April 27, 2018 § 16 Comments
By Jennifer Cramer-Miller
My daughter and I are both writers, and David Sedaris is one of our favorites. He’s a master. So when he booked a tour in my daughter’s college town, we jumped at the chance to see him. We expected to love his writing performance; we didn’t expect to learn lessons from that performance about writing.
This is what I learned from an evening with David Sedaris.
As he walked onstage, the theater filled with hoots, hollers, and applause. There was a waddle to his walk, likely explained by his clown shoes. Yes, I said clown shoes. He pointed out the oddly shaped, clomping footwear with pride. The shoes were tame, however, compared to his shirt—a white collared button down, traditional on top, yet the length reached his ankles like a tailored toga. I think it looks great, he exclaimed.
Lesson: Just be you. No apologies.
The art of revision requires persistence
Mr. Sedaris stood at a podium and read an essay. He made jots with a pencil while he spoke. My daughter elbowed me and whispered. He makes a note when people laugh. During the question/answer portion of the evening to follow, a woman inquired about the notes. He explained he makes a mark if a section seems to sag or sing, if he wonders who cares, or tighten this up. Even during a polished performance, David Sedaris perfects his craft.
Lesson: Revision is as necessary to vibrant composition as water is to flowers.
Take the pulse of a piece
I was impressed at how genuinely Mr. Sedaris embraced his audience. His pieces live beyond the page, and the audience response informs his writing. A theater full of fans offered feedback, and he heard it.
Lesson: Take your pieces for a test run. Feedback makes your work better.
Know your audience
Mr. Sedaris prefaced one of his essays with a disclaimer prompted by his partner. “Hugh told me to take this one out of my recent book. He thought it brought the whole book down. With that, I knew I was on to something good.”
He read a summary of varied international drivers’ expressions of frustration to other drivers on the road—the multinational equivalents of the American middle finger.
His recounts started with a humorous dissection of the Netherlands “cancer whore” taunt and progressed to Romania, where he discovered a graphic and inventive phrase that is too much for me to repeat. The audience howled all the way through his piece.
After the lingering laughter settled, he punctuated the end with Hugh’s commentary, “People don’t want to hear that filth.” Apparently, we did, and the laughter erupted once more.
Lesson: Not everyone will like what you write. That’s okay. Write for those who do.
Observation makes your writing rich.
The latest book published by David Sedaris, Theft by Finding, is an edited compilation of diary entries from 1977-2002. In the second half of his performance, Mr. Sedaris read a series of short, funny journal entries prompted by the question, what made me feel most alive yesterday? His recitals of everyday encounters comprised a humor-filled glimpse at being open to life.
Lesson: Pay attention at the dentist’s office, the grocery store, and at the airport. Don’t let the constant swirl of mundane moments go unnoticed.
Writers are readers
To finish the evening, Mr. Sedaris gushed over a little-known author and highly recommended we buy her book (available in the lobby) before we considered any of his. He read from her work and relished her character development and finessed writing style. In doing so, he underscored the dual joys of writing and reading.
Lesson: Enjoying the written word is an equal opportunity endeavor. How refreshing it is that even the one-of-a-kind talent of David Sedaris can inspire the process of writing for the wannabe, emerging, and most seasoned amongst us.
April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments
One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.
[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]
This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.
In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:
J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.
This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.
The revelation arrives in section eight:
I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.
J. fuit hic.
I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.
If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.
This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.
I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:
Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.
I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.
Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.
April 19, 2018 § 1 Comment
Experimenting with form, fiction, and storytelling in general is one of our favorite ways to keep literature interesting. From Recommended Reading’s 300th issue composed of 300-word love stories, to a series of 280-character short stories in honor of the new tweet length, to Okey-Panky’s two years of publishing ribald literary oddities, illustrations, and poems, we think our experiments — which is also to say, your work — have delivered thrilling results.
To expand our testing field, we launched the Recommended Reading Commuter, which publishes literature portioned for consumption during an otherwise insulting Monday morning commute. Featuring poetry, flash, graphic, and experimental narratives, the Commuter publishes every other week, and has already showcased the likes of Noy Holland, Lulu Miller, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Shelly Oria and Nelly Reifler, and more.
On Monday, April 23, we’ll open submissions for one week through our Submittable page, closing on April 30th at 11:59PM. Below are the categories in which we’re looking for work, and submission guidelines. Please note that, while the Commuter publishes poetry and graphic narrative, this submission period is for prose only. Submission periods for other forms will open in May and June.
- Flash fiction up to 1,500 words. Writers can submit up to 3 pieces that can be a series or standalone works, but the total word count of the submission should not exceed 1,500 words.
- We will consider fiction as well as experimental narratives that are difficult to classify and take on unusual forms or formats.
- Please submit text in .doc, .docx, or .odt.
- If your work is selected, we can offer a payment of $100.
The submission window’s short and coming up fast, so get your piece prepped and ready to go!
April 6, 2018 § 7 Comments
Author and workshop leader Susan Tiberghien offers writing exercises from her new book, Writing Toward Wholeness, Lessons Inspired by C.G. Jung, which uses excerpts from Jung’s writings, and writers such as Etty Hillesum, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, and Thich Nhat Hahn, to bring together psychology, spirituality and the arts:
The first lesson in Writing Toward Wholeness ─ “Keeping Your Own Red Books” ─ suggests journaling as a way toward uncovering our soul, toward uncovering our connectedness, our oneness. Journaling is a practice, like meditation, leading us to deeper writing, to deeper living. When we journal, when we write about what we see, feel, touch, we discover its meaning, linking together the visible and the invisible worlds.
If I journal about a walk on the beach and picking up a small white shell, the white shell is no longer one amidst hundreds in the sand, but it is unique, its jagged edges cupped in my hand. It has suffered, from being tossed about by waves, currents, and eddies. But here it is in my hand, opening the door in my imagination to my own jagged edges.
To illustrate this, here is a writing suggestion from the second lesson in my book, “Pursuing Images.” Open your journal, close your eyes, what experience comes to you, what image comes to you? Something you did, something you saw. Hold on to the image, look at it, and describe it. Take a moment and write a few lines to give it life.
I give the following example from my own journal: “A tree with fall foliage appeared, like the one outside my kitchen window last fall. Its rust-colored leaves were falling sporadically to the ground.” To learn from the image, from my tree, I spoke to it, asked it why it came to me. I wrote down my question and the tree’s response in the form of a dialogue. Jung calls this active imagination.
I asked if I too must let go of my leaves, If I must “stop checking if all is well, stop worrying about family, friends, about my work.” Yes, replied the tree, “Let things be.” I was told to trust the process. “The leaves return to their roots to rise anew.” Nothing is lost. Life is a continuum.
A continuum. A whole. Each of us writes towards this wholeness. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in her “Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times:” ─ “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, holds a BA in Literature and Philosophy and did graduate work at Grenoble University in France and the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht, Switzerland. She has published four memoirs Looking for Gold, A Year in Jungian Analysis; Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer; Side by Side: Writing Your Love Story; and Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman, and the writing handbook, One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, along with numerous essays in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. Tiberghien has been teaching Jungian inspired writing workshops for over twenty years at C.G. Jung Societies, at the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in the States and in Europe. She directs the Geneva Writers’ Group, an association of over 240 English-language writers, which she founded in 1993. Mother of six children and sixteen grandchildren, she lives with her husband in Geneva, Switzerland.
March 29, 2018 § 6 Comments
Tuesday, I wrote about planning an upcoming retreat. After deciding to focus on full-manuscript revisions, making a website and budgeting, I needed to plan the retreat itself. How would I schedule the time? What would the writers expect? I turned to some experts for advice.
What surprised you when you first started planning/leading/speaking at retreats?
Ryder Ziebarth, founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series: The special requests were a bit of a revelation—can you offer more fruit next time? It’s too cold in here; it’s too hot in here; can you possibly rent more comfortable chairs next time? I forgot my coat (notebook, lipstick, power-cord) can you mail it to me? All quite reasonable requests, but I had to learn that I am now not just a writer, but a writer in the hospitality business.
Lisa Romeo, retreat leader and author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss: Regardless of whether an event is labeled as “generative” or not, if there’s scheduled quiet writing time or not, if there’s an option for sharing work or not, if it’s called a workshop or retreat or seminar or intensive—it’s not unusual for those registering to expect some or all of that, or none of that! So it’s enormously important for organizers to publish a very clear description, and follow up with a fuller description and instructions for registrants, so when folks arrive they’re prepared and know what to expect.
Joanne Lozar Glenn, leader of Write Time Write Place Write Now local and destination retreats: The panic that hit me a few days before I had to get on the road for the retreat. As an educator I was comfortable leading writing activities, I knew most of the people who’d be attending, and yet, in those last few days before my first retreat, I was absolutely terrified.
What’s important to consider in the retreat schedule and your own leadership?
Hananah Zaheer, partner in Mind The Gap travelling retreat collective: I have attended retreats that are fairly isolated from the world (VCCA and Rivendell) and were great for working on projects I had started. While the completely open-schedule retreat means one can work any time one chooses, I found that some structure to the day was helpful to me. When my partner and I planned the first collective trip to London, we created a loose schedule with writing time, optional visits to museums and plays, and two readings to be able to share whatever we were creating. This provides a nice, inspirational break to get back to writing.
Ryder: Gauging attention spans. You have to interpret body language to know when your participants need a break. Plan at least one five-minute break for a stretch and some water, etc. at the end of every hour.
Hananah: I think it’s a nice bonus to have a retreat where food is included…such an unexpected little freedom.
Joanne: Participants are excited about having dedicated time to write. They’re also scared. You’re asking them to risk. In a sense you’re asking them to show up naked on the page. So I recommend figuring out a signature way of making them feel welcome and safe.
I find a card with an image/message that resonates with the activities, whether that’s to have a sense of “play” about the writing, or to stand strong in your truth and write with power, for example. One of my last tasks before leaving for a retreat I’m leading is to write a welcoming letter that builds on that theme, tuck it inside the card, and have one waiting for each writer when they check in.
Lisa: Stay on track and deliver what you promised; yet be alert to topics attendees introduce. They may provide great teaching moments and if they seem to capture the writers’ attention or imagination, a spontaneous digression can be an exciting addition to the agenda.
Ryder: It was important to me the Cedar Ridge Writers participants were heard, that everyone’s work was heard if they wanted to share it—even if it cuts into the next exercise.
Joanne: Find a way to match the risk your participants are taking. I used to think my job was to “hold the space,” and that I couldn’t both hold the space and write. But gifted workshop leader Pat Schneider (who founded Amherst Writers and Artists) set me straight. “You won’t write your best work when you’re also responsible for leading a retreat,” she said, “but it’s important to show you’re willing to take the same risk you’re asking your workshop participants to take.” She was right. So I started writing (and sharing what I wrote) during our sessions.
Maybe a year or so later, a retreat participant and I were talking about that idea of risk-taking when sharing work. She told me, “When you didn’t write and share with us, I always wondered whether it was because you didn’t trust us.” That shocked me. No matter your intention or reason for doing one thing or another, it’s going to come across differently to everyone who’s there. The only thing you can do is be as clear as you can when communicating, and then let go of the rest because it’s out of your control. That’s hard, and something I have to really work at.
What did you expect to matter that wasn’t a big deal after all?
Lisa: That everyone in the room be at the same skill level. I’ve actually found it’s much more interesting for everyone when you have a mix of experience represented.
Ryder: I’d never taught before presenting my first workshop. Once I got over my nervousness, I found I was actually comfortable in the role, and I’m pretty sure no-one guessed I was scared to death.
Joanne: Being 100% prepared and scripted. Being prepared is important, of course—the less you have to worry about the more you can be available and present. But I find the Buddhist concept of ‘not too tight, not too loose’ helpful to remember. And getting lots of sleep. If you’re 80-90% prepared and well-rested (and fed), it’s a lot easier to respond in a creative, authentic way to what is happening, and to make the most of a teachable moment.
What are you planning next?
Hananah: I started finding local groups to connect with, to participate in readings and hear what the local writing scene is like. When I plan the Mind the Gap retreats, my biggest concern is finding a location where participants can benefit not just from the travel but also from the local literary scene, museums, bookstores, etc. The next Mind the Gap retreat is coming up in October.
Lisa: My first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. I’ll be speaking about the writing process at the Cedar Ridge workshop June 10th, and other events listed on my website.
Joanne: Upcoming “Get Away and Get Writing” retreats will be in the USA and abroad.
Ryder: I decided to “GO BIG” and move the fourth Cedar Ridge workshop to our local public library, which holds four times the amount of people I can host at my house. Creating Memoir From Memory will be June 10th in Bedminster, New Jersey.
And from Allison: Armed with the information these retreat leaders generously shared, I feel a lot better about my own Rebirth Your Book manuscript-work week in India in June. I’ll also be leading Creating Memoir From Memory at Cedar Ridge.
Do you lead a retreat? Do you want to? Please tell us about your retreat—or ask a question for your own planning—in the comments!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
March 16, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Tucker Coombe
When Scott and Susan Freeman purchased an eighteen-acre parcel of land in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2004, they could see that decades of logging and unsuccessful farming had taken their toll. The landscape was riddled with noxious, invasive plants––thorny stands of Himalayan and Eurasian blackberry, mats of reed canary grass, and tall swaths of horsetail and thistle. Tarboo Creek, the once-robust salmon stream that flowed through the property, “looked like an open wound.”
In Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land (Timber Press), Freeman describes how he and his family, as part of an intensive, community-wide effort, restore the waterway and surrounding lands. A local excavator sculpts a shallow, meandering stream, then drops old trees in strategic locations to create pools for the fish. Several inches of gravel are sprinkled onto the bottom of the stream bed. Banks are seeded and covered in hay. Finally, water is diverted to its new home. Over the next decade, more than 10,000 native shrubs and trees are planted in the surrounding floodplain and abandoned pasture.
Freeman teaches biology at the University of Washington. His wife, Susan, provides the book’s delightful, pen-and-ink illustrations and is the granddaughter of Aldo Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most important conservation thinkers and author of A Sand County Almanac (1949), the groundbreaking book that advocated for moral responsibility toward the land. The Freemans are, in short, part of a multi-generational family steeped in ecological awareness and land-restoration expertise.
Freeman is a close observer of the natural world, and his descriptions are lyrical and compelling. When salmon return to Tarboo Creek for spawning, they “arrive a fire-engine red and bristling with vigor but are dead in less than two weeks. The females beat the skin and muscle right off of their tails as they dig a nest for their eggs.”
And who knew about nurse logs—fallen tree trunks whose rich, rotting structure serves as an ideal growing site for a new generation of trees? “Once an old tree has been down for a decade or two,” he writes, “it’s common to see a row of four-foot-tall hemlock or cedar saplings lined up along its back, like schoolchildren waiting for the bell.” Freeman also depicts a family that’s deeply connected to the rhythms of the land. On spring nights, Scott and Susan can gauge the warmth of their pond simply by listening to the tree frogs. And it’s not unusual, on an autumn afternoon, for several children to sit shoulder-to-shoulder along the stream bank, watching a female salmon dig her nest and naming the males that hover nearby.
But Saving Tarboo Creek is not simply a happy tale of ecological restoration. Freeman’s superb chapter on salmon includes a grim history of the animal’s near-extirpation. A lovely description of tree-planting morphs into a stark chronicling of global deforestation––followed by sober discussions of climate change, human overpopulation, and an impending mass extinction. “Biological and cultural evolution has now put human beings in a position of immense power relative to other species, and we can be destroyers or stewards,” he writes.
Freeman dedicates this book to the young men and women––his father-in-law, Carl Leopold, among them––who saved the world from tyranny during World War II, and also to the high school and college students of today: it’s your turn, he says, to step up and save the world.
But just how does he propose doing this? Rather than providing thoughtful, practical suggestions, Freeman preaches against what he sees as a “poverty of values” in our society––a focus on consumerism that leaves us unhappy, unhealthy, and out of touch with the natural world. And in trying to illustrate just how out of whack we’ve become––fretting about how many Americans take medication for depression, or alter their appearance through plastic surgery––he goes too far. Freeman risks not only sounding sanctimonious, but alienating those whom he will need to enlist if he hopes to turn the tide on environmental issues. (The fight to save the world needs everyone––even those who’ve had a little nip and tuck.)
I finished this book wanting more information. What does Freeman recommend to readers who are anxious to join the battle, but have no idea where to start? And for those living in high-rise apartment buildings––more likely to line a windowsill with potted ferns than purchase a piece of land––what useful steps does he suggest?
Saving Tarboo Creek shows us a remarkable slice of the natural world. I only wish it offered more advice on saving it.
Tucker Coombe writes about nature and education from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Hairpin, and can be found at tuckercoombe.com.
March 8, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Rebecca Fish Ewan
When I volunteered to write a review of Natalie Singer’s debut book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, I had one fear. What if I feel like the sad local girl California dumped in favor of this smarter, prettier, Canadian import? I wanted to be bigger than this. Sure, I did, but I still marked my territory by noting, in the email to her publisher, I’m fifth generation Californian.
Then the advance review copy arrived.
I’m supposed to be shopping for gifts, but instead I’m holding this gorgeous book in my hands, devouring the micro essays that stitch together a story of a young woman falling in love with my home state.
Wow, she’s brilliant, I think as I turn another page.
So, let’s consider the plot line: She pulls a book off a library shelf. She dreams of California. She has parents. Divorce. She moves to the Bay Area. Goes to college. Has boyfriends. Sometimes they go on hikes or sail. She’s a nanny for a while. Writes for newspapers. There are lizards. The radio plays.
This is the story, but it’s also not the story. California Calling is the longing to belong. It’s the struggle to feel real in a place famous for its fictions. It’s the sting of otherness. Jewishness. Loneliness. How to make people feel welcome. Or not.
I read memoirs to feel connection, to see how other writers navigate between their changing identities. I want to simultaneously occupy the author’s recalled world while inhabiting the geography of my own memories. California Calling gives me all this and much more.
I love the book’s craft, how its hybrid form brought me the story in bits. Reading each tiny chapter, I sensed how Singer stalked stories. I felt brought along to serve as witness. Some chapters are factual nuggets about Yosemite rock falls, desert pup fish or the phallic Coit Tower. (It’s a fire nozzle! I hear my firefighter spouse holler from another room.) Point of view shifts throughout. I peek over Singer’s shoulder at Her-Then. Or she turns to face me, and I become You. Other times, the You becomes an ex-boyfriend. Or she sits with me on a cozy couch handing me aphorisms like See’s Candies: “Silence is a disappearance…Interrogation is a taking possession of one’s being…your loneliness finds corroboration in nature…one of the most valuable responses to trauma is testimony.” Space contracts and expands, from discomforting intimacy (really, Natalie, this boat privy is too small for both of us while you masturbate) to a remote aerial perspective above pine forests as we look for the spot where a girl once crossed over into California. As an infrequent quilter, I admire the deftness with which Singer threads together the pieces, some just a single sentence—“I wanted to be reconstituted”—to create a cohesive picture of a woman becoming Californian.
The book is packed with delicious language, and I lost count of how many times I read simply to savor a sentence’s flavorful landscape. Long ago, I went camping in Arizona with another teacher and two carloads of teenagers. Not a mom yet but more maternal than the guy, I suggested we feed the kids after a full day of hiking around Wupatki ruins. “Who needs food?” he said, sniffing the wind that blew across the red rock terrain. “You can eat the air.” I ate the air on every page of California Calling, delightfully familiar California coastal-fog-saturated salt air. My iodine levels rose reading this book.
I love California Calling for all its references, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Bella in Twilight to Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain. They felt like safe invitations into a woman’s busy mind, a woman who built a life from her ability to connect rather than disassemble—a mind occupied with assimilation, immigration, and belonging.
I rarely read books twice. There are just too many books on earth and I’m a slow reader. With California Calling, I want to do the thing my daughter does with television shows she loves. She binge-watches every season and the moment she comes to the end, she starts from the beginning again. Like chain smoking stories, I need to finish up my gift list, maybe shower and change my clothes. Then I’ll light the beginning of this book with the hot ember of its ending. As Singer writes: “If our childhood truths were really fictions, to begin again all we must do to grow up is make more space for myth.” So, what’s this book about? Beginning again.
Rebecca Fish Ewan, founder of Plankton Press (where small is big enough), creates Tiny Joys & GRAPH(feeties) zines. She has degrees in math, landscape architecture, and creative writing and is a writer/poet/cartoonist. She teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University and lives with her family in Tempe. Her work has appeared in Bikequity, Brevity, Femme Fotale, Hip Mama, Mutha, Punctuate, Survivor Zine, and Under the Gum Tree. She has two creative nonfiction books: A Land Between, an ecocultural history of the Owens Valley, and By the Forces of Gravity, a forthcoming memoir of cartoons and verse (Books by Hippocampus, June 2018).
March 6, 2018 § 39 Comments
I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. To simply sit down. Every day. And write. To learn the novice mistakes. To correct them. To learn more novice mistakes. To correct them. It’s an endless cycle.
I don’t like calling myself an “emerging” writer. Think about what emerging means…to rise up, to come into existence, to develop. Would I call myself a “developing writer?” Apply that to another career choice—a developing plumber. A developing doctor. Who wants to take a chance on a developing anything? I’d say, “Call me back when you’re developed.”
I visually see “emerging” as a butterfly bursting from a chrysalis. When is the transformation complete? When the writer is published? When I stop making rookie mistakes? Never?
A rookie writer submits her pieces too soon. My father, a self-published author who would never call himself “emerging,” but simply a writer, reminds me that work needs to sit and season like a stew. This comment brings out the teenager in me: “I know that, dad! Everyone knows that!” But I still finish a piece at 10:01 and shoot it out across Submittable at 10:02.
The emerging writer entertains many rejections. What’s more painful—The pubs that don’t reply or the ones who reply within an hour? We knew THAT quickly you weren’t good enough.
Lynda Barry’s quote is posted at my desk: “Is it good? Does this suck?” I never know the answer for sure.
I attend literary events. I meet authors. I start to better understand the writing community. But then someone says “are you going to hear Colson Whitehead’s reading next week?” and I say, “who’s Colson Whitehead?”
I tweet about a local author’s book hoping they’ll retweet it, because I feel pressure to build a platform. The author re-tweets everyone else on Twitter except me. I read a roundtable interview with agents on how to successfully publish a memoir. “A robust platform is given equal footing with voice and story.” I need ten thousand followers. I spend a week being more active on Twitter. At the end of the week I am nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two followers short.
Then there’s the question of whether I’ve suffered enough. I sit in class, writing on a Lenovo Yoga while drinking Tazo ginger tea and wearing burgundy fingerless gloves woven in Peru. Do I even have a right to be here? I’m just another progressive white woman nearing fifty, writing a sad memoir. Love stories with a spouse killed by cancer are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. My teacher, a talented poet, shares her beginnings—how she wrote into the wee hours each night while raising children alone and working two jobs. Is it my imagination, or is she looking at me?
But I’m here. I’m here because the ghost of my dead husband follows me around. I’m here because outside of raising his children and a demanding corporate job, I’ve made time for writing classes at night in the damp rooms of Seattle’s Hugo House, and the subject I always write about—for fifteen years now—has been my grief. I’m here because two years ago the pounding of a voice telling me “it’s time, it’s time, if not now, when, it’s time to write his story, it’s time to write your story” sat on my shoulder, madly distracting me from staying the corporate path. I’m here because I saved and saved and saved to keep our household running for a few years so I could focus on this project. I’m here because my current husband and extended family withheld their worries, instead saying, “go, we believe in you.” I’m here because I loved a man deeply, and his life was cut short, and we didn’t say the things we should have said because we were young and naïve, and there have been days when I’ve been stuck on the cold tile floor in fetal position heaving wet grief at the regret and guilt I carry for his death. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.
And maybe you can’t hear me. Maybe I toss in an adverb too many. Or my story doesn’t have a universal point. Or the tension isn’t building. Or a sentence that should end with a clang ends with a whoosh. Or I don’t have a platform. Or my memoir is too non-traditional. Or not traditional enough.
But here’s the thing, dear reader, dear agent, dear publisher, dear author, the story is eating me alive. The. Story. Is. Eating. Me. Alive. So, lacking skill, lacking platform, lacking a through path, I keep going. I show up. I sit down. I keep writing. And by the grace of my pen, I will get out on paper the suffocating grief within me to remember a man, a good man, a simple man, a handsome man, a dead man.
Perhaps the transformation from emerging writer to writer has already happened. More likely it never ends. It’s enough that the story rises from me, and I catch it be penned. That is my metamorphosis.
Rachel Greenley is a Seattle-based writer who would like you to follow her on Twitter.
February 27, 2018 § 15 Comments
Who aims for rejections? It’s a crazy notion. Not for the fainthearted. And definitely not for those prone to negativity. But since the beginning of 2017, I’ve been aiming for rejections. This intention spurred writing, encouraged finishing, and helped me put more pieces out into the world than previous years. An original idea? Nope. In late 2016, I read a piece on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections A Year. Sold.
Years ago, such a risk would have stopped my writing. I’d spent dollars on therapy to deal with my writing demons. I wrote pieces about quitting writing. I swore that I didn’t stand a chance in the world wide of publication. Fear. Yes.
But after years of writing workshops, sending out random pieces here and there, and on rare occasions getting an acceptance, I felt ready to commit. Ready to say I have work worthy of reading. Ready to risk rejection.
I created a writing intentions calendar, noting pieces that needed revision, listing pieces I wanted to create, placing deadlines for submissions of particular pieces complete with lists of potential homes. Each month, I crossed through what was done, and when things weren’t touched, I re-evaluated, deciding whether to move them to another month or simply remove that intention.
I began submitting. Aiming for rejections. And I received them.
Eighty-two times in one year.
In the past, I’d received rejections without much grace. Often, I’d utter nastiness at the publication, holding a fuck-you finger to the computer screen. Other times, I’d run to my faithful partner and ask her if I was wasting my time (I still occasionally do this after too many rejections in a row). But starting last year, I handled it like a business. I persevered, refusing to let external readers determine my writing life. I’d note the rejection in a list, add the number to a tally for that month, and evaluate whether the piece should be sent to other journals or put back into the revision pile.
When my rejections passed 50, I got a bit excited.
I hadn’t crumbled.
I hadn’t stopped writing.
I hadn’t submitted to fear.
There were moments I wondered if I could truly withstand 100 rejections. For years, I had worked and reworked an essay about the onset of my father’s Parkinson’s disease. Writing pals declared it ready—it would find a home. I sent it off to my dream publication, checking the box that said I wasn’t simultaneously submitting. I waited. It took only six weeks to receive a friendly, impersonal rejection wishing me “the best in placing [my] writing elsewhere.”
I submitted the essay to what I thought would be a sure shot. I’d read their issues. Read their mission. This fit. Again, it took only six weeks for the rejecter to wish me “the best finding a home for it.”
Fortunately, encouragement occasionally showed up in my rejection pile. Several pieces garnered “…we hope you will consider sending us more in the future.” Then there was the rejection that I celebrated as much as an acceptance. A hybrid piece of polyvocality, part Twitter/part narrative, had made it up to the editor’s table at another dream publication. The rejection came directly from the editor. She told me how interested they were, that it was a close call, even though my essay didn’t make the final cut. She gave me hope for a piece that was having difficulty finding a home.
My new mission of aiming for 100 rejections helped me finish pieces. After years of generating lots of starts and little finishes, I knew that in order to have enough material to aim for 100 rejections, I had to actually produce and finish work. A specific number gave me accountability.
At the end of last year’s experiment, I had four pieces published and one forthcoming. I had enough polished work that when someone solicited me for a potential submission, I actually had several pieces I cared about to send in (and one was selected for publication). It’s too early to predict this year’s outcome, but I’m into 2018’s writing intentions with a busy calendar filled with promise—and rejection.
Amy Braziller is a former punk rocker, sometimes banjo twanging foodie, and current Professor of English at Red Rocks Community College. Publications include Front Porch, Entropy, Split Rock Review, and Hippocampus. Amy is working on a hybrid memoir related to her punk rock days in NYC. She writes about food, film, music, GLBT issues, and social media distractions at amybraziller.com.
February 12, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Heidi Fettig Parton
In 2002, Carolyn Porter, a graphic artist by trade, was shopping in the picturesque downtown of historic Stillwater in Minnesota. Nestled on the banks of the St. Croix River, Stillwater is a place where antique and up-cycled-vintage stores abound. It was at one of these stores where Porter discovered a bundle of vintage letters and postcards. She didn’t know it then, but these letters would alter the course of her life.
Back when Porter purchased the letters, she wasn’t thinking about writing a book. Instead, her trained eye recognized that Marcel’s beautiful handwriting was both aesthetically and numerically complete enough to serve as a model for a font design. Porter had never before designed a font, but she was eager to try her hand at this creative use of her design skills.
Porter purchased the letters and immediately began the work of designing a font during the stolen weekends and evenings not devoted to her clients’ projects. Porter worked off scans of the letters and kept the originals pressed flat between the pages of a book she put away in her closet, not to be looked at again until 2011, when Porter found herself struggling to get a particularly difficult letter right. That’s when Porter pulled out the original letters for inspiration. In doing so, she was reminded of their beauty.
“I’d been looking at them in black and white for so many years,” Porter told me, “I’d forgotten the stripes in the background and the beautiful buttery yellow color of the paper and how some of the ink was denim blue. I’d forgotten about the ‘letters’ themselves as physical objects because I’d been looking at the words only as characters in an alphabet.”
At that point, nine years after she’d first purchased the bundle of letters, Porter still only knew that the letters had been written by someone named Marcel and that they’d been postmarked, “Berlin, Germany.” Porter decided—on a whim—to have one of the letters translated. It was like opening a Pandora’s box.
Marcel, it turned out, was a man who had written a disarmingly affectionate letter to his three young daughters. He’d asked one daughter if she’d fetched the milk for her mother while she was away in Paris, he’d cautioned another not to pick blossoms from the trees, but to pick violets in the woods, and he’d asked the smallest daughter if she was still sucking her thumb. This was not the letter Porter had expected. She began to wonder why Marcel had been in Berlin.
Porter decided, at some expense, to have the other letters translated into English. The other letters were written to Marcel’s wife, although some included affectionate paragraphs to his daughters. Porter, however, still didn’t know why Marcel was in Berlin. An inquisitive person, she began looking for answers. Each discovery seemed to lead to another; the deeper Porter plowed, the more she felt a sense of responsibility for a story that seems to have found her.
Meanwhile, Porter continued her work on the font and in 2014, completed the design of the beautiful script font, “Marcel,” now licensed through a firm called P22. About a year after that completion, Porter was walking through a bookstore and spied her font—in the wild—on the cover of Anna Quindlen’s book, Miller’s Valley. When asked if she had any doubt whether the font was Marcel, Porter told me, “No. It’s like seeing your own child. I know every nook and cranny of those letters.”
Porter never set out to be a writer, but in 2017, Porter followed up her awarding winning font design by publishing the book, Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate. In Marcel’s Letters, recently nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, Porter tells both the story of her incredible search and, ultimately, the story she would piece together about Marcel’s past. The quest led Porter on a transnational journey, looking for answers. Those answers unfold gradually, layered throughout this book in a way that mirrors Porter’s own work to excavate the man behind these beautiful letters.
When Porter and I met for brunch to discuss her experience writing Marcel’s Letters. Porter brought along a few photos. One showed Marcel and his wife on their wedding day. Marcel’s bride was dressed in black because the couple was mourning Marcel’s mother’s death. In spite of the black dress, this photo shows a hopeful young couple, ignorant of the trials that stood before them.
Before setting the photo on the table for me to see, Porter held it to her chest and ran her hand across it a few times, as if smoothing out imaginary creases. Porter’s reverence for this photo was obvious. I could see something akin to love in Porter’s eyes, like the love shining in the eyes of a mother, proudly showing off a photo of her child. Porter’s eyes remained on the photo a few moments before she looked up to take in my reaction to seeing this photo. She would have seen tears moistening my eyes. I was moved, and not just by the photo; I believe it was the sincerity of Porter’s quest that filled my heart that day. Porter had been entrusted with a unique responsibility and she said yes.
When asked about her experience with Marcel’s letters, Porter told me, “The world is bigger now; I know more about history or, I should say, feel connected to history in a way I’ve never been before. I see how people are touched by this story.” None of this, however, would have happened without Porter’s remarkable ability to embrace curiosity and act boldly.
It’s entirely possible that the letters found Porter every bit as much as she found these letters. Through her tenacity and dedication, Marcel’s beautiful handwriting has been memorialized and his incredible story has been brought to light.
Heidi Fettig Parton holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Her work can be found on Assay Journal, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Agate Magazine, Grown and Flown, The Manifest-Station, Topology Magazine and others. Currently, Heidi is submerged in the risky business of memoir making and often forgets to make dinner. She wishes someone would invent the equivalent of cat food for young humans: an easy meal delivered from bag to bowl, deliciously providing all the nutrients children need (no, it’s not cereal). Follow her on Instragram @heidi_fettig, where you can see way too many pictures of her writing companion, Bilbo—the almost cat.