April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
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, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.
Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books
Find out more about:
Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:
- bad boy
- future addict
- serious and accomplished
- brainy but beautiful
- more than likely delusional
- bright but misguided
- hurt, badly, baldly
- trying real hard to be good
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!
December 5, 2017 § 26 Comments
Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”
Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.
That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.
About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.
Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.
This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.
[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]
The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.
How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?
Some things to avoid:
- Don’t summarize.
The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.
That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.
- Don’t explain.
I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.
Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.
- Don’t justify.
As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.
If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.
- Don’t excuse.
I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”
Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.
Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:
- Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.
I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.
[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]
- Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.
I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.
[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]
- Admit guilt/fault/complicity.
“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.
Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.
I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.
Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.
November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
September 7, 2017 § 25 Comments
More than a year ago, I completed a draft of a memoir I’d been wanting to write for a very long time. It’s hard to say when the need to tell this story began. I started keeping journals as a pre-teen, and I’ve continued to fill notebooks throughout my adulthood. I signed up for my first creative writing class when I was 32 and pregnant with my oldest child. While my kids were toddlers, I began exploring my memory, crafting short pieces that I wasn’t sure would become a connected whole. In 2009, when I was 41, I applied to graduate school with the intention of writing a cohesive memoir. After I earned my MA, it took another two years to figure out how to shape my story from beginning to end.
Strangely though, since I finished the draft, the urgency I once felt has faded. It’s been usurped, I think, by fear—fear of being seen, of being known, even though being known is what I wanted most, because I’d felt unseen and unheard for much of my life.
My fear is multifaceted. My story cannot be understood without saying who and what have caused me to feel small and invisible. Some writers have waited until the secret keepers died before telling their stories. We are conflicted by our loyalty to those from whom we’ve always sought permission to speak. We don’t want to inflict pain, despite the pain we’ve experienced ourselves. We are afraid that if we tell our stories, ties to important people in our lives might be irreparably damaged or, even worse, severed altogether.
I’m uncomfortable with the possibility that by publishing my memoir I may hurt someone close to me, but I’m also afraid I’ll be hurt myself by the reactions of my loved ones. Am I resilient enough to withstand the very real possibility that some may try to discredit my own lived experience?
Was I fair in my writing? Did I talk enough about good moments, happy times? Then again, maybe my telling is too subtle, tries to make things sound too normal, when so much was not normal at all.
After so many years of writing, I’m no longer sure I’ll try to publish this book. I’m already a better person and a better writer for having completed the draft. I’ve begun to trust my voice and I’ve learned to see a long project through to completion. I kept the promise I made to myself to finish writing the story.
But I suspect that if publishing my memoir wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t be sitting here anguishing over it. My original need to be known lingers and won’t be satisfied by confining my story to my hard drive. I want to connect with others who’ve had similar experiences, to help them also be heard and seen and known.
Money’s always nice, but I didn’t set out to write a book as a means of earning income. The respect of the literary community, though, does matter to me, which raises another fear—that my writing isn’t good enough to communicate my experience clearly and my motivation for telling this particular story will be misunderstood by readers who don’t know me in real life.
I’ve read takes by successful authors on the fallout from publishing their own stories—a gazillion different opinions on the ethics of memoir—and I’ve developed my own pretty strong opinion: I think everyone has the right to tell their own story, being careful to include only what’s absolutely necessary from the overlap with others’ stories, and that it’s best for each writer to trust their own judgment when it comes to anticipating consequences in their relationships.
It turns out that I’m the one who must give myself permission to release my memoir into the world, negative reactions be damned.
If I decide to publish, I’m certain someone will find something in my memoir to criticize. It’s possible some people won’t understand my story or won’t like me very much for publishing it. Will I like me if I publish it? Will I like me if I don’t? Will I respect myself? Answering these questions won’t banish my fear, but will help me find the courage to proceed.
Karen Pickell holds a MA from Kennesaw State University. Her work has appeared in Bluestem Online Quarterly, Conte, and in several independently published anthologies. She founded the website Adoptee Reading Resource and she blogs at karenpickell.com. Originally from Ohio, Karen currently lives in Florida.
September 5, 2017 § 18 Comments
“What is it Mama?” my daughter asked, her so voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “What did they say? Mama?”
My daughter is not a quiet person. When she speaks, she’s usually heard. Maybe she was afraid of my answer. Or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, the slap of my palms on the hot steering wheel, the tepid air conditioner in my ancient Honda, barely keeping out the one-hundred-degree Texas heat.
I was in a Starbucks drive-through, my 11-year-old watching slime videos on her phone in the backseat. We’d just come from iFly, an indoor skydiving place on the Interstate 10 feeder road. My agent had sent my memoir out in early July to 45 editors, and since then I’d become an expert at choosing activities–like indoor skydiving—that prevented me from obsessively checking my email. I’d taken a two-day road trip through the desert with no cell service. I’d made a vision board (ok, I made three.) It’s hard to check email with glue on your fingertips. And I discovered flying. iFly offers two minute “flights” in a 90 mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Two-minute intervals during which I couldn’t do anything but focus on keeping my body steady, my mouth closed (no one wants wind-tunnel cheeks), and chin up. What better metaphor for the process I was in.
“Mama?” my daughter asked again from the backseat.
“They said no, baby,” I replied, surprised by the catch in my voice.
When my agent first sent my memoir out, a couple of editors reacted almost immediately with good news. They were taking it to editorial boards, getting additional reads. My book, This Is My Body, is about my conversion from the Jewish agnosticism of my New York upbringing to the Southern evangelicalism of my husband’s. It’s about the romantic and political turmoil that followed (hello, Trump,) causing me to strip my beliefs to the studs and re-build from the ground up. Because it’s a book about love that also deals heavily with the evangelical subculture and what it means for women, I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Spirituality isn’t exactly the bread and butter of New York publishing. But I dared to hope.
Idling in the drive-through, full of post-flying false confidence, I unwisely checked my email. “It was a classic editorial vs. publicity stand-off,” my agent wrote. “Publicity won… There’s a lot of consensus about your writing… but there’s a disconnect with the business brass about how to reach readers.” This was one of the few progressive religious publishers brave enough to take on books dealing with controversial, too-often ignored issues in the evangelical church. Their mission statement read like the mission statement for my life. And the editor had loved my book, loved my writing. They were—my agent thought, I thought—the perfect fit.
I felt a tide of emotions when that email came in. Shame. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. I’m a writer; I know rejections by the boatload are part of this life. I’ve had rejections by the boatload. But I’d developed—or so I thought—a way to avoid being paralyzed by them. This one hit me with the force of the iFly wind tunnel. It took my breath away.
No one knows what goes into writing our books quite like our children, our lovers, our partners. Our butts get numb and our health suffers, maybe we lose our hair, keys, minds—while glued to the computer screen. But they lose us. Or mine did, at least for a time. For six months last year while juggling three jobs and somehow managing to not tank my marriage, I’d taken a collection of fragmented essays and turned them into a book, a book I’m proud of. My daughter—in her last year of elementary school, her last year of being a kid before entering that netherworld of pre-teen—patiently withstood my divided attention. She pulled me back—to her after school activities, her latest math test, her plans for the weekend—when I got that far-off look in my eyes that meant I was solving some timeline, dialogue or structure puzzle in my mind. But she also celebrated with me. We jumped up and down in our socks, sliding on the wood floor when I found out I’d placed an essay with a dream publication. We toasted with Sprite at our favorite neighborhood restaurant when I finally finished the first draft of the book, and secured representation with a fancy New York literary agent. What took my breath away was not only the loss of this and other opportunities to see my book born into the world (35 more publishers had also passed, my agent included in the email) but that my daughter, my cheerleader, nervously sipping her black tea lemonade as we pulled into traffic, was also experiencing that loss.
It’s true that it would been nice to impress the “business brass,” those people with the power to write checks that could potentially replace the crumbling siding on my garage, or upgrade the ancient Honda. But that’s not why I started writing. I started writing because the terror of not writing was greater than the terror of writing. Because the joy of writing something new, of applying ass-to-chair and performing the mystical alchemy of revision, of seeing a project—like this essay—from start to finish, that joy is better than almost any other I’ve known.
“All is not lost, baby,” I said a few minutes later when I caught my breath between traffic lights.
“I know that,” she said, with her characteristic half eye-roll. As if nothing could be more obvious.
I choose to believe the right editor for my book is still out there. In the meantime, I’m writing. That’s what my daughter sees. And for now, that’s enough.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Brooklyn Review, The Rumpus, Ecotone, Guernica’s “The Kiss” series, The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession.
July 25, 2017 § 13 Comments
Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.
I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.
When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.
Where the heck do I start the next draft?
One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.
Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:
1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.
Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.
8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.
This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”
I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.
By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.
13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.
In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:
She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.
It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.
And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:
21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost
It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.
Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.