May 15, 2018 § 46 Comments
I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.
I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.
An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.
I flipped through.
The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.
In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.
I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.
He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”
I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”
It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.
I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.
I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.
I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”
Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.
I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.
My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.
But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.
Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.
May 1, 2018 § 14 Comments
“When will you write something about me?”
“Mom, you know I only write about dead people.”
End of conversation.
But the truth was, I’d already started more drafts about Mom than I could count.
As she began to have health problems, needed surgery, and finally had to move from her home of nearly forty years, those drafts got longer and became more numerous.
In October of 2013, Mom died. I continued to write. I revised, blended, made maps of the structure of some of the older essays, tore up the maps, wrote a series of paragraphs based on images. Nothing worked.
Eventually, it all went into my “dormant” file.
This is as good a time as any to disclose that I have a bursting file drawer devoted to typed and hand-written drafts, which I have tried in vain to organize. Recently, in an attempt not to waste paper, I’ve made a conscious effort to do less printing. I now have an unknown number of drafts in various locations on my computer and on a flash drive, which appears to be incompatible with my new laptop. Some, I think, are also in The Cloud, but I’m not sure how that happened, nor do I know how to access them.
In February of 2017, I took an online class with Penny Guisinger, “Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction.” Without referring to any of my previous drafts, I wrote a short essay about my relationship with my mom. At Penny’s suggestion, I worked on the ending. After a few more people read it, I made final revisions, and sent it to Full Grown People, where Jennifer Niesslein accepted it.
At least eight years in the making, a plethora of drafts, and a final word count somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 words—a flash essay, by most definitions.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with the fun-sounding GAD. It’s true that, if you add an “l” you have “glad.” But it’s short for “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I began to write about anxiety and ended up with an unruly draft that included my great-grandmother, German cursing, and a metaphor about my washing machine. After many attempts it, too, found its way to the “dormant” drawer.
In 2013, I attended a Summer Writing Workshop at Kenyon College, where I took a creative nonfiction class with Dinty W. Moore. I arrived a day late, courtesy of GAD. When Dinty gave us the assignment for the next day: write directions or instructions for how to do something, I went back to my room in a panic. My self-talk went something like this: You don’t know how to do anything. There’s no time to research. Other people can write a decent draft in one day. You cannot, because you are not a writer. You should go home now.
I told myself to be quiet and stared at my overflowing suitcase. I wrote a draft, in list form, about what it’s like to pack for a trip when you have anxiety. I read it in class the next day, got some positive feedback, and continued tweaking it when I got home. Writer friends reviewed it, I submitted it, it got rejected. I was working full-time, so I let it, too, go dormant.
After I retired, I looked at the draft again and did some more revisions. This time, it seemed like a good fit for The Manifest-Station. Editor Angela M. Giles, agreed, and she published it. This version, which does not include either my great-grandmother or large appliances, was published some six years after its conception. It, too, had gotten shorter over time: from 1,900 to 800 words.
I had been writing drafts about my dad and his love of cardinals since soon after his death in 1995. I submitted a few, and they got rejected. I dragged one version to a writing class at Chautauqua Institution in 2008, where I got some great feedback during a one-on-one meeting with Liz Rosenberg but I still couldn’t get it right.
In the summer of 2016, I was reading River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and I thought again of my dad and cardinals. I started fresh, with the 250-word limit in mind, and this time it worked.
Math gives me a headache, which is just as well. Any calculations involving how many publishable words I can produce in a specified amount of time would no doubt make me despair.
A writer friend commented that the word “dormant” sounded too passive. That made sense, so I looked up synonyms at Merriam-Webster.com, thinking that renaming my draft drawer might speed up my writing process. I found one I liked, but it has little to do with speed.
Latent: a power or quality that has not yet come forth but may emerge and develop.
The possibilities appeal to me. And regardless of the name I choose for my drawer of drafts, there is this:
I am writing.
I am writing.
Melissa Ballard apologizes if any readers are offended by the suggestive titles of her guest posts for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog: Finishing, Stripper Girl, and Slow Flash. Or, having read the posts, disappointed she does not deliver on her promises.
April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments
One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.
[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]
This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.
In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:
J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.
This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.
The revelation arrives in section eight:
I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.
J. fuit hic.
I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.
If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.
This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.
I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:
Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.
I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.
Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.
April 24, 2018 § 20 Comments
Music is great for writing. Pop those headphones in, start up your two-hour Epic Music track or your carefully curated, book-specific playlist, get in your headspace and go go go.
Music is not great for reading. When I edit a manuscript with song lyrics used as epigraphs, or quoted from one character to another, or someone singing along, I have standard cut-and-paste language:
Consider whether these lines are necessary: using song lyrics falls under a specific copyright area that is not subject to fair use, and obtaining permission is tedious and can be difficult and expensive.
The short answer to “What about using some song lyrics in my memoir?” is “You can’t.” To elaborate, songs written after 1923-ish (depending on when you read this blog post) are almost certainly under copyright. The singer or band associated with the song may or may not be the writer(s). Once you google to find the writing credits, you’ll need to track down the publisher through ASCAP or BMI. The publisher does not want to talk to you until you have a publication contract, or specific, written publication plans including where you’ll be selling the book, the cover price, and how many copies you’re printing. Then the publisher bills you.
It can get expensive, Blake Morrison tells the Guardian:
I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75.
But what about “fair use”?
Fair use is the legal principle allowing us to quote lines or paragraphs from books under copyright. Quotations are fair use if the number of words used is a very small proportion of the total words in the original work; if the quote is properly attributed; and if it’s essential to the point you’re making in your own work. Song lyrics have not yet been held to a “fair use” standard. Arguably, even a line of a song is a fairly large proportion compared to say, 200 words from a 90,000-word novel. But poetry can be fairly used and often is. What makes songs different?
Publishers with deep pockets, excellent legal teams, and a strong precedent of defending their copyrights.
Beyond legal battles, it’s worth it to consider what impact the quoted lyrics will really have in your book. Does your reader associate “Janie’s Got A Gun” with that beautiful night you sat in a convertible, watching the ocean roll in below the hills? Or does she remember her school’s anti-violence initiative that used the literal message of the song? Will readers from another generation even know the song you’re quoting? Will they think of it as “Mom’s music” instead of “pulse-pounding jam”? Writers can’t control how readers react, so we might as well use words we can craft ourselves.
In the Brevity Podcast Episode 8, Geeta Kothari and I discussed using quotes within essays and stories. In her experience as an editor for Kenyon Review, lyrics often pull the reader out of the story on the page and into their own associations with the song. JoBeth McDaniel, from the Rush editorial board, mentions in the same episode that even quoting other non-song writing raises legal issues that editors just don’t want to deal with.
Sure, it’s a great feeling when a single lyric conjures up a world of emotion in our heart. But it’s both uncertain and a bit lazy to expect that line to do the same for every reader. Instead, ask yourself what emotional purpose that song serves, and put that feeling in the setting, in the narrative, in the dialogue. Or obliquely quote in a way that makes knowledge of the original song unnecessary:
He banged his head to Sweet Child O’ Mine and I wished hard I could like Guns N Roses. (Titles are OK!)
On the radio, Springsteen was on fire, singing his creepy lyrics about Daddy not being home.
We rolled down the windows and cranked up the stereo–GooGooDolls, The Cure, KLM, all the music everyone was listening to, the bass throbbing in my chest and making me feel like I was part of everyone.
You’ve got something important to say. Don’t lean on a song to say it for you. Use your words. Use your images. Use your experiences. Trust in your power to create your own music in the reader’s head.
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.
Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.
Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books
Find out more about:
Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:
- bad boy
- future addict
- serious and accomplished
- brainy but beautiful
- more than likely delusional
- bright but misguided
- hurt, badly, baldly
- trying real hard to be good
April 2, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Katie Simon
“What kind of writing do you do?” It is snowing heavily outside, and I am at a party, ice flaking off my quilted boots and melting into puddles on the hardwood floor. I get asked this question frequently, not just by buzz-cut, twenty-something, plaid-wearing, men like the one in front of me, but by people of all hairstyles, ages, and clothing preferences. I know what this man expects me to say: short stories; poetry; hot takes on pop culture trends. I am 26 years old, and anything I write must be imaginary or ephemeral.
I squirm in my boots, stare out the window at the weather I just escaped. I hate this question. “Memoir,” I say.
“Huh.” He looks at me skeptically. Even without asking my age, he has a general idea. I look younger than I am. “Kind of funny for somebody your age, don’t you think?” I wonder about the walk home and if the sidewalks will be cleared if I just wait out this storm a little while longer, if I manage to make it through this conversation.
I don’t owe him an explanation, though I have one I know will effectively wipe away his doubt. I could tell him I’m finishing a book about the gap year I took during which I contracted the plague in Uzbekistan, was raped by a stranger in a Tel Aviv alleyway, and found myself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Though mentioning this project appeases would-be skeptics, I don’t like sharing it. I don’t want to perpetuate the misconception that a young person needs to have had an unusual life to write a memoir. So, standing in my friend’s apartment, my fingers still thawing from the frozen weather outside, I shrug and change the topic.
During a blizzard, you start shoveling while the snow is still falling. It seems counter-intuitive. Why bundle up and bend against snowflake-filled wind when you could just wait for the snow and wind to stop? Those who’ve braved blizzards, New Englanders like me, know better.
My book is about a sequence of events that took place largely in my eighteenth year. When I started writing, it was less than a year later. I was nineteen years old and knew I probably hadn’t even lived the ending, but I wrote anyway, because I knew my story needed to be told. I took workshops with widely published authors who advised me to write my story as quickly as possible and get a book deal before graduating college. “Just write it really close up,” one professor told me. “You don’t need to have an older narrator’s wisdom if you present the facts to the reader without judgement.” While his advice may work for some, I didn’t take it.
You start shoveling during the blizzard so you have a pathway to work yourself out once the snow finally stops.
I didn’t write my book as quickly as possible. I stuck my unfinished manuscript in a drawer. I worked on other writing. I took a break from writing altogether. And when I finally returned to the book I had started six years before, I was unequivocally grateful to my teenage self for having the audacity to write her own story as it was unfolding. What I wrote in college, though mostly rewritten, overhauled, or simply cut, has been invaluable to the process of finishing the draft I have today.
You start shoveling during the blizzard so you can see the outline of the sidewalk when you dig later on, so you don’t scrape cars or break your shovel on fire hydrants.
Those early pieces gave me a blueprint. I got down the details of events and characters and settings I wouldn’t otherwise have remembered. I built up the eighteen-year-old’s persona with such intricate interiority that going back and reflecting, even just a few years down the line, proved much easier; the ways in which my perspective had changed were immediately noticeable. Without having my teenage point of view down on paper, the persona, so recently embodied, would have blurred with the narrator.
You start shoveling during the blizzard because if you don’t, by the time the last flake has fallen, the snow in front of you may be so deep and dense you can’t break through its icy surface, not even a dent.
I wrote memoir at nineteen because even though I hadn’t yet lived my book’s ending, I intuitively knew I had to get words down on the page. So that when, six years later, I faced the enormous, incomprehensible task of writing a book about my life, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed that I waited, and waited, and waited, hoping it would make the task ahead magically easier.
Don’t wait. Write memoir when you’re young, even if haven’t yet lived your story’s ending. Shovel when the blizzard is still raging outside.
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Health, Entropy, BUST, Women’s Health, and elsewhere.
March 27, 2018 § 10 Comments
From a one-day workshop in your hometown to a three-week residency in a distant artists’ colony, there’s magic in sharing time and space with other writers. But maybe you’re tired of waiting for the right time, location and price. What about organizing your own retreat? How hard can it be to pick a place, decide whether someone’s teaching or you’re just sharing workspace, round up a few friends and go?
That said, you might want to do it anyway.
Back in 2015, I attended Joanne Lozar Glenn’s session on retreat-planning at Hippocamp. I studied her handouts, thinking this could be fun? Maybe?
I looked around. Writer friend Hananah Zaheer holds a biannual retreat with a collective of writing pals, taking turns teaching craft elements, meeting in different cool cities. Ryder S. Ziebarth hosts one-day workshops on her farm in rural New Jersey, inviting guest speakers like memoirist Lisa Romeo. Joanne herself leads single-day and multi-day workshops year-round. I googled ‘writing retreats.’ Writing for Caregivers. For Ministers. Jumpstart Your Memoir/Novel/Nonfiction Proposal. Writing in Ireland, in Mexico, in Hamlet’s castle. A smörgåsbord of residencies and workshops. I thought, I’ll just sit with this idea for a while.
Flash-forward to December 2017. I knew I wanted a retreat in India, in June. I’d led plenty of small-group immersion tours. I got good reviews when I taught. But I had three editing-client manuscripts due in January, my ideas hadn’t solidified…maybe it just wasn’t going to happen.
Then my husband made me a website. Surprise!
Suddenly I had to write copy. Pick the right boutique hotel. Choose a focus for the week. Make decisions. I checked out an expensive learn-to-plan-a-retreat course online. I could take the class or keep paying rent. But their free intro videos made two major points:
- A “destination” retreat isn’t just a workshop in a pretty place. The location should complement and inspire the work.
- Narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone with money and pages who has a week off and wants to go to that place,” specifically define an immediate, pressing problem and how you can help them solve it. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, the problem should be solved.
I’d already picked India so I had to reverse-engineer the connection between work and place. Preferably without appropriating Indian religious beliefs or spiritual practices outside my culture. Colonial Fort Kochi had been Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and ruled by other Indian kingdoms before independence, so what about tapping into rebirth/regeneration from a historical perspective?
What writer-problem could I solve? What’s been missing from previous otherwise-terrific workshops I’ve gone to? Well, I often don’t make much progress on my own work. It takes hours to thoughtfully critique 25 pages each for as many as 10 classmates, then discuss them in class, and maybe half the notes I get back are useful. I want the teacher’s attention and I want to work on my own pages. I want a goddamn Oompa-Loompa, and I want it now. There had to be other writers who felt like this…I hoped.
My husband—a numbers guy—suggested a “break-even” spreadsheet: list every expense, including planning and teaching hours. Hotel rooms. Workspace. Meals. Local guides—don’t forget the tips! I researched other retreats’ offerings; the list got longer. Insurance. Welcome baskets. A reading night—wine? How much wine? How many hours to read everyone’s full manuscript in advance? Add profit on top, divide by number of participants, and that’s what tuition costs. I figured a low profit for the first year—a small bonus on top of hours worked. Get it off the ground, make money later if it’s a success.
Now I had numbers and a website. I knew the retreat would focus on major revisions of existing manuscripts (rebirth!), working only on one’s own pages, and ideally, each participant finishing their current draft. But what if I totally sucked at this and everyone had a terrible time and hated me forever?
I turned to some experts for advice.