My 92-Year-Old Mom Reads Proust and Other Instagram Flash Stories

August 20, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Elizabeth Garber

I posted: My mom has seven pages left in Vol 2 of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Each day I visit, she starts off with an update: “Proust is mad at his mother because she misplaced his hat.” Then she’s puzzled and kind of pissed off. “I just don’t get it, why is he so famous?”

My most popular Instagram/Facebook posts are about my mom. There’s a photo and story of her crossing a meadow with her cane to pick fiddleheads in the spring or picking blueberries in the summer, or the three days she read and commented on my new manuscript. But the best received has been about her reading Proust.

To answer her question about Proust, I read aloud sections from a Lit Hub article on 6 Reasons Why You Must Read Proust by Joshua Zajdman. How he describes everyone from the duchess to the seamstress equally. This helps her. She says, “Proust watches young girls on a beach, and spends a whole page describing a girl with a mole on her chin.”

I show her my post about her on Instagram with responses from Paris (with photos of crepes suzettes and a Proust library at the Ritz), Cannes Film Festival, Sweden, England, China and local friends. She’s thrilled. Her face lights up, and her life is expanded from her compressing world. A little story can go a long way. People love stories, and are hungry for real stories that feed our spirits. I’d started writing these little stories because I love to collect the vivid details of what people say and the little stories grew.

I also have to confess the other truth. On the days I get restless or impatient helping my mom, writing little stories gives me a creative way to appreciate her more. In the midst of going to the grocery store for her, or changing her sheets, or changing a band aid, I ask her questions. She tells me a story. I take notes. I look up photos in the old albums.

I asked her about the Borges story she told me when I was sixteen, the one where the man realizes he is a character in someone else’s mind. That story was literally mind-blowing for an Ohio teen in 1968. She said. “I think I still have a file of our book lists.” She hunted through her files, hard to see as her eyesight dims, and I pulled it out. Her Cincinnati Book Club lists are all there, with the South American writers list on top and her notes on each writer, every year of the 1960s. We sat for an hour, reading through the books, and I found a photo from 1968. Now I have to make a post to share this story.

What I love about writing these Flash posts is the immediate connection. It’s heavenly to write a story and have readers read it right away! While I wait years for a book to move into print, here’s a way to touch readers right away! The immediate exchange gives me a taste of that writer/audience magic, like hearing my audience’s breathing change as I read to them.

If you post an image, and don’t write a little story, it’s a missed opportunity to nourish your reader, and yourself.  In 2018-20, when InstaPoetry erupted, headlines blared: How Instagram Saved Poetry, (The Atlantic). Now it’s time to practice Insta-Flash.

Just notice the little stories that happen in your life, that mean something to you. Think of the situation. Notice a mini narrative arc. A story starts somewhere, ends somewhere else. Set a scene in a few words, a little dialogue, something happens. Something poignant, something changes.

As I left my mom’s that day, after we looked at her garden, she said, “I’m just so happy to talk about Proust.”
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Elizabeth Garber, author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter, is pitching a new memoir of teens at sea on a disastrous ship. Find me on Instagram at @ElizabethGarberWriter and at www.elizabethgarber.com

Instagram for Writers

June 6, 2019 § 39 Comments

Flatlay of laptop, teacup, teapot, sugar, milk and paper on wooden tableSocial media is a distraction from our writing. Social media can be a support system for our writing—creating community, building readership, and allowing us to practice our craft. Writer Twitter is definitely a Thing, with terrific advice in #askagent, and editors tweeting calls for submissions and pitches. Writer Facebook includes genre- and demographic-based groups that foster literary citizenship and build real-life connections as online acquaintances meet at conferences and readings.

But Instagram? The one that’s all about the pictures? Sure, there’s #bookstagram, where book bloggers share their reading piles and recommendations and authors reveal new covers. But what’s the benefit for writers on a primarily visual platform, and why should they bother?

Instagram is (so far) the calmest, sanest, and most relaxing social platform, with three big benefits for writers:

1) Make genuine connections with people who want to read your work.

Writers don’t need 20,000 followers on Instagram. Writers need engaged followers. “Engaged” means people who like or comment on your posts, and a good engagement rate is about 1%. That’s right: If you have 100 followers, and one person comments, you’re doing well.

This is not how most people think about Instagram. We see “influencers” with 200K followers and ask why we should even bother. But look closer:

Influencer AllThatIsShe – 529K followers, engagement about 0.7%

Memoirist Dani Shapiro – 19.3K followers, engagement about 1%

Memoirist Esmé Weijun Wang – 9.4K followers, engagement about 0.8%

All three of these people are proportionally influential. The influencer makes fun and funny visual jokes. The writers share writing news, book tours, personal stories behind their work, and moments of joy and poetic wonder from their lives. AllThatIsShe’s comments include lots of casual interaction like sharing summer plans and laughter at her clever photographs. Dani and Esmé’s readers give their own responses to prompts, wish the writers well, share corresponding moments from their own lives. They actively engage in meaningful dialogue with the writer and her work. That 1% are people who will show up to a reading and pre-order your book.

Instagram is economical. You don’t have to fly across the country to a conference that might take 50 waking hours. Spend that same time in 15-minute Instagram sessions interacting with writers you’d like to know, and that’s 200 days of cost-free relationship building. You don’t even have to wear pants.

2) Write better.

The Instagram caption is perfect for encapsulating a moment. In 50-100 words, writers can practice craft at the sentence level. We get to write in short, manageable chunks on busy days.

When writing captions, tell a moment that is a whole moment. Stay in the scene, or in a single thought. The medium is the message: there is no “and then I realized…” because the venue says that for you. Being a caption establishes, “I thought this was important to crystallize and share with my readers.”

Writing in this constrained form is the ultimate flash. How fast can you bring a reader into your mood? How much emotional impact can you create in under a minute? Can you draft a killer first sentence that makes readers click to read the whole thing? That’s a skill all writers need for work in every medium.

3) Get Inspiration and encouragement.

When I’m posting regularly, I see more stories in the world. I’m more likely to ask questions of the people around me, and truly listen. This spills over into my longform writing, making me more curious about my characters and more conscious of the circumstances that make people who they are.

Posting a micro-essay is like a low-stakes “submission” to the world. There’s no “dislike” button, so I get the encouragement without the rejection. The level of engagement tells me what people enjoy reading, and comments suggest future blogging topics for Brevity and writing questions to address in my next book. Every little heart makes me feel like someone is interested in what I have to say and reminds me to write again tomorrow.

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If you’re just getting started on Instagram, or you want a more enjoyable experience that benefits your writing, a couple of quick tips:

  • Line breaks. One of the great mysteries of Instagram! To get an empty line between paragraphs, make sure there is NO SPACE at the end of the paragraph. Hit return. Type a period or emoji, NO SPACE, hit return and start your next paragraph. There are apps that allow you to type a caption and copy-paste with empty lines, but it’s an extra step. Keep your Insta commitment small.
  • Don’t worry about the follow/unfollow thing. Many “large” accounts are using follow-bots to artificially build their numbers. When you click through to see a profile with thousands of followers and very low followings, they are going to unfollow you. Only follow back if you’re truly interested in their content.
  • To build your own followers, find people you like from other social media or real life. When you follow, comment on their most recent post with what you like about it and say where else you know them from. Make sure your profile says what you do and your name is identifiable. Show your face in your profile picture. Participate in following threads on Facebook and Twitter.
  • An engaged Instagram presence doesn’t have to be time away from your writing. Unlike influencers who need current daily content, writers can do just fine with 1-5 posts/week. Don’t bother to post on the weekends unless you love it.
  • Don’t get sucked in. Stay limited and specific: take 20 minutes and post one picture, write one solid caption. In your down time (subway, waiting room, on the potty) take 15 minutes and comment on 10 people’s most recent post. Like 10 more posts you actually like. Follow 3 new people and comment on 1 post each. Then close the app and look around for a story to tell.

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Wanna know more about writing on Instagram? Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams will be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!

Just Like the Cool Kids

April 11, 2019 § 6 Comments

After our attempt to create viral cat videos ended in editorial lacerations…after trying to make “fetch” happen…after our unfortunate experience with twerking (Dinty’s back will heal soon!), Brevity has finally become cool.

We got on Instagram!

Brevity posts writing moments and thought-provoking images. We’ll also be seeking writers for short term Insta-takeovers of image series with accompanying text. (If you’re interested, slide into our DMs!)

Why Instagram? As Twitter becomes politically challenging and Facebook brings out the family racists, Instagram has remained relatively sane and relaxing. Creators are sharing meaningful images and carefully crafted words in a supportive community. Captions are becoming flash nonfiction. Writers are connecting with a lively community of readers and fellow wordsmiths. Celebrity book clubs share novels and memoirs with vast audiences who want to be part of a literary community. Instagram readers are becoming daily more sophisticated, more visually-attuned, and more willing to spend a moment with beautiful words.

We want to reach our readers where they are. Thank you for visiting the magazine and blog online, welcoming us into your inboxes, engaging with our tweets and participating in the Facebook group. Thank you for saying hi at writing conferences and reviewing Brevity authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.

Instagram is one more place to share a small part of your literary journey.

Won’t you join us?

PS – for Insta-takeover requests, please contact us on Instagram, that way we don’t lose your message!

Putting your Best Face Forward

January 29, 2019 § 11 Comments

Blue sky, green wheat field, and a redheaded woman in a blue jacket and a wheelchair, sitting chest-deep in the wheat.My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.

When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.

Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.

I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.

Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.

Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:

  • Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
  • Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
  • Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
  • Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
  • Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
  • Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
  • When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
  • If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
  • When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
  • Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.

It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

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