February 8, 2018 § 11 Comments
Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”
But should you?
One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.
As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?
By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.
Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.
For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.
Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:
In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.
That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.
Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
November 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
Not long ago I was working on a piece I was pretty sure was about the woman who founded forensic science. My editor, however, pointed out it was also about the struggles of women past a certain age, who are pegged only as grandmothers, lacking usefulness. Her comment made me realize: I usually write about the experiences of women whom society sees as past their prime. This shouldn’t have been a revelation: I write a monthly magazine column about intergenerational dialogue and have a degree in women’s history. Yet the new awareness of my specific focus has already helped me prioritize projects and pitch pieces to new outlets.
While much has been said about how writers must ‘build platform,’ in the sense of becoming a marketable expert on their book’s subject, this thematic focus seems more like a beat—that is, developing authority while writing on a number of related topics. So how do you create your beat? How can you nurture it?
Bustle writer Tabitha Blankenbiller says her beat
is fashion and style, which like any good subjects, parlay into a myriad of other themes: pop culture, body image, class issues, aging, feminism…[but] I find that when I put out fashion-related writing, it tends to be some of the better-received work. It feels like it ‘has legs.’
When she founded Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Athena Dixon embraced her editorial beat to “further diversify our current writing community by calling attention to the glaring diversity issues and offering at least one safe space for writers to submit and be read.”
Maisha Johnson has worked as a domestic violence survivors’ advocate and holds an MFA in poetry. She writes primarily about abuse and healing, race and racism, and intersectional feminism, as well as everyday ways we come across these topics, like pop culture, creativity, and identity. Articulating these intersections helps her deepen the lens and purpose of her work, and define who she is as a writer.
A writer’s beat ties into their social media presence, but isn’t just a marketing construct. Maisha says it can be equally important to unplug.
Because I work around issues like racism, trauma, and abuse, I know being constantly plugged in is going to take a toll. But also [I can’t be] totally absent from trending conversations. So I’ll use a social media tool like Hootsuite, and schedule articles I see trending from other writers. I’ll also add older [or evergreen] articles of my own that relate to the current topic. I don’t have to be on the cutting edge of every conversation in order to maintain a digital presence.
Your beat also needn’t be constantly “on.” Tabitha, whose book Eats of Eden comes out March 2018, says her beat requires
less hoop-jumping and more mountain-scaling. I am a slower writer than many freelancers I’ve known, who are churning out essays and stories along with news cycles… I can’t keep up with that pace, so when I’m writing standalones, I have the luxury of bowing to what’s really screaming at me. It may not be the hottest trending topic, but every so often you have good timing and what you’ve been obsessed about is in sync with the rest of the world.
Relevance can be serendipitous, Tabitha says.
Sometimes the fire comes totally from left field…[for example], a little essay I wrote for a now-defunct food site about my tendency to steal things like condiments, pint glasses, and steak knives from restaurants stirred up this big viral trollstorm.
For Athena, managing a beat is all about making choices: “I made a conscious decision to include all black women on my editorial board and to champion voices I believe may not be given a fair and equal chance to be published.”
How do you decide what to focus on? Maybe you already see a common thread in your work. You might make decisions based on pragmatic goals for publication in particular venues, or by paying close attention to what makes your writing flow and what works best for you and your work specifically. I jump at any opportunity even remotely related to aging, because juggling multiple projects keeps me on deadline. Maisha keeps a list of potential articles, prioritized by what she’s most passionate about.
Tabitha says, “Don’t discount what you love. Passion and joy are your greatest allies, no matter what sparks them within you.”
“Don’t be afraid to begin with what you know best, no matter how unique or particular,” Maisha says. “If you’re the only person who can write the story, that story might really need to be told.”
Athena Dixon agrees. “Be confident in what you know and share it widely. You have no idea what kinds of opportunities you may be unlocking.”
Hillary Moses Mohaupt serves as Social Media Editor for Hippocampus. She holds an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon, and her work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and Distillations. In her fiction and essays she frequently writes about the presence of the past, intergenerational relationships, and lying. Follow her on Twitter @_greyseasky_.
June 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
From The Matador Review‘s Public Relations Liaison, Mandy Grathwohl:
Alternative art and literature magazine The Matador Review is now accepting submissions for the Fall 2017 publication. We publish poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction, inviting all unpublished literature written in the English language (and translations that are accompanied by the original text) as well as many forms of visual art. The call for submissions will end August 31.
Our purpose is to promote “alternative work” from both art and literature, and to encourage the new wave of respect for online publications. In each issue, we offer a selection of work from both emerging and established artists, as well as exclusive interviews and book reviews from creators who are, above all else, provocative. For us, alternative is a way of voice and experience. It is the distinction from what is conventional, and it advocates for a progressive attitude.
Editor-in-Chief JT Lachausse spoke to the Aerogramme Writers’ Studio about Matador’s aesthetic:
For every piece of quality art or literature, there is a home. Some ‘homes’ include work that is regionally or culturally inspired, and some are reserved for particular genders, sexualities, or ethnicities. This sort of exclusivity creates an environment for distinct voices, and due to its distinction, these magazines are considered ‘alternative’ (syn: ‘different’, ‘nonstandard’). What we wanted to do was to open up a home for art and literature that is, in every capacity, unconventional; this could mean a ‘fresh’ voice, or perhaps a peculiar style, or maybe a bizarre subject that would otherwise struggle to find a place willing to parade it. …The Matador Review wants all of your redheaded stepchildren, but we want them on a damn good hair day. And they better not behave.
We look forward to seeing your work!
The Matador Review acquires First North American Serial Rights, and is a non-paying market. More information and contact info on their submissions page.
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 15, 2016 § 10 Comments
The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going!” And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, patiently awaiting his arrival.
An author I work with sent me another draft of a scene from a book she’s writing. I sent it back with more notes, for the third time. She wrote:
I love diving in deeper and hearing where things can get amped up. Am only worried it will take another year to edit the book if I do this for each scene 😉
She’s probably right. It may well take a year. Yes, some writers write much faster. But for most of us, polishing each element of our book–scene by scene, character by character, sentence by sentence–takes time. Time at the page. Time ruminating while walking, or gardening, or staring into space. Time away from the book and working on something else. Time at our day job, where one day someone says something in the break room that snaps a recalcitrant plotline into place. Time absorbing the world.
I wrote her back that yes, it’s time-consuming,
…but bear in mind that right now you’re also learning more about writing, and everything you learn will go much faster on the next round! Plus, material at the beginning of the book goes slower than the end, because things are being set up and you’re building the world. And as a human functioning in the real world, you’re probably already changing how you look at things and record details in your head, and being more aware of what makes a scene/character/world will speed up your process, too.
It’s worth remembering those things for my own work. Every time I write–whether a blog post, an essay, a memoir, a how-to book or a novel, I learn more about writing. The lessons from failed work, bad drafts and trashed sentences inform the next attempt. The end of a book may not be “fast” in terms of creative choices, but it’s definitely faster to finish typing a project than it is to start from an empty page. And certainly, as a human moving through the world, I’m noticing more of what physical situations and gestures trigger my judgment, so that I can “show instead of telling” on the page.
It’s OK if it takes ten years–or twenty!–to finish a book. Great work is often made with care. Right now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sees more than a million writers around the world tearing through a first draft. Agents dread December: it’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Inbox Hell, as enthusiastic writers skip the all-important revisions and multiple drafts in their eagerness to share their work with the world.
That doesn’t mean don’t finish a novel in a month, or “don’t write fast.” But if you are a slower writer, or have finished a first draft, allow yourself the patience to let your work blossom both from your tending and your absence. Trust that building a network of literary support also happens one meaningful interaction at a time. That being open to the world for inspiration also sometimes includes shutting down, putting up our shields, and listening to our inner voices for a while. In our most recent Brevity Podcast, Andre Dubus III says it takes him five years to write a book–during that time, he shows it to no-one.
I am over 40. I see round-up lists of exciting new (always young) authors and it hurts to know I have missed that window. It’s weird to be both proud of a published book and sad that it’s not the book I thought I’d publish first. I’m a tinkerer, and tend to move slowly through a draft, revising as I go, rather than tearing through to the end and then going back. It’s hard to see friends finishing November with 50,000 words and realize that I have some blog posts and most of another how-to book and five more pages of novel but nothing is done. But the difference between a parable and real life is that the tortoise and the hare can both win at their own speed. I’m tempted to say “I hope” after that, but finishing a book is not a hope. It’s something I can control, and the only choice is whether or not to be OK with the time it takes me.
See you at the finish line.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.
October 18, 2016 § 14 Comments
You know the old saw. Tourist asks a New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Wiseguy answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”
So, how did I get published in Brevity Magazine?
For several years, Brevity was on my list of literary venues I vowed to crack. Why?
First of all, I love reading Brevity. That’s reason enough. While I drift most naturally to writing longer essays than Brevity’s 750 word limit, over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by flash nonfiction, and have been writing more of it. To me, Brevity is the mother ship for short nonfiction. Brevity also consistently publishes writers whose work I admire; who doesn’t want to share literary real estate with the cool writing kids? Finally, once I put a publication on that “to be cracked” list (which stares at me from a whiteboard in my office), it’s game on.
Even if the game takes three years and six rejections before a Yes.
Lesson number one: Persistence.
One thing that kept me submitting was my history with Brevity—kept handy in my Excel spreadsheet—included many “nice notes”: Moved by your story…Sorry to say no to this one…Try us again…Writing is impressive, but…” As an editor at a lit journal myself, I know those salvos are only handed out when an editor means it.
Lesson number two: Believe the feedback.
Studying the rejected pieces, I saw they were all based on something pulled out of a longer work-in-progress. It’s not that I didn’t work hard at condensing/rewriting (all eventually found publishing homes). But now I understand that one big reason the accepted piece worked is that I wrote it for Brevity the first time around: it never existed as anything other than a 748 word essay.
Lesson number three: Start from scratch.
When I saw Brevity‘s themed call for works “examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization and the intersections between race and gender, class, dis/ability, and language,” I knew immediately what I’d write about: an incident 15 years in my past, that at times still felt lodged in my throat. I set to work immediately; I didn’t dismiss the idea before even getting started, as we writers so often do.
Lesson number four: Listen to the gut.
I tend to be an over-writer, churning out rough too-long drafts, because I’m that odd duck who loves messy brutal revision. This time, I was conscious from the start that I didn’t want to go more than 100 words over with an early draft. That helped, a lot.
Lesson number five: Shake up the process.
By the third (or was it 23rd?) draft, I experienced a familiar nah-this-stinks-forget-about-it attack. That was compounded by seriously questioning my ability to speak to the topic, which sounded like: who-am-I-kidding-who-am-I-to-write-about-race.
Then a friend asked me to read something he was considering submitting for the same issue, and that reminded me: beyond the guidelines, you can’t know precisely what editors are looking for. If you pre-reject yourself (by not even submitting), you’ve lost twice.
Lesson number six: Punch that inner critic in the teeth and carry on.
When putting the final polish on the piece, I read and re-read 15 different Brevity pieces. Yes, this is out of order; that’s the first thing a writer should do: read the journal. But I had been reading Brevity, every issue, all along. This was a double, final gut check, a slow thoughtful cruise, making sure I’d absorbed the lessons I’d learned along the way.
Lesson number seven: Read, write, repeat. (hat tip: Susan Sontag)
When I finally hit submit, it was with a mixture of familiar dread (here we go again) but also, for the first time, a hopeful sense that maybe I’d done it right this time. But then, who knows?
Lesson number eight: You can’t hit if you don’t swing. (hat tip: Dad)
When the acceptance arrived, I didn’t break into my usual dance-around-the-room jig, maybe because I was practicing a conference presentation, annoyed at myself for incorrectly ordering the slides.
Instead, I read the email on my phone, smiled, and went back to work. Because I’d submitted it exclusively, I didn’t have to navigate the tediousness of withdrawing it from other journals, or second guessing that I’d sent it to the wrong place. There was only calm, a sense of feeling both particularly lucky, and also rewarded for staying the course.
I did however visit my whiteboard list, and put a big check mark next to Brevity.
And wondered what to write next.
Lesson number nine: Rinse, repeat. (hat tip: every writer, every editor, ever)
Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor, and writing professor. Her work is included in the Notables Essays section of Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, The Manifest Station, and of course, Brevity. Lisa serves as creative nonfiction editor for Compose Journal, and as a review editor of scholarly works for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her blog offers interviews, resources, and advice for the writing community. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo.