December 7, 2017 § 30 Comments
Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.
Not any more.
For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.
Here’s how it works:
At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”
Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:
- hawk died
- what if I never had kids
- the art of napping
- no longer know people in People mag
- when dad’s work bench turned messy
- birds – make them come to you
- wearing uniforms
- computer passwords
- phantom pony tail
It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.
This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.
But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.
Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.
November 28, 2017 § 9 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
November 13, 2017 § 16 Comments
We’re trying something new.
The Brevity Podcast is seeking submissions for our One-Minute Memoir episode. We’re looking for ultra-flash nonfiction of 100-150 words (on paper) and up to one minute (recording time). Accepted pieces will be broadcast in our February episode and receive a $25 honorarium.
November 9, 2017 § 44 Comments
This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?
This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.
This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.
This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.
This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.
This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.
This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.
This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.
This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.
This is the blog post I half-assed through before deadline and I can always put it in Drafts and write something better, at some other time, when my mood and surroundings will be perfect.
This is the free-form piece I begrudgingly typed because even poorly chosen words I will later delete count and I can tick it off in my Productive app and the app will make a pleasing sound like Pavlov’s Writer.
This is the morning I should feel lucky and privileged to get to write while lots of other people go to real jobs and do real things like grown-ups.
Goddamn that TV is loud.
This is the blog post I’m forcing myself to write while children play ball and shriek in Spanish in the schoolyard my Airbnb backs up to.
This is what I am writing instead of the grant proposal I promised to write, instead of the novel I should be working on, instead of the memoir proposal I should also be working on, instead of just freeing myself to write anything in my notebook and open many doors and explore details more thoroughly like my respected teacher told me to.
This is me writing instead of nudging the teacher for feedback on the manuscript I sent even though I warned him it was really bad.
This is the writing I do through self-doubt and worry and too many things on my list. This is the writing I do instead of knocking on the wall and telling the neighbor to please, please turn it down even just a little. This is the writing I do before I go buy a sticky pad and leave a passive-aggressive post-it on their door. This is the writing I do because yes, I’m lucky and yes, it’s not coal-mining and yes, lots of people think they want this life of staying in a cool fun neighborhood in London all by myself with nowhere I have to be on time, because the price of having the life you want is living the life you have.
This is the blog post that says you are not alone in your bad mood and imperfect surroundings and terrible ideas. That I am not alone in sadness and jet lag and irritation and the antsy pull to get out of the chair and do something, anything else. To get out of my life and do something else, except there is nothing else I want to do as much as I want to write and not writing is worse than writing (not by much).
This is checking my tool box and wondering where the secret tool that makes it easy is. This is suspecting everyone else has the secret tool and they’re all only pretending it’s hard so I don’t feel bad.
This is ridiculous envy.
This is the typing before the writing starts, the typing or scribbling or concentrated thinking without an electronic device, the commitment to sit down and write, whether or not it sucks. This is moving the fingers or the pen on an empty tank and hoping the act of moving will make it full. This is watching the word count tick up past the imposter mark.
This is facing the empty page today and knowing it will be there again tomorrow.
This is saying, come get me empty pages. I’m not ready but I’m here anyway.
This is writing anyway.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Of course the neighbors turned the TV off when she finished. Like, on literally the very last goddamn word.
November 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
Not long ago I was working on a piece I was pretty sure was about the woman who founded forensic science. My editor, however, pointed out it was also about the struggles of women past a certain age, who are pegged only as grandmothers, lacking usefulness. Her comment made me realize: I usually write about the experiences of women whom society sees as past their prime. This shouldn’t have been a revelation: I write a monthly magazine column about intergenerational dialogue and have a degree in women’s history. Yet the new awareness of my specific focus has already helped me prioritize projects and pitch pieces to new outlets.
While much has been said about how writers must ‘build platform,’ in the sense of becoming a marketable expert on their book’s subject, this thematic focus seems more like a beat—that is, developing authority while writing on a number of related topics. So how do you create your beat? How can you nurture it?
Bustle writer Tabitha Blankenbiller says her beat
is fashion and style, which like any good subjects, parlay into a myriad of other themes: pop culture, body image, class issues, aging, feminism…[but] I find that when I put out fashion-related writing, it tends to be some of the better-received work. It feels like it ‘has legs.’
When she founded Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Athena Dixon embraced her editorial beat to “further diversify our current writing community by calling attention to the glaring diversity issues and offering at least one safe space for writers to submit and be read.”
Maisha Johnson has worked as a domestic violence survivors’ advocate and holds an MFA in poetry. She writes primarily about abuse and healing, race and racism, and intersectional feminism, as well as everyday ways we come across these topics, like pop culture, creativity, and identity. Articulating these intersections helps her deepen the lens and purpose of her work, and define who she is as a writer.
A writer’s beat ties into their social media presence, but isn’t just a marketing construct. Maisha says it can be equally important to unplug.
Because I work around issues like racism, trauma, and abuse, I know being constantly plugged in is going to take a toll. But also [I can’t be] totally absent from trending conversations. So I’ll use a social media tool like Hootsuite, and schedule articles I see trending from other writers. I’ll also add older [or evergreen] articles of my own that relate to the current topic. I don’t have to be on the cutting edge of every conversation in order to maintain a digital presence.
Your beat also needn’t be constantly “on.” Tabitha, whose book Eats of Eden comes out March 2018, says her beat requires
less hoop-jumping and more mountain-scaling. I am a slower writer than many freelancers I’ve known, who are churning out essays and stories along with news cycles… I can’t keep up with that pace, so when I’m writing standalones, I have the luxury of bowing to what’s really screaming at me. It may not be the hottest trending topic, but every so often you have good timing and what you’ve been obsessed about is in sync with the rest of the world.
Relevance can be serendipitous, Tabitha says.
Sometimes the fire comes totally from left field…[for example], a little essay I wrote for a now-defunct food site about my tendency to steal things like condiments, pint glasses, and steak knives from restaurants stirred up this big viral trollstorm.
For Athena, managing a beat is all about making choices: “I made a conscious decision to include all black women on my editorial board and to champion voices I believe may not be given a fair and equal chance to be published.”
How do you decide what to focus on? Maybe you already see a common thread in your work. You might make decisions based on pragmatic goals for publication in particular venues, or by paying close attention to what makes your writing flow and what works best for you and your work specifically. I jump at any opportunity even remotely related to aging, because juggling multiple projects keeps me on deadline. Maisha keeps a list of potential articles, prioritized by what she’s most passionate about.
Tabitha says, “Don’t discount what you love. Passion and joy are your greatest allies, no matter what sparks them within you.”
“Don’t be afraid to begin with what you know best, no matter how unique or particular,” Maisha says. “If you’re the only person who can write the story, that story might really need to be told.”
Athena Dixon agrees. “Be confident in what you know and share it widely. You have no idea what kinds of opportunities you may be unlocking.”
Hillary Moses Mohaupt serves as Social Media Editor for Hippocampus. She holds an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon, and her work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and Distillations. In her fiction and essays she frequently writes about the presence of the past, intergenerational relationships, and lying. Follow her on Twitter @_greyseasky_.
October 24, 2017 § 8 Comments
(In which Katniss, Shrek and Scarlett O’Hara teach us about using larger social issues in memoir.)
Writer Stephanie Andersen and I were emailing about structure in memoir. We’d looked at the idea of ‘stasis’—that almost all books begin with an intolerable existing situation, something the protagonist must fight against and change.
Is the intolerable situation the larger situation for the world, or should it be an intolerable situation for the protagonist?
For instance, is Shrek’s stasis the fact that fairy tale creatures are being bought and sold and mistreated? Or is his intolerable situation when the fairy tale creatures are dropped off in his swamp? Is Scarlett O’Hara’s intolerable situation the fact that Ashley Wilkes is marrying Melanie Hamilton, or is it the Civil War?
We already know the answer, right?
It’s when it gets personal. When the bad world-situation personally affects the protagonist, giving them a strong motivation to act.
In a weird way, Scarlett survives the Civil War because she can’t let go of her hope to get with Ashley. Every decision she makes is based on the answer to “Will this get me closer to Ashley?” Many of the events of Gone With the Wind* happen in Atlanta because it’s a place where the war was especially bad, but the events are happening to and around Scarlett because she moved there to be closer (by proxy) to Ashley.
Scarlett’s intolerable situation isn’t “There’s a big war changing my life.” It’s “The one man I really want doesn’t want me.” Ashley’s wife Melanie, the war, and Scarlett’s own stubbornness are all obstacles of about equal weight—i.e., escaping the burning of Atlanta stops her from getting to Ashley, but so does Melanie being super nice and sweet in a way that keeps unintentionally thwarting Scarlett.
The war triggers the plot, because that’s when and why Ashley chooses Melanie, but it’s not what Scarlett is fighting against.
Is the intolerable situation in All the Light We Cannot See the war itself, the savagery of the world? Or is the intolerable situation Werner’s? That he cannot bear the thought of ending up in the coal mines? That he doesn’t want to die in darkness? You see where I’m going?
I haven’t read All The Light We Cannot See, but as an editor, I’d go with the personal. Let’s take a big literary sidestep to The Hunger Games. “This is a world that kills children on TV” is a horrible stasis for the country. But what makes the book Katniss’ story—what interrupts the stasis—is “This is a world that picks my sister to be killed on TV.” If anyone else’s name came out of the bowl, Katniss would feel bad and the story would be over at the end of Chapter One.
If your memoir or essay deals with a larger issue—recovery, a tragic accident, poverty —look for the key moment where the badness of the world intersects directly with the protagonist’s life. Watch for the big-picture place where the hero’s personal breaking point leads them to take an action toward a personal goal that also leads to changing the intolerable larger-world situation around them. In memoir, this is often a change in the protagonist’s relationship to the world, rather than changing the world itself. For example, an alcoholic’s recovery narrative isn’t going to end in a world without alcohol—but the protagonist has changed their own relationship to the world, so their worldview now shows other options/other modes of living. They have changed the world as they see it, and they’ve broken the stasis that gave them an intolerable situation at the beginning of the book.
Stephanie got specific (and gave me her permission to write this post):
I’m thinking about my memoir about my mother’s rape and wanting to know if I should frame the story about discovering my mother’s rape within the context of a world where women are often silent about their rapes or within the confines of my own world–where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.
Gentle Blog Reader, can you hear it? Stephanie already knows the answer. It’s right there in the question.
My memoir…where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.
And the larger context is there, of course—we can’t have the Hunger Games without the Games—but her memoir is about the intersection where her life is directly affected by the way rape silence exists in the larger world. The bad stasis is not that all women are silent—it’s that she discovered silence in her mother. It’s personal.
If you’re writing memoir against the background of a larger issue, definitely set up that larger situational stasis. It’s world-building—another useful concept from fiction—but for nonfiction. But your story isn’t the story of the world. It’s the story of how that situation personally made your life intolerable, and how you fought for change.
If you’re wondering how to find that intersection, read your query, or your pitch, or a paragraph summarizing your idea. What’s the stasis of the world? How does that directly affect the narrator? Chances are good the answer is right there on the page. Inside the big picture is the key moment where the issue intersects your life and starts your journey. It may take some time and thought, but listen to yourself.
You already know.
*(BTW blog readers, GWTW makes a good example but is (as you also already know) hugely problematic. There’s a great essay at Slate about how modern cinemas are handling the legendary-movie-vs-huge-racism issue).
October 19, 2017 § 11 Comments
When I teach a workshop, I like to audiotape it. Partly so I can send the recording to the class, which takes some of the stress off taking notes and lets everyone participate a little bit more. But also because ItalkamillionmilesanhourifIdon’tstopmyself.
The same thing applies to readings–when I head up for the podium, I leave my phone voice recorder running at my seat. After, I can listen–did I pause in the right places? Was there audience laughter I didn’t make room for? Often, just glancing back at my chair, seeing the phone there, reminds me slow down. Take a breath.
It’s valuable to listen to our own voices. Find out how long that piece really is with audience reactions in it. See if we really sound like a dork (spoiler: usually no). If the recorder is in the audience, it often picks up the kind of supportive murmurs and agreement breaths listeners make when we’re enjoying a story. Those noises aren’t always easy to hear in the moment, when we’re stressed about getting through a piece. And it’s always awesome to re-listen to applause.
As well as being a great tool to improve our own reading, there are places to submit audio stories. The Drum is a fantastic audio literary magazine, and Story Club specializes in nonfiction performance, with the author setting the text after a live show. The Brevity Podcast will be calling for One-Minute Memoirs next week. For all of these, you don’t have to be an audio whiz, but a few simple tricks will help you sound your best.
Check your phone. Phones usually record better than computers if you’re not using a separate microphone, and you probably have a native Voice Memos or Voice Recorder app. On most phones from the last three years, the built-in mic is good enough to get decent live-audience audio, and decent-to-good private taping. Look up where the mic is physically located on your phone, and point that end toward the reader. Try a couple of test recordings to see how close you want to hold it to your face–usually 4-6 inches away is good.
Check your app. On my iPhone, the Voice Memos app keeps going even when the screen locks or if I open another app. But when I’m doing more sophisticated recording with a plug-in microphone and an app called Motiv, the recording stops if the screen goes dark. I found that out the hard, embarrassing, can-I-please-interview-you-again way. Now I turn screen lock to “never” and put the phone in airplane mode. Some phones also stop recording if someone calls or texts. Find out for sure–or just put it in airplane every time.
Pad your space. Recordings are better with less echo. In a public reading, this is out of our control. Setting the phone on a wooden or plastic surface is better than a metal folding chair (they give a slight echo), but it’s not going to make a huge difference for personal recordings. If you’re taping for submission–like, say, the upcoming Brevity call for One-Minute Memoir–test the first paragraph in a couple of spaces to see what sounds best. Rooms with carpet, lower ceilings, and soft furniture work best. Walk-in closets are great. In a pinch, I record in my car (parked and turned off, until it gets so hot I have to take a break) or with a blanket or towel over my head. (Table fort, anyone?)
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I always bobble on a few words the first time I read an essay aloud. Plus, speaking into the recorder affects my pace. I try to tape a reading at least three times. Even if I can’t edit, I can at least pick the best take.
Whether you post or submit your work, or just listen for your own edification, taping is a great way to see how you sound. Often, extra lines or awkward phrases jump right out from the audio, or we instinctively smooth out a sentence as we speak it. Why not give it a test run? We’re hoping to hear from you soon, and we’ll tell you how and what next week!