August 1, 2017 § 25 Comments
The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”
Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!
It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:
They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.
Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.
Not this one.
Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.
Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.
I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?
In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.
The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”
In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.
The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.
You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.
Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.
As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.
The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.
Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.
Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.
Some nice braided essays:
Seriously. The strands have to repeat.
It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.
2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.
3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.
4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.
5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.
6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.
July 25, 2017 § 12 Comments
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?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.
July 18, 2017 § 111 Comments
Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”
I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.
I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.
My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”
She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”
I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.
What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.
My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”
I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)
Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?
Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.
There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.
And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”
In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:
Publication or not getting hurt feelings.
What do you love more?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a Self-Editing intensive and offering one-on-one feedback meetings at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference, September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
July 13, 2017 § 31 Comments
On the cusp of 60 years old, I ran away to Baja California Sur, Mexico to let my heart bloom. I needed to escape–at least briefly–37 years of marriage, 35 years of office work, and 22 years of motherhood, to reclaim an old dream, so I signed on to a writing retreat, Writing Down the Baja. I intended to reframe my life in seven days. I hoped not to recognize myself when it was over.
I panicked on the plane. I restrained my arm with the opposite hand, jamming it into the armrest so I wouldn’t press the flight attendant call button. My head said relax. My heart threatened to bust out of my rib cage and plunge from the plane without a parachute. I wanted to yell “Turn the plane around and let me off. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’m not a writer!”
I arrived at Serendipity Bed and Breakfast on the fringe of Todos Santos as palm shadows stretched across the desert. Relieved, I sprawled on a warm plastic lounge chair facing the ocean and let my eyes absorb light and distance. My muscles lengthened and my sight lingered on the line dividing the Pacific Ocean and sky. Gradually the adrenalin surge of rushing through three airports and release from confinement in a spot as small as a honeycomb segment, and the sweat of self-doubt, settled.
The Pacific side of the Baja, a long hot finger of sand and cactus, felt cool and the wind off the ocean raised goosebumps. I saw a little white eruption against blue. I sat up, raised my hand over my eyes and stared. Again and again fountains burst out of the water. Whales.
Each morning, I chose a spot at the outdoor writing seminar table with intention, for inspiration and a view. While the teacher led us through morning writing exercises or we read aloud the previous day’s homework, the horizon pulled my attention to its edge, every gush in the water like a jolt on an electrocardiogram interrupting the gentle waves of my sister-writers’ discussions.
Afternoons I propped myself up on a lounge chair facing the breached blue and swaddled myself in a beach towel, knees up, blank page waiting, pen poised. Mostly I watched as a blooming cactus plant suckled hummingbirds as plentiful of marsh mosquitoes. I counted six, their long needles sipping nectar from funnel-shaped flowers and zinging to the next and next and next.
At the end of each day, I lounged under a palm tree, eyes to the horizon, book in hand, where I dozed and dreamt. An egret visited me once. Awakened by my book dropping in my lap, I looked up to see her a few strides away. White and slow, she picked up her chopstick legs, her toes opening and closing like a blown-out umbrella as she moved through the gravel with a soft tick, tick, tick. She stood forever and together we stared at the hummingbird cactus. Me, amazed. She? I don’t know, but I welcomed her stillness.
I attempted writing in a covered circular tower above my room–a Mexican garret–standing up this time. My pad of paper rested on a ledge. The wind ruffled the pages. I removed my glasses for short-sightedness to work in my favour–no more whale-gazing and daydreaming. What would I daydream about anyway? My heart reassured me I was where I wanted to be.
Head down, ink flowing onto the page, the lines filled as I pumped out prose like a gasoline nozzle–high octane, unleaded, intoxicating. Something darkened my peripheral vision. I looked up and, despite my blurred eyesight, recognized a hummingbird hovering at shoulder-height less than half a palm-frond away. I’d worn a coral-coloured t-shirt that day and undoubtedly she thought she’d found the biggest flower ever–the treasure of the Sierra Baja. Me immobilized and enchanted, she greedy and hungry, so close I heard her 80-wing-beats-per-second–or perhaps that was the rush of blood to my brain. I blinked. She buzzed away with a trrrtrrrt, a tiny defibrillator.
My heart shocked, I exhaled and wrote nothing familiar, something about jacaranda pods and penises and eyes the shade of scentless bougainvillea and Baja mutts the colour of sand. A different persona had appeared and I hardly recognized myself in my words. I was still me–wife, mother, office worker–but something else had emerged with a freshly started heart. A week at a writing retreat had pushed back the fear of claiming a new name for myself to add to the existing string–wife, mother, office worker, and writer.
June 8, 2017 § 30 Comments
First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.
You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.
Thinking time counts.
Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.
But there’s still value in completion.
Process is great. We all need process. But every now and then, we embrace process to the point of avoiding finishing. We dive into six projects at once, knowing in our under-soul there’s no way we’ll get through even two of them. We embrace multiple genres or venues as a way to write what we’re “in the mood” to write, whichever essay or proposal or article or chapter calls to our heart at the moment we’ve finally cleared our mental decks and sat down.
Some days it’s important to be our beautiful wayward writer self. Explore! Play! Freewrite!
Other days, it’s time to sit our butt down (“the only secret to writing is ass in chair” as the saying goes) and bang out some words. Some good words, maybe. More likely some crappy words. But remember how much easier it is to turn shit into something passable than it is to turn nothing into shit? No? If that’s not a memory you hold, maybe next writing session is a good time to pull out something you gave up in despair and take another look at it with a cold editorial eye. Perhaps there’s one sentence in there worth saving. Perhaps there’s a whole new piece based on the third paragraph. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the whole thing’s nowhere near as bad as you thought when you walked away. If there’s truly nothing you can find in there worth working on, you have two options: send it to a friend and ask if there’s anything they think is worth working on; or toss it.
Hit delete. Crumple it up and put it in recycling. Burn the notebook. Make room for something else you want to write. Get the unfinishable crap off your desk and call it practice. Be grateful you learned what that piece taught you and move on. The practice of writing is also practice. It is the height of arrogance to scold ourselves for not putting something perfect on the page in a first go–what other job, what other sport, what other art gets things right the first time, every time they start something new? Wow, Mozart, that was awesome and you wrote it once, in pen! Gee, Usain Bolt, now that you’ve run as fast as you ever will around the track this morning, you’ll never need to train for the Olympics again!
Practice/rehearsal/training involves mistakes, screw-ups, wrong paths, poor choices and loss of interest. We don’t save a videotape of every time we go to the gym, we count ourselves happy if we hit that second pull-up, or stay on the seated bike checking Twitter until it’s suddenly been twenty minutes and hey I’m done! Now I can do all the fun things I’m bothering to get in shape to do!
Practice also involves sitting our ass down and deciding we’re going to finish something. Now. Today. This week. In fifteen-minute increments while waiting for carpool, or in one wild coffee-fueled weekend.
I will ride the bike for thirty minutes.
I will clean this closet.
I will purchase these six items.
I will put dinner on the table.
I will get to the end of this sentence, this paragraph, this page. This essay. This book.
Be a beautiful free-spirited artist. Be a tortured soul contemplating the horror of the page not living up to what’s in your head. And then sit your ass back down and write to the end of the page. Set a day, or a week or whatever interval works for you, aside to finish your shit. Pick up a piece and decide if you want it or not. If you want it, finish it. See what it feels like to do whatever it takes, to revise or seek help or break it apart and rebuild, or let it go and move onto something else you want to finish. Let go of the hundred weights of half-pages that once seemed like a good idea. Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas, hundreds, thousands of them. Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Don’t settle for half-finished.