October 22, 2019 § 21 Comments
When I submitted my master’s thesis in 2011, for creative nonfiction, my advisor returned it with only one line of feedback:
“Be more reflective.”
She didn’t explain what she meant, didn’t offer advice, didn’t bother telling me what, if anything, was working in my 130 pages. The only thing she indicated was that I needed to start over and change everything, including my voice. Her disdain for my writing felt like disdain for me as a person.
My tennis coach once told me, “You have to allow yourself to fail. It’s the only way to improve.” This, ironically, was the subject of my thesis and a lesson I’d grappled with on and off the tennis courts for years—losing relationships, losing my job—but failure here seemed worse; writing, unlike tennis, was my skill, my sanctuary from my other failures, and now, suddenly, this too was inferior.
So I stopped writing. My classmates graduated, and I enjoyed the New England summer. The only writing I did was in my journal, which I kept by hand, refusing to open my laptop for months.
Then one day, for no real reason, I began writing an essay that became the foundation for a collection of personal essays that were, in essence, a revision of my original work. One year after sending my advisor the first draft of my thesis, I mailed her my second.
I went into our meeting with dread, a bundle of Kleenex in my pocket.
“This is an improvement,” she said.
“Really?” I said, with such astonishment she was taken aback.
“Yes. It’s much different from the first.” She told me I showed insight, made connections, and sometimes the writing was funny, where it didn’t fall flat. After a few minutes of discussion, she tilted her head. “You seem to have lost all confidence in yourself as a writer. Why is that?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t. Even now, I have moments in which I feel as if I’m sitting in her office, my sense of worth as a writer completely diminished, trying to pretend her opinion of my work didn’t matter. Through my thesis I learned to abandon what comes naturally, to guess what my literary audience is looking for, and to mold my voice to fit that model. It’s the opposite of good practice.
Then, four years ago, I participated in a writing workshop in Greece, led by a travel writer and poet. One woman in our group submitted a poem that was so terrible I thought a third grader had written it. Trite, rhyming, shallow—even I knew this was a disaster. How will our workshop leader handle this? I wondered. Would he say what all of us were thinking?
Instead, without a trace of disingenuousness, he found magic within her work. He pointed to its depth, gave it value, and offered helpful—not overwhelming—suggestions. My friend and I looked at each other, stunned. “The man has a gift,” he whispered.
Two weeks later, on our last night in Greece, this woman presented her poem at the final reading. It was the most memorable piece of the night because I never expected such a transformation. The original poem was unrecognizable—no more kitschy rhymes or trite observations—but details, beautifully worded and specific, that captured our island setting; a turn of phrase that evoked emotion, even laughter; a lingering sense that these words were pulled from her soul and laid bare on the page.
I honestly thought she plagiarized it. Maybe our teacher wrote it for her? I couldn’t believe the same person whose first draft we read wrote such a remarkable poem.
And that, I believe, is the most meaningful lesson I’ve learned in writing.
Both this woman and I transformed our work. My advisor wasn’t wrong to push me to recreate it; the final product was much better than the first. But the way in which she delivered the message, and the way in which the workshop leader in Greece delivered his message, were as different as our first and last drafts.
As a workshop leader myself, I want to empower my writers. This doesn’t mean I stick with flowery praise and avoid criticism, but I demonstrate belief in their talent, their story, and their strength. Even though they “failed,” it is failure seen through a different lens.
The best formula I’ve found for directing conversation is
what are my questions or what brought me out of the piece
what suggestions do I have
in that order.
Sometimes I ask, “What does this piece want to be?” Writers can get stuck in ill-suited formats without realizing it, such as the woman in Greece who needed to liberate herself from an AABB rhyme scheme; such as my master’s thesis that needed to abandon the diary format and become a collection of essays; such as the woman in my writing group who needed to compose her story as a memoir instead of a novel.
Sometimes we just need to hear, “You are a good writer. This piece was necessary for your process—now let’s talk about the next step.” If we can frame it as a revision, which is, after all, a re-vision—a new way of seeing the piece—we no longer have to see our work, or ourselves, as failures.
Jenny Currier is a full-time Grecophile and a freelance writer. She regularly contributes to Rhode Island publications, such as Motif Magazine, Providence Monthly, and East Side Monthly, and her stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Sunlight Press, and Vagabond Magazine. Her current aim is to finish a book about Greece through Rebirth Your Book. Follow her on Instagram @travelingfoodwriter and Twitter @jennycurrier.
January 1, 2019 § 59 Comments
It’s midnight in New York but I’m already twelve hours into 2019, because I’m in India. Last night I ate Chinese food and passed the leftovers through a taxi window, saying to the beggar, “It’s non-veg, OK?” Last night my taxi driver pulled over by the side of the road so he could pee against a wall. Last night I was already in bed and mostly asleep by midnight, waking only to type a little bit on a book-in-progress, because my personal superstition is that whatever I’m doing on New Year’s, that’s what my year will be like.
Last week I had almost no WiFi, power or heat, and crashed my computer moments before getting on a plane to a part of north India with no Apple Store. Mostly, it was exhilarating, and good to be off social media. It was also a pain in the ass, making it difficult to return editing projects or even work on them. In one of the few moments of cell reception, I instinctively checked my email.
Of course there was a rejection, a painful one. I’d tied a lot of hope into that submission, and the rejection was kind and thoughtful and had a bit of feedback. But for the first time I had the feeling I’ve heard other writers describe but hadn’t personally felt: I wasn’t a writer any more. This was it. I didn’t want to write anything again, ever. Sure, I’d probably edit some people’s work for money, but writing wasn’t for me, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t a world I belonged in. I was wasting my time. Part of my brain was gently reminding me, You tell writers all the time that one rejection doesn’t mean anything, it only means your work wasn’t the right fit for that person at that time. But I cried myself to sleep as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t wake my husband, and I’m crying as I write this now, because it still sucks.
That’s the missing piece for most of us as writers. We believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s a place for us where writing doesn’t suck. Where we’re happy with our quality of work, we’re getting published enough in the places we want that rejection still stings a little but doesn’t debilitate us. Where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel’s long.
That’s writing’s nasty little secret. That’s the horrible underbelly of great art, the Achilles’ heel of incredible physical prowess, the flip side of being good at anything.
Being good doesn’t lift you out of failure.
In fact, the better you get, the more awful failure feels, because you can’t let it go with “Oh, I wasn’t ready,” or “Yeah, that magazine is just really hard to get into.” You start to feel like you’ve paid your dues, you’ve put your time in, and when is success going to show up please, because it’s getting late?
Olympic gymnasts still break bones. Olympic hopefuls don’t get on the team because someone they beat in practice ran faster than them today. Movie stars don’t get cast because the producers aren’t sure how they’ll do in the Asian market. Writers don’t get published because their book doesn’t land on the right person’s desk at the right time. Or because they aren’t ready. Or because they suck.
All of those situations feel the same on the other end. They all feel like “I suck,” and “I suck” is a hard feeling to climb out of.
As writers, we are told over and over again, it’s hard work. Just keep doing it. We try our hardest to believe that, while still hoping it’s not true. While hoping the feeling of writing something wonderful, something we’re really proud of, will carry us through rejection and writer’s block and ennui, and sometimes it does.
The day after the Olympic trials, the gymnast who failed has two choices: Quit, or go back to the gym. It sucks to go back to push-ups and flip drills and conditioning when you know your friends are training for the big time. But it’s easier to condition than to create new choreography from the depths of heartbreak. It’s easier to embrace the routine.
Right now, what I’d really like to do is get on a plane and fly across time zones until I’m back when the rejection hadn’t happened yet. What I’d like to do is quit.
What I’m actually doing is writing a blog post in a hotel lobby, after working a little on a novel and a lot on a writing craft book. Trying to practice what I preach about showing up when it’s not fun. Putting together my writing goals for 2019: Finish another novel, finish the craft book, write another play. Say yes to enough editing to make money. Say no to enough editing to have time to write. Show up for my fellow literary citizens. Show up for Brevity readers. Show up for the writers whose work is going well and for the writers who feel like they suck. Show up to the page. Show up, show up, show up.
See you there.
According to my superstition, my 2019 will have low-key charity, unexpected public urination, and writing whether I suck or not, because I’m committed to the routine.
What will your writing year bring?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and truly sorry for being such a downer today. Why not leave your 2019 writing goals in the comments, and we’ll check back in six months?
July 18, 2017 § 118 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.
February 10, 2016 § 37 Comments
I wrote a memoir. It took ten years–two years of blogging regularly about a category of experience in my life, eight years of rewriting and printing it out and literally cutting it apart and making notes and putting it back together and workshopping it in a class at Grub Street and having friends read it and hiring an editor and querying and getting an agent and having the agent shop it to publishers.
The first page is really, really good.
Good enough that when I did that “Writer Idol” thing at a workshop, where everyone’s first page is read anonymously out loud and the panel of judges raise their hands when they’d stop reading if it came to their inbox, the reader got through my whole page and the room paused for a moment and then applauded. Talk about a stroke to the writer ego! So I thought, hey, there’s a student reading tonight and I’ve never read any of this manuscript publicly before, why not capitalize on this momentum, and I started leafing through pages. And my reaction was:
Boring, boring, porn, boring, not a self-contained section, boring, boring, I am no way reading that, awful, porn, boring.
And that’s also when all of a sudden I noticed it was ninety-six thousand words, which for a memoir by someone not-famous is, as we say in the publishing biz, “really freaking long.” (How the hell did I miss that?)
Suddenly, the year’s worth of rejections my agent has amassed made sense. Suddenly I stopped feeling like maybe the world wasn’t ready or maybe we’d been submitting to the wrong people or maybe I’d ended up with the wrong agent, because clearly the problem was the manuscript.
It wasn’t good enough.
And boy, it sucks to realize that ten years of work wasn’t enough, and that in fact I may have burned through the chance of ever publishing this book, because once it’s been shopped around, it’s been shopped around, and you don’t get to shop the same book again even if you make it a whole lot better.
I might get to sell it if I sell another book and the publisher wants to know if I have anything else in the pipeline.
I might get to sell it if I self-publish.
I might get to sell it if I drastically revise and trim and find a publisher who hasn’t seen the previous version.
But a better choice is to let it go for now. To do something else with the material–maybe that wealth of experience is meant to back up a novel. Maybe the essential story, or part of the essential story, is an essay, or a radio story, or a magazine article. Maybe it was only ever meant to be a blog.
I still won.
I won the ability to write a whole book–now I know I can. I won three years of reading agent blogs and going to conferences and learning how the publishing world works and meeting writers I can help and who can help me. I won knowing how to write a query. I won when an agent I queried who read the full and didn’t want it seemed like the right agent for someone else, and I hooked up that agent with my author friend. I won finding out people liked the underlying story, that when workshop teachers and guest writers asked me about the topic of the book they got excited, that somewhere in that 96K is a set of facts worth sharing in some way. I won building a writing habit and sitting down every day alone or with a writer friend and living a life that feels like a writer’s life. I won knowing that my problem is structure and I’ll have to pay more attention to that next time. I won being able to step back and look at my work with a critical eye and say, “close but no cigar,” and next time I’ll know it faster. I won knowing that failure isn’t death, or even death to my career.
In the end, the memoir functions a lot like my MFA. The piece of paper is not the doorway to fame and success. But everything I did to earn it is.
Next project, here I come.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.