August 16, 2018 § 8 Comments
Here’s what I remember about high school: General name-calling, a particular pejorative yelled and hissed, shoving, spitting, dating a lot of too-much-older guys. I finished (minus a week or two), but I didn’t graduate—I’d skipped too many classes, due to what I now know was clinical depression.
Here’s what I wrote about high school: An award-winning, profitable one-woman show; a recently-completed novel; several published essays.
I wouldn’t trade back.
If my conception of the Almighty Being came to me in a burst of light and said, “You can go back in time, and you will be popular and liked and have a fantastic high school experience,” I’d say, “No thanks.”
If the Almighty Being came to 13-year-old me and said, “You know how middle school really sucks right now? Well, you can either have a terrific high school experience or you can wait 10 years and perform a show audience members love and send emails about, and wait 10 more years to finish a book you’re very proud of,” I’m pretty sure 13-year-old me would say, “I’ll take the work. Bring on ninth grade, mofo.”
I tell this to another writer at the conference we’re at, adding, “If you’re OK with where you are, you have to be OK with how you got there.”
She nods. She tells me, maybe if you’re not OK with your past, you’re still on the journey. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace or closure that makes the past OK.
Another writer chimes in. One of her students just emailed. The student was finally able to finish the memoir that seemed unfinishable in last year’s class, because the closing event was something in her life this year. Her story literally hadn’t finished. The end was unwriteable because the ending hadn’t happened yet.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by the people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memoirists stick to the truth, and if the truth isn’t done yet, we’re still stuck with it. But the truth is a gold mine of details and happenings that we’ve survived, and that survival is itself the story.
My first memoir was unsellable, largely because I hadn’t finished living the story I was trying to tell. I couldn’t wrap up a plot about depression while I was still depressed. I wasn’t at the destination; I hadn’t reached closure.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing on the page, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down what happened, checking facts, realizing, That happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we can embrace what happened.
Am I still hurt by the actions of kids around me? Yeah, a little. But mostly, my past is a rich trove of information. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Every terrible detail I tease out to make a novel deeper, every time I use a bad experience as a good essay, puts me in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m OK with what it took for me to get here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past helps you recognize and own it. Maybe you’re still living your memoir with no end in sight. Flip back through your pages. Can you tell book-you: Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and processing and release still to come.
Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be presenting Writing the Memoir Proposal and Twenty-Five Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life at Hippocamp in Lancaster, PA, August 24-26.
June 21, 2018 § 29 Comments
A writer asked me:
Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.
I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.
I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.
All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?
Nobody I know wants to read my work. Should I quit writing?
The short answer is no.
Writing is a skill. Anyone who puts the time in can learn to write, the same way anyone can learn to draw from life or play the cello. We won’t all become Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma, but anyone can be taught to make a recognizable portrait that’s pleasant to look at, or competently execute a sonata and bring enjoyment to an audience.
What about talent? Aren’t some people naturally better at writing than others?
Yes. Some writers start out better at making sentences or telling stories. Some writers discover their unique voice earlier in their work. But “talent” isn’t what makes a writer good—talent just makes practicing and learning more pleasant. A tennis player who can already consistently hit the ball and instinctively see where it’s going will have more fun practicing, and learn more subtle techniques faster, than the player who is still learning about trajectories and having to process each bounce anew. But if the less-talented person puts the time in, they’ll learn to see the angles too. They may have to practice more, and that time may be more arduous, than the person with a head start. They may be headed for a coaching job or 106th seed rather than Wimbledon’s Centre Court. They may work a 9-5 job to support their practice costs. But they’re still a tennis player.
As writers, we look for the magic triangle:
- Competence in sentence construction and dramatic structure
- A story to tell and the honesty and bravery to tell it
- A unique, genuine voice
Writing competence and a solid story make compelling work on the page, whether or not the writing is “great” by some subjective literary analysis. Strong voice can compensate for messy syntax or a less-intriguing story. All three of these elements can be honed and improved with practice, careful reading, writing workshops, and seeking out and accepting quality feedback.
It’s a lot of work to be good in all three areas. I’ve let go of editing clients who weren’t putting in the work—they were plenty capable of improving, but they felt they’d already done enough and wanted me to pick up the slack. Another writer commented about my Seven Drafts process, “Seven drafts? Just kill me now, save me the agony.” But part of being a “good” writer is accepting the enormous amount of work, including the 40-50% of the work that happens after we think we’re “done.” Part of writing is overcoming constant discouragement, and that’s a learned skill, too. Part of writing is our own idea of “success”—we’re not all going to be New York Times-bestsellers and have our books made into movies, but there are lots of happy working writers whom most people will never read or hear of. What’s your own realistic path? Writing a thriller? Sure, a NYT list might be in the future. Writing a quiet memoir? A more-achievable dream would be to influence people’s lives and connect with readers having similar experiences.
It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble. Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people with less skill are unable to recognize their lack of ability, like reality talent-show contestants unaware they’ve been made finalists to be mocked. It’s frustrating to advise changes and have an author dig in their heels in the belief their work is perfect and all the readers “just don’t get what I’m saying.” Generally, the more sophisticated work we’re capable of, the more we’re also able to recognize our own shortcomings. It’s a good sign when we see the flaws in our writing, because problems can’t be worked on without knowing they’re problems.
I’ve never told anyone to quit writing. I’ve never read anyone’s work who I didn’t think could improve with practice and time. Yes, writing well is hard and frustrating and discouraging and probably a lot more work than most of us originally expected.
No, you shouldn’t quit.
May 29, 2018 § 12 Comments
You open your email, and O frabjous day! A publisher has come calling! They’ve seen your work in a literary magazine and wonder if you have a chapbook, or would like to be in their anthology. Or you didn’t win a contest, but your work “shows merit” and “deserves to be published.” Maybe you wanted a faster process than querying agents, or figured your work better suited a small press, so you cast out to a few publishers, and one has bitten.
You read a little further. This publishing house “considers work for both traditional and hybrid publishing.” If your book is seen as better suited to a hybrid deal—perhaps due to “the difficulty in placing the books of new or untried authors, as well as the general increased competition in publishing today”—the publisher feels “that it may be necessary to ask for a contribution from you.”
Maybe it’s even right up front: We’re a hybrid press. Our package costs $XXXX, and you can add on additional services at $XXX, $XXXX or $XXXXX.
The email is reassuring. Someone has recognized the quality of your work. After all the hype about “platform,” someone wants your book based on your writing. You don’t have to hit 10,000 followers or make mailing-list spreadsheets. It’s a relief.
But most of the time, it’s not true.
Not (technically) a scam or a fraud. But a well-designed system to separate hopeful authors from hard-earned dollars, waste their time and leave them with unsold, often un-edited and poorly-designed books.
Remember the old saw about things that seem too good to be true? That maxim goes hand-in-hand with another cliche: You can’t cheat an honest man. You can only sell a five-dollar diamond ring to someone who thinks he’s ripping you off.
Writers who seek hybrid publishing “deals” aren’t grifters. But they are to some extent sidestepping the work of getting published. Submitting and pitching to small magazines, medium journals and mass media. Blogging/newsletter-ing to build their core audience. Going to readings and events, collecting names and emails. Being a literary citizen. We’re all looking for a lucky break, and lightning may well strike, but it usually strikes while we’re in the middle of the process. The process that sets us up to be able to sell books once we do get that publishing deal.
Most authors who pay to publish end up doing the real work anyway. Pounding the pavement to get their book in a few stores. Emailing the target audience (key demographic: “everyone I know who has ever read a book”). They’ll do that work with a larger cash investment than traditional publishing and far less potential monetary reward than self-publishing. Their copyright may end up in the publisher’s hands—the publisher who may also now own all their subsidiary rights.
Remember that part about “the process that sets us up to be able to sell books”? Memoir, creative nonfiction and self-help are hard to sell without “platform.” Basically, the number of people who will buy your book or spread the word about it. Platform can be:
- social media followers (10,000+ real followers who engage with your posts)
- a speaking career (at major events where books can be sold)
- group membership (i.e., a nationwide service club or large religious organization; a class of people like “patients suffering this disorder”)
- writing articles or essays about the book’s subject matter, and publishing them in medium-to-major mass media or significant literary journals
- a public career like radio show host or TV presenter
Without platform, a traditional publisher doesn’t want to buy the book because they can’t sell the book. It’s also hard to self-publish without enough people to sell the book to. Unfortunately, so many books come out each year that, without a built-in audience, it’s rare for readers to discover and purchase any single book. Novelists still market hard, but for some there’s an existing base of blogs, reviewers, and genre fans to help the book get momentum and word-of-mouth. Nonfiction books by non-famous people are usually not newsworthy, so the writer needs an existing audience who will spread the word and buy the book themselves.
One of the things you can do to start momentum for your work is to revise sections of the book as possible magazine or newspaper articles, and seek publication in mass media. You can also turn chapters into self-contained essays to submit to journals. Whether you end up with a traditional publisher or a self-supported plan, getting your work out there will help future sales, and help you gauge your audience. Memoirists who publish a “hot essay” (the legendary venue is Modern Love, but there are plenty more places) often get offers from traditional publishers, or have agents seek them out.
Legitimate publishers have writers beating down their doors. Unless a writer recently did something very newsworthy, made a big splash with an essay, or regularly speaks at large events, publishers don’t come to us. We go to them. Self-publishing is totally legit, but you can coordinate it yourself, and publish with Createspace, Lulu, Smashwords and/or Ingram. That’s more work, but usually costs less, and you make all the money and keep all the rights.
Sometimes a true hybrid publishing deal can be the right choice for some authors. On Thursday, we’ll talk about what a good hybrid deal looks like, why you might want one, and questions to ask the publisher.
May 15, 2018 § 49 Comments
I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.
I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.
An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.
I flipped through.
The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.
In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.
I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.
He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”
I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”
It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.
I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.
I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.
I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”
Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.
I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.
My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.
But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.
Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.
May 1, 2018 § 14 Comments
“When will you write something about me?”
“Mom, you know I only write about dead people.”
End of conversation.
But the truth was, I’d already started more drafts about Mom than I could count.
As she began to have health problems, needed surgery, and finally had to move from her home of nearly forty years, those drafts got longer and became more numerous.
In October of 2013, Mom died. I continued to write. I revised, blended, made maps of the structure of some of the older essays, tore up the maps, wrote a series of paragraphs based on images. Nothing worked.
Eventually, it all went into my “dormant” file.
This is as good a time as any to disclose that I have a bursting file drawer devoted to typed and hand-written drafts, which I have tried in vain to organize. Recently, in an attempt not to waste paper, I’ve made a conscious effort to do less printing. I now have an unknown number of drafts in various locations on my computer and on a flash drive, which appears to be incompatible with my new laptop. Some, I think, are also in The Cloud, but I’m not sure how that happened, nor do I know how to access them.
In February of 2017, I took an online class with Penny Guisinger, “Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction.” Without referring to any of my previous drafts, I wrote a short essay about my relationship with my mom. At Penny’s suggestion, I worked on the ending. After a few more people read it, I made final revisions, and sent it to Full Grown People, where Jennifer Niesslein accepted it.
At least eight years in the making, a plethora of drafts, and a final word count somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 words—a flash essay, by most definitions.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with the fun-sounding GAD. It’s true that, if you add an “l” you have “glad.” But it’s short for “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I began to write about anxiety and ended up with an unruly draft that included my great-grandmother, German cursing, and a metaphor about my washing machine. After many attempts it, too, found its way to the “dormant” drawer.
In 2013, I attended a Summer Writing Workshop at Kenyon College, where I took a creative nonfiction class with Dinty W. Moore. I arrived a day late, courtesy of GAD. When Dinty gave us the assignment for the next day: write directions or instructions for how to do something, I went back to my room in a panic. My self-talk went something like this: You don’t know how to do anything. There’s no time to research. Other people can write a decent draft in one day. You cannot, because you are not a writer. You should go home now.
I told myself to be quiet and stared at my overflowing suitcase. I wrote a draft, in list form, about what it’s like to pack for a trip when you have anxiety. I read it in class the next day, got some positive feedback, and continued tweaking it when I got home. Writer friends reviewed it, I submitted it, it got rejected. I was working full-time, so I let it, too, go dormant.
After I retired, I looked at the draft again and did some more revisions. This time, it seemed like a good fit for The Manifest-Station. Editor Angela M. Giles, agreed, and she published it. This version, which does not include either my great-grandmother or large appliances, was published some six years after its conception. It, too, had gotten shorter over time: from 1,900 to 800 words.
I had been writing drafts about my dad and his love of cardinals since soon after his death in 1995. I submitted a few, and they got rejected. I dragged one version to a writing class at Chautauqua Institution in 2008, where I got some great feedback during a one-on-one meeting with Liz Rosenberg but I still couldn’t get it right.
In the summer of 2016, I was reading River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and I thought again of my dad and cardinals. I started fresh, with the 250-word limit in mind, and this time it worked.
Math gives me a headache, which is just as well. Any calculations involving how many publishable words I can produce in a specified amount of time would no doubt make me despair.
A writer friend commented that the word “dormant” sounded too passive. That made sense, so I looked up synonyms at Merriam-Webster.com, thinking that renaming my draft drawer might speed up my writing process. I found one I liked, but it has little to do with speed.
Latent: a power or quality that has not yet come forth but may emerge and develop.
The possibilities appeal to me. And regardless of the name I choose for my drawer of drafts, there is this:
I am writing.
I am writing.
Melissa Ballard apologizes if any readers are offended by the suggestive titles of her guest posts for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog: Finishing, Stripper Girl, and Slow Flash. Or, having read the posts, disappointed she does not deliver on her promises.
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!