October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Piasecki
I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.
I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.
My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.
I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.
A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.
During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.
I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.
I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.
As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”
Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:
I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.
Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.
Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.
When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.
But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.
August 31, 2017 § 6 Comments
Surprise! It’s a podcast! We’ve got a few episodes packed and ready from a whirlwind summer of interviews, so we hope you’ll be enjoying (slightly) more frequent listening. Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #6 features an interview with Donna Talarico-Beerman on the process of becoming a small press, running a conference, and balancing her own writing time in there, too. We’re also talking all things writing conference over the next few episodes, and we’ve got brief on-the-spot interviews from Lee Martin, Sue William Silverman, and some lovely writer-participants from the Postgraduate Writing Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Kristen Arnett about her new book, Felt in the Jaw.
Show Notes: Episode #6 People and Books
Find out more about Donna Talarico-Beerman at her website.
Today’s the last day to submit to Remember in November
Donna’s essay in the Los Angeles Review, Things That Aren’t Theirs
Questions to ask of a character:
What do I wish for?
What do I hope for?
What is my greatest dream?
What is my greatest fear?
May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments
In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”
That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.
Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.
I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”
That was my dad talking.
That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.
Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.
That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.
There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?
Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.
December 12, 2016 § 1 Comment
It’s time once again for the Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #3 features an interview with Rick Moody on form, function, life coaching and how to handle the part of depression that makes one want to walk in front of a bus, without losing access to one’s creative spirit. We also speak with Athena Dixon, editor-in-chief and founder of Linden Avenue Lit, about where and how to find new voices of color, and the evolution of her writing from R&B fan fic to establishing a strong new literary magazine.
Our episode sponsor is the recorded webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir – useful for authors and editors, and available at Editors Canada (note that the price is in CDN$).
Show Notes: Episode #3 People, Books and Places
Athena’s favorite poem, Euphoria by Major Jackson
Athena’s favorite Another Bad Creation song, Jealous Girl. (The band looks like they’re about 9 years old!)
Crossroads: the story of Robert Johnson and the Devil, on Radiolab
November 22, 2016 § 7 Comments
Every so often, I’m asked to edit a memoir that’s more of a case file. That is, it’s a series of incidents showing an antagonist in the worst possible light, a justification of actions taken by the protagonist, and a summing-up that involves bravely coming into the light.
They don’t work.
Not because they’re badly written on a line-by-line level, but because structurally, there’s no mystery. We already know whodunit, because they’re the person being textually crucified.
We can learn a lot from Agatha Christie. Or Dorothy Sayers. Ruth Rendell. P.D. James. Any of the stellar writers of relatively formulaic mystery novels. There’s a crime. There’s an investigation. The culprit is identified and caught, and the book usually stops right before the punishment—it’s the “Law” half of “Law & Order.” Chung-chung.
In a classic mystery (and Hamlet), the question is, “Whodunit? And will they be caught?”
In narrative nonfiction, the mystery is “Where did this thing/idea/practice come from? Where is it going?” or “What really happened here?”
For memoir, it’s “Why’d I do that?” or “What really happened to me?”
Laying out the facts in a row and (often unconsciously) slanting them toward the protagonist’s hurt feelings is boring. It’s boring because there’s nothing to discover—it’s all right there. Telling instead of showing, on a whole-book level. No-one wants to be lectured about how everything adds up to a solution they just got told. Instead, make the reader your detective.
The fun of reading—whether it’s playful excitement or intense engagement—comes from spotting the clues and making deductions. The reader needs the a-ha moments of “Oh shit! He’s a bad guy!” or “Wow—no wonder they turned out like that.” The reader needs the investigative moments of “What’s going to happen? Who will it happen to?” The more the reader autopsies with you, the more they engage in the book. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but we want to. This tension makes us read to the next paragraph and flip to the next page. The more the reader almost-but-not-quite pieces together the solution, the more satisfying the final revelation that fits it all together and confirms a hunch. The reader experiences the situation with the narrator and makes their own emotional realizations (which are often but not always the same as the narrator’s).
On a narrative level, that means don’t give away the solution first and then present all the evidence that adds up, which is the format of a scholarly paper. We need a burning question—What happened to me?—and then to investigate with the narrator, and make discoveries not just along the way, but that must be made to get to the answer.
Investigating mystery leads readers to enlightenment, to empathy, and to catharsis. George Saunders says,
The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.
As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
It’s a bad start to write a memoir already knowing what the story is, and going there with fixed intention. “Let the story surprise you,” Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story, even if it happened to you. Be ready to look underneath.
With memoir, looking underneath is sometimes interrogating our imagination and sometimes out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why. When we lay out the clues on the page, and allow ourselves to investigate, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a webinar on story structure in fiction and memoir for Editors Canada, December 3&4 (recorded for on-demand viewing after).
August 3, 2016 § 12 Comments
Sitting down to write the Brevity blog today, I found myself at a loss for “inspiration.” Meaning, “that feeling when an idea shows up and you’re excited about it enough to get to work.” I felt sorry for myself and got kind of whiny, but then I remembered my writer friend Lindsay Price’s favorite saying whenever the work feels tough: “It’s not coal-mining.” No matter how hard my little fingers are typing, I’m above the ground in climate-controlled comfort and in a chair.
Lindsay’s an incredibly prolific playwright, and she’s been writing full-time for almost twenty years. Because she sits down every day. Because she keeps her eyes open on the world for what her readers/actors care about, stocks up on ideas, and makes conscious choices to start work instead of waiting for the work to start her.
As a writer, it’s not my job to be inspired–it’s my job to sit down and write. It’s my job to collect links to essays and articles I think might interest our readers, to note ideas on scraps of paper and in my phone, so I have something to write about whether I’m “inspired” or not. To fill up a well of ideas, so I can drink when it’s not raining inspiration.
In an interview with The Splendid Table, indie rap queen Dessa responds to the question, “Where do the lyrics come from?”
…I’m not completely sure. I think sometimes it feels as I grow older, and you’ve had more bouts of inspiration and more dry spells, it feels more like kinda catching a wave than it does going to a well. So when you feel that a good lyric day is happening to you, it’s like, OK, what can I get off my calendar today, ‘cause I don’t get these every day. So you’re standing at the place lightning struck last time, but it’s still a game of odds and chance…it’s something that I don’t understand completely.
One of the things I’ve learned from writing here is that I don’t have to wait for lightning to strike. I can go to the well, and going to the well every week starts to create its own wave, as if each bucket I throw into the reservoir makes a tiny ripple, and the more buckets I carry, the wider the ripples spread until I can start to surf them, flow with the ideas that form themselves into words and appear on the page like dirty magic.
But the first bucket sucks. It’s always got some shitty, splintery handle and a hole in the side and it’s exactly the right size to bang into my leg and leave bruises all over my knees. The first bucket is my so-called ‘writer buddy’ working a three-day weekend and then his biological mom comes into town for his birthday and WHERE’S MY FUCKING WRITING DATE YOU GODDAMN TRAITOR?
The first bucket is making too big a writing schedule and being pretty sure I’ll fail at it. Because making a schedule means I can trade the excuse of “I’m a great writer, I’m just lazy” for “I’m a great writer, I just take on too much.”
It’s the bucket of You Would Not Believe How Much I Can Cross Off My To-Do List Before I Sit Down to Write the First Word. Yeah, that one’s on sale this week, so I stocked up. My floors are spotless.
It’s hard to remember that the buckets get better. Lighter. Easier to fill, the path to the reservoir shortening once I know the landmarks. That I don’t have to be under pressure to make a deadline in order to write. That the most successful and published writers I know are not waiting around for the wave to lift them up, they’re carrying buckets every day. They are not praying for inspiration or agonizing about the meaning of creativity, they’re mining the goddamn coal.
We don’t all have the same amount of time, but we can all remember to use our time regardless of our level of inspiration. Stock up on water when we can. Pour it into the empty, cavernous reservoir, bucket by bucket. Trusting we’ll make some ripples, trusting they’ll make some waves.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published In Literary Magazines, comes out August 20th.
July 13, 2016 § 11 Comments
Yesterday, a writer I work with confessed her greatest fear–lack of originality. She felt she didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been said. What could she offer that was new, different, worth reading?
I’ve felt that. The sharp stab when seeing an essay gone viral, or a book about an experience I’ve had, too. The feeling of that should be mine.
In The Millions, Kaulie Lewis writes about seeing other writers’ books and essays and wishing desperately that she’d written them:
…I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first…My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
It’s not just us. Everyone (well, maybe not Jonathan Franzen) worries that what they want to write has already been done, probably better, by someone else.
It doesn’t matter.
There’s room for Wild and A Walk in the Woods. For Bird by Bird and On Writing and The Art of Memoir. For Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. What matters is not the subject, but what the writer brings to the table. It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the rarity of a specific expression of that idea. I went for a hike–why? I learned to write–how? My family won’t stop fighting so I can find love–guns or swords?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.”
But we do. No-one else can tell our particular, unique, specific story. It’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.
It’s up to each of us to discover not just the general appeal of our work (cancer memoir! lost a parent! recovery!) but the nature of the story that is so personal, so intimate, it can only be told by one person. Here is a topic that everyone cares about, and here is a new way to think about it.
We are seldom original. But we can always be rare.
Kaulie Lewis’ essay at The Millions is well worth reading, and mentions what to do when you feel like your piece has already been written.