On Memory

October 27, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Sonya Spillmann

In the shade of a canopied backyard, ten feet away from the base of the giant oak (from which I often pulled bark, I’m sorry, tree) I hold out my thin young arms in a rigid “T.” An imitation. An imagination. I wear white-piped shorts and a page-boy haircut. I must stay as still as possible. 

I cannot keep my arms up like that now, a woman in her forties, for more than a minute without shaking but then, as a girl of seven, I became the shape of a letter for what felt like hours.

From the corner of my eye, a grey squirrel crawls, indifferent, from behind the detached garage, around the lilac bush, and into our back yard. Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move. An incantation. I’m a tree, just a tree, just a tree.  

The creature stops moving, sits back on his hind legs, and shows off the silken white fur of his stomach. I keep my head straight, watch him though, moving here, there, closer, further. Then closer, closer. I hold my breath, close my eyes. It’s as if I can hear the grass move. When I open my eyes again, he’s right under my outstretched arm.  

But then, without warning or notice, not even a chirp or a grunt, he jumps straight up, and bites the supple flesh of the back of my arm. After this, the memory goes dark.  

In the coming years, if a Sunday School teacher places a flannelgraph of all the flora and fauna God made in Eden and the picture includes a squirrel, I shoot my hand into the air, wiggling until I am called on; if my piano teacher assigns a piece called “Let us Chase the Squirrel”; if I meet a new friend and need to brag. I tell this story to anyone, for any reason, until sixth grade, when all the girls cover their mouths and giggle. 

“No, I’m serious, he just jumped up and bit me!”

“Can squirrels even jump that high?” one girl asks.  

I cock my head, never having considered this question before. Never needed to, irrelevant. 

“Can squirrels jump, like, vertically?” she questions. 

I shake my head a little, confused. I’d never seen a squirrel jump anywhere but from tree to tree. But, yes? This one did. 

“Let me see your scar,” she says.    

“My what?”

“Your scar. If you were bit by a squirrel, you’d have a scar.” 

I would have a scar? 

I would have a scar. I stare at her with a blank face, waiting for the room to finish shifting. But—I want to say—I’ve been telling this story for years.  

But, I say out loud, “I don’t have a scar.” 

“Then you weren’t bit by a squirrel.” 

Fact? 

A shrug from her, a head tilt from me. Then the conversation moves along the current that girls this age create with the ease of children circling water with a stick. 

I do not mind her correction, but rather must contend with the unease in my heart. Where did this memory come from? Why did I believe it was it true? If I’d told that story so often, to almost everyone I knew, why hadn’t anyone else questioned me before? 

And now, as I work on memoir, I write the narratives I remember, as I remember them. But because I’m missing no flesh from my arm, I must make room in my heart, if not the page, for possible correction. In the same way that since sixth grade, I begin this same story with, “I used to tell everyone I was bit by a squirrel.” 

__________________

Sonya Spillmann, a former critical care nurse, is a writer currently working on a memoir about identity and mother loss. She is a staff writer for the collaborative motherhood blog Coffee+Crumbs and teaches writing workshops through Exhale Creativity. She was a part of DC’s Listen To Your Mother performance in 2015 and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find her at her website and reluctantly on Instagram. 

The Sanctity of the First Read

September 29, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Alyson Shelton

“What are you working on?” Someone new in my life might ask.

“An essay.” I’ll answer.

“About what?” 

“Something.” 

And that’s that.

I’m actually a decent conversationalist but not when it comes to my writing. Perhaps I’m superstitious, worrying that the heat of the idea will cool with sharing, but I also cherish that time when my idea is nascent and full of promise. And so, I don’t read very early drafts and I don’t ask anyone to read mine. It is a mostly unspoken policy and one I hold dear. The last thing I need is your pained look, which could be related to stomach cramps or the reverberations of some stupid thing you said to a cashier, to register with me as questioning the validity of my concept.

I didn’t like sharing baby name ideas either. I didn’t want to hear about that guy you once knew, the master manipulator, who had the same name as my soon-to-be-born son. Instead, I wanted to dwell in potential.

I’m still like this. Potential keeps me going on the darkest of days. 

The promise of eventually sharing a work in progress with my most trusted readers keeps me going. The first read is a thing of great beauty. 

And I know they only have one first read to give me. And so, I use it wisely.

I’ve been writing long enough to know when my writing is ready for readers. It’s that beautiful and maddening moment when there’s nothing left to change without feedback. In my eagerness for validation, I have fumbled the hand-off many times.

When I was younger and greener, I craved validation before I put too much time into a draft. I wanted to know I was on the right track. Little did I know that the less time I put into it, the less validation I could expect. It’s harder to love the early idea; it’s muddy and lacks the specificity and punch that rewriting brings. 

I wanted to be “good” at writing. I wanted to be “good” at everything. And I wanted the growth to sting less. 

After decades of writing and receiving feedback, here is my formula for reduced sting:

1, Write that first draft, even if you have to trick yourself. Just get started. Try not to judge yourself. Try not to get in your way. Try not to hate how the words on the page are not matching the idea in your head.

2. Return to it. Make it better. Show, don’t tell. Lean into the pieces that are uniquely you. Your writing superpowers. Don’t try to be anyone else; they already wrote something, this is yours.

3. Read it out loud. This is a great time to refine voice, yours as the writer and your characters’.

4. If you’re thinking of sharing it, consider the questions you’d ask. Would they be about plot holes? Character arcs? Word choice? Connective tissue? Voice? If you know the answers to your questions, or even have an inkling, you’re not ready to share it. Take your own suggestions. Fix it.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you don’t know the answers to your questions. I know something is ready to share when I’m at the crossroads. When I feel with certainty that if I continue to edit my work, there is a decent chance I will make it worse. I will dilute it, editing out the very thing I am trying to capture. 

6. Find a trusted reader. Someone who treats you and your work, with care. Someone who never ever starts notes with, “Well, what I would do here is—”

No. Full stop.

Find someone who always, without fail, begins their notes with all the things to love about your work. Someone who sees what you are trying to do and works with you to make it more of that very thing.

I bet you’ve read more than once that trusted readers are gold. They are, which means they might not be easy to find.

Please know that reading with the care you’d like, the kind that stings the least, takes time and energy. It’s best if it’s not done as a “favor.” It’s best if you are acknowledging someone for the service they are rendering. You can pay them in kind, by exchanging work, or other agreed upon services, or of course with money. People do like paying bills with the work they do. 

Clear expectations and boundaries make for the best notes. These conversations could feel awkward, especially at first, but wouldn’t you rather it get weird before you show them the work you hold dear to your heart?

Yes, yes, you would.

Also consider how much a cheap or free read might “cost” you emotionally. Is it truly a free read if you walk away feeling deflated, worthless and discouraged?

No.

I’ve received all of the reads there are from the best, where they get it, love it and have ideas for how to make it better, to the absolute soul-crushing worst. I say this without reservation. Receiving an MFA in a truly toxic environment gives me this confidence.

Guard your work. Care for your voice. Believe in yourself and never squander a first read.
__

Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award-winning feature, Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, which successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp Little Old Lady (LOL), Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From.

Quiz: Is It a Critique from The Great British Baking Show or a Response from a Literary Magazine?

April 1, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Lori Barrett

Can you guess which of the statements below are from judges sampling baked goods and which are from editors sampling my writing?

This piece is not for me, but I like the way you [write/bake].

I worry about this one. First off, it’s very thin.

This [pastry/story] sparked a discussion among our [judges/editors].

It’s a real mess, isn’t it?

There are some clever beats here, but I think this could use a stronger through line. 

Sometimes simplicity is a way forward. This is taking it a little bit too far.

Really loved this. It’s depressing in all the right ways.

Nice and boozy.

We do have a few ideas for edits.

It didn’t quite have that twist of the weird we’re looking for.

All the elements are there, but there’s nothing else.

We know that [baking/writing] is hard, and we support your work.

It’s sort of squidgy at the sides.

At the very least, we can let you know why we didn’t accept it, so that you can understand our tastes better.

This is just goo.

This is fun, but I’m afraid we aren’t going to take it.

It’s slightly overbaked.

Despite its strengths, it has not been selected.

It holds together well.

We appreciated the [taste/read], but we’re sorry to say we are unable to use this.

It’s… um … overdecorated.

Our having to decline this may be because we have work similar to the work you present here.

The top is very sloppy.

We did find much to admire in your work, but …

It’s a bit pudding-y to be honest.

Answers: Sorry! I baked a boozy cake to distract myself from the steady flow of rejections, and now I have no recollection of which is which.
____

Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse online, Paper Darts, and the Wall Street Journal. She has participated in Chicago’s live lit events That’s All She Wrote and Tuesday Funk. She serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

Brevity’s Guide to Holiday Punctuation

December 10, 2019 § 7 Comments

As the season approaches, you may want to notify your family, friends, and colleagues that you’ve been wealthy, successful, powerful and loved this year. Or at least didn’t fail as badly as it was suggested you would with that MFA in Creative Writing. (I am totally on the track to my own parking permit in the Remote Lot and teaching six adjunct classes a semester instead of seven, so suck it, Aunt Carol!)

Hence, the holiday newsletter. A chance to share those meaningful, intimate moments of your life, dreams, and family with all the people you don’t care about quite enough to send an individual card. It’s also a chance to show your mastery of the power of a well-chosen word or a scintillating sentence. Even the tiniest punctuation mark can convey worlds of meaning, and at gatherings of rivals and relatives, punctuation can spice up the most pedestrian conversation. Whether in writing or speech, herewith is your armor for the season—wear it wisely.

Apostrophe: A properly placed apostrophe is a symbol of your membership in the bourgeoisie. Sure, Cousin Ahmed owns a regional chain of successful halal butchers. But a gentle suggestion about his “lamb chop’s” sign demonstrates the value of your years of grammatical training. Try not to describe it as a “grocer’s apostrophe”—that’s just gauche.

Question Mark: A powerful deflector for all arguments. Best coupled with a distant look and a humble reference to one’s own virtue. For example, “Oh, Uncle Jim-Bob, did you mention something political? I was just thinking about whether to spend Boxing Day donating blood or working at the Habitat for Humanity project. Which would you pick?”

Interrobang: You just have to know what it is, then watch for a chance to drop it into conversation. Won’t your co-workers eyes widen when you suggest ending the company Secret Santa email with one of these bad boys!?

Ellipses: The magician of implication. Use it to suggest you couldn’t possibly list every wonderful thing in your world right now. After our trip to Iowa, little Josie won some prizes at the state fair…Jacob joined a few clubs…lots going on! Here, those three tiny dots punch above their weight, handling a fifth-runner-up for Quilting: Beginners Single Patch and the weekly Scared Straight meetings with ease.

With fellow writers, you may need to bring out the big guns. Enjoying a holiday book-gathering, but the conversation has started to flag? Bust out your opinion on the Oxford Comma. Once you mention the strippers, Stalin and JFK, the party takes care of itself.

Finally, remember to always take your notebook to holiday dinners. Then, when Aunt Carol asks “Do any memoirs actually sell, I mean, if they aren’t by celebrities?” frown distractedly, scribble, and ask her “Can you repeat that please? It’s perfect for Chapter Three…”

______________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for more mild humor and devastating punctuation.

 

The Time Aspiring Writers Spend on Writing-Related Activities

January 23, 2019 § 7 Comments

jared bilskiBy Jared Bilski

  • Tweeting funny comments, often involving coffee, along with the #amwriting hashtag – 8%
  • Posting photos on your Instagram of a coffee cup and a leather-bound journal; a coffee cup and a laptop; or a coffee cup, a leather-bound journal and a laptop along with the #amwriting hashtag – 6%
  • Obsessively checking your #amwriting tweets and Instagram posts for engagement and responding when necessary – 11%
  • Posting long, meticulously proofed posts to a variety of Facebook writing groups, posts which are ostensibly about a ridiculous technical concern you have about your incomplete (novel/memoir/screenplay) but are really ways to remind others you are, in fact, a writer even if you feel like you are a fraud with a dogshit idea for a (novel/memoir/screenplay) – 17%
  • Pensively smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – 7%
  • Crying – 11%
  • Crying while reading David Foster Wallace while pensively smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – 9%
  • Letting people know you’re a writer during completely unrelated conversations – 10%
  • Research (i.e., stalking the social media accounts of famous authors for whom you harbor great resentment and jealousy toward because if you had even a third of their connections and trust money you would be the one talking to Terry Gross about your latest novel instead of writing these goddamn #amwriting posts) – 3%
  • Finding creative ways to convince your parents big things are happening with your writing while also casually asking them for money – 16%
    ____
    Jared Bilski
    is a writer and comedian who lives on a creek in Collegeville, Pa. He’s written for The Washington PostMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyFatherly and a bunch of websites that no longer exist. The brand/third-degree burn on his left shoulder is a permanent reminder of the stupidity of his youth. Find him on Twitter at @JaredBilski.

 

Disacknowledgments, or To All of Those Who Didn’t Believe in Me: F*** Off

January 3, 2019 § 53 Comments

Consolino HeadshotBy Christina Consolino

They say it takes a village to grow a child, and I’d argue that it takes a village to grow a manuscript too. That village is made up of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom play an integral role in seeing a book come to life. Those people should be acknowledged, but since I’ve never been one to dwell on the positive . . .

The literary agents: For rejecting my work over the years. I’d love to mention each of you by name, but I’m only here to disparage a select few. My most memorable rejection arrived from BB, who used the remarkable wording: “Not for nus.” (That’s right. A typo from a literary agent. I wouldn’t want my book handled by someone who couldn’t use spell check anyway, right?) Just know that you—nameless or not—have made me better than I was before. Better . . . stronger . . . faster.

The editors: For reading my manuscript from top to bottom and sending me feedback that made so little sense, it quickly became apparent that you’d either switched my manuscript with someone else’s, or you’d been reading my manuscript while watching Better Call Saul. I have neither a stripper pole nor a mosque in this narrative.

The informal teachers: For scoffing at my projects. “That premise will never fly,” one said. (He didn’t think sparkly vampires would, either.) Another piped in, “How can you write a manuscript and raise four kids at the same time?” (Ever heard of Danielle Steele?) And, “What training do you have to write a book?” (I’m pretty sure that some of the most well-respected authors don’t have degrees in creative writing.) Every time you uttered a phrase like that, I straightened my spine. And now? With the completion of this book, I’m sending you the biggest fucking bird I can muster.

The numerous agencies and organizations I contacted: For not returning my calls when I asked for help with research. The doctor and dentist and hygienist who blew me and my laptop off after having offered to speak with me? I’ve killed you off and told all my friends about you. The therapist who never followed-up with me? Dead too. You had one job to do. One job.

The alpha readers: For dropping the ball, even though you said, “Yes, I’ll read the manuscript.” You neither read it nor provided any feedback as to why you didn’t (or couldn’t) read it. You’ve opened my eyes to the ways of the world and taught me to choose wisely when it comes to readers. The true readers will indeed, bring life, and the false? They will take it from you.

The so-called literary citizens: For never sharing my work, ever (even though I share yours). Despite your congratulatory comments, your “Thanks for being a fabulous literary citizen!” emails, your tiny fucking heart and thumbs up emojis when I post something. It’s been a real pleasure knowing that you have not and will not share my work. Your lack of response has taught me what the real world is all about: me. (Well, you, really.) It’s clear that the “Me generation” is alive and well, even in the literary world.

The colleagues: For never taking me seriously. “That’s a cute hobby you have there,” she said. And this zinger from an old boss: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing trying to write a book?” he said. “You’re a fucking science teacher!” (I know what you’re thinking: what boss would use an F-bomb at work? That one. But he also got fired for “fraternizing” with his boss. Wink, wink.)

The librarian: For your lack of encouragement or support and for stating that I’d never find a home for my manuscript in this world, then tearing it from my hands and tossing it into the trash. Only later did a friend find it in the employee restroom, annotated from cover to cover, although the acknowledgments had been used as some makeshift toilet paper. Little did that librarian know that the scene would make it into the final draft of my current work-in-progress.

The veterinarian: For healing my old, cantankerous cat, the one who always pushed the delete button on my keyboard and scratched at the draft, ate the draft, and then vomited the draft. Without you, dear doctor, I’d be cat-less, but I’d have more intact manuscripts in hand. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

My dog: For taking the manuscript between her jaws, running out the door, and burying it behind the compost pile. Her valiant actions prompted me to begin anew, thus finding my true, authentic voice, again leading me to be better . . . stronger . . . faster.

My children: For not being able to stay awake—not one of them!—while I read the draft aloud. (If you don’t actually hear the words, my dear progeny, they cannot count toward any reading minutes.)

And last but not least, my husband, the true love of my life: For not reading my work because women-centered narratives are “not his thing,” despite finding him glued to movies on the Lifetime channel. Asshole.
___

Christina Consolino is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan and has had work featured in HuffPostShort Fiction BreakFlights: The Literary Journal of Sinclair Community CollegeTribe Magazine, and Literary Mama, where she serves as Senior and Profiles Editor. She also serves on the board of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop at University of Dayton and as a writing instructor at a local writing center. Along with writing and editing, Christina currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology at Sinclair Community College.

Bouncing Submission Blues: My Rubber-Band Story

September 28, 2018 § 3 Comments

81Vhdn3phsL._SL1500_By Ashley P. Taylor

Holding a box of stationery shut in my desk drawer is a giant rubber band. The box was never in any danger of falling open, so I don’t know why I rubber banded it, unless the purpose was simply to do something with the rather large bag of giant rubber bands that I ordered from Amazon two years ago.

I was querying an agent who asked for hard-copy submissions, and I’d heard that one of two ways to collate one’s score of sample pages was to use a rubber band (the other way being binder clips).

Of all the rookie writing questions one could ask a novelist, “What size rubber bands did you use?” has got to be one of the worst. To ask it is to be little better than the small children who, after John Updike read a kid’s book aloud, persistently questioned the author about the mechanics of using a typewriter: “Do you ever make mistakes, typing?” Updike repeated the question. “Do I ever make mistakes . . . typing?”

So instead of asking around, I went on Amazon and ordered a one-pound box of 40 Alliance-brand rubber bands, seven inches around and five-eighths of an inch wide. It’s easy, now, to look and see what I bought, but the choice of rubber band was not easy. So many things could go wrong. With a rubber band too big, the pages are loose; one too small and one’s precious leaves get crumpled or bent; one too thin and the band snaps and flies into the agent’s eyes, blinding her to your manuscript, nay, to all manuscripts, to everything!

The rubber bands I chose were way too thick. Luckily, there was an alternative: I headed to Staples. There I did indeed find a rainbow assortment of long skinny rubber bands that looked capable of restraining a manuscript, but I wasn’t tempted. Binder clip it was, and with a little help from the guy at the mailing counter, I even put the metal flaps down so that my manuscript could fit into a Priority Mail envelope.

All this to say that I’m seeking alternative uses—beyond stationery security overkill—for heavy-duty rubber bands. Slingshot component? Aid for drawing—or dyeing—smooth lines around dinosaur eggs? Giant-asparagus fastener? I throw the bag of them at the floor, and it bounces a little, so the rubber bands could make a giant rubber-band ball, although its core would have to be quite large. If I crumpled up all the pages of my manuscript . . .

AshleyP.Taylor

Ashley P. Taylor

I wonder what the rubber-band manufacturer imagines they will be used for. The Alliance Rubber press kit, “Holding Your World Together,” lists novel applications not necessarily for giant rubber bands but for rubber bands in general: jar opener, cutting-board securer, box-flap holder-downer, wallet altogether replacer, and, my favorite, waist extender. “Whether you’ve got one on the way or just want to breathe easy while you sit,” Alliance instructs, “simply pull a rubber band through the buttonhole on your pants. Then, put that loop around the button. It’s that simple!” A picture of unzipped black jeans, their waist flexibly expanded by a thin brown loop, accompanies this suggestion.

When I post to Facebook this bit about rubber-band-cum-waist-extender, hoping to make people laugh, a friend comments that she did the same thing with a hair elastic when she was expecting. Perhaps I am the ignorant one. Maybe if ever become pregnant, I’ll understand. But a hair elastic is one thing; a small thing, specifically. I really hope I won’t ever need to expand my waistband with a seven-inch rubber band capable of stretching to seven times its original circumference.

Alliance also says that the rubber bands they produce in a year could encircle the globe 23 times. I wonder how close my rubber bands would come to doing that. Each can theoretically stretch to 49 inches. I’m not sure what Alliance envisions, but I imagine hooking the bands together to form something like chain-link rubber. In that case, each rubber band covers 25 inches, max. Earth is 1,577,727,360 inches around, according to Google. At 40 bands per box, each box covers 1,000 inches, and I’d need a million and a half boxes, which is, oh, about a million and a half times beyond the scope of my project.

Maybe I’ll put the rubber bands in a drawer and return to the novel.

But would the world bounce? I sort of want to know.
___

Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy Magazine, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.

A Brief Interview with a Hideous Man

May 22, 2018 § 10 Comments

zz unnamedAuthor Steve Almond’s four-year-old daughter Rosalie interviews him about his depressing new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country :

Rosalie Almond: What’s wrong with you?

Steve Almond: I have a new book out.

RA: The one about stupid stories?

SA: It’s about bad stories.

RA: Like something bad happens?

SA: Not exactly. There are bad stories in which something bad happens. But when I say “bad stories” I mean stories that lead to bad things happening. Stories that are untrue or that are cruel, stories that make people want to break things, rather than build things.

RA: I don’t get it.

SA: Okay. Here’s an example. If I said to you, “You can’t trust people with green eyes, because they will steal your toys. You have a right to play with your toys, don’t you? But if you see a kid with green eyes, you shouldn’t be nice to them, because they just want to steal your toys.”

RA: Why do they want to steal my toys? What did I do to them?

SA: I understand. But okay, wait a second.

RA: I hate them!

SA: Wait a sec—

RA: People with green eyes should die!

SA: Okay. Time out. That was just an example. People with green eyes don’t want to steal your toys.

RA: But you just said they did!

SA: Right. But that wasn’t true. It was just a bad story I told you.

RA: Why did you say that if it wasn’t true?

SA: Because when you tell a bad story a lot of the time people will listen to you, and that gives you a lot of power. Someone who wants to become a famous radio host, or even the president, can tell bad stories as a way of getting attention. They can say, “People with green eyes want to steal your toys!” And, “People who read books think you’re stupid!” And, “You can’t trust people with dark skin!” It doesn’t matter if those stories are mean and untrue.

RA: It doesn’t?

SA: Not if it helps you get power. If you can find people who feel frustrated and angry and who are in pain, bad stories make them feel good.

RA: Why?

9781597092265SA: Because now they have a good reason to feel angry. If they feel like they don’t have enough toys, or they worry that they might not get dessert, or if they see other kids who have more than them, those things make them angry. Bad stories give them a reason to feel angry. And someone to blame.

RA: But why do other kids have more? That’s not fair.

SA: You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. In a fair world, we would divide things up more equally, right? There wouldn’t be people with 100,000 chocolate cakes and other people who don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. But if you’re a person with 100,000 chocolate cakes, you can distract people from how greedy you are by telling bad stories, by saying, “The reason you don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread is because some dark-skinned person from another country who doesn’t even speak English stole your job!”

RA: But I don’t have a job.

SA: Right.

RA: Do I have to get a job?

SA: Someday, sure. But for now, I think it’s good for you to just go to pre-school.

RA: Because I can get a job later?

SA: Right, that can happen later.

RA: Will things be fair when I grow up?

SA: I don’t know. I hope so. But the only way they are going to get fair is for people to stop telling bad stories. They have to start telling good stories, which are stories that make people feel nicer and more hopeful and more generous. Stories which make you feel like you can understand how someone who looks different from you, or prays to a different God, actually wants the same things as you. Like they want a safe place to live and good schools for their kids to go do and enough to eat and a good doctor to go to if they get sick. That’s what all of us want, right?

RA: Not the doctor. They do shots!

SA: That’s true. But sometimes shots are the only way to help someone who is sick, right? Remember when you and mama got the flu?

RA: We couldn’t fly on the plane to California. We had to come later.

SA: That’s right. You were so sick. But if you get a shot, you don’t get the flu. Good stories can be like that, too. They can be like a shot that keeps us from getting sick, or helps us get better. So a good story is a true story that helps keep us safe, even if it’s a little scary. Like if we want to keep the planet from getting too hot, we have to use less gas. Or if we want to have a government that helps people we have to vote for people who want to solve problems. Or if we want people to have enough to eat and good schools and good jobs, we might have to take a little bit away from the people who have 100,000 chocolate cakes.

RA: Can I have dessert tonight? I never get dessert.

SA: You already had dessert, my love. You had a lollipop.

RA: I did? Really? Is your book over yet?

SA: Over?

RA: Yeah, I want to read a different book now. One of my books.

SA: Okay. I don’t blame you. I like your books better than mine, anyway.

RA: So why did you write your dumb book, anyway?

SA: I guess because for writers the stories we write are the ones that get stuck in our heads. Stories that won’t go away unless we write them down. That’s just how it works.

RA: That sounds boring.

SA: It is boring.

RA: I told you so.

__

Steve Almond is the author of ten books, most recently Bad Stories. His daughter Rosalie has no plans to read the book.

Things I Did After Each of 32 Rejections

March 20, 2018 § 31 Comments

By Lea Page

  1. Marked the rejection on my list and reassured myself that it was only one
  2. Thought: two isn’t bad. Imagined the soaring joy of acceptance that would come with the next notification.
  3. Reread essay and decided I still liked it.
  4. Repeated to self: “Rejection is just another step on the way to success.”
  5. Read too much into the “In Progress” notification on Submittable.
  6. Ate chocolate.
  7. Reread the essay. Found words, phrases and whole sentences that could be cut. Clawed in anguish at the proverbial bosom. Cut the damn words.
  8. Sent the essay to another batch of journals. Checked Submittable in a non-obsessive way.
  9. Was able to quote from memory all of the variations: “We’re sorry, read with interest but, not for us, not the right fit, pass this time, good luck.”
  10. Ate more chocolate.
  11. Made another list of journals and sent the essay to a dozen of them. Nothing grim about it. Nothing at all.
  12. Castigated myself for ever imagining the soaring joy of acceptance.
  13. Watched Netflix during designated writing time.
  14. Reread the essay and decided it was awful. Got a friend to read it. Didn’t know if they were just being nice by saying they loved it.
  15. Sent out another batch.
  16. Considered whether “Received” or “In Progress” held more possibility. Decided both were inscrutable and, possibly, sinister.
  17. Went to Costco to stock up on chocolate.
  18. Marked off the rejection on my list and wondered if it would have been better if I had chosen another color besides red for my color-coding system.
  19. Determined that two Costco-sized bags of chocolate-covered blueberries were, in fact, inadequate for my needs.
  20. Resorted to sports analogies: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
  21. Made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t check Submittable any more.
  22. Checked Submittable.
  23. Reread the essay, decided it really wasn’t so bad.
  24. Got a pair of trusted eyes on the essay. Sank into the depths of frustration and despair when told, “It needs something.”
  25. Repeated to myself my first writing teacher’s encouraging words: “We’ll throw a party for the first person to get 50 rejections!” Half-way there!
  26. Realized that my only success might be in failure.
  27. Sent the essay out again because I was like those zombies I watched but shouldn’t have. Nothing could stop me but a blow to the head.
  28. Read articles claiming that sugar is the cause of all ills. Read articles stating that chocolate has 4 grams of protein per half cup.
  29. Decided that I couldn’t please everyone else and maybe couldn’t please anyone else but myself. Pretended that this made me powerful instead of lonely.
  30. Gave myself a stern lecture about doing the work for the work’s sake. Very nearly believed it.
  31. Decided that the essay did need something. It needed me to not give up on it.
  32. Checked Submittable.
  33. What?

_________________________________

A knitter, gardener and avid dog-snuggler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch and Hippocampus, and she is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.

 

AWP 2018: The Definitive Packing and Preparation Guide

March 5, 2018 § 4 Comments

vintage photo of light blue suitcases stacked on lap, woman's heeled shoes and puffy white skirt showing, feet are resting on another suitcaseFrom the Brevity Editors:

As AWP draws near, first-time conference attendees and veterans alike stand over half-filled suitcases, frantically scrolling weather apps while trying to pack for the snowstorm on the way to the airport, the tropical humidity in which they will land, and the convention-center air-conditioning (setting: Meat Locker) in which they’ll spend most of their time.

The questions are endless: What do I wear to the Dance Party? How many minutes per room must I spend for two simultaneous panels, one containing three friends and a recent ex, and the other two mentors and a dream agent? What’s the proper conversational opening to a group of editors, 3/5 of whom have previously rejected my work?*

The Brevity Editors are here to help! Pooling our years of experience (25 years, 8 years, 6 years, and 1 ½ days), we present the Definitive AWP 2018 Packing/Preparation Guide:

  • Cute summer dress because Tampa! Fleece blanket to use as shawl in over-air-conditioned conference hotel. (May substitute manpris and higher basal body temperature)
  • Brand new sandals/mandals for walking shoes with cute summer dress/manpris. Band-aids. Iodine. Antibiotic ointment. Last year’s sneakers.
  • SPF 188.
  • Bathing suit for the Marriott hot tub. T-shirt to wear over bathing suit. Additional t-shirt to wear over t-shirt. Water shorts.
  • Notes on elevator pitches to hone on the plane.
  • Hormone replacement regimen because perimenopause! And Tampa!
  • Virginia Woolf tote bag. No, F. Scott Fitzgerald finger puppet. No, both. None. OK, just the finger puppet. Pageboy wig. Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Vintage lunchbox.
  • Airplane reading: Friend’s manuscript you owe feedback on. Student papers to grade. Six oldest New Yorkers from the pile. Entire lit mag slush pile. Lincoln in the Bardo. Infinite Jest.
  • Business cards with your old email on them. Call Office Depot to determine if new cards can be a) fast b) cheap and c) attractive. Begin penciling in new email on each card. Call department secretary to see if you can have your old email back.
  • Ten copies of your book. No, eleven. No, three. No, none. No, twelve. Bring one and forget it (and student papers) on the plane.
  • VGA to HDMI to VHS to BluRay to hamster wheel to clean coal adapters for panel. Post-it notes, index cards, and six colors of dry-erase markers for other panel.
  • Power Point of key panel slides on your phone in case of laptop failure. Power Point of your WIP on your phone in case of literary agent in elevator.
  • Hand-held folding fan steeped in cannabinoid oil and lavender. Look chic and mysterious as you fend off imposter syndrome, panic attacks and neurological disaster.
  • White-noise app. Noise-canceling headphones. Earplugs. Note from last year reminding yourself “[Roommate] SNORES.”
  • Flash cards with photos of keynote speakers so you can recognize them at cocktail party. Self-ejecting jet pack in case emergency party escape is needed. Portable smoke machine because go big or go home.
  • Novelty hand buzzer.
  • That Starbucks gift card you got four months ago from a student you thought hated you but didn’t after all, and that you’ve saved for “a special occasion.” Please note: lobby Starbucks closes at 2PM.
  • Nine pens.
  • Color-coded, strategically-plotted, much-folded-and-re-folded printout of schedule, including personal plans A, B, and C, with pop-up 3-D flowchart and Venn diagrams. Leave on table in lobby Starbucks at 1:58 PM.
  • Xanax. Pepto Bismol. Extra-strength Tylenol. Tylenol PM. Tylenol with codeine. Nyquil. Advil. Advil PM. Benadryl. Calamine lotion. Quaaludes.
  • Printout of Sober AWP meeting list. Downloaded version of Big Book. Sponsor’s cell number. Therapists’ cell numbers. Pocket guide to 12 steps. Mindfulness meditations. Blindfold. Cigarette.
  • Wine. IT’S A PRESENT.
  • Chapbook from your favorite poet, so you can “casually” bump into them and “just happen” to have their book on you and they’ll be so delighted they get your deconstructed villanelle fast-tracked at Poetry.
  • Updated CV. Just in case.
  • Entire choreography to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” (memorized and practiced obsessively instead of panel prep) for the dance party or just making people uncomfortable in elevators.
  • List of key points for MFA or no-MFA debate because that never gets old.
  • Emotional support pack mule.

*(Answers: Orange; 26/32+17 minutes navigating from Ballroom A to Grand Salon C; “How ‘bout those liminal spaces?!”)

__

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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