September 7, 2017 § 22 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 § 17 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 § 12 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.
July 18, 2017 § 110 Comments
Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”
I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.
I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.
My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”
She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”
I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.
What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.
My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”
I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)
Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?
Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.
There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.
And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”
In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:
Publication or not getting hurt feelings.
What do you love more?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a Self-Editing intensive and offering one-on-one feedback meetings at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference, September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
June 29, 2017 § 8 Comments
I have two best friends (lucky me!). My Functional Best Friend is someone I speak to most days, text every day, and often have three simultaneous email conversations going with. I met my Best Friend of Record in high school, she was maid of honor at my wedding (both of them), and lives in another country. We rarely tweet, email perhaps once a season, Facebook each other only for major life events. About every other year, we get an in-person visit–we just pick up where we left off.Writing projects work this way, too. Here at Brevity, we’ve lately blogged about finishing our work. But there’s more than one kind of finishing–there’s dogged, day-to-day, getting through the steps in order, staying connected; and there’s that project that’s been on the back burner for months or years that we’d really like to get back to…
when we have the time…
and can dig out our notes…
and have a few solid hours to really dive in…
Newsflash: That day is never coming. Our calendar is unlikely to magically pop up “Today Is The Day You Can Focus Entirely on That One Project.”
If there’s a book, or an essay, or a story on the back burner, we have to choose to bring it into our daily work. Some of us are diligent, fortunate, and financially able enough to go to writing residences, and we do get those magic days to focus entirely on one project. But that’s rarely a year-round solution. What can we do to get back to the work?
- Take some low-pressure time to assess what’s in the files and think about what we really want to finish. Melissa Ballard sat down with some index cards and her unfinished essays and asked of each one, what am I waiting for? What’s holding me back? I’ve used a process of looking at my specific life goals and a list of projects and asking, which project gets me closer to what I want? Stick drafts up on a wall and see what calls your eye. Imagine you’re boarding a strange lifeboat and you’re only allowed to take one project with you. Choose the easiest one, or the one you’re most afraid of. And without the stress of “I have to write something good right now,” scribble a bit about what steps need to happen to move forward. Consciously choose to set other projects aside to wait their turn politely instead of shoving each other and guilting over your shoulder.
- Start touching it almost every day. Not a minimum number of words or pages, but taking five minutes on the bus to actively think about the project. Or opening up the file and reading one page. Or making voice tweaks or grammar fixes on a few pages or a chapter. Seriously, just touching it. So when you are ready to write, it feels like picking up where you left off rather than a new endeavor.
- Use a trick or a tool. Choose your most-supportive and non-critical reader and read them a couple of passages you really liked when you wrote them. Last night I shared some of a novel I’m working on with my decidedly non-literary husband. I kept finding more bits I liked and wanted to read him. His questions and his “That’s not too bad” (he’s British, so that’s practically 76 trombones of enthusiasm) made me excited to dive back in. I also tend to make a playlist for each large project I’m working on, and often the opening song is enough to bring me back to the mood and voice of the piece.
Starting again doesn’t have to be from the beginning. You don’t have to rethink the whole project or make a huge plan or set aside two weeks when your decks are clear (let me just pencil that in for never). Sometimes your project is the person you talk to every day. Sometimes you can just pick up where you left off.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She believes we should all start measuring enthusiasm in trombones.
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.