February 17, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Heather Lanier
I want to write an essay about trying to teach my kids to meditate during a pandemic. But it’s neither easy to write an essay, nor easy to live in a pandemic. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My meditation is Christian-based, so I decide before even starting that I’ll submit the finished piece to a Christian magazine.
Writing for an overtly Christian audience is new to me, and at first, it’s kind-of liberating. I can make in-house jokes, referencing Jesus’ more peculiar behaviors like cursing fig trees and doodling in sand. Also, I can employ all kinds of handy code words for complex ideas. God, for instance. Faith.
But then I hit a problem. When I first taught my kids to meditate, we chanted om. Why? Because one of them requested it. And because their father was once a Buddhist monk. And because their mother still opens books by Tibetan nuns and appreciates Sufi poetry. We chanted om because I believe there are many paths to God.
The magazine’s submission word-count is tight, 1,200 words. So in the first draft, I leave out om entirely. Instead, I say we did on day one what we eventually did on day five: Sat in silence for a minute. It’s true. . . but also not true. I walk away from the writing desk knowing I can’t live with the draft as it is.
The nonfiction writer’s only constraints are facts. And there are sometimes ethical reasons to change those facts. We change the name of a doctor who harmed us because, despite malpractice, he could sue. But whenever we consider twisting the facts because we don’t know how else to artistically handle the complexity of real life, we should make ourselves sit back down at the desk and figure out a way to stay truthful and tell a readable story. Doing so reteaches me again and again this lesson: If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing.
Why does this happen? I suspect because working with the messiness of truth requires us to punch out new spaces in the confines of prose, like someone knocking down walls in their home to add a playroom, an indoor swimming pool, or a personal arboretum. Trees in the living room? Why, yes! We build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres, which means we innovate—which is what good art in any form requires.
So I write om back into the story. I describe the half-harmonic, half-discordant chord between my kids and me.
And then something interesting happens: getting honest about om enables me to write in a voice that’s honest about my whole inter-spiritual perspective. The voice is unabashed, and unapologetic. She’s no longer concerned with an arena of Christian readers.
In fact, I’m suddenly not writing to any arena. I’m now writing to a person, singular and intimate. This person doesn’t necessarily subscribe to one religion or another, but she’s wholly interested in whatever mongrel version of “prayer” I taught my kids a week ago. This person is a friend.
I should be surprised by none of this. Julianna Baggott once said that if you want to write any piece of writing, don’t imagine an audience. “Imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.” In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which I share with my graduate students, Gornick explains how finding the right voice can help a writer elucidate the story, “the wisdom, the insight, the thing one has come to say.”
The voice I’ve found has its own accord. Where the voice of the early draft could only conclude with canned understandings of faith, using words like “grace” and “God” as unopened suitcases, this new voice lands on a final paragraph that feels utterly new to me.
This is what writing coaches mean when they implore you to “find your voice.” But as Mary Karr explains in The Art of Memoir, the only way she has been able to “find her voice” for a book-project is to write her way into one, a task that sometimes takes hundreds of pages. Luckily, sometimes it only takes a handful of false starts and a few secretive oms.
Heather Lanier’s memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University in New Jersey, and her TED Talk has been viewed over two million times.
December 8, 2020 § 25 Comments
When I was working on my book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I was writing for my younger self and to other young women like me, or like I had been—women in their twenties and early thirties, who are in the process of finding themselves, of becoming. I wanted my book to function as a guide, or rather an anti-guidebook of sorts, a map of what not to do. I wanted these young women to see the mistakes I had made, so they wouldn’t need to the same ones themselves.
My advanced reader copies went out, and even though I shouldn’t have, I wanted to see how people were responding, so I looked at Goodreads. Other writers told me not to. They said, “Goodreads is for readers, not writers.” One writer told me that what readers think of my book is none of my business.
They were right, of course. But I thought, I’m a reader, too!
There were a number of reviews that didn’t like that the essays aren’t arranged in chronological order. A few men didn’t like my narrator, which was to be expected because I was writing about a woman trying to get out from underneath the male gaze and learning to be the subject of her own desire. Any story that subverts the patriarchal order is bound to be met with a bit of disdain—I counted this as a win.
What I wasn’t expecting was the vitriol from young women—not all young women, of course, but some of them hated the book and seemed especially mad at me for writing it. One young woman wrote a 1,200 word-review, twice as long as this post. These women, the very ones I thought I was penning a love letter to, were very passionate, indeed, but in their anger.
One young woman wondered if my younger self really did all those “stupid things” or if I was just “making it up” to sell books. Let me be clear: I wasn’t making it up. And yes, I really was that stupid.
Certainly, I could have just written a terrible book with an asshole narrator.
But I wondered why they would finish the book if they hated it (and me) so much and then take to Goodreads and spend a lot more time thinking and writing about a book they couldn’t stand.
During this same time, middle-aged and much older women started writing to me, gushing about how much they loved the book. They saw their younger selves, their own missteps, and they said that though they may not want to admit it, they could relate. They thanked me for putting their struggles into words. The mirror I held up to them showed their much younger selves and the ways that they had reckoned with their mistakes, helping them grow into the powerful women they now were.
I went back and noticed in the negative reviews, readers wrote more about themselves and their experiences in relation to the book. My book, it seemed, had held a mirror up to the reader, and some of these young women didn’t like what they saw.
I often tell my students to think about their audience, and I still think that’s good advice. Write to a specific someone in your mind. But now I’ll add this: you might be wrong about that specific someone, but that’s okay.
Sometimes the book is smarter than the writer. And your love letter may be unrequited, but someone else will find it, someone who needs it. And it doesn’t matter who that is, because you have done your work. You have written your book. And in the end, what the reader thinks about it is none of your business.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
December 3, 2019 § 8 Comments
Back when I was a professional circus performer, most of my shows were at “busker festivals”—large community events where a street or streets are closed to traffic, and shows happen throughout downtown.
(Not seeing it? Here’s an uplifting two-minute montage of the busker festival in Ontario I now direct, check out the flip at :52!)
A tradition at busker festivals is the Group Show, a closing performance with all the acts presenting 3-5 minutes each. Group Shows are fun for the performers as well as the audience—buskers bring out new material, tricks too difficult or dangerous for their regular shows, or they combine acts with other artists.
Sometimes there’s an inside joke. At a festival in Canada, performers swapped costumes and did bits of each others’ acts. Funniest of all was emcee Sharon, a not-contortionist dressed as a contortionist, running around shouting “I’m Suzie Splits! Buy my merchandise!” As she introduced each act, she added the slogan: “Next up, the amazing Aerial Angels! Did I mention you could buy my merchandise?” or “Wasn’t that juggling terrific! Buy my merchandise!”
We all loved Suzie Splits (not her real name). But what we remembered from her show was not her amazing bendy skills, but her constant merchandise pitching.
You may not be hawking souvenir t-shirts, bumper stickers or can cozies, but you might be selling something else. Workshops. Editorial services. Coaching. Writing retreats. Chances are, you’re also part of some pretty great writing communities. Which means you’ve seen the equivalent of Suzie Splits, tweeting about her book (now available on Amazon!), Instagramming about her retreat (look how pretty!), or posting about her great new service in a Facebook group (discounts for members!).
When you need that service, or have been meaning to buy that book, those announcements can be great. But most of the time, let’s face it, they’re kind of irritating. And irritation doesn’t sell books—or anything else.
How can you connect your services with your audience, without alienating the very clients you’re seeking? Some best practices:
1) Revise your bio. Every time someone sees you or your writing online, your bio should contain a clickable link to the most important thing you’re selling right now. If your website isn’t selling anything NOW, send people to the social media you enjoy the most, or a recent publication. Update Twitter/Instagram bios regularly to highlight your current work, whether that’s a new essay published or a service you’re offering.
2) Use your email signature. An automatic email signature saves time and reaches people outside your writing community. Responding to your lawn service? Maybe their daughter’s getting her MFA, or the main mower has a deep love of reading you don’t know about.
3) Promote one thing at a time. When I add my bio to a Brevity blog, I rotate what I’m pitching. Some weeks it’s “follow me on Instagram” or “join my newsletter.” Sometimes I’ll mention a conference I’m speaking at, or a workshop I’m teaching. But if I listed my whole calendar, readers would get lost in a mass of information.
4) Promote your friends…one at a time. Twitter feeds full of retweets of books for sale are worse than no promotion at all, because people mute or ignore spammy accounts. If I’m promoting a friend’s event or service, I skip promoting myself for a couple of days before and after, because I want the information to stick.
5) Ask your friends to promote you. When a friend mentions you in their newsletter, or on social media, that’s an endorsement, far more valuable than self-promotion. People want advice from their trusted friends more than an ad from you.
6) Guest blog. Writing a post for a blog with a substantial following raises your profile. Look for leaders in the writing community, like Jane Friedman, and browse their blogs. What can you write for that audience? Can you angle that topic to establish your own expertise or mention your service in the context of valuable information?
7) Most important of all: timing. At least 10 “gives” for every “ask.” This establishes you as a valuable, contributing member of the community, rather than a drive-by using the group as a captive audience. Gives can be sharing links or information, answering questions you have expertise or even just an opinion on, posting thoughtful questions for discussion, sharing funny/meaningful/frustrating/triumphant moments from your own writing process, making jokes or participating in Twitter threads.
The very best self-promotion is offering something people already want and are delighted to discover that you sell, because they already like you. They trust you. Because you’ve shown you want their community, not just their cash.
I once explained how street performers make money to a reality-show investor: “We do the very best show we can, for free. At the end of the show, people like us so much, they joyfully give us money, even though they could easily just walk away. Our job is to make them thrilled they have the opportunity to pay us.”
As creatives, that’s our job. Hang our paintings on the gallery wall for everyone to see until a buyer walks in. Donate our time and information to groups who need it, as we can afford to give it. Establish our skills and knowledge and ethos so clearly that when we do (finally!) announce a product, our audience is excited we’re letting them buy.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!