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.
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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.

Hello, It’s Your Book Proposal. Stop Ignoring My Calls!

September 27, 2022 § 4 Comments

Writing your proposal will help you finish your book.

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

You’ve been avoiding it for years, but deep down you know it’s time. I get your procrastination. What artist wants to work on a business document, let alone one with nicknames like “soul crusher” and “creativity killer”?  

Like you, I once banished book proposals to the level of hell that contains root canals, moth-ball-scented stickers, and elementary school violin ensembles. But working on my proposal—and helping others build ones that have sold—has given me a new perspective on how, and more importantly, when, to work on one.

It’s sooner than you might think.

Top reasons for query rejections include:

  • lackluster writing
  • not understanding your target audience
  • someone else already published your idea
  • being an unknown quantity.

While revising your manuscript is the only way to improve your prose, working on certain parts of your proposal before completing your manuscript can help with the rest.

Author Platform Assessment  

Of the parts of the proposal emerging writers like to avoid, the About the Author section ranks just below the Marketing Plan. We’ve been told size matters, and most writers fear their author platforms won’t measure up. Here’s the good news: you don’t need to be a social media influencer to sell your book. You must, however, be able to reach readers. Bylines, guest posts, podcast interviews, and speaking engagements are a few common ways writers engage with their audience. These platform side hustles have the added benefit of helping you identify and refine your book’s narrative arc.

Got platform envy? There’s a simple cure. Assess your author platform well before you begin querying. To do this, complete two versions of your proposal’s About the Author section. In the first, create a snapshot of your current reach, including publications, speaking engagements, social media numbers, and people who could possibly write reviews or blurbs.

If your pages include a lot of white space, don’t panic.

In step two, write an aspirational About the Author section that includes the things you’d love to do, as well as your ideal reviewers and blurb writers. This isn’t just daydreaming. Imagining your successes will make you more likely to take the steps needed to turn your aspirations into legitimate entries on your final proposal.  

Comparable Titles Spot Check

Comparable titles—“comps”—help you understand your topic’s landscape. Jane Friedman suggests narrative and traditional nonfiction writers do an exhaustive comp title search before getting started. I heartily agree. Who wants to write a proposal or spend years on a draft only to find out another author has beaten you to the bookshelf?

Memoirists might wonder when to begin their official search, given how long their projects might take. Start too soon, and you can end up with a list of great books that are no longer relevant. Start too late, and you might find out someone else has written a book about a similar experience from the same angle.

If you’re a memoirist, the best time to build your tentative comps list is after you understand your personal story, but before you’ve finished your book. This will allow you to identify which conversations your book belongs to. Once you know the conversations, and the gaps within them, you can figure out the fresh new thing you’ll say. This might lead you to explore your book from a different angle, research an element you might not have considered, or try a unique structure that ties everything together without feeling crushed by rejections, or like you’re starting over.

If you’re looking to publish traditionally, this is essential. Gone are the days when you can write solely about your personal experiences. Memoirs that are currently selling are about how the author’s life intersects with something else.

Carol Smith’s Crossing the River (Abrams) is about what feature writing taught her about grief. Poe for Your Problems (Running Press) by Catherine Baab-Muguira shows you how Edgar Allen Poe can help your neuroses. Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured (St. Martins) explores the cults we malign, the ones we unwittingly sanction, and the brutal conformity both require.

Finding your angle and pumping up your platform while working on your draft will give you the confidence to write clearly and query more effectively.

So what are you waiting for? Answer your proposal’s damn call!

___________________________

Want to understand the proposal and learn some tricks that will help you not just nail yours but motivate you to complete your book? Join Lisa for The Three Essential Questions Every Agent Hopes Your Book Proposal Answers on 9/28 and Writing the Proposal: How to Finish and Sell Your Nonfiction Book on 10/5.

Why I get up early

September 26, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Becky Jo Gesteland

I ponder this question and peruse my blog to see if I have an answer. I find several relevant posts.

November, 2019 Time to myself.

I’ve been writing about my lack of time since July. Not sure why I felt I had so little time then, because I have even less now. Shifting priorities? New medication to combat depression? 

Women writers have always struggled to find time to themselves to write. Right now, I’m writing at 6:23 a.m. when I really wish I was still sleeping. The time change helped me wake up early. That and the cat. So, for the next week or two I’ll take advantage of my messed up sleeping schedule to arise early and write a few words.

But then what? When my body and cat adjust to the new schedule, when NaNoWriMo is over, will I continue? Surely part of the struggle is priorities. Because unlike some women, I have a supportive family who would help protect my writing time if I simply asked. I think part of the dilemma for women is this ingrained sense of “needed-ness.” That is, we need to feel needed. As mothers, wives, bosses, daughters, aunts, colleagues…our relationships with others dominate our lives. So, we drop whatever we’re doing to help someone else. I interrupt my grading to feed the cat; I shorten my writing time to check email; I pause my Netflix show to listen to my daughter; I stop reading to talk to my husband; I walk back from yoga with a colleague rather than enjoying the post-practice peace. Choices sure. Priorities yes. But also, a culturally ingrained sense of needing to be there for others. At someone’s beck and call.

September, 2020 Reflection 

What? After feeding the cats, before anyone else wakes up, I sit at the kitchen counter as daylight begins and the room becomes brighter.

So what? Observing my movements. Noticing my environment. Describing the scene. To what end? So that whoever someday reads this may know my state of mind? Why would they care? I live in a house with two people and two cats. It’s turned fall–September 22–and tomorrow I turn 58. The world still roils with COVID-19. Angry politicos battle for power. I’m tired, sad, listless.

Now what? I’m borrowing words from my syllabus, the questions that guide students to reflect on their community-engaged learning experiences. What? So what? Now what? At least those are the ones I recall. But I can’t answer “now what?” because I’m trapped in this space and time of pandemic. Still living one day at a time.

I can feed the hummingbirds, until they leave for the year. I can water the flowers, while they continue to bloom. I can wash dishes, fold laundry, mend shirts, knit shawls, read books, practice yoga, drink coffee, eat yogurt, type letters on a keyboard and watch them become text on a page and posts on a blog and artifacts of a moment in a day from a life of a woman passing time.

March, 2021 Lack of sleep. 

The precious commodity eludes me today, of all days, the first weekday after the switch to daylight savings time. Wide awake at 5:45, which was actually 4:45 two days ago. No, the cats did not wake me. Perhaps I slept too long on Saturday. Maybe I have too many puzzles racing around in my brain. I did four yesterday: the Spelling Bee, the mini crossword, the Sunday, and a jigsaw puzzle. Or it could be my body’s adjustment to the missed SSRI dose on Friday night. Still finding a balance.

Today I receive my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and I’m a bit anxious–especially after my “mild prolonged response” to the first one. It will be a relief to be protected. By March 22nd. Just a little over a year since we shifted to remote work. The year that time stood still.

August, 2021 Observation. 

To watch the mother and baby deer graze in our front yard, to listen to the silence of the house, to read book reviews and craft advice in Brevity, to lie on the couch with the cat and try not to fall asleep, to solve spelling bee or crossword puzzles, to read and perhaps write, to keep the world at bay for a few hours…before the sun comes all the way over the horizon, before the air conditioner kicks on, before my work emails start to ping, before my family wakes up, before the news of the world rushes in.

__

Becky Jo Gesteland lives in Ogden, Utah, where she is a professor of English at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in Gravel, Palaver, Role Reboot, Plateau Journal, So to Speak, Visitant, Weber: The Contemporary West, and various scholarly books and journals. She blogs at https://jomamabecky.org/

American Idol as a Metaphor for the Writer’s Pursuit

September 22, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Evyenia Downey

Contestant number eighty-two thousand three hundred and the-market-is-already-oversaturated-with-women-writing-about-their-brains-and-boyfriends, step right up! Stand at the X on the floor — a coincidental representation of all your denied submissions. Make eye contact with the judges, but not long enough to expose the tears welling under the glue-on lashes you didn’t know how to put on but figured if you can inflate a CV you can fake an extended lash. 

Get that voice ready to prove you have what it takes to win. 

I feel like a contestant on American Idol every time I submit a poem or essay for publication. Before I click submit, I stop and ask myself, am I the William Hung to their inbox? She bangs, she bangs, she bangs her head into the keyboard. I try to believe the rejection is worth it. Airtime. Getting my face out there. But like those contestants we laugh about all these years later, am I better off just staying home?

Sure, the 2022 season of American Idol I watched while yet again procrastinating my mental health recovery memoir was a lot kinder than previous years. No insults. No ridicule. Yet there is always someone who stepped up to the judges with the belief they are destined to be a star. They have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of musical superstardom. They have sacrificed financial stability, a career in a sustainable industry, and have driven their family members to such intolerance that the contestant has arrived at their audition alone.

I’m not that far gone in my pursuit of literary stardom. I have a job in a casino that pays the bills. My husband listens with interest when I tell him about my dreams of being a professional writer and writing teacher. Maybe I’m not currently a gag reel-worthy contestant. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Or maybe I am already there and haven’t realized it yet. I think that’s what pushes me to procrastinate. The fear that I’m no good and don’t know it. The fear that I think I’m good and someone somewhere laughs at their screen upon opening my submission. 

My dream of being a writer and writing teacher developed in my twenties when I was too mentally ill to maintain a full-time job. My undergraduate GPA with the University of Toronto stands at a 2.3 because in 2010, during my third year of university, I experienced my first serious mental health decline. I barely made in out with my life, let alone a degree.

By some blessing by the literary gods, I was accepted into an MFA program in 2017. The only reason I was even considered for the MFA was the creative writing certificate program I completed with U of T in 2016. After two poetry acceptances to online magazines, a toxic romantic relationship triggered another mental health decline and I stopped writing. But the dream of the writer’s life remained. I wanted to live just like my teachers. They wrote books and articles. They taught classes. They were not bound by a concrete schedule — the ultimate appeal to my mentally ill self.

Since 2021 I’ve considered myself recovered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a decade of bouncing between unemployment and part-time retail work, I started my full-time job in the casino. To my surprise, I was able to work forty hours a week without experiencing another mental decline. I spent the rest of the year intentionally not writing to figure out if my interest in the written word was genuine or if it was born from 9-5 anxiety.

I was sure I would experience a dwindling interest in writing.

I was wrong. 

So here I am in 2022, mostly recovered from my mental illnesses (the BPD is gone but my OCD is an ongoing issue) and ready to build a career as a writer. I’ve only felt like an American Idol contestant for a few months. Not long enough to be discouraged, but long enough to receive enough rejections to feel tempted to quit. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers say, “You’ve only failed once you quit.” Therefore, keep going because you never know what will happen. Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers. Stranger Things was rejected by twelve studios. Lisa Kudrow was fired from Frasier, which led to her casting in Friends. Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your road. But is there a point where you have to accept that something just isn’t meant for you? 

How many seasons of American Idol do you audition for before you accept that you are not the next Kelly Clarkson?

I’m not aiming for the grand prize. I would be happy to win fifth runner up. A literary Chris Daughtry or Adam Lambert. Not everyone knows their name. Not everyone knows their work. But some people in some parts of the world are listening. 

I think that would be enough.
____

Evyenia Downey is a writer and poet from Toronto, Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College Halifax and a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto. She writes about relationships, identity, and mental illness.

Thoughts On the Road Not Taken

September 21, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Sandra Hager Eliason

“Two roads diverged,” I thought, recalling Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken. He describes his decision to take the road less traveled by, and the difference it made. I see the poem as a metaphor for my life. 

Reading and writing consumed my high school years, and I was confident my poetry, short stories, and essays would be published someday. In college, ideas blossomed and flowed easily onto the paper, the sticky keys of my manual typewriter preventing my fingers from keeping up with my brain. 

Yet, as Frost says, “way leads on to way,” and writing left me when, through a circuitous route, the road led to medical school. I saw no future in writing when everyone else was getting MBAs. I trusted hard work and diligent efforts on the medical path to lead to success. I have often asked myself what would have happened had I taken the other road. 

In my medical practice, I was drawn to patient stories. I captured them in the chart, first in cursive on paper, later typed into the computer, striving to record more than “just the facts,” to make my patients real on paper. Instead of “Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man with dementia,” followed by exam and assessment, I wanted anyone reading the chart to know that Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man who lives alone, and his children are scattered across the world, unable to help him. I strove to make each patient more than the sore throat seen on March 15th, or the appendicitis that went to the hospital. It turned out I was still writing, although in a limited fashion, prescribed by the format of the medical chart.

As retirement approached, I anticipated the void of leaving these stories behind, and wondered who I would become without them. I enrolled in a writing class. Maybe I could return to where I started. Then I came upon a writing contest in a medical magazine, tidied up a piece I had written years ago, and sent it at the last minute. Lo and behold, I won. Maybe I could write creatively for a wider audience, break out of the stilted format that patient charts required, leaving myself and my reflections out, recording colorless facts. 

In a chart, you must back everything you say with data, facts not necessary in a story or essay. When you have practiced leaving out feelings or description (it doesn’t matter in the chart the look on their face, how their hair was styled, the way their blue shirt contrasted with the pale green walls), you become accustomed to writing that neither creates scene nor conjures emotion. Relearning to write creatively, to take the stories stored in my brain and convert them from medical writing to another form, was like trying to re-find the overgrown path. 

Who could teach me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be? I knew plenty of medical people, but found myself in a writerless wasteland. As I groped to decide where to spend my time (and money!), my husband rightly observed, “You couldn’t just hang up a shingle and be a doctor, you had to take classes and learn. This is the same.” 

Bless him! I had to approach this writer thing with the same single-minded determination I used to study medicine. Instead of learning about muscles and cells, I was learning about sentences and paragraphs. Instead of diseases, I was learning themes.

I chose classes, went to conferences, and found places to meet other writers, who generously included me in local writing associations and gave me access to online groups. They provided workshopping and beta readers, things I previously had no idea existed. Each was a tool I needed to hone my brain into a different instrument: no longer a scalpel to cut straight to the facts, rather a scanning electron microscope getting close to the surface of the theme, then penetrating it. 

The sentence is more complicated than a scalpel slice, more nuanced than a surgical knot. Its mastery requires a more subtle training, with no diploma to announce when I’d arrived. But I keep at it. Because it turns out that writing, like medicine, is a practice, one you show up to routinely, striving for continual improvement. 

I will need persistence and determination to keep showing up on the page and to keep submitting—hoping to increase my skill and to find readers, but also reveling in the joy of ideas and words. 

At the start, I tried to look down both roads as far as I could, but as way led onto way, the road took me to places I never expected, and I dealt with the life in front of me. As Frost says, “I kept the first for another day,” and here I am, back at the beginning.

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Sandra Eliason is a retired physician who is now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine Arts Edition writing contest in 2016 for her piece “The Vacation,” which began her transition to full-time writing. She has had essays published in Bluestem magazine, West Trade Review, the Brevity Blog, and upcoming in The Linden Review. Her work has been anthologized in the e-book Tales from Six Feet Apart, and in Pure Slush: Cow Volume 23. She is a book reviewer for Hippocampus Magazine and is currently querying publishers for her memoir Heal Me: Becoming a Doctor for all the Wrong Reasons (and Finding Myself Anyway). Eliason has had reviews published in the Brevity Blog and pending at Rain Taxi. To find her reviews of books that you won’t likely find on the New York Times best sellers list, but should, check out dreliasonwriter.com. Eliason resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, where she tends a garden in the summer and creates a lap for her cat to warm in the winter.

The Trouble With Reading

September 19, 2022 § 34 Comments

By Julie Holston

I love to read, as I assume most writers do. As a nonfiction writer, I know the value of studying memoirs and personal essays and reading outside my genre. I even belong to a book club where, instead of reading the same book for discussion, we show-and-tell the books we’ve each read or are currently reading. We exchange recommendations and sometimes even lend out a beloved book. Everyone goes home with additions to our Libby lists and GoodReads shelves. But whereas some of the group members—several of them fellow writers—read a book or more a week, my quota is closer to a book every two months. I keep books in almost every room at home, and I have titles waiting in my Audible and Kindle queues. I’m surrounded by books, so why don’t I spend more time reading? 

When I was a kid, I could lie on the couch in the living room, totally engrossed in Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague while my parents watched Monday Night Football or Columbo in the same room. These days, I need fewer distractions to concentrate. My wife works from home and the Zoom voices carry throughout our small condo, so I’ll stream white noise on my phone if I’m trying to read. But having the phone nearby offers the temptation of using it to look up an unfamiliar word, and once I put down the book and grab the phone, I’ll see a text or a news alert. Before long I’m scrolling, and then I decide to do the Wordle, the Mini Crossword, and the Spelling Bee. The hour I had allotted for reading results in twenty minutes with the actual book.

I’m also attached to the idea that I need to nurse a cozy cup of coffee when I read. The only place to set it down in the living room is the coffee table, so I have to put the book aside and lean forward every time I take a sip, disrupting my reading. If I turn sideways and stretch my legs out on the couch, then I can pull the coffee table close enough to reach. Now I’m pinned, and I’m hoping I haven’t left my phone in the kitchen. If the cat jumps up and snuggles in, I’m rendered even more immobile, so I may as well settle in and read, right? But it turns out, I need both hands to hold a paperback open. Even though my rapidly cooling coffee is now within arm’s reach, I’ll still have to pause my reading to take a sip, closing the book over my fingers to keep it from flipping dramatically out of my grasp in my attempt to hold it open single-handedly. 

As a young adult, I would stand in line at midnight to snatch the latest Harry Potter release in hardcover and devour it within a day or two. I never gave any thought to the effort required to hold up a pound or two of pages, whether I was splayed out on my back or curled up in a chair. Now, I need a lap or a table for a hardcover. They’re just too heavy for my middle-aged hands to support. Actually, I enjoy reading at a table, and I’ll do just that in a bookstore, where—bonus!—the table supports both the book and the coffee cup. But sitting at the dining room table feels weirdly formal at home, so I’d rather keep struggling with the couch. 

Reading in bed rarely works. If I lie down flat and hold the book on my chest, it’s not positioned in the correct quadrant of my progressive lenses to see the words. I need to tilt my head back uncomfortably against the pillow to find the sweet spot for my eyes. I have prescription reading glasses, but I keep them next to my laptop in the office, and I’m never inclined to go get them once I’ve gone to bed. Sitting up holds promise. I’ll prop up the pillows to support my lower back and settle in at just the right angle so I don’t slide down the mattress. That takes a few minutes, and once I’ve begun to read, my eyes get so tired I fall asleep almost immediately upon opening the book. 

I miss the girl who could plop down any place and read any book at any time. I still can’t imagine a more pleasurable way to spend a day than curled up on the couch reading. But it’s all so much trouble now. I may as well just write.

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Julie Holston is an emerging writer living in Minnesota with her wife and cat. A native of Arizona, she holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, and has backgrounds in theatre, music, humanities, and education. She is currently working on a memoir and an unconventional family history.

Writing Prompts for Getting Lost

September 15, 2022 § 2 Comments

In a Craft Essay featured in our in our newest issue, Jill McCabe Johnson traces the literary roots of lost and found narratives — reaching “at least as far back as the French poetic form, the Chanson d’Aventure, when medieval poets ‘lost’ themselves in the countryside until they encountered or ‘found’ something inspiring and transformative” — and offers useful prompts, based on the work of Roxane Gay, Victoria Chang, and Joanne Nelson.

Here is a sample prompt:

Prompt:

Draft a letter to someone from your past whose journey entailed loss. This could be to a loved one who journeyed from life to death, or a relative sentenced to prison, or a friend who left home. Ask about what they saw, heard, smelled, ate, or carried.

Read Jill’s full essay in the new issue for the full discussion and numerous additional prompts: Getting Lost—and Found—in Personal Narrative

On Keeping a Journal, and the Act of Forgetting

September 12, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Eunice Tiptree

“It’s important that you remember everything.” 

I heard the commandment as I bee-lined for the living room. The voice came from my head, yet seemed to speak from the air. I was eight- or nine-years old. 

I may have paused a second, but I did not wonder at the statement or ask myself why was so important to remember. I went on my way — the Flintstones were coming on.

The commandment only survived as a curiosity. It did not influence my course in life. Yet looking back through the tunnel of three-score years, I see I have striven to remember everything. By remember, I mean by writing in a daily journal begun the day I turned 21. 

I’ve kept that journal for 47 years, a means of talking to myself through time. As if the journal wasn’t enough, I later started outlining daily events in a datebook, useful as an index to the journal and as a quick overview of my journey through the months.

I pictured my inner self as some medieval scribe in a tower ringed by windows. The scribe follows the clock of the sun from window to window for the light to write, window to window through the arc of the day and the swing of the seasons. 

It’s all there, births and deaths, my career as a journalist, at first on a small-town newspaper, later developing a magazine on the space program. And it’s also there, hidden and sometimes glimpsed, submerging again and finally surfacing, decades of gender confusion that preceded my journey from male to female beginning in 2010. 

After completing my transition, I thought myself a natural to write a memoir of my experience. I went over every journal entry for the two years that culminated with surgery. From the bible of my journal, I made detailed notes about each small step, lifted extended quotes, charted events to the exact day. I filled three notebooks with artifacts, an undigested digest of my transition. And began to write . . .

And write. And write. 

I became trapped in what came next. Call it “Then-ism,” as in: and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened. A slow, turgid stream of “and then.” 

Surprise, the entire work fell apart. I found myself lost in a swamp of 140,000 words.

I’d ignored something I learned studying at the Kenyon Review Writing Workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore: Autobiography attempts to include most of a life; memoir attempts to exclude most of a life. And, the bigger the subject, the smaller the keyhole through which you want to enter it. 

A keyhole? I’d left the barn doors wide open, the silo stuffed with more mementoes than a hoarder.

I should have known better from my own experience long ago as a beginning newspaper reporter. In those days I lugged around a bulky cassette tape recorder at the ready for interviews. One time doing a feature, the tape failed. I didn’t discover it until afterwards. Forced to write the story from memory, I discovered the important points and quotes remained lodged in my mind. I didn’t need the tape. After that, I gained the confidence to trust myself — that the important stuff sticks.

Details form a seductive trap, especially when you have them all before you, in bright colors like a jar of jellybeans. Who can stop at one or even a handful?

I still have a hard time weaning myself off the sugar high. I’ll open the journals. But only to refresh my memory. I’ll go for a walk, away from temptation. As I stride along without the crutch of my journals, the bulk of details fall away, which opens space for the truly important scenes to surface. I see new relationships, connections, and hidden meanings. I see something come alive. All the while getting some good exercise.

Remember everything? Why listen to an eight-year-old? Forget everything. That’s the only way to begin to remember. Let your memory roam the seas, not get trapped against the rocks.

I’m nearing the completion of a new memoir, less than half the length of the old one and much stronger — at least a little voice tells me so.

___

Eunice Tiptree’s essays have been published in Brevity, Crack the Spine, Weave, Older Queer Voices and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published in The Kenyon Review and elsewhere.  She writes a blog about the space program at TLI-Tiptree.com.

Starting the Next Chapter

August 29, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Meg McGovern

In my sixty-one years of life, most have revolved around a school calendar. Unlike people in the business world whose fiscal year is January to December, a student-who-has-become-a-teacher’s new year begins at the end of August. 

When the school year culminates in June, teachers are exhausted and have a lengthy to-do list for summer vacation; clean the basement, organize pictures, shred old receipts and bank statements, get the carpets cleaned, tend to the gardens, schedule physical and dental appointments for all family members including the dog. The list goes on. For me, a buzz of new energy kicks in that first week of break, and I begin tackling my list. Summer gives me the luxury of swimming laps in the morning, having coffee with friends or playing pickle ball, spending time writing, and then getting to the list. By the second week of summer vacation, fatigue from the school year creates a fog so dense I can’t see straight. The list becomes less important. Instead, a book and a chaise lounge entice me to the porch. There’s always tomorrow, I tell myself. When my husband, Brian, gets home from work, he pops his head out the porch door and says happily, “My summer wife has landed.”

Brian and I spend July visiting our sons, other family members, and friends, or exploring a new destination. This year was no different, except for when the calendar went from July to August. I sat on my beach chair overlooking Lake Champlain, coffee in hand, and Gia—our yellow lab—at my feet. The early morning water was smooth like glass. The Vermont mountains, in various hues of greens and blues, rose above the lake. Sailboats looked like toys in the distance. With no work worries, I felt at ease and immersed myself into the quietness. August has always signaled the time to wrap up my to-do list until next summer and get my mind back to teaching. August, when the back-to-school commercials begin, the month of perpetual Sundays, has always given me a mix of excitement and agita. 

The excitement is for a fresh start. Teachers, unlike most professionals, begin each new year with a clean slate, a new roster of students, new supplies of paper, notebooks, sharp pencils, highlighters that work, glue sticks, and a sparkling, uncluttered classroom. I redo the bulletin board backgrounds, set up a writer’s workshop center with filled staplers, sharp pencils in a container for borrowing, and lined paper. On my desk are empty baskets for the piles that will soon build up, a new calendar, and a gradebook. The first few days of school are spent catching up with colleagues, getting to know students, remembering 115 new names, setting up rules and expectations, and creating a positive learning environment. The agita is for the knowing, the knowing that after the honeymoon weeks, the hard work begins, and it is all consuming for the next ten months. 

I officially retired from teaching Language Arts in the public schools on June 30th of this year. July 1st began a new journey which comes with mixed emotions. I will miss those beautiful moments when a student writes from their heart about his dog that died and cries the tears that needed to be shed, when a student tells me I am her trusted adult because I listen, when a parent thanks me for having faith in their child when no one else does. Other days when I can sit at my desk and write for five hours at a time working on my memoir, I know this was the right decision. Some question if I will be bored—a word I dislike by the way. When a parent would suggest their child was bored in school, I’d suggest reading a classic, writing a story from a different angle, going beyond what is being expected from the teacher. So, when people ask me if I will be bored, I say, “Heck no. There are not enough years left in my life to read every book and write every story and accomplish everything I still want to do.” 

When school starts on August 31st, I will head to Staples and buy myself a few composition notebooks and fine tip pens for my own writing. I will embrace this next chapter, open to its path, wherever it may lead.
__

Meg McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker. She is the author of We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg recently retired from teaching middle school Language Arts. She is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has written several essays for their blog. Meg earned an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut and is currently working on a memoir. She and her husband live in Trumbull, Connecticut with their yellow Labrador, Gia. Together they enjoy skiing and hiking with their two adult sons.

To Tell or Not to Tell: The Conundrum of the Nonfiction Writer

August 24, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Holly Hagman

TW/CW: Mention of sexual assault

While I was in the process of earning my MFA, constantly drafting but never sending out any pieces, a friend of mine announced their first acceptance to a literary journal. While celebrating over dinner and white wine, they told us the essay was about their mother’s alcoholism. I asked them if they had told their mother about the piece – its existence, acceptance, and pending publication. 

“Hell no,” they told me, “And I don’t plan to.”

The concept, to me, was foreign and bizarre. At least, that’s what I thought, until I wrote the piece I never expected to write. 

About halfway through my MFA after most of the writers in my close friend group had been published, I was spending my down time on Submittable, sifting through calls for creative nonfiction writing when a title labeled “Recipe for Healing” popped up in my feed. It was a call for submissions to a magazine that published true stories from survivors of sexual violence and assault. Suddenly, my fingers moved across the keyboard involuntarily. Before long, I had a completed draft in front of me that shared a story I hadn’t told anyone – not even myself – since the night it happened. 

I agonized about whether or not to send it out. I closed my eyes and clicked submit, then breathed a sigh of relief. I figured it was a rite of passage to get rejected before the idea of publication was even a remote possibility. Soon, I would be sure to receive a form email from Submittable telling me this work was not ready to be shared with the world.

“Thank you for sending us your piece,” the email read, and where I expected to see a “We regret to inform you…” instead was a “We are delighted to let you know…”

Flabbergasted. Astonished. Bewildered. Someone wanted work that I wrote? An editor read my writing next to a bunch of other talented writers selected me?I wanted to shout it from the rooftops or pass out business cards to random passersby on the street that read “Holly Hagman – Published Author.” When taking into account the fact that the editor could have slept poorly the night before or gotten into an argument with their spouse or spilled their morning coffee on their pants before reading submissions, it’s a miracle when anyone gets published.  

In my excitement, I responded that I would be happy to publish this piece, which was both true and false. I was happy that my work was being recognized, but I was terrified to share this work with anyone, especially my family. The “Hell no, and I don’t plan to” from the year before seemed more appropriate now than it did at the time. I no longer wanted to rush to Staples and invest in business cards. Instead, I wanted to wake up from this dream, check my email, and find it had all been a figment of my imagination. 

Leading up to the publication date, I thought of my options. I could email the publishers and pull the piece, which, let’s face it, was not a real possibility for my “hungry-for-a-publication” self at this time. I could reach out and change the name associated with the essay to a pen name, like the one I made up for the time I almost got a job as a ghostwriter. That didn’t seem fair either, though, because, after all, this was my story, and if anyone was going to share it, it seemed like it should be me. 

I decided to tell. Luckily, it went surprisingly better than I expected. Since then, my confidence has been bolstered such that I’ve published work about my strained relationship with my father, my mother’s physical disabilities, a toxic workplace, my period, and many other proverbial taboos. 

The desire to share our stories is innately human, as is the instinct for self-preservation. In the end, it can be nerve-wracking to make ourselves vulnerable, our skeletons in the closet exposed in black and white for all the world to see. The option to remain anonymous can only be determined right or wrong by the sharer of their story. 

There is something to be said, however, about the sense of community surrounding the subjects that seem impossible to write. I find that the stories that are hardest to share are often the ones that are most needed. 

*

Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in creative writing and an MAT in secondary education. She also earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University where she has been an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. She is a former nonfiction editor for Variant Literature and the current nonfiction editor for Porcupine Literary. She teaches high school English at a therapeutic school for students with emotional and psychiatric illness. She tweets @hollyhagman.

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