy at the party doesn’t understand that most writers have plenty of unwritten ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and dictated into our phones at 3AM, sparked by articles we’ve read, lectures we’ve heard, people we’ve met. We are drowning in ideas.
Most of our ideas will never take flight enough to spend years of our lives writing them down. We stockpile them, stacking up paper and browser links against the day we’ll be out of ideas. The pile itself becomes an obligation, a list of ignored tasks weighing on us.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Full closets have no room for new clothes. Stuffed files shut out new ideas. (This also—sacrilege!—applies to bookshelves.)
I spent two days emptying basement boxes from a house I no longer live in. It was mostly stuff I hadn’t used in five years, stuff I’d never even unpacked after moving to that house in 2003. I thought files would be the hardest part. Banker boxes and milk crates full of past teaching syllabi and class assignments and yes, idea after idea. Folders marked Plays to Write, Articles to Read, Possible Blog Posts. But about six folders into the first box, I noticed, These ideas aren’t that good. Or they didn’t resonate with me enough to be worth my time. Or they’re something I think about a lot and don’t need twenty pieces of paper to remind me.
I started with 30 storage boxes, 7 of them documents and files. I started with fear. What if I couldn’t get rid of any of it? Was I a failure if I threw away an idea I’d never tackled? What if I got sad, or angry at my past self? What if something I really valued had been destroyed by that water leak three years ago? After two days and the (paid) help of a friend, I’m still not done with the basement, but the dread is gone. So is most of the stuff. Seven boxes and 6 garbage bags to charity; 3 boxes and 2 bags to the community theatre; 6 bags of documents to the shredder; 6 bags of trash to the curb; a stack of empty boxes.
I’m keeping one box. One. Plus half a box of “letters and photos I don’t want to go through right this minute.”
I feel amazing.
In my one box, I have two files of ideas to be written. They aren’t fat files. They, plus my notebook, plus my brain that still works, are plenty of ideas for the rest of my writing life.
Ideas aren’t precious and they aren’t hard. Execution is hard, and keeping a paper fort of ideas doesn’t do anything for our work ethic.
Contemplating your own files with terror? Here’s how to get started:
Don’t sort in the storage space. Take everything into a clean room where it must earn its place.
- Multiple manuscripts with workshop notes. In the future, copy feedback into one document, which pinpoints problem locations even if everyone sees a different problem. Throw away notes from writers you dislike—they aren’t inspiring to use.
- Articles that sparked ideas. They’re all online.
- Old syllabi. You know how to write a syllabus.
- Old student evaluations. You’re never going to quote them.
- Anything on your computer and backed up. Double-check your backup process.
- Multiple copies of magazines you’re in. That’s why God invented PDFs. If your Mom wanted a copy, you already gave it to her.
- Other people’s work you never got around to commenting on. I hereby absolve you of writer’s karma. Cultivate one reader friend (or two) you regularly exchange with and don’t keep track, or a “muse” who reads everything you write and asks nothing in return.
- Box up books you thought would make you a better person if you read them and books you didn’t like but feel like you should. Get rid of unread classmates’ books inscribed with meaningful notes. Photograph the inscription if you feel really bad. You can delete the photo next year.
- Minimal notes/research for no more than six projects.
- One copy of things you wrote that lived on floppy disk/zip drive/your previous computer. You probably won’t ever type it up/scan it. Review next year and toss half.
- Your sense of humor
Keeping paper doesn’t lead to more/better writing. Trust that your brain is a pipeline. Flush out the reservoir and make space for new ideas.
April 24, 2018 § 20 Comments
Music is great for writing. Pop those headphones in, start up your two-hour Epic Music track or your carefully curated, book-specific playlist, get in your headspace and go go go.
Music is not great for reading. When I edit a manuscript with song lyrics used as epigraphs, or quoted from one character to another, or someone singing along, I have standard cut-and-paste language:
Consider whether these lines are necessary: using song lyrics falls under a specific copyright area that is not subject to fair use, and obtaining permission is tedious and can be difficult and expensive.
The short answer to “What about using some song lyrics in my memoir?” is “You can’t.” To elaborate, songs written after 1923-ish (depending on when you read this blog post) are almost certainly under copyright. The singer or band associated with the song may or may not be the writer(s). Once you google to find the writing credits, you’ll need to track down the publisher through ASCAP or BMI. The publisher does not want to talk to you until you have a publication contract, or specific, written publication plans including where you’ll be selling the book, the cover price, and how many copies you’re printing. Then the publisher bills you.
It can get expensive, Blake Morrison tells the Guardian:
I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75.
But what about “fair use”?
Fair use is the legal principle allowing us to quote lines or paragraphs from books under copyright. Quotations are fair use if the number of words used is a very small proportion of the total words in the original work; if the quote is properly attributed; and if it’s essential to the point you’re making in your own work. Song lyrics have not yet been held to a “fair use” standard. Arguably, even a line of a song is a fairly large proportion compared to say, 200 words from a 90,000-word novel. But poetry can be fairly used and often is. What makes songs different?
Publishers with deep pockets, excellent legal teams, and a strong precedent of defending their copyrights.
Beyond legal battles, it’s worth it to consider what impact the quoted lyrics will really have in your book. Does your reader associate “Janie’s Got A Gun” with that beautiful night you sat in a convertible, watching the ocean roll in below the hills? Or does she remember her school’s anti-violence initiative that used the literal message of the song? Will readers from another generation even know the song you’re quoting? Will they think of it as “Mom’s music” instead of “pulse-pounding jam”? Writers can’t control how readers react, so we might as well use words we can craft ourselves.
In the Brevity Podcast Episode 8, Geeta Kothari and I discussed using quotes within essays and stories. In her experience as an editor for Kenyon Review, lyrics often pull the reader out of the story on the page and into their own associations with the song. JoBeth McDaniel, from the Rush editorial board, mentions in the same episode that even quoting other non-song writing raises legal issues that editors just don’t want to deal with.
Sure, it’s a great feeling when a single lyric conjures up a world of emotion in our heart. But it’s both uncertain and a bit lazy to expect that line to do the same for every reader. Instead, ask yourself what emotional purpose that song serves, and put that feeling in the setting, in the narrative, in the dialogue. Or obliquely quote in a way that makes knowledge of the original song unnecessary:
He banged his head to Sweet Child O’ Mine and I wished hard I could like Guns N Roses. (Titles are OK!)
On the radio, Springsteen was on fire, singing his creepy lyrics about Daddy not being home.
We rolled down the windows and cranked up the stereo–GooGooDolls, The Cure, KLM, all the music everyone was listening to, the bass throbbing in my chest and making me feel like I was part of everyone.
You’ve got something important to say. Don’t lean on a song to say it for you. Use your words. Use your images. Use your experiences. Trust in your power to create your own music in the reader’s head.