Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 12 Comments

Your problem’s in the third paragraph. And let’s tighten that closing while you’re here.

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?

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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.

What Do You Love More?

July 18, 2017 § 105 Comments

Not even her best backbend

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?

 

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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.

Pick Up Where You Left Off

June 29, 2017 § 8 Comments

Now that’s enthusiasm!

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…

one day…

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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She believes we should all start measuring enthusiasm in trombones.

ICYMI: Brevity Podcast Episode 2

November 17, 2016 § 1 Comment

andreUnderstandably, 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

Find us on iTunes

We’re also on Soundcloud

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.

Love,

Brevity

 

Sloooooow Motion

November 15, 2016 § 10 Comments

This Florida-based tortoise has spent a decade on his surrealist memoir-in-essays

This Florida-based tortoise has spent a decade on his surrealist memoir-in-essays

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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.

Chop Wood, Carry Water

November 10, 2016 § 78 Comments

14324288_10155236661220558_5376449924283212640_oWe 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.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Brevity Podcast #2 Andre Dubus III and Suzanne Roberts

November 7, 2016 § 3 Comments

Bobby socks optimal for best listening experience

Bobby socks optimal for best listening experience

We’re back on the air! This month’s Brevity Podcast is now available right here and on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches.

Episode #2 features an interview with Andre Dubus III on his memoir Townie, and the burning question of whether one must have an eventful life in order to write memoir. Suzanne Roberts talks about her retreat program Wordy Girls, and how she figured out that writing was not in fact her first priority.

Next month, we’ll be talking with Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm and Hotels of North America, and Athena Dixon, editor-in-chief of Linden Avenue.

Who else would you love to hear? Let us know in the comments.

Show Notes: Episode #2 People, Books and Places

Suzanne Roberts’ books include the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award-winning Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, and the poetry collections Plotting Temporality, Three Hours to Burn a Body: Poems on Travel, Nothing to You, and Shameless. Her work has been published in many literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, ZYZZYVA, Fourth River and Gulf Stream, and widely anthologized. Suzanne was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic Traveler Magazine. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-res MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham College.

With Ann Marie Brown and Kim Wyatt, Suzanne offers classes, workshops and retreats for women writers through Wordy Girls.

Suzanne’s essay for Brevity, “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin

 

Andre Dubus III is the author of six books, including the New York Times’ bestsellers House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days, and his memoir, Townie. His most recent book, Dirty Love, published in the fall of 2013, was a New York Times “Notable Book” selection, a New York Times “Editors’ Choice”, a 2013 “Notable Fiction” choice from The Washington Post, and a Kirkus “Starred Best Book of 2013.”

Andre has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and is a 2012 recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. His books are published in over twenty-five languages, and he teaches full-time at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Fontaine, a modern dancer, and their three children.

Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College

Edna O’Brien

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story

Ron Carlson

Flannery O’Connor

Stewart O’Nan

John Irving

Anne Lamott

Richard Russo

Writing and Publishing a Memoir: What the Hell Have I Done?

Tobias Wolff

Tim O’Brien

 

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Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

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