February 13, 2018 § 16 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
January 25, 2018 § 6 Comments
When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.
None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.
I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.
Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.
The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?
The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.
The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?
Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.
It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?
Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.
The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
August 1, 2017 § 26 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 writer’s 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.
February 1, 2009 § 1 Comment
So yes, that makes us fans, and we are of course happy to hear the news that Brenda’s newest book, Blessing of the Animals, has just been released.
Says author Kim Barnes: “Brenda Miller writes with such extraordinary grace and intimacy that, despite our weariness and fears, we find ourselves falling in love with the world all over again…”
Congratulations to Brenda, and to anyone lucky enough to read her work.