Simmering My Story

September 23, 2022 § 20 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When my husband wanted to breed our second Portuguese Water Dog, Spray, I hedged. I didn’t think this was the greatest idea. Research told me that Spray could develop pyometra, a potentially life threatening infection, or ovarian cancer. Puppies could get stuck on their way out, and some puppies just don’t make it after birth. This all terrified me. I showed Matt all the literature on the dangers of breeding. He stood his ground. This would be a great family adventure. 

Ellie, my younger daughter, didn’t agree with him either. We had added her to our family to help Ellie with her anxiety when she was 13. Spray was her dog. 

I also didn’t want to be a “backyard breeder.” If we were going to do this, I wanted to be a responsible breeder. The couple from whom we got Spray thought we were great candidates for breeders. They sold Spray to us on an unlimited contract, which meant we could breed her and register the puppies as purebred Portuguese Water Dogs. Most contracts restrict new owners from breeding and require them to neuter their puppies. 

After much discussion, we went forward with the breeding. Spray was gentle and laid back, the sweetest Portuguese Water Dog we’d ever known and if she could bring more sweet pups into the world, we would make a lot of families happy. Not only did the Nightingales, our breeders, guide us through all the tests Spray had to undergo to make sure she was genetically fit to have puppies, they gave us their whelping box and all their blankets and fleecing pads. After more than seven litters, they were ready to pass on their wisdom and accoutrements.

I took notes and started a blog about the breeding and whelping, which coincided with Maggie’s last year of high school and her departure to college. At the end of the whole shebang, Matt suggested I write a book about the adventure. 

I did.

It took years during which I taught, freelanced and drove Ellie’s carpool. I submitted queries to agents and pitched it to small publishers at the AWP Annual Conference, but it didn’t go anywhere. I was tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Then my husband and I moved to Hawaii, the perfect time to put the memoir in a drawer while I started writing about my next adventure. But the puppy story stayed with me.

We returned from Hawaii shortly before the pandemic. I participated in a virtual writing retreat and pulled the puppy book out of the drawer. I started futzing with it. 

I called my writing friend, Becca, who had edited the memoir at one point. “I just realized, it’s not about the dogs, it’s about Maggie,” I said. 

Her response: “I told you that three years ago.”

Oops.

The memoir was about saying goodbye to Maggie, my older daughter. I had avoided writing about the depression that had tripped me up, then grabbed me and held me prisoner. It was scary and embarrassing to revisit, but I knew that was the direction I had to go.

I continued to take classes and workshops. I wrote a stronger query letter, I rewrote the beginning and restructured the whole memoir. I was patient with myself and the story, especially the hard parts.

Some writers can crank out a book every year. Not me. But I never gave up. This was a story I needed to write and wanted to share. 

I learned to be flexible, to listen to how readers interpreted my story. The editor who read the very first draft, which was horrible, said the story was about my marriage. While she had a point, that wasn’t why I was writing. I wanted to write about the adventure my family went on, how I eventually got on board. I wanted to explore the conflict between how great the puppies were and how depressed I was over my daughter’s departure. I wanted to show how I made it through and how I dealt with subsequent good-byes.

Now with a restructuring, some serious rewrites, a new beginning, and more false starts with agents and small publishers, my memoir has been picked up by a small indie press. It’s a heady feeling. The new publisher thought writing about mental health was important and that my story would resonate with other moms sending their teenagers out into the world. 

I am proud of myself for writing the thing that scared me the most, and I’m proud of myself for never giving up. Sometimes things take a while to cook. Sometimes simmering is better than boiling. 

Maggie is now 30 years old and married. I am older too. The college days are long gone. But when I revisit the moment when we said good-bye in front of her new dorm and walked away from each other, my stomach lurches and all the good-byes I’ve had to say in my life come back and rock my soul. 

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Morgan Baker’s work can be found in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, Under the Gum Tree, Expression, The Brevity Blog, and The Bark, among other publications. She teaches at Emerson College and privately online. She was the managing editor for Thebucket.com. She is excited that her debut memoir will be out in Spring 2023 from Ten16 Press. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA. For more information on workshops visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

American Idol as a Metaphor for the Writer’s Pursuit

September 22, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Evyenia Downey

Contestant number eighty-two thousand three hundred and the-market-is-already-oversaturated-with-women-writing-about-their-brains-and-boyfriends, step right up! Stand at the X on the floor — a coincidental representation of all your denied submissions. Make eye contact with the judges, but not long enough to expose the tears welling under the glue-on lashes you didn’t know how to put on but figured if you can inflate a CV you can fake an extended lash. 

Get that voice ready to prove you have what it takes to win. 

I feel like a contestant on American Idol every time I submit a poem or essay for publication. Before I click submit, I stop and ask myself, am I the William Hung to their inbox? She bangs, she bangs, she bangs her head into the keyboard. I try to believe the rejection is worth it. Airtime. Getting my face out there. But like those contestants we laugh about all these years later, am I better off just staying home?

Sure, the 2022 season of American Idol I watched while yet again procrastinating my mental health recovery memoir was a lot kinder than previous years. No insults. No ridicule. Yet there is always someone who stepped up to the judges with the belief they are destined to be a star. They have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of musical superstardom. They have sacrificed financial stability, a career in a sustainable industry, and have driven their family members to such intolerance that the contestant has arrived at their audition alone.

I’m not that far gone in my pursuit of literary stardom. I have a job in a casino that pays the bills. My husband listens with interest when I tell him about my dreams of being a professional writer and writing teacher. Maybe I’m not currently a gag reel-worthy contestant. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Or maybe I am already there and haven’t realized it yet. I think that’s what pushes me to procrastinate. The fear that I’m no good and don’t know it. The fear that I think I’m good and someone somewhere laughs at their screen upon opening my submission. 

My dream of being a writer and writing teacher developed in my twenties when I was too mentally ill to maintain a full-time job. My undergraduate GPA with the University of Toronto stands at a 2.3 because in 2010, during my third year of university, I experienced my first serious mental health decline. I barely made in out with my life, let alone a degree.

By some blessing by the literary gods, I was accepted into an MFA program in 2017. The only reason I was even considered for the MFA was the creative writing certificate program I completed with U of T in 2016. After two poetry acceptances to online magazines, a toxic romantic relationship triggered another mental health decline and I stopped writing. But the dream of the writer’s life remained. I wanted to live just like my teachers. They wrote books and articles. They taught classes. They were not bound by a concrete schedule — the ultimate appeal to my mentally ill self.

Since 2021 I’ve considered myself recovered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a decade of bouncing between unemployment and part-time retail work, I started my full-time job in the casino. To my surprise, I was able to work forty hours a week without experiencing another mental decline. I spent the rest of the year intentionally not writing to figure out if my interest in the written word was genuine or if it was born from 9-5 anxiety.

I was sure I would experience a dwindling interest in writing.

I was wrong. 

So here I am in 2022, mostly recovered from my mental illnesses (the BPD is gone but my OCD is an ongoing issue) and ready to build a career as a writer. I’ve only felt like an American Idol contestant for a few months. Not long enough to be discouraged, but long enough to receive enough rejections to feel tempted to quit. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers say, “You’ve only failed once you quit.” Therefore, keep going because you never know what will happen. Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers. Stranger Things was rejected by twelve studios. Lisa Kudrow was fired from Frasier, which led to her casting in Friends. Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your road. But is there a point where you have to accept that something just isn’t meant for you? 

How many seasons of American Idol do you audition for before you accept that you are not the next Kelly Clarkson?

I’m not aiming for the grand prize. I would be happy to win fifth runner up. A literary Chris Daughtry or Adam Lambert. Not everyone knows their name. Not everyone knows their work. But some people in some parts of the world are listening. 

I think that would be enough.
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Evyenia Downey is a writer and poet from Toronto, Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College Halifax and a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto. She writes about relationships, identity, and mental illness.

The Trouble With Reading

September 19, 2022 § 32 Comments

By Julie Holston

I love to read, as I assume most writers do. As a nonfiction writer, I know the value of studying memoirs and personal essays and reading outside my genre. I even belong to a book club where, instead of reading the same book for discussion, we show-and-tell the books we’ve each read or are currently reading. We exchange recommendations and sometimes even lend out a beloved book. Everyone goes home with additions to our Libby lists and GoodReads shelves. But whereas some of the group members—several of them fellow writers—read a book or more a week, my quota is closer to a book every two months. I keep books in almost every room at home, and I have titles waiting in my Audible and Kindle queues. I’m surrounded by books, so why don’t I spend more time reading? 

When I was a kid, I could lie on the couch in the living room, totally engrossed in Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague while my parents watched Monday Night Football or Columbo in the same room. These days, I need fewer distractions to concentrate. My wife works from home and the Zoom voices carry throughout our small condo, so I’ll stream white noise on my phone if I’m trying to read. But having the phone nearby offers the temptation of using it to look up an unfamiliar word, and once I put down the book and grab the phone, I’ll see a text or a news alert. Before long I’m scrolling, and then I decide to do the Wordle, the Mini Crossword, and the Spelling Bee. The hour I had allotted for reading results in twenty minutes with the actual book.

I’m also attached to the idea that I need to nurse a cozy cup of coffee when I read. The only place to set it down in the living room is the coffee table, so I have to put the book aside and lean forward every time I take a sip, disrupting my reading. If I turn sideways and stretch my legs out on the couch, then I can pull the coffee table close enough to reach. Now I’m pinned, and I’m hoping I haven’t left my phone in the kitchen. If the cat jumps up and snuggles in, I’m rendered even more immobile, so I may as well settle in and read, right? But it turns out, I need both hands to hold a paperback open. Even though my rapidly cooling coffee is now within arm’s reach, I’ll still have to pause my reading to take a sip, closing the book over my fingers to keep it from flipping dramatically out of my grasp in my attempt to hold it open single-handedly. 

As a young adult, I would stand in line at midnight to snatch the latest Harry Potter release in hardcover and devour it within a day or two. I never gave any thought to the effort required to hold up a pound or two of pages, whether I was splayed out on my back or curled up in a chair. Now, I need a lap or a table for a hardcover. They’re just too heavy for my middle-aged hands to support. Actually, I enjoy reading at a table, and I’ll do just that in a bookstore, where—bonus!—the table supports both the book and the coffee cup. But sitting at the dining room table feels weirdly formal at home, so I’d rather keep struggling with the couch. 

Reading in bed rarely works. If I lie down flat and hold the book on my chest, it’s not positioned in the correct quadrant of my progressive lenses to see the words. I need to tilt my head back uncomfortably against the pillow to find the sweet spot for my eyes. I have prescription reading glasses, but I keep them next to my laptop in the office, and I’m never inclined to go get them once I’ve gone to bed. Sitting up holds promise. I’ll prop up the pillows to support my lower back and settle in at just the right angle so I don’t slide down the mattress. That takes a few minutes, and once I’ve begun to read, my eyes get so tired I fall asleep almost immediately upon opening the book. 

I miss the girl who could plop down any place and read any book at any time. I still can’t imagine a more pleasurable way to spend a day than curled up on the couch reading. But it’s all so much trouble now. I may as well just write.

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Julie Holston is an emerging writer living in Minnesota with her wife and cat. A native of Arizona, she holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, and has backgrounds in theatre, music, humanities, and education. She is currently working on a memoir and an unconventional family history.

On Keeping a Journal, and the Act of Forgetting

September 12, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Eunice Tiptree

“It’s important that you remember everything.” 

I heard the commandment as I bee-lined for the living room. The voice came from my head, yet seemed to speak from the air. I was eight- or nine-years old. 

I may have paused a second, but I did not wonder at the statement or ask myself why was so important to remember. I went on my way — the Flintstones were coming on.

The commandment only survived as a curiosity. It did not influence my course in life. Yet looking back through the tunnel of three-score years, I see I have striven to remember everything. By remember, I mean by writing in a daily journal begun the day I turned 21. 

I’ve kept that journal for 47 years, a means of talking to myself through time. As if the journal wasn’t enough, I later started outlining daily events in a datebook, useful as an index to the journal and as a quick overview of my journey through the months.

I pictured my inner self as some medieval scribe in a tower ringed by windows. The scribe follows the clock of the sun from window to window for the light to write, window to window through the arc of the day and the swing of the seasons. 

It’s all there, births and deaths, my career as a journalist, at first on a small-town newspaper, later developing a magazine on the space program. And it’s also there, hidden and sometimes glimpsed, submerging again and finally surfacing, decades of gender confusion that preceded my journey from male to female beginning in 2010. 

After completing my transition, I thought myself a natural to write a memoir of my experience. I went over every journal entry for the two years that culminated with surgery. From the bible of my journal, I made detailed notes about each small step, lifted extended quotes, charted events to the exact day. I filled three notebooks with artifacts, an undigested digest of my transition. And began to write . . .

And write. And write. 

I became trapped in what came next. Call it “Then-ism,” as in: and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened. A slow, turgid stream of “and then.” 

Surprise, the entire work fell apart. I found myself lost in a swamp of 140,000 words.

I’d ignored something I learned studying at the Kenyon Review Writing Workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore: Autobiography attempts to include most of a life; memoir attempts to exclude most of a life. And, the bigger the subject, the smaller the keyhole through which you want to enter it. 

A keyhole? I’d left the barn doors wide open, the silo stuffed with more mementoes than a hoarder.

I should have known better from my own experience long ago as a beginning newspaper reporter. In those days I lugged around a bulky cassette tape recorder at the ready for interviews. One time doing a feature, the tape failed. I didn’t discover it until afterwards. Forced to write the story from memory, I discovered the important points and quotes remained lodged in my mind. I didn’t need the tape. After that, I gained the confidence to trust myself — that the important stuff sticks.

Details form a seductive trap, especially when you have them all before you, in bright colors like a jar of jellybeans. Who can stop at one or even a handful?

I still have a hard time weaning myself off the sugar high. I’ll open the journals. But only to refresh my memory. I’ll go for a walk, away from temptation. As I stride along without the crutch of my journals, the bulk of details fall away, which opens space for the truly important scenes to surface. I see new relationships, connections, and hidden meanings. I see something come alive. All the while getting some good exercise.

Remember everything? Why listen to an eight-year-old? Forget everything. That’s the only way to begin to remember. Let your memory roam the seas, not get trapped against the rocks.

I’m nearing the completion of a new memoir, less than half the length of the old one and much stronger — at least a little voice tells me so.

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Eunice Tiptree’s essays have been published in Brevity, Crack the Spine, Weave, Older Queer Voices and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published in The Kenyon Review and elsewhere.  She writes a blog about the space program at TLI-Tiptree.com.

Reading Like a Writer: Payoff in the Personal Essay

April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments

Detail of The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck: a couple, viewed from behind, are reflected in a round mirrorA guest post from Jennifer Berney, first in our new series Reading Like a Writer.

One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.

[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]

This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.

In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:

J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.

This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.

The revelation arrives in section eight:

I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.

J. fuit hic.

I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.

If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.

This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.

I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:

Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.

I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.

Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.

Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 13 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 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!

The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

June 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

Gentle Readers, you may have noticed our Brevity Editor-in-Chief’s new book, The Story Cure. Perhaps you’ve even been moved to hop over to Amazon or pop in to your favorite indie bookstore to pick it up. Or maybe you’re still wondering, what the heck is this book all about?

Over at HuffPo, “certified writing geek” Stephanie M. Vanderslice has the dish.

What I appreciated most was Moore’s personal take on the most essential elements of the major prose project: the primal story or the problem of the heart, and the invisible magnetic river. The problem of the heart is the primal element of the story, the human current that runs deep within its core that pulls the reader in and makes them care about it, makes them unwilling to put it down. The invisible magic river is, likewise, the current that carries this story and that every single element of the work—”word, element, scenes, snippets of dialogue, reflection,” should be drawn toward.

Vanderslice and Moore talk about keeping the focus on the reader, and the advice Dinty W. Moore now would give his younger writer self. Her interview is a fast, thoughtful read–check out the whole conversation here.

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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

What Makes Bad Writing?

June 29, 2016 § 22 Comments

635860977597358197-1003640765_writers-block-vintageWe’ve all read a bad book. Most of us have read a bad published book; many of us have read a bad manuscript, perhaps a friend-of-a-friend’s, that we were obligated to read to the bitter end. And then tell the author something noncommittal and encouraging.

You just don’t know what you did there!

You make it all seem so spontaneous on the page…

You…literature…wow.

Truly bad writing–rather than slickly-crafted airport thrillers, or blandly-told stories that somehow tap into the zeitgeist to sell millions–is, Toby Litt writes in the Guardian, “a love poem addressed by the self to the self.”

Litt discusses “excuse writers”:

Bad writers bulwark themselves against a confrontation with their own badness by reference to other writers with whom they feel they share certain defence-worthy characteristics. They form defensive admirations: “If Updike can get away with these kind of half-page descriptions of women’s breasts, I can too” or “If Virginia Woolf is a bit woozy on spatiality, on putting things down concretely, I’ll just let things float free”. If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.

While Litt focuses on fiction, his discussion of the personal story is particularly true for bad nonfiction writers.

Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.

But wait–memoirists are supposed to be truthful, right? Isn’t that the whole point?

Absolutely. And also, no. The point is to cover the facts honestly, but by using structure, voice, style and craft to make the reading compelling to a stranger. To be able to answer the eternal memoir question, So what?

What separates good writers from bad is the learned ability to analyze their own work and the desire to make it better. The willingness to accept that it isn’t enough to have a powerful story. But we already know this, and we think it every time someone at a party says, “I have a great idea! You should write it and we’ll split the profits!”

We know an idea isn’t enough, that even a story isn’t enough. We know it’s about craft plus compelling story plus the will to shape the story into something considered, focused, interesting and beautiful. And along the way, a lot of messing around to learn how writing works, and how we can make it work better every time.

Read Toby Litt’s piece here.

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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!

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