Author Bio? Author Crisis!

December 12, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

—The End— 

Yay! My creative nonfiction piece is complete. 

Phew.

Next: Double-check the submission deadline and guidelines. Check for typos. Then, send: Off it goes. 

Happy dance. Cup of tea. Catch up on house chores. 

And wait. 

One morning, my email inbox pings: Accepted! Oh, my goodness, yes

But then, what’s this? They need an “author bio.” 

An end piece that describes me as a writer. 

Ah. OK. Fine. 

But is it?

I’ve been writing for decades yet am sparsely published, so what to say? Shall I count up my blog posts? My Facebook posts? Um, no. An author bio should surely indicate bigger, better accomplishments. While I could pull such a list together, the places my writing has been published are more popular than literary, more journalistic than journal. Does that matter to the CNF world?

Maybe I could ignore those niggling details and simply take a cheerful approach. 

“Amanda Le Rougetel is excited by words. She writes CNF at her desk while the cat swirls about her ankles, inspiring and provoking her in equal measure. She is already working on her next piece [insert happy face emoji here].” 

Or maybe a studious tone would be more appropriate. 

“Since learning to write on a manual typewriter at age 10, Amanda Le Rougetel has toiled with intention, researching the attributes of pieces published in print and online journals. She is committed to a daily writing practice—her focus CNF and occasionally flash fiction—and takes courses to enhance her writing skills.” 

Alternatively, readers might be interested in how I got here. 

“Amanda Le Rougetel set a goal of being a capital-W Writer by spring 2023. To achieve this, she created a blog in 2018 and posted regularly. Since then, she has gained a (small) subscriber list and a (slightly bigger) readership. Her long-term writing objective is…well, once she figures that out, she’ll include it in her next bio.”

Crap. 

This is much harder than I expected. All those words are just me telling about myself. There’s no showing, no “third party validation” via actual bona fide publication. That can’t be right. 

An online search for “how to write an author bio” results in more than 800 million hits, adding to the dilemma. The advice includes “write about yourself, your credentials, your hobbies, and other information you wish to share with readers.” Fine, but what “other information”? And hobbies? Really? Readers care that I garden and bike-ride? And credentials, truly? This isn’t academe, so who cares about my BA and MA? 

Stop, Amanda. Go back online and this time look at author bios in the journals you regularly read. That would be smart. 

And here’s what I find: Shorter or longer lists—but lists, nonetheless—of the writer’s publishing history. An article placed here. A story there. A piece accepted by an anthology. And more writing in other places. Nothing about hobbies. Nor about the author’s personal activities. 

I have come to realize that a list of places published is proof that the person not only writes but is a writer worth reading. No one can dispute that writing vetted by an editor + publication = Writer. 

We write CNF because we have something to say, something about ourselves and, by extension, the world around us and those who share it. But how challenging it is when the editor turns the focus squarely on us, putting our skill to the test in crafting a readable, credible piece of micro-autobiography. 

The author bio is at once fleeting and lasting. While we who write for publication hope our bio is ever evolving, we know that the version of ourselves that lands on the printed page or screen lasts for an eternity of readers who encounter it in that spot. Our best hope is that we capture in the moment not only the facts but also the spirit of who we are as Writer.

___

Amanda Le Rougetel writes creative nonfiction, usually personal essays, three of which have been published in Canada’s Globe and Mail. Her work has also appeared in Herizons magazine, and twice in Brevity Blog. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where she challenges herself by writing flash fiction, blogs at Five Years a Writer, and teaches “writing as a tool for transformation” courses through writingastool.ca.

To Continue or Not? Writing the Memoir, That Is.

November 17, 2022 § 62 Comments

By Nancy L. Agneberg 

I worked on my memoir for years. Years. 

Revising. Restructuring. Changing the focus. Responding to feedback from my writing group (“Go deeper, deeper, deeper”), and incorporating what I learned in classes and from books about writing creative nonfiction. 

I was pleased with the current version of my book—and with myself—and decided it was time once again to share the manuscript with a writer whom I had hired to read earlier versions. I wanted her opinion and thoughts about next steps. Obviously, I knew more revisions would follow, but I thought, I really did, that she would say, “Good job, Nancy. You are so close to the query and book proposal stage.”

Instead, she said, “I hope I don’t make you cry.” 

I didn’t cry, at least in her presence, but I admit that when I returned to the sanctity of my car, I had a good cry, one I repeated later at my desk. 

Wisely, I gave myself space before reading the three pages of comments, as well as those on the manuscript itself. I allowed myself to be stunned. Later I shared the comments with my writing group. They were stunned, too. 

Then I entered a time of discernment. 

Discernment is a process of deep listening. An intentional process during which insight, that ah-ha moment, has room to make itself known.

First, I posed some possible scenarios:

  • Revise the memoir based on the reader’s suggestions.
  • Self-publish after revising.
  • Self-publish without major revisions. 
  • Create essays based on specific chapters and submit to appropriate venues.
  • End all involvement with the memoir. 
  • Retire. 

Based on the scenarios, I asked myself a series of questions:

  • Do I agree with my reader’s evaluations? (Some yes, some no.)
  • Am I willing to do the amount of work suggested? (Not sure.)
  • If, as was suggested, this would be a hard book to sell to a publisher, what about self-publishing? (No. I don’t want to spend limited funds that way.)
  • Do I regret all the time I’ve spent on the book? (No, I don’t think so, for I’ve learned so much along the way.)
  • Was writing the memoir my purpose? My identity? (No, writing the memoir was part of my purpose and part of my identity.)
  • Will I feel like a failure if I don’t continue with this project? (No, and as my husband pointed out, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.”)

In some ways, this is the perfect time to be working on a book. My children are grown, and my grandchildren are in their teens, one in college. My husband is retired and content with his own projects. Both of us are healthy. Nothing prevents me from continuing with this project. 

And yet, when friends ask how my book is progressing, and I attempt to explain my dilemma, more than one person says, “But Nancy, you have worked so hard.” 

True, but did I want to continue working so hard? Is that what this is all about?

The questions swirl around me like fall leaves caught in brisk breezes. Perhaps I need to be the tree and let go. Clearly, it is time to take a break, to pause, to exhale and clear the space.

These mornings, I sit quietly in my meditation space, breathing gently in and out. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, finding my own rhythm. I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely. 

Pat Schneider writes in How The Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, “If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world.” 

I believe that. 

I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world. Writing is a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage leading me towards the person I was created to be. 

I will continue to write, but not my memoir. 

__________________

Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Brevity, Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; and elsewhere. She facilitates a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words: Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice, and blogs at Living on Life’s Labyrinth

Are You Too Young to Write a Memoir?

October 28, 2022 § 19 Comments

By Jessica Gigot 

When I told my mother about my new book project, a departure from poetry, her first response was, “Aren’t you too young to be writing a memoir?” The question was jarring. I was in my late thirties at the time and had been writing and publishing poetry for several years. Prior to that I had been a researcher, penning scientific articles for journals like The American Journal of Potato Science and The International Journal of Fruit Science. I was, by all accounts, ready to write a book.

My initial response to my mother, who I don’t think intended any harm, was to point out that this was memoir and not autobiography, a genre that generally contains the entirety of one’s life, follows chronology, and is usually written by a famous person or established personality. Although writing A Little Bit of Land wasn’t a conscious decision—a few poems that never felt right morphed into personal essays that eventually became a memoir—I felt emboldened to branch out into this new genre. I told her that I was not trying to capture the entirety of my young life, just telling a specific story. The process of winnowing out all the details and sticking to a central question—how and why I had an insatiable longing to learn about farming—was the hardest part. I felt a deep sorrow every time I cut out a relationship or event that didn’t resonate with the thru-line.

While my mother’s question continues to echo in my head, I can’t help but think about age, time, and memoir. How much experience is needed to create a good story? How much daylight do we need between life and writing before we can craft an honest and true story unadulterated by revenge or deep grief? As humans, we are growing and evolving all the time which sometimes makes it hard to find a solid and resolute ending.

Carolyn Forché’s engrossing and successful memoir, What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, focuses on her traumatic and transformational time in El Salvador in the late 70’s and early 80’s. While her poetry reflected this experience (“The Colonel” from 1981 being one of her most well-known poems), it took Forché a long time (almost fifteen years) to write the memoir. In an interview with Commonweal Magazine, Forché recalls why she didn’t consider writing this memoir until 2003. “It took me that long to mature and to process my experience.” Forché’s book, a finalist for the National Book Award, was worth the wait.

Some books, like Michelle Obama’s Becoming blur the lines of memoir and autobiography while several authors and poets have written multiple, stand-alone memoirs about various parts of their lives, such as Mary Karr, Joy Harjo, Vivian Gornick, Claire Dederer, and Elissa Altman. Contemplation of the many faces of one’s life, finding meaning in the decisions we make and the unpredictable events that happen to us, like illness and infidelity, is the tough work of the memoirist at any age. The quotidian, as well, can be a wellspring making this genre complex and unique.

Memoir is evolving, thanks in part to new and creative structures that place the focus less on the speaker’s accomplishments and more on the depths of their interiority. E. J. Koh’s masterpiece The Magical Language of Others, which uses old letters as a lens, or the delicately layered Yellow House by Sarah Broom, teach us what there is to learn if we look closely at a key aspect of our history over time, like a relationships or structure. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Natasha Trethewey, is the difficult story of her own mother’s murder. In an interview with Southern Books Review she recalled, “In hindsight, I can see how much I tried to resist writing this book and writing certain parts in particular. I sold the proposal in 2012 and didn’t turn it in until 2017.” Part poetry, part case files, Trethewey’s compelling book is less about plot and more about the social context of her mother’s life, grief, and their relationship.

Zibby Owen’s Bookends, which came out in July, documents her journey from young adulthood to motherhood on the upper eastside of Manhattan to her newfound fame as a book mogul. All along she alludes to her desire to be a writer and the redemptive role of literature in her life, especially during periods of grief. One of the more piercing parts of this book is the death of close friend in the 9/11 attacks. Writing about and reflecting on her friend’s tragic passing has taken time and Owen confessed in the book that this story had many previous iterations. Coming to memoir was the shift she needed. “I wanted the chance to tell my own story from the beginning and not have to hide the truth behind a novel.” 

While age and time might be irrelevant, creating a good memoir requires ample room to process, to see our past selves apart for our current one. Who was I then and who did I become? What happened and what did I learn? As the poet Mary Oliver writes, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” The readiness of the memoir largely hinges on the readiness of the writer to finish the book objectively and with an editor’s eye.

So, Mom, I know I am not Eleanor Roosevelt. However, I am a writer who observes and learns from my life. And there are more stories to tell. Memoir might not always feel like the right container, but I am grateful for the clarity and inspiration this genre continues to offer. 

___

Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and writing coach. She lives on a little sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour, was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Her writing and reviews appear in several publications such as Orion, Ecotone, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and Poetry Northwest. Her first memoir A Little Bit of Land was published by Oregon State University Press in 2022.

The Old Agony Trope

October 19, 2022 § 12 Comments

By V Hansmann

Writing is agony. 

This trope drifts through the ages as a truth self-evident and universally acknowledged. Its corollaries – solitude, perfectionism, discouragement, envy, alcoholism, book – compound the blood-letting sacrifice of putting pen to paper. If creativity hurts that much, why do it? 

Fear, probably; fear and its slutty handmaiden, pride. Those two feelings are the perpetuators and destroyers of expectations. Fear will concentrate one’s energies to focus on the job to the detriment of all else. And pride will never be satisfied. In the wake of these projectiles is agony. 

Agony feels like a deeply neurotic response to writing. It seems performative and ego driven, but I’m sure it hurts. Writing that book was agony, and yet… and yet… here it is. Suffering didn’t improve the work, but it may serve as a bulwark against criticism. 

Shouldn’t writing be a joy? Bringing a new thing to light, something the world has never seen, a very part of you, to feel how newborns make us feel. So, why is love of writing suspect? Why not exult in the pleasures and satisfactions of craft? In being good at sentences whatever they are? 

You work hard. Be honest. Dig yourself.

__

V Hansmann was raised by wealthy people in suburban New Jersey; growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. In June 2011, he completed an MFA in creative writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, concentrating in nonfiction and poetry. He has submitted poems and essays sporadically ever since. Since August 2011, he has hosted a monthly reading series, first in Greenwich Village which went dark in March ’20, only to reappear six months later on Zoom. Most significantly, V’s now a Vermonter, having converted a derelict nursing home into a twelve-bedroom writers residency, Prospect Street Writers House, in North Bennington. https://www.prospectstreet.org/

The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity

October 12, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Amy Goldmacher

It’s my dedicated writing time. I’m at my desk, coffee next to me. It’s quiet. A blank document is open in front of me. 

Nothing happens.

Sound familiar?

Frustrated with the lack of words I got on the page, this June I participated in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge: to write an original short story of 1000 words max within 48 hours using the assigned genre, location, and object. 

By the deadline, I had a short story in the spy genre that took place in a fighter jet where a rubber band makes an appearance.

Why is it that I find it so hard to write when I give myself space and time, but when given constraints, I can produce content?

As it turns out, there is brain science behind the power of constraints. Gina Kammer, a freelance editor and author specializing in science fiction and fantasy, says 

“Constraints allow us to be more creative because they prompt us to make more unique connections to problem solve than we’d otherwise make. Without limits, we stick to safe, familiar pathways that actually allow for less creative combinations of ideas/components. But with limits, we have a few unlikely meshing components to play with and can’t simply follow the habitual connection pathways.”

We can see the power of constraints in action in some recent reads:

Helen Phillips, after struggling with writing her book, applied a constraint:    

“I gave myself the constraint that each story had to be 340 words. It can be anything else that it wants to be, but it needs to be 340 words. And I found that very liberating, even though it’s a ridiculous constraint, because I gave myself total liberty within it.” Those stories became her debut book, And Yet They Were Happy.

Aaron Angello wrote a collection where each piece riffs on one word from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29.

Maria Romasco Moore found a stash of old photos in a Whitman’s Sampler box at an antiques market – and created a coherent story out of them.  

Constraints WORK.

Note that you can apply constraints to fiction, nonfiction, and anything in between. The examples above actually cross genres, even if they are labeled one or another.

Here are some types of constraints you can play with – choose one or more at a time: 

  • A form 
  • A word count
  • A time limit
  • A topic
  • A theme
  • An object
  • A location
  • A work of art
  • A first line/A last line
  • A character/historical figure
  • A situation
  • A color
  • A word that must be present/A word that cannot be used
  • A syllable count
  • A selection of random words
  • Use only one sense
  • Imitate the style/syntax/phrasing of another writer

Now combine in interesting and unusual ways:

Constraints can be freeing! I think of constraints like a thundershirt for an anxious dog: they are a something to rub up against that provides a constant, reassuring container  that ends up “calming all types of anxiety, fear, and over-excitement issues.” (This is not an endorsement for thundershirts (and I don’t have a dog); it’s a metaphor!) 

Helen Phillips also says: 

“The circumstances of everyone’s life are a constraint. How much time you have, how much money you have, how much energy you have. And you have to work with that. The fact that you have constraints doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer, or that you aren’t a writer.”

I take her statement as permission to work within what is available to me instead of fighting against it, and I think writers with real-world constraints (family, work, health, etc.) can use their schedules to their advantage.

Which constraints in what combination will unlock something new and fun right now? I discovered I feel most creative while reading others’ works. So I created a new constraint for myself: during my set writing time, I pick a not-yet-read book from my to-be-read shelf and read a chapter or two… and then write whatever is inspired by what I read.

__

Amy Goldmacher is an anthropologist, a writer, and a book coach. She is the winner of the 2022 AWP Kurt Brown Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New York Times, Essay Daily, The Gravity of the Thing, Five Minute Lit, and elsewhere. She can be found at amygoldmacher.com and on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Want posts like these to arrive in your inbox weekly from Amy? Sign up here.

The Apprenticeship Model 

October 10, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Angie Chatman

As a writer teaching writing to adults in colleges, universities, and community organizations for over a decade, the most frequent question I get from my students is, “When will I get my paper back with your comments?” Never mind that it’s on the syllabus that I return papers within a week of submission if they are submitted on time. For many of my students, that is never soon enough. 

The Instagram/Tik-Tok/YouTube/Twitterverse has trained us to expect feedback, satisfaction, gratification, or a clap back within seconds. Social media has shifted expectations, so that a response to even the most mundane topic not only needs to go viral, but it must also do so within minutes, or it doesn’t have value. Now, people see “likes” as the path from novice to master, and they want to get there as quickly as possible.

I also blame, in part, the US education system. At all levels, people consider learning as a series of tasks to master followed by a multiple-choice test where the correct answer is hidden amongst a bunch of red herrings. The progression becomes: learn the information, regurgitate it on a test, get the grade, move to the next level.

Creative writing doesn’t fit that paradigm at all. Like any art form or taught skill – learning how to dance, make music, mold clay, knit, crochet, embroider, carve – writing is best done via the apprenticeship model where you acquire skills from others who have more experience than you. 

It also takes time. Lots of time.

There are no “grades.” No right or wrong answers. There are critiques, and suggestions, and guidance; however, apprentices don’t sit around and wait for feedback before taking the next step with their craft. Instead, they keep working, keep trying, keep experimenting. After years, and years, one may become a master, though even when that level is reached, writers recognize that there is still more to learn. 

I had the pleasure of listening to cellist Yo-Yo Ma discuss the role of music in developing leadership skills for scientists. In that talk, he shared that he still practices for hours every day. 

Hours. 

Why? Doesn’t he already “know” the music? Of course, he does. He’s certainly memorized the notes. He has the awards, honors, and “good grades” to document his mastery of the instrument. He has reached the highest levels for a cellist in the world.

Ma said he continues to practice a piece because there’s always more to access, more to interpret, more to feel. He considers his concerts a form of service. For him, it’s “part of the business of being human” to play to the best of his ability every single time. Not every single concert. Every single time he puts his bow to the strings. 

There is no quick answer to how to be an artist. There is only being an artist. Don’t judge your work by how many likes you receive, how many times you’ve been published, in which literary magazines your work appears. Write because that’s the business of being a writer. Write to nurture humanity. And most important, write to nurture your soul.
__

Angie Chatman is a writer and storyteller. She appeared on the Moth Radio Hour episode, “Help Me.” Her essays have appeared in TaintTaintTaint Magazine, Literary Landscapes, the Rumpus, Pangyrus, Hippocampus Magazine, and fwriction: review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won a WEBBY award for storytelling on GBH/World Channel’s Stories from the Stage. A Chicago native, Angie now lives in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with her family, including rescue dog, Lizzie. She earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

The Magic of 750 Words

October 3, 2022 § 28 Comments

By Jill Kandel

I brought a 1,500-word essay to my first writing workshop. So proud of it I could barely spit. After two hours of lecture and discussion on writing short, the instructor said, “Bring it back tomorrow. Cut it in half.” I spent the night cutting, pasting, moving, revising, and proudly brought exactly 750 words to class the next morning.

Six days later – our writing workshop nearly over – I sat down with the instructor for a one on one. I was a lifelong reader and a nurse by profession. A forty-year-old who didn’t know how to pronounce the word genre. My instructor gave me a long list of great books on writing, explained what literary journals were, kindly taught me how to say genre, and challenged me to write a 750-word piece for Brevity.  

I spent the next two years reading every single book on writing that he had mentioned. I bought literary journals by the dozens and worked on pieces that were 750 words or less. Brevity became the goal. Three years and several submissions later, Brevity accepted my piece There’s Things. Over the years, other journal acceptances followed, a memoir publication, then two.

Looking back, I realize that the magical number 750 has stayed with me now for over twenty years of writing. I learned to write while reading Abigail Thomas and Judith Kitchen. Their fine, short, focused work influenced mine. Word limits haven’t cramped my writing or shut it down. To the contrary, the 750-word limit has opened up the world of writing. Writing short taught me to find the just of what I needed to say. Learning to cut and throw taught me what was only anecdotal and therefore unnecessary to the whole. Whittling down is both a revelation and a revealing. Writing short has been the best of instructors, the best of friends. Seven hundred fifty: a lucky charm, a talisman, a jewel.

Cutting is to writers what simmering is to cooks. They let extra moisture evaporate, slowly let the flavors intensify. When we cut our stories down, the meaning of each word increases. The story gels. The water of it all evaporates. And we are left with a tastier story, a story worth savoring and rereading.

Out of curiosity, I sat down this week and did some math. My newest memoir The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir(NDSU Press, 2022) is 343 pages long. It has nine parts that are further divided into 188 small sections. Each of these 188 tiny chapters is titled. Many are dated. Doing the math, I see that I have written an average 900 words per section. It surprises me. How close to that magical 750 my writing has remained. How my first instructor and Brevity influenced not only my first essays, but so much of my writing.

Writing short has become almost cliché these days. Preeminent journals publish short-short stories frequently. You can take whole courses in writing Flash Nonfiction. Even the New York Times follows along with their Tiny Love Stories – no more than 100 words. There are Flash fiction contests and short non-fiction anthologies. Literary journals dedicated entirely to flash such as [100 word story] exist. Short is easy to find. But don’t let it fool you. Short is not easy to write. The complexity of the simple and the intricacies of the short take years to learn. It is, however, worth the work and still continues to have much to teach. 

The hard work of writing short remains one of the best tools I have consistently used in over twenty years of writing. It is the technique I return to again and again when my writing is muddled, and I can’t see where it wants to go. 

My first writing instructor was more correct than I could have ever realized.

“Bring it back,” he said. “Cut it in half.”

__

Jill Kandel began writing at the age of forty. She writes to fill in the gaps and questions formed over forty years of cross-cultural marriage and a decade working abroad while living on four of this earth’s continents. Kandel’s essays have been published in The Missouri Review, Gettysburg ReviewRiver Teeth, Pinch, Image, and Brevity. Her work has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing 2012 (Penguin Books) and in Becoming: What Makes a Woman (U. of Nebraska Press). Her first book, So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, (Autumn House Press, 2015) won both the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and the Sarton Women’s Literary Award. The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir is her newest book (NDSU Press, April 2022). Order signed books directly, or watch her evocative book trailers at jillkandel.com

Simmering My Story

September 23, 2022 § 24 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 § 11 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 § 35 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.

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