July 27, 2018 § 10 Comments
You may have seen Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg’s excellent investigation of Anna March in the L.A. Times. March, as she was most recently known, ripped off writers by selling phony coaching/editing packages, offers to read their work and connect them with agents, and expensive writing retreats that didn’t happen.
March branded herself an intersectional feminist, sensitive to issues of race, class and LGBTQ concerns as well as gender, and also supportive of victims of trauma. She positioned herself as a connection between worlds: the published and unpublished, the successful and the hopeful.
Anna March crossed my path in a Facebook group for women memoirists. As a moderator, I messaged Anna a few times asking her to stop posting frequent, pushy ads for her services. I told her once privately, “Honestly, you might sell more coaching if you sounded a little less urgent/needy.” Finally, myself and the other moderator made a new ad policy: no more than once every two weeks. I ended up counting days for Anna. But I still tagged her in discussions about writing coaches.
Anna conned writers who took her at face value. But the literary world is all about face value. You are who you know; you are where you’ve published. Waving the “published in Modern Love” flag creates instant cred. Speak at enough conferences and you’re an expert. We’re told to overcome imposter syndrome, trumpet our own accomplishments, sell ourselves for the best price we can get.
We’re also told to invest in our careers. Spend our precious time reading widely and keeping up with literary news. Be good literary citizens. Pay for conferences and workshops where we make connections and find mentors. Get an MFA. Read for others so one day they’ll read for us; or hire an editor to tell us how to fix our work.
After the revelations of Anna March’s literary grifting, Roxane Gay tweeted:
No. You never at any stage of the writing process need to pay someone to read your work. Don’t do this. Money flows to the writer not from the writer. Period. https://t.co/n0L8QAwILK
and talked about learning to write (read the whole thread, it’s great):
Guys, look… there are good and great writing coaches out there, but… you do not need a writing coach. You don’t need an MFA. You do need to write and read a lot. Feedback CAN help you improve as a writer. There are virtual and real writing groups out there
Even when I was a young writer who did not know shit about shit, who did not know that you could get a degree in writing, I did not pay someone to read my writing. I just wrote, constantly. And I am not special. This is how most writers develop.
She’s right. You don’t ever have to pay anyone to read your work. I say this as a professional editor, as a writing coach who has helped people write better and get published, and charged them money for those services. But that’s not ever required.
You’re not on the outside of some magic literary community because you’re broke, or a parent, or can’t get time off. Writing’s just plain lonely. You do it by yourself. No matter how many conferences or mentors or writing buddies you have to sit down with, in the end it is you and the page. You and the story. You and the words.
It feels lonely because it is.
It feels hard because it is.
It feels like it takes forever because it does.
There is no way to get better at writing besides sitting down and doing it.
Can it help to hire someone or go to a workshop or take a class? Absolutely. It helps to have accountability and assignments and exercises. It helps to have an outside eye, whether you pay them or trade manuscripts. It helps to feel like someone is listening. It helps to bounce ideas around with someone whose creative instincts you trust.
You can protect yourself:
- Get a sample edit and references. If you’re in a Facebooks writers’ group, ask who’s worked with this person. Usually people who feel good post publicly and people who know something shady will message you.
- ONLY pay through PayPal’s “goods and services” option (not “friends and family”) or with a credit card. Don’t pay a lump sum; start with a couple of sessions, or a deposit or percentage.
- Insist on accountability from people you pay. Missed deadlines should have a definite reschedule and a reason. Missed meetings should be promptly rescheduled. If you sign up for a writing workshop, email the hotel and ask about the rooms before you purchase travel.
Does it help to spend money on your writing career? Sure. But it helps like a personal trainer helps you get fit. If you’re focused and ready to work, money can help you over some speedbumps. But if you’re focused and ready to work, you can get over them alone, too.
No amount of money replaces your own hard work. Don’t try to buy your dream. You don’t have to. You can’t. But you can make it happen for free, one word at a time.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
You Put Together a Book: How Does That Make You Feel? An Interview with the Anthology’s Editor, Sherry Amatenstein
September 28, 2016 § 4 Comments
By Estelle Erasmus
I have a history with Sherry Amatenstein, the editor of How Does That Make You Feel? Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch, and a therapist herself. We were both magazine editor-in-chiefs at concurrent times in the mid to late 1990s with competitive publications. In the midst of this cut-throat competition, we founded a friendship, confounding our publishers.
After I dropped out of the publishing scene to get married and have my daughter in midlife, after a long struggle with infertility, Sherry and I reconnected. That’s when I learned that she was putting together an anthology with the unique viewpoint of therapy from both sides of the couch (therapists and patients). Anthologies are tricky. I have known people who have gotten involved in less than stellar publications, with less than adept editing and curating. I knew for sure that with Sherry at the helm I wouldn’t be.
I had a long buried secret in my past, that I’d told to a handful of people (including my own therapist of many years), but I knew that in Sherry’s capable hands, the story would not be made into click bait.
Thus, along with 33 other widely published writers, such as Patti Davis, Anna March, Susan Shapiro, Janice Eidus, Pamela Rafalow Grossman, Amy Klein, and therapists/writers like Juli Fragra, Jean Kim, and Jessica Zucker, I entrusted my story to Sherry.
I wrote about the sex-talking therapist I had sessions with as a teen in an essay I titled, “Therapy Undercover: Satin Shirts and Sex Talk.” There was a great early review of Sherry’s book in the Washington Post the other day and in Tablet.
I spoke with Sherry to dish the therapy dirt.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?
A: An early ambition of mine was to be a therapist. As a child of Holocaust survivors I was immersed in pain. I thought of becoming a therapist, but winded up going into publishing instead. Then I volunteered at a suicide hotline, and at Ground Zero Food Service after 9/11. When I became a therapist in midlife, it was the culmination of a dream, because I had wanted to do it for so long. Frankly, becoming a therapist has been very hard work, but it has helped me to accept myself more. We are all crazy and neurotic. Being a writer and being a therapist are very similar. It involves being curious about other people, listening and writing.
I felt that the therapist is this blank screen, and then your patient projects on to you what they want to project. There is this profound exchange in the room, a compelling connection, but when you leave after 50 minutes, it’s over.
I put together the book, because in the age of the Internet, a therapist can’t be just that blank screen any more. I decided I wanted to demystify the process and obliterate the boundaries for people who are in therapy as well as therapists.
People idolize therapists and treat them in ways that are not good for them. I wanted to illuminate the relationships from both sides. I also did the book to preserve therapist’s sanity. We have to take care of ourselves. It’s like you are never off duty. I mean, I sometimes get calls from patients who are suicidal. You need to set boundaries, and be there for patients as well.
Q: What did you look for in contributors?
A: Everyone had to be a professional writer. For a lot of people it was like a therapy session writing these pieces, because some of them had difficulty going to such a deep, dark place. Your piece was really good right off the get go. I have to say I was like a shark. Whenever I saw anyone had any therapy related stories, I pounced. I also met writers I loved at events and invited them to submit. Once I had the deal with Seal Press, it became even easier to get people to contribute.
Q: How did you approach the essays from the therapists?
A: It was harder to get therapists who were good writers. Some very well known therapists dropped out of the book at the eleventh hour, because they were worried about exposing themselves. I was looking for a wide range of voices and for them to reveal the truth about their doubts, fears and processes. Jean Kim, talked about her own therapy, Jenine Holmes wrote about how black people don’t go to therapy, Megan Devine wrote about feeling “imposter syndrome” as a therapist, Nina Gaby’s piece talks about boundaries between therapist and patient.
The therapists are showing that they are real people and don’t need to be placed on pedestals. I had concerns about displaying their essays, but I thought it was important. My point of view is you can’t do this work without caring about the people.
Q: Do your patients know about the book?
A: I’ve been telling my patients about it, although I’m a little nervous about it. I’m still me, but I wanted to be revealing in a way that didn’t hurt my patients. I run groups for writers with self esteem issues. Most knew I’ve published other books in the past, but I don’t mind if they don’t buy my book.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Right now, I’m not looking into doing another book. After this experience, maybe I’ll dive further into my therapy.
Estelle Erasmus is a widely published journalist, writing coach and former magazine editor-in-chief. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Vox, Next Avenue/PBS, and more. She is the chair for the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2017 New York City conference. Her website is EstelleSErasmus.com and her twitter handle is @EstelleSErasmus
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist and author of The Q&A Dating Book, Love Lessons From Bad Breakups, and The Complete Marriage Counselor. She has written for Hemispheres, Brides, MarieClaire, vox.com, qz.com and DAME.com. Her website is howdoesthatmakeyoufeelbook.com and her twitter handle is @sherapynyc
November 16, 2015 § 3 Comments
A guest post from Gila Lyons:
Two weekends back, about 500 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for the second annual BinderCon, a conference whose stated purpose is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.”
The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Panels and sessions ranged from Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, to Pitching 101, to The Art of the Ghost: We Write Because They Can’t, and keynotes from Lizz Winstead, Jenn Pozner, Suki Kim, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and more.
Here’s my recap of one of the most inspiring and instructive panels, Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, which explored writing about desire, sex and sexuality in nonfiction and fiction, focusing on the work of women of color and queer women, and paying special attention to writing beyond shame, fear, and dealing with the ramifications of being a sexually empowered woman who will receive violent threats, judgment, and nasty comments from those threatened by such a woman.
March opened by claiming, “If you’re not a white 25-year-old cis guy and you’re writing about sex, you’re transgressive.” She quoted Rebecca Walker who said, “Good therapy leads to good writing, and good writing leads to good therapy, and I can’t imagine doing one without the other.” She shared that the two best pieces of craft advice she’s ever received: “1) sit down and 2) write.” Also, read well, and read variously.
March encouraged women who want to write about sex and sexuality to develop a network of writers, “not supportive people who will say, well honey, this is causing you trouble, so stop doing that.” But other writers who will encourage you to keep going even when nasty comments come in, harsh judgments, or threats. “It’s normal to have fear of what you’re revealing about yourself,” she said. “Acknowledge that. And let’s kill that motherfucker shame. Every time I’ve shared things I’m most ashamed of, my life has become so much richer. People come forth and say ‘me too,’ or ‘I’ve never been able to tell this.’”
March discussed the ethics of writing about sexuality, especially when writing nonfiction and others and their privacy are involved. She recommends:
- be respectful and work it out with them ahead of time – what they’re comfortable with, if they want any edits made, if they want their identity concealed.
- Remember that other people can want their privacy, and that’s fine, but you have a right to tell your story.
And you should do it even though this world is not a hospitable place for it. “We get told our lives don’t matter,” she said, “pregnancy, equal pay, our sexual lives, they don’t matter. There’s a rise in women essayists right now and a corresponding rise in being told to shut up. Be love in the face of hate. Because what else is there to do?” She ended with a powerful quote from Muriel Rukeyser, “If one woman told the truth about her life the world would split open.” Let’s split it.
“Let your sex writing be aspirational. My characters have much more exciting sex lives than I do. You will be exploring, expanding, and healing your own love map by writing about sexuality, even if no one else sees it,” Quintero said. She recommended Exploring Your Sexual Self: A Guided Journal, by Joan Mazza, which offers writing prompts and exercises to put women in touch with their sexual truths and desires. Quintero led the audience through a quick writing prompt from the book, “If you could say three things about the nature of your personal sexuality and really be heard and accepted and understood, what would you say?”
Quintero advised writers to cultivate compassionate awareness of their own sexuality – including what excites, intrigues, repulses, and scares them – in order to increase ease and competence in writing sex scenes. She recommended the book, Sex and Money …Are Dirty, Aren’t They? by Cheri Huber to explore and work through thoughts and ideas about sex.
Finally, Quintero wanted attendees to remember that the rules of good craft apply to erotica. “Setting, conflict, character are even more important when your characters are having sex. No one person engages in sex the same way every time. Really great sex scenes tell you about something other than sex.” Her final book recommendation was Juicy Mangos: An Erotica Collection, edited by Michelle Herrera Mulligan, for the “tremendous characters” in its stories.
LaShonda Katrice Barnett:
Barnett described the protagonist of her novel, Jam on the Vine, as an African-American lesbian living during the Jim Crow era who is sexually free and fulfilled. She wanted to have a black heroine who did not have sexual violence done against her, as so many black heroines do, but to have her filled with passion and lust and love and see where that would take her. “I had to fight to keep a dildo scene in the end of the book,” Barnett said. “My editor said, ‘No one ends a literary novel with a sex scene,’ but I wanted to end on an up note, a celebratory vibe.” She fought for it so readers would get to know a different type of black woman who owns her own sexual prowess.
Barnett credited Zora Neale Hurston with the best masturbation scene she’d ever read, the one in Their Eyes Were Watching God – and with writing the first black sexually empowered female character that pursues what she wants with great passion. She urged writers, “Mine your sexual experiences in your writing so they become autobiographical ethnography – our stories have so much power they begin to speak for the whole of us. Shun shame. Claim your sexuality because it’s part of your humanity.”
Ashley C. Ford:
Ford described her work as addressing sex, gender, sexuality, and race, seeking to honor the entire spectrum of sexual experience, “which means they’re not all good, passionate and can be kind of funny.” She writes about budding sexuality, specifically for young women “who get such mixed messages about their bodies and sexuality in general as they’re growing up and having their bodies mature before they’re actually ready to engage in sexual activity. How do you explore that?” She continued, “Black girls’ bodies seem to mature faster than white bodies,” and Ford is interested in exploring in her work how adolescent black girls are treated by men.
She also talked about being bi-sexual and being in a relationship with a cis man, and how much she didn’t want her current relationship status to discount her queer identity. She referenced an essay she wrote for Buzzfeed, My Boyfriend And I Came Out To Each Other about her and her first boyfriend coming out to each other after dating for six years. She also talked about the ethical issues in privacy of loved ones, as she maintains a column, Disrupting Domesticity at The Toast about living with her boyfriend while dealing with her PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Friedman asserted, “The most important sexual relationship you’ll have is one with yourself.” She spoke about her most recent book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety not as a self help book that communicates, “you’re broken and this book will fix you,” rather as a book that says, “you’re fine, the world is broken, here’s how you can have good sexuality in a broken world.”
She said that for her writing about sexuality inherently meant writing as a survivor of sexual assault, and when she did that “all the trolls came out.” She actually doesn’t like to call them trolls, “They’re abusers, harrassers, ‘trolls’ sounds harmless and funny, they’re not, they’re abusers,” she said. Friedman admitted that nasty comments and threats can get to her, “I do take to my bed,” she said. But then she gets up and continues to work for women’s sexual safety and freedom. “I’m Jewish,” she said, “and there’s a Jewish saying that really helps me – It’s not yours to complete the work but neither is it yours to desist from it. It’s important to be part of a community so you can tap in and tap out.” When you need to take a break for self-care, she explained, take a break, shut off your devices, and tap out. When you’re ready, return. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We come here to decolonize the body and we end up talking about violence and fear,” Friedman noted. “Whatever makes it possible for you to keep doing the work, that’s what I recommend you do.”
Anna March’s essays and creative non-fiction have appeared in Modern Love in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus, Tin House, PANK and numerous other publications. Her memoir, The Spectacular Remains, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are forthcoming and she is at work on a collection of essays, Feminist Killjoy.
Ashley C. Ford is an essayist, editor and columnist whose work in Elle, PANK magazine, The Rumpus, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and Literary Orphans addresses sexuality, gender and race.
Jaclyn Friedman is author or Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. Friedman has been a guest on PBS News Hour, the BBC and numerous other radio and television shows, and her commentary has appeared in outlets including CNN, Time, The Washington Post, The Nation, Jezebel and The Huffington Post. She is a founder and the former Executive Director of Women, Action & the Media as well as a charter member of CounterQuo, a coalition dedicated to challenging the ways we respond to sexual violence.
Self-professed “Ivy League homegirl” Sofia Quintero is a writer, producer, activist, educator and speaker. Under the pen name Black Artemis, Sofia is the author of several hip-hop novels for adults including Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’ and Burn which are assigned in college courses across the nation. Under her real name she has published the chick –lit novel Divas Don’t Yield and her award-winning debut YA novel Efrain’s Secret and numerous short stories and novellas. Her latest novel is Show and Prove.
Novelist and playwright LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam on the Vine, was an Editor’s Choice pick at the Chicago Tribune and earned the Emerging Writers Award at the 2015 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. She is also the editor of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On Their Craft and the story collection Callaloo. Twice-nominated for the 2015 Pushcart prize for her short fiction, Barnett holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, and other publications. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons
March 4, 2014 § 8 Comments
It feels like everyone goes to AWP looking for something.
Perhaps it’s a check mark on a list, one of those must-haves that we’re told we must shore up before our careers will take off. An MFA, an agent, a Tweet that nabs you 1,000 followers. Then there’s my demographic, those who are beginning to lose faith at one of the dozens of steep inclines in the process, and wander the convention center imploring each room for a sign.
When I sat for the panel “Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion,” I was doubting my memoir manuscript. It’s being shopped, and over the past few weeks there’s been a harmonic chord of the same no: what great work! Too bad there’s not enough platform. I was doubting the validity of my experiences and their relevance. I hadn’t promised my boyfriend that I’d make him 300 sandwiches for an engagement ring, and I wasn’t on “The Office.” A tendril of shame was rooting in my heart; the embarrassment of sharing stories that weren’t good enough. That my life on the page wasn’t worthy.
There was a humming, static verve in Room 607. The energy of a packed house fed up with expectations and niches and double standards, impatient for stories to be elevated by bravery and beauty and merit rather than the shelves of gender, race, and age we’ve been forced to inherit. Each woman on the panel had fearlessly written her own truths, despite the anger, discomfort, and squeamishness they’d caused the patriarchal literary establishment. The collective hunger for a revolution was electric.
When Anna March implored us to give up shame for telling stories, I felt my heart’s hinges squeak open. “Don’t get pushed into an arc,” she said. Women’s memoir is an internal journey that we share, and doesn’t have to be Julie and Julia-style or Lifetime special-ready. “Life is a lot messier than that.” Reading women’s memoir makes women and their lives visible no matter the commonality or grandeur of their experience, which is a powerful act.
Kate Hopper echoed the sentiment when she described her obstacles of writing about motherhood, a subject big publishing does not often consider worthy of literature. It’s shoved into patronizing genres like “mom-oir” and we begin to believe what we’re told about our stories not mattering. She felt fear blossoming as the shame of her experience—a woman’s experience—set in. The same noxious weed I felt inside of myself. “We become shameful, not shameless,” she warned.
Connie Mae Fowler, in the panel’s closing, pointed out that there is no section of the bookstore called “men’s lit” or, to the room’s delight, “dick lit.” No man describes his work as “confessional.” He doesn’t have to. As women memoir writers, it’s essential to keep kicking out of the box, the narrow shelf, to refuse to shut up. “Victims must keep secrets. Rebellion and ascension require storytelling.”
Although I had another 48 hours left in Seattle, I could have left AWP on these warrior writer’s words and had exactly the reawakening to continue the fight. Judging from the panel’s delirious applause, I was hardly alone. I refuse to apologize again for my book, even in my head. I will keep churning out words and reading those of other women writers. I will kick until my legs fall off.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program who currently lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been featured in journals such as Hobart, Barrelhouse, and Brevity, and her memoir-in-essays Paper Bag: Tales of Love, Beauty, and Baggage is represented by Penumbra Literary.