February 8, 2018 § 12 Comments
Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”
But should you?
One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.
As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?
By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.
Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.
For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.
Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:
In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.
That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.
Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
February 5, 2018 § 13 Comments
Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.
Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.
There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:
It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.
When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.
Most of my “writing” days look like this:
- 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
- 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
- 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
- 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
- 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
- 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
- 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing
Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.
What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.
When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”
Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.
Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.
February 1, 2018 § 25 Comments
1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:
- Open Advanced Find and Replace
- Check the box for Wildcards On
- Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
- Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
- Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.
2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.
I never considered that he would run away
I never considered he would run away.
3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.
Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.
Pat was also kind of mean.
When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:
Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog.
For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:
Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.
4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.
We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.
Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.
5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.
Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.
Happy writing–with or without inspiration.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
January 30, 2018 § 4 Comments
This episode, we’re talking all things submissions, with The Rush‘s Jobeth McDaniel, Kenyon Review‘s Geeta Kothari, Brevity‘s own Alexis Paige, and writer Tim Hillegonds, with an essay about rejection from our host Allison K Williams.
Stream the show 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.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Rhiannon Navin about her new novel Only Child and how fiction comes from fact; and with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Show Notes: Episode #8 People and Books
Find out more about:
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays by Michael Steinberg
Miss Manners (Judith Martin)
January 25, 2018 § 6 Comments
When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.
None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.
I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.
Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.
The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?
The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.
The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?
Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.
It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?
Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.
The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
January 23, 2018 § 19 Comments
Years ago, my mother was a beauty queen. Not metaphorically–she was Miss Niagara Falls and Miss Ottawa and twice runner-up to Miss Canada. As a kid, I spent hours leafing through her scrapbook, marveling at the full-coverage swimsuits of early-1960s Ontario and thinking how much young Mom looked like Grace Kelly. But my favorite of her titles was a small, local affair–not even really a pageant.
Winter 1965, the Ottawa Jaycees, a businessmen’s club (like Kiwanis or Rotary), wanted to combat seasonal unemployment by encouraging people to fix up their homes now. Instead of waiting for spring and better weather, get out there, buy some lumber, hire a contractor and get going! In the Ottawa newspaper, my mother wears snowpants and a parka, one foot on a shovel, surrounded by workmen. There’s a construction helmet perched on her beehive hairdo. The caption? “She’s Miss Do-It-Now.”
I’m pretty sure the kids of 1965 found her title as giggly as I did in 1985.
But the message is clear. Don’t cross items off the to-do list–write now.
Don’t wait for better weather, or a better mood.
Skip the easy satisfaction of running errands, prepping dinner, running laundry, returning calls. Shut down the internet and put your phone face-down. Don’t check the news–it’s just going to make you mad or sad. You don’t need a perfect coffee shop or the right table or the right moment. Put your kid in the playpen with plenty of toys (or, depending on age, give them unfettered screen time for an hour or two, saying firmly that time will be cut short if any questions are asked or interruptions made).
If you’re stuck on the next scene, write the scene after that.
If you sit down and the words won’t come, write about what you’re going to write:
Scene with Sandy and me in the kitchen, when I realized she was dating my ex and it made me really uncomfortable. She had just dyed her hair blonde and I was alphabetizing the spice rack so I wouldn’t say she looked awful. She said…
And before you know it, you’re writing the thing instead of about the thing. Or at least getting down the first draft, the one where you tell the story to yourself. The one you can fix in the second draft.
It’ll feel weird and awkward and not like your normal happy routine of writing when circumstances are just right (rarely!). It’ll feel precarious like a helmet perched on big 1950’s hair, and vaguely off-color like a beauty title that sounds a little dirty.
Do it anyway.
Don’t wait for spring, or springtime in your heart.
Do it now.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Today she’s writing through the flu, which sucks but is still words.
January 16, 2018 § 11 Comments
What do we mean by “literary citizenship”? At Salon, Becky Tuch sums it up nicely:
…most agree that good Literary Citizenship entails buying from local bookstores, attending readings, subscribing to literary magazines, interviewing writers, reviewing books, reading a friend’s manuscript, blurbing books, and so on.
And while Tuch (and I) agree with the spirit of these activities, she questions their hidden purpose. Why must we be literary citizens? Because publishers barely market mid-list and literary authors. Because Amazon has radically changed the bookstore and Wattpad has disrupted the publishing pipeline. But as Tuch points out,
the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers.
We must market. We must build platform. We must generate enough profit that the publisher will ask us to make more money for them. Writers are urged to spend hard cash on publicity and countless hours making deposits into the bank of goodwill so they can withdraw favors when the time comes. Or we can self-publish, working even harder but keeping the profit–if there is any.
Literary citizenship works when it builds community. When it feeds the writer, and contributes to, as Jane Friedman writes,
…an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.
I enjoy the abundance mindset, and I feel good helping others. Not just virtuous, or morally superior, but genuinely good.
I didn’t always feel that way. You know that sharp sting of envy when a writer you know gets a prize or a publication, and a little part of your heart yells, “Hey! That should have been mine!”? I get that too. But after deliberately practicing feeling positive about other people’s success, the sting is shorter. An unsung benefit of literary citizenship is when envy is drowned by pride:
I helped with that draft.
I told her about that residency.
I encouraged him to submit that essay.
So when I found in my inbox [subjects changed to protect the ignorant]: “I finished my history of barrel-making and a book of lyric poetry about mysticism. Do you know any agents or publishers I could send them to?” my reaction surprised me.
I remonstrated: Come on, Allison, this is a perfectly nice person you met at a party. You’ve passed on recommendations to lots of other writers you barely know. Why not this one?
Because that’s not how any of this works.
- Do your own damn homework. Basic googling brings up lists of agents. Manuscript Wishlist gets even more specific. Ask writer friends about particular matches. It’s the difference between “I’m naked, tell me what clothes I can buy” and “Red shirt or green blouse with these pants?”
- Seriously, do the homework. Two different genres, two different subjects–pick one for now. When you’re famous and well-published, then bring out your wildly different book. Agents want debut authors focused on one topic or genre.
- I’ve never read this person’s work. Useful recommendations come from knowing your work and the craft level you’ve reached. Classes, workshops and conferences are great places to get professionals to read your work, and you can buy that benefit with tuition. Local writing groups (try Meetup) get you fellow readers for free.
- Be part of the community you want favors from. This author has never read my work (that I know of), bought my book, retweeted something I linked, written a review of the Brevity Podcast or even commented on a personal Facebook status. I do not feel connected in a favor-asking way. 4/5 of those ways to connect are free of charge.
- Know how big the ask is. Personally recommending an agent or a publisher is a fairly big deal. If you don’t have a close connection, join a Facebook group for authors in your genre, spend some time being helpful in the group, then ask for recommendations in a post. Plenty of people will weigh in with information also benefiting the whole group. On a personal level, my friend of twenty years recommended me to his agent…after reading my whole manuscript and concluding he wouldn’t be embarrassed. If a teacher mentions they’ll connect you with their agent, take an honest look at whether the agent is a good match, then send your best draft, hopefully making your teacher look like a gifted talent-spotter.
(My most-recommended source for a good grounding in basic publishing info and etiquette is literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. Start with the links halfway down on the right headed Rules For Writers.)
It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that “self-publicist” is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and not usually this cranky.
January 11, 2018 § 13 Comments
Maybe you’ve got a dream residency. Or you’ve never been to an artist retreat, but it sounds like a great idea. There are residencies around the world at all prices, lengths, and amounts of coddling. Some feel like a new family, eating communal meals and hanging out at the swimming hole. Others are truly retreats, one writer in their own space with no-one to talk to (bliss!). I–and plenty of other writers–have self-made residencies, shacking up in hotels, religious centers, or remote cabins. One of my most productive “residencies” was four days in a small-town AirBnB after attending a writing workshop. Rather than rush back into my day-to-day, I could apply the revisions my teacher suggested, and write from ideas generated in class.
Even if you don’t have a place in mind, prepping for an imagined future residency is useful for your writing career. Updating your resume makes you ready for sudden opportunities. Devising an “artist statement” can help set writing intentions for the months to come. It’s worth it to:
Update Your CV. Make a writing-focused resume, emphasizing aspects of your other jobs that make you a perfect teacher/writer-in-residence/candidate for something cool, and a separate “publication list” where you list everything you have ever written that has gone public. Don’t list personal blog posts–but mention the blog and say what you write about. Save the big version for reference, then pare it to 2-5 pages of the most relevant experience and best publications. (Pro Tip: organize your published work by genre if your best credit is farther down the list by date.) Then joyfully slash it to a paragraph on your overall career development, a shortlist of writing-related jobs, and your 5-10 top publications. Some applications ask for one page, so agonize now instead of at 10PM before a midnight deadline.
Write an Artist Statement. It sounds intimidating, but an Artist Statement is basically, “This is the kind of work I do, because I want to have this effect on that community. I’ve already explored these subjects and topics, and now I’m pushing my boundaries in this medium/style/venue/genre.” Writing this down helps you remember why you’re writing, and what you want to achieve. Here’s a great guide to writing an Artist Statement. Make a 500-word version, one that fits on a page, and one that’s a paragraph. Now you’re ready to copy-paste that information into a grant application, or next year’s holiday card. (I guarantee none of your relatives will suggest you write teen vampire novels after that.)
Write a Cover Letter. Again, agonize now, not at the last minute. Ask a pal who’s gotten into a residency to share their cover letter and Mad-Libs that sucker until it’s your own. When the time comes to apply, fill in the relevant dates and information, and you’re ready to go.
Choose Your Best Pages. Put together a packet of 25 pages and one of 10 pages (the numbers commonly asked for). If you’re a novelist or memoirist, go for a complete scene or chapter. If you’re an essayist, lead with your strongest essay. Have a version with your name in the header of every page, and a version that can be read blind. At ElectricLit, author Sandra Beasley recommends:
Submit the strongest possible work sample for two-thirds of the allotted pages. If your strongest work is completely different from the work you’re setting out to do, make sure that other third represents relevant material.
Dream Up a Plan. What would you do with three weeks of someone else feeding you and no housework or papers to grade? How would you spend your time? What project deserves your focused energy? Sketch out 100-500 words apiece on two or three things you’d be thrilled to have space to work on.
By having these documents prepped, you can spend your valuable application time polishing and tweaking instead of choosing and worrying. You have time to have a friend proofread. To update your publications instead of making a list from scratch. When you find out about a great opportunity the day of the deadline, you have an hour of customization on your hands instead of 8 hours of drafting new material. And more importantly, you have a clear picture of where you are right now as a writer–and where you want to be.
What’s the Deal With Writing Residencies, a great interview with Sandra Beasley at Electric Lit, breaks down the residency process from application to departure.
On the Brevity blog, we discussed Glendaliz Camacho’s terrific post about reading applications as a residency juror, and how to write a great application.
The Res Artis database is a great place to check out residencies by date or location.
If you’re a woman or non-binary writer, feel free to friend me on Facebook and I’ll add you to a group that discusses artist residencies. For people of all genders, check out the Artist Residencies Info Share Facebook group.
January 9, 2018 § 25 Comments
In Taiwan, there are historic shophouses, cliffs crumbling into the Pacific Ocean, and a glorious day where gods are processed through the streets, heralded by firecrackers and bands.
There are also huge stationery stores. The first one I saw–9X9 Stationery Expert–I walked right into four aisles of pens. Just pens. Not erasers or pencils–those have their own aisles, thank you very much. Upstairs were rows of stickers, file folders, calendars, art supplies, and shelf after shelf of notebooks, lined and squared and blank and ready for absolutely brilliant and world-changing writing.
That’s my secret hope for every blank page I buy. But usually new notebooks end up on a shelf, because they’re “too nice to use” or I’m on a kick where I only write in composition books or hotel notepads or primary school tablets from Austria. I finally solved that quandary by buying the same notebook every time, in packs of three, so I can write on nice paper without feeling like I’m committing desecration.
Still, I wanted the cute notebook that said “Everything Is Going to Be OK” on the cover. Or the one with the old-fashioned folded pages, to be slit apart with a paper knife. Maybe the one lined vertically for kanji writing, with anime pandas on every page. Before my husband hauled me out of the store (after waiting patiently for almost an hour), I’d bought gifts for friends and paper clips shaped like the Eiffel Tower.
I got sucked into an artsy independent store in Kaohsiung. In Tainan, going alone at night to 101 Stationary Paradise felt like meeting a lover. On my birthday, my husband indulged me. We walked almost five miles to hit every stationery store in Hualien for the right set of rubber-stamp letters.
It’s the promise of the blank page–not only are we going to write something on a fresh, clean space free of previous failure, we’ll do it with the joy and abandon of an eight-year-old with a brand-new box of still-pointy crayons that haven’t yet been forcibly shared with siblings.
I’ve moved away from paper. I have a habit-tracker and a list app and a calendar and everything syncs with my phone. It’s too easy. Every idea gets put in a digital list and forgotten immediately. Perhaps twenty projects have been broken into steps and abandoned. I dutifully tick off exercise and birthdays and groceries. Meanwhile, my notebooks sit half-filled, pulled out for a workshop when I’m doing “real” writing.
But I wanted those Taiwanese notebooks and pens, and I didn’t want them sitting on a shelf. There had to be a plan. I found the Bullet Journal. Beautiful, hand-lettered calendars, habit trackers and moon charts sprawled across Instagram and Pinterest, hashtagged with the notebooks and art pens used to create them. It was way more than I could handle. (If you’re interested but easily overwhelmed, start with #minimalistbujo)
Instead, I resurrected an idea from Lynda Barry’s marvelous book Syllabus: use the same notebook for everything. Class notes and errand lists. Brainstorming and doodling. Real assignments and rough drafts and fresh ideas. Barry proposes that putting everything in one place sparks connections from proximity, even among unrelated items. And really, what more relationship do they need than all coming from the same head?
I stuck with the same notebook because I had a new one with me. I’m not sure I love the pens. I bought the wrong color stamp pad. I’m not a great visual designer, my pages bleed through and my handwriting is shitty. But so far it’s working. Everything in one book, the joy of playing with colored pencils and a cute sharpener and washi tape. If an idea is worth keeping, it’s worth writing down, flipping back to when I need something to write (like this blog post). If a job is worth doing, it’s worth copying to next week’s list–or let it go un-copied and undone, instead of popping up as an automatically scheduled “priority.”
When I first workshopped with Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore, he required all in-class writing to be done on paper, because (paraphrasing) the veins in the hand connect to the heart, and we can write more truly and deeply without the mediation of the keyboard. I do feel more connected to what I’m writing, even “cancel credit card,” and I’m finding things easier to remember (science!).
I probably won’t go completely analog, because typing is fast. But I’ve woken up five days in a row eager to get to the page, to color and write and make things. I’ve felt more focused, and the paper page doesn’t let me click through to Facebook.
New year, new notebook. Maybe it’s a gimmick. But for now, sign me up.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
December 21, 2017 § 33 Comments
How was 2017?
OK, a dumpster fire, yes, but how was your writing in 2017? Because now is a great time to consider what you got done. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and didn’t, but genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments.
Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?
Get a piece accepted? Submitted to places you want to be accepted?
Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?
Make it to a workshop or a class or a conference or a coffee date with another writer?
Read a book you really loved that showed you something about writing? Read a craft book and tried some exercises? Researched something new?
They all count. So bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations.
When you’re done, look ahead. What kind of writing year do you want to have in 2018? Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 16th. But it’s a good time to mentally reassess, because other people are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck the bookstores.
Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open. The Measurement on that one’s easy–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out. Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing. Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts, so the goal feels like something you can take action on.
Here’s what I’m thinking about:
What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to write more travel pieces for mass media, so I’m making a list of places to pitch, reading their stories for tone and structure. I also signed up for a big industry convention next month, to collect business cards for tourist boards, meet media reps, and check out travel trends. Do you need help to be this kind of writer? I’ve hired a coach to help refine my first few pitches and give feedback on story ideas.
What big project do you want to finish? Definitely another pass on my young adult novel, with a plan about how many chapters to do a week and when to start querying again. I’m organizing a writing retreat in India, and need to finish budgeting and start marketing. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process.
What do you want to read? More paper books and less news on my phone. How can you make that happen? Maybe turn on parental blocking on the websites that are my “I’m momentarily bored” crutches.
What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’m restructuring my freelance editing to do only one full manuscript at a time, with gaps between for my own work.
I realize that all sounds very organized. But it’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in my brain. It’s very hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what I can actually accomplish. In a way, it’s like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.
Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2018’s writing year? The comments are wide open. Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Happy goal-setting and see you in 2018!