February 15, 2018 § 13 Comments
Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:
…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.
Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–
I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.
Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?
I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.
We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.
We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.
I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.
It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.
It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”
There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.
February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
January 25, 2018 § 5 Comments
When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.
None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.
I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.
Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.
The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?
The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.
The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?
Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.
It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?
Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.
The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
January 4, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last call for submissions to the Brevity Podcast One-Minute Memoir episode! We’ve heard and read some fantastic submissions so far, and we’ve been blessed with a bounty of glorious writing, so the deadline is staying put at THIS SATURDAY, January 6th.
But our ears are still open–tell us about a single moment that summed up everything, or everything you can fit into 150 words, or a powerful fragment of a fraction. Make us laugh, make us cry, and make it happen by Saturday, midnight EST.
There’s still time.
Original call for submissions below.
The Brevity Podcast is seeking submissions for our One-Minute Memoir episode. We’re looking for ultra-flash nonfiction of 100-150 words (on paper) and up to one minute (recording time). Accepted pieces will be broadcast in our February episode and receive a $25 honorarium.
December 19, 2017 § 10 Comments
The sticky joys of packing the kids into car seats. The triumph of cramming your daily life into a carry-on, victory dance cut short by a full bottle of contact lens solution. The stoicism of sleeping on the lumpy foldout sofa.
There’s nothing so delightful as travel at the holidays.
Fortunately for writers, it turns out travel broadens the mind regardless of destination. It’s not where you go, or even for how long–the process of moving to and within a new location is stimulating, even if it’s Aunt Hildy’s instead of Buenos Aires. As Jonah Lehrer writes in the Guardian,
…problems that feel “close” – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination.
Travel breaks patterns. Motion jogs loose ideas from the bottom of the brain. Even the idea of distant places makes us more creative–when a group of study participants were told the puzzles they were trying to solve came from California, they came up with more and more varied solutions than another group told the puzzles came from the office down the hall.
I’m lucky enough to travel a lot. In fact, this is the first year since 2003 I’ve spent more time at home than I have on the road, thanks to retiring from a travel-heavy job. Now I’m away only(!?!) about three months a year. Sometimes it’s super glam–I’m headed for Taiwan in a few days for hiking and hot springs, to skip Christmas and ring in the New Year. Sometimes it’s a little more prosaic, spending time with a dear friend in Shreveport, or teaching at a conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. But every time, it’s new.
I did a weird thing in Ohio last month. I’ve been slowly clearing out belongings from my former home in Michigan. It’s hard–there’s a lot of sentimental items, things I associate with my former much-loved career and my first (also much-loved) marriage. When I open up a box in the basement, I can get through about half before I start crying and decide today isn’t the day for this. But this time I packed four boxes into the car and took them with me to the conference. After class, I went back to the Best Western, put on the TV, and worked through the boxes.
It. Was. Crazy.
Clothes I remembered adoring looked faded and ill-used. Books I’d been meaning to read were unappealing. Knickknacks I once treasured? Clearly junk. I didn’t even have to ask my standard “keep or toss” question (would I buy this today for a quarter at Goodwill?), I just chucked item after item into the “donate” pile. Outside the house full of memories and guilt and loss, it was easy to see the items as they were–stuff I used to enjoy and don’t need any more. I went home with one small bag, and the Bowling Green Salvation Army got the rest.
Relocation works for writing, too. There’s a reason we go to coffee shops or co-working spaces or long for an office of our own. Place dictates function, and the function of home is to be in the feelings we’re having, connect to the people and animals present in reassuring and predictable ways. Home is not an analytical space. But travel, Lehrer writes, raises constant questions:
The same details that make foreign travel so confusing – Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me? – turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises.
Are you going anywhere over the holidays? Use at least some of it as a way to think new thoughts. Lock the kids in a room with an Xbox and go for a long walk. If you’re at home, make a familiar space foreign. Leave your phone in another room and watch the interactions of the people around you at parties. Write, or read, or dream in a new coffeeshop. Eat a new food. Get on public transit and transfer randomly until you don’t know where you are–then find your way back home without opening GoogleMaps. Start a conversation with that person who looks tedious or emotionally needy and find out what makes them tick. Make some notes. And write about the experience, or during the journey, or inspired by it when you get home.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up to follow her travels with the bimonthly I Do Words adventure postcard.
December 14, 2017 § 8 Comments
Happy Third Day of Hanukkah! The season’s closing in–“Festive Winter Holiday” time, as the department stores around Dubai call it–and you may be wondering what to get the writers in your life. Or someone you love has asked that horrifying question, “What do you want for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Diwali*/Yule?”
…An agent, book auction and five-figure deal?
…Jesus to show up and explain pointedly, he really meant the part about taking care of the poor and the sick?
…A time machine to peek at 2020 and see if building a survival shelter in the present is a smart idea?
Sadly, none of these items are (currently) available for purchase. But there are plenty of other gifts for the writer in your life, and for you as the writer in someone else’s life.
Classic elegance: Buy their book, preferably from your local indie bookstore, but here at Brevity we also understand the desire to never leave the house again. Fortunately, Powell’s also ships. Double points: buy two and give one as a present to someone else, or leave it in a Little Free Library. Already own it? Review their book online!
Stocking-stuffer: See what books you’ve bought in the past six months but haven’t reviewed yet. Spread some goodwill around by writing some quick thoughts and clicking four or five stars. Especially if the writer is at less than 50 reviews: crossing that threshold really helps their visibility online. Copy-paste Amazon reviews to Goodreads, because every little bit helps.
Fellowship: Take a like-minded friend to a reading at your nearest bookstore, no matter who the writer is and whether or not you’ve ever heard of them. If it sucks, you’ll have text-LOLs for days. If it’s great, you’ve made a discovery. Either way, buy a copy of the book and know that it’s balm to a writer’s soul when strangers come to their reading.
Peace of mind: There is no vision more horrifying than the Blue Screen of Death. Why not gift your favorite writer a large-capacity hard drive or a subscription to a cloud backup service? When the ruin of the laptop lies before us, the sole comfort is knowing your manuscript’s safe.
Creative time: Offer to watch the babies for two hours, once a week, for a few weeks, so the writing parent can get some words down. If you’re lucky, she’ll schedule for naptime. Otherwise, enjoy looking at what the kids see, or finding out what they’re interested in. If you write YA, middle-grade or picture books, this is research–the gift that keeps on giving!
Creative tools: Have they been considering Scrivener? Final Draft? A creativity or organizing app? If you’re not sure exactly which one, there’s always an iTunes gift card, with a personal note saying you thought they liked X, but this is flexible just in case. For special bonus points, find out EXACTLY what kind of notebook they use, and stock them up on a few. (I love these red Moleskines–nice enough to feel special, not so fancy that they’re “too good to use.”) Likewise, do you know EXACTLY what kind of pen they like? Remember, a $935 pen is useless to someone whose words flow from a 17-cent Bic…and leaves them around everywhere.
Literary Citizenship: Sponsor your friend–or make a donation for scholarships–to a writing conference. Gift subscriptions of your favorite literary journals, or ones you know they’d like to be published in. We’re all supposed to be reading where we want to submit, and subscriptions aren’t cheap. Help their road to publication by getting them in the habit of reading in their venue. And Brevity is always happy to accept a donation in honor of a friend.
For yourself: If you don’t have an Amazon list, consider making one. We all try to be good writer buddies by reading for others when we can, and most of the time it’s a trade or a deposit in the favor bank against future need. But every so often, we end up doing professional-level or time-consuming work for someone we’re not comfortable billing. It’s easy to say, “I’m happy to help out, and will you get me something off my Amazon list?” They can choose whether to get you a great new book, a great used book, or that Belgian linen duvet set.
Remember, if you do some holiday shopping on Amazon, starting at Smile helps Brevity with a small percentage of your purchase at no extra cost.
And if you’re stuck awkwardly trying to tell people your desires, or wedged between “Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything” and the uncomfortable knowledge that yes, you do need to get them something? Just send a link to this post. Hopefully, they’ll get the hint.
*Yes, I know Diwali was in October but it’s never to early to stock up on tea lights and gold jewelry.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.
December 7, 2017 § 30 Comments
Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.
Not any more.
For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.
Here’s how it works:
At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”
Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:
- hawk died
- what if I never had kids
- the art of napping
- no longer know people in People mag
- when dad’s work bench turned messy
- birds – make them come to you
- wearing uniforms
- computer passwords
- phantom pony tail
It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.
This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.
But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.
Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.