November 17, 2016 § 1 Comment
Understandably, we’ve all been a little distracted. But if you’re ready for a break from fighting the good fight, please enjoy the Brevity Podcast’s second episode, featuring interviews with Suzanne Roberts and Andre Dubus III. Some highlights:
- Suzanne reads her powerful piece from Brevity, The Essay Determines How It Will Begin, and talks about where writing is on her list of priorities (it’s not at the top! It’s not even second!).
- Andre discusses making a safe home for his kids in a violent world, and reads a section of his memoir, Townie. He also shares his thoughts on the value of writing about hard family moments, and how writing goes hand in hand with dealing with the actual problem.
- Political content: 0
Stream/download through most podcast apps.
And whether it’s listening to us, or to your children, or writing something messy, or lying on your back and watching the clouds, take a little time today for your writer self.
November 15, 2016 § 10 Comments
The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going!” And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, patiently awaiting his arrival.
An author I work with sent me another draft of a scene from a book she’s writing. I sent it back with more notes, for the third time. She wrote:
I love diving in deeper and hearing where things can get amped up. Am only worried it will take another year to edit the book if I do this for each scene 😉
She’s probably right. It may well take a year. Yes, some writers write much faster. But for most of us, polishing each element of our book–scene by scene, character by character, sentence by sentence–takes time. Time at the page. Time ruminating while walking, or gardening, or staring into space. Time away from the book and working on something else. Time at our day job, where one day someone says something in the break room that snaps a recalcitrant plotline into place. Time absorbing the world.
I wrote her back that yes, it’s time-consuming,
…but bear in mind that right now you’re also learning more about writing, and everything you learn will go much faster on the next round! Plus, material at the beginning of the book goes slower than the end, because things are being set up and you’re building the world. And as a human functioning in the real world, you’re probably already changing how you look at things and record details in your head, and being more aware of what makes a scene/character/world will speed up your process, too.
It’s worth remembering those things for my own work. Every time I write–whether a blog post, an essay, a memoir, a how-to book or a novel, I learn more about writing. The lessons from failed work, bad drafts and trashed sentences inform the next attempt. The end of a book may not be “fast” in terms of creative choices, but it’s definitely faster to finish typing a project than it is to start from an empty page. And certainly, as a human moving through the world, I’m noticing more of what physical situations and gestures trigger my judgment, so that I can “show instead of telling” on the page.
It’s OK if it takes ten years–or twenty!–to finish a book. Great work is often made with care. Right now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sees more than a million writers around the world tearing through a first draft. Agents dread December: it’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Inbox Hell, as enthusiastic writers skip the all-important revisions and multiple drafts in their eagerness to share their work with the world.
That doesn’t mean don’t finish a novel in a month, or “don’t write fast.” But if you are a slower writer, or have finished a first draft, allow yourself the patience to let your work blossom both from your tending and your absence. Trust that building a network of literary support also happens one meaningful interaction at a time. That being open to the world for inspiration also sometimes includes shutting down, putting up our shields, and listening to our inner voices for a while. In our most recent Brevity Podcast, Andre Dubus III says it takes him five years to write a book–during that time, he shows it to no-one.
I am over 40. I see round-up lists of exciting new (always young) authors and it hurts to know I have missed that window. It’s weird to be both proud of a published book and sad that it’s not the book I thought I’d publish first. I’m a tinkerer, and tend to move slowly through a draft, revising as I go, rather than tearing through to the end and then going back. It’s hard to see friends finishing November with 50,000 words and realize that I have some blog posts and most of another how-to book and five more pages of novel but nothing is done. But the difference between a parable and real life is that the tortoise and the hare can both win at their own speed. I’m tempted to say “I hope” after that, but finishing a book is not a hope. It’s something I can control, and the only choice is whether or not to be OK with the time it takes me.
See you at the finish line.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.
November 10, 2016 § 77 Comments
We woke up and everything was different. Maybe we woke in the middle of the night, tried not to check our phone, checked our phone anyway, and spent the hours before dawn in a bleak haze, waiting for the moment it was late enough to decently call someone. Maybe a call came—your mother has died. Or, it’s time to let the cat go. Or, our country has elected a demagogue.
Maybe we woke to the memory of yesterday, the doctor saying, Let’s discuss your options, our lover telling us they’ve found someone else—found her, in fact, months ago. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the disaster, the break-up, the crash, to the moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.
How can we write? How can we read?
How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the wake of the unchangeable?
We search online—who else feels this way? Is there a support group? Someone else we know this happened to? We click angry-sad-angry-sad-angry-sad. Grief comes in waves—an old photograph, the smell of a cast-off sweater, a yard sign we looked at on the way to work and thought, That’s all you know, superiority mingling with disgust.
We go through the motions. There is a place I am due every day at 9AM. My child must be fed. I’ve already paid for that class.
We watch faces—who else has lost their mother? Who is on the ex-lover’s side and who is still on ours?
My ex-husband’s mother dies suddenly. He flies across the country and gets her dog. In the piles of knickknacks and clothes, boxes of paperwork, lists of phone calls and appraisals, there is one constant, an animal that must be fed and walked and loved whether his capacity to love is intact or not. He drives a truck back, full of furniture and a fawn-colored pitbull mix, a dog that has grown up in Vegas and never seen grass. He posts on social media as the dog. The dog sees snow for the first time. The dog discovers kittens. The bottom of his world has still dropped out, but the dog is a bucket in which he can carry water. The dog is an axe with which he can chop wood. He carries her up and down the stairs until she learns, and each time he touches her he touches his old world, the world in which his mother is also alive and carrying the dog. The dog is a lifeline from a better past. The dog is the seed of a pearl.
We grieve, and we see others triumph. Our lover shows up to get his Playstation looking happy and well-fed. After a few days, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. We sit down again. We tinker. We find the rhythm, we find that yes, it matters to say something, anything, on the page. That we are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We have spent—or are spending—our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, me too.
I call my equally devastated friend, who has also lost her mother or her cat or her country, and she tells me a parable.
The novice says to the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the master.
The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”
“Chop wood. Carry water.”
We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet revolution, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. Stories are not frivolous. They weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told, the need for human connection that exists independent of our own grief. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us we matter. The world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
November 3, 2016 § 8 Comments
The first, of gold, who this inscription bears,
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire;’
The second, silver, which this promise carries,
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves;’
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’
How shall I know if I do choose the right?
~The Merchant of Venice, Act II sc. VII
Recently, a writer friend agonized over the start of NaNoWriMo–she had three ideas for novels but also meant to write a memoir; should she pick something fun or something that felt more purposeful?
And an acquaintance lamented in a Facebook group,
How does everyone decide what project comes first? I write regularly for a couple of websites, freelance, blog, and am toying with three memoir ideas. What I love is personal essays, but I keep feeling like there’s something I “should” be doing more of. Do I forget the blogging and pitch more essays? Stop pitching and focus on finishing a memoir? Expand my freelancing so I make more money and maybe have more time off?
These may not be your problems. But you may well be gearing up for the holidays and thinking, “I have some time off, and not all of it will be occupied with rugrats and cranberries, is there a project I could be working on?”
You might even be thinking “OK, I could finish my memoir…or that long-form braided essay I’ve been wading through…or write some flash pieces and submit to Brevity (please do!)…or pitch an essay to a magazine…or write the first chapter of that novel I’ve been wanting to work on…or get caught up with some blog posts…” Like Portia’s suitors in The Merchant of Venice, you’re faced with (at least!) three caskets, all valuable, but (seemingly) only one of which contains the prize.
How to choose which project deserves your focus today? For that matter, how to fill your precious, limited writing time, all the time?
As a freelance writer and editor, I face that question a lot. I do work I love, work for prestige, and work for money, and while those things often overlap they are rarely congruent.
I’ve also discovered I already know the answer–and I bet you do, too. Sure, you can use Jessica Abel’s funneling process to figure out what you want to work on, or think about which project most strongly pulls your energy, or envision your many caskets and see which one gleams with a radiant inner light. But if you look at your list, or your pile, or your closed laptop, you probably know in your heart. And while the part of an artist that loves to dither, that loves to see infinite potential in every project (“Well, yeah, but if I work on that other thing, maybe…”) is pretending to have a hard time deciding, that dithering part of us is basically a three-year-old negotiating between a sundress or their superhero suit for preschool today. Mom doesn’t really care, as long as we get out the door.
Whichever casket Portia’s suitors choose, the end result is the same: Shakespeare has written a play. Then he wrote more. Choosing a project doesn’t make it the last thing you’ll ever write.
Your choice doesn’t actually matter. It only matters that you make a choice.
And once you’ve made a choice, there’s one big secret to getting your project started, middle-d, finished, and out the door in a reasonable (to you) amount of time:
Do it first.
It really is that simple. Look at your pile/list/laptop/casket, and begin working on the thing you most want done, that you will feel the best about doing today. If you have fifteen minutes, do your fifteen minutes. If you have an hour, or two, do that. If you have time today to finish a whole chapter/section/discrete unit, then finish it. Maybe you only have five minutes. That’s OK. Do it first.
Everything else can wait.
Check your email later. (Wouldn’t they be able to wait if the power went out?)
Return your phone calls later. (Wouldn’t they manage if you lost your phone?)
Tidy your house later. (Wouldn’t you leave a bit of mess if you were sick, or had to leave the house for an urgent appointment?)
All these small, busy tasks can be done after you spend the first and best flush of energy on your top project. Don’t waste your morning urgency on things that may be important to others, but don’t move you forward on the thing you care about most. In the Brevity Podcast episode 2 (coming next Monday!) Suzanne Roberts suggests telling yourself it’s a class, scheduled for that time–“You wouldn’t blow off class.” Andre Dubus III says he writes as soon as he’s dropped his kids off at school.
There is nothing more urgent than doing your most important project first. If your child must be rushed to the emergency room, take your notebook because there will be waiting.
The casket with Portia’s offered prize isn’t shiny gold or sparkling silver, it’s (spoiler!) the casket of lead. The inscription reads “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
Yes, you must.
Go for it.
October 18, 2016 § 13 Comments
You know the old saw. Tourist asks a New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Wiseguy answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”
So, how did I get published in Brevity Magazine?
For several years, Brevity was on my list of literary venues I vowed to crack. Why?
First of all, I love reading Brevity. That’s reason enough. While I drift most naturally to writing longer essays than Brevity’s 750 word limit, over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by flash nonfiction, and have been writing more of it. To me, Brevity is the mother ship for short nonfiction. Brevity also consistently publishes writers whose work I admire; who doesn’t want to share literary real estate with the cool writing kids? Finally, once I put a publication on that “to be cracked” list (which stares at me from a whiteboard in my office), it’s game on.
Even if the game takes three years and six rejections before a Yes.
Lesson number one: Persistence.
One thing that kept me submitting was my history with Brevity—kept handy in my Excel spreadsheet—included many “nice notes”: Moved by your story…Sorry to say no to this one…Try us again…Writing is impressive, but…” As an editor at a lit journal myself, I know those salvos are only handed out when an editor means it.
Lesson number two: Believe the feedback.
Studying the rejected pieces, I saw they were all based on something pulled out of a longer work-in-progress. It’s not that I didn’t work hard at condensing/rewriting (all eventually found publishing homes). But now I understand that one big reason the accepted piece worked is that I wrote it for Brevity the first time around: it never existed as anything other than a 748 word essay.
Lesson number three: Start from scratch.
When I saw Brevity‘s themed call for works “examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization and the intersections between race and gender, class, dis/ability, and language,” I knew immediately what I’d write about: an incident 15 years in my past, that at times still felt lodged in my throat. I set to work immediately; I didn’t dismiss the idea before even getting started, as we writers so often do.
Lesson number four: Listen to the gut.
I tend to be an over-writer, churning out rough too-long drafts, because I’m that odd duck who loves messy brutal revision. This time, I was conscious from the start that I didn’t want to go more than 100 words over with an early draft. That helped, a lot.
Lesson number five: Shake up the process.
By the third (or was it 23rd?) draft, I experienced a familiar nah-this-stinks-forget-about-it attack. That was compounded by seriously questioning my ability to speak to the topic, which sounded like: who-am-I-kidding-who-am-I-to-write-about-race.
Then a friend asked me to read something he was considering submitting for the same issue, and that reminded me: beyond the guidelines, you can’t know precisely what editors are looking for. If you pre-reject yourself (by not even submitting), you’ve lost twice.
Lesson number six: Punch that inner critic in the teeth and carry on.
When putting the final polish on the piece, I read and re-read 15 different Brevity pieces. Yes, this is out of order; that’s the first thing a writer should do: read the journal. But I had been reading Brevity, every issue, all along. This was a double, final gut check, a slow thoughtful cruise, making sure I’d absorbed the lessons I’d learned along the way.
Lesson number seven: Read, write, repeat. (hat tip: Susan Sontag)
When I finally hit submit, it was with a mixture of familiar dread (here we go again) but also, for the first time, a hopeful sense that maybe I’d done it right this time. But then, who knows?
Lesson number eight: You can’t hit if you don’t swing. (hat tip: Dad)
When the acceptance arrived, I didn’t break into my usual dance-around-the-room jig, maybe because I was practicing a conference presentation, annoyed at myself for incorrectly ordering the slides.
Instead, I read the email on my phone, smiled, and went back to work. Because I’d submitted it exclusively, I didn’t have to navigate the tediousness of withdrawing it from other journals, or second guessing that I’d sent it to the wrong place. There was only calm, a sense of feeling both particularly lucky, and also rewarded for staying the course.
I did however visit my whiteboard list, and put a big check mark next to Brevity.
And wondered what to write next.
Lesson number nine: Rinse, repeat. (hat tip: every writer, every editor, ever)
Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor, and writing professor. Her work is included in the Notables Essays section of Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, The Manifest Station, and of course, Brevity. Lisa serves as creative nonfiction editor for Compose Journal, and as a review editor of scholarly works for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her blog offers interviews, resources, and advice for the writing community. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo.