Yes, Virginia, There Is A Sh*tty First Draft

February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments

Sorry kid, we regret we’re unable to include your pony request in North Pole Review, please keep us in mind for future submissions

Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.

An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”

The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:

Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.

But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.

But it’s still hard to believe.

As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.

Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.

As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.

Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.

Write What You (Want To) Know

February 8, 2018 § 11 Comments

I think my mother knows more than she’s telling…

Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”

But should you?

One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.

As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?

By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.

Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.

For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.

Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:

In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.

That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.

Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Duck, Duck, Essay

January 25, 2018 § 5 Comments

For once autocorrect was right: it’s a duck pic.

When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.

None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.

I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.

Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.

The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?

The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.

The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?

Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.

It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?

Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.

The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

The Final Countdown

January 4, 2018 § 2 Comments

Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief loved radio stories as a child

Last call for submissions to the Brevity Podcast One-Minute Memoir episode! We’ve heard and read some fantastic submissions so far, and we’ve been blessed with a bounty of glorious writing, so the deadline is staying put at THIS SATURDAY, January 6th.

But our ears are still open–tell us about a single moment that summed up everything, or everything you can fit into 150 words, or a powerful fragment of a fraction. Make us laugh, make us cry, and make it happen by Saturday, midnight EST.

There’s still time.

Original call for submissions below.

_______________________________________

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.

Deadline for submission is January 6, 2018.
You may submit in one of two ways:
1) Text only. Submit a .doc. We will record accepted pieces in the Brevity studio.
2) Audio file. Submit an MP3 or WAV of your own recording PLUS a .doc with the text. Read our blog post about recording your own work for basic sound guidelines. We will master accepted pieces. Recordings should be a maximum of 60 seconds.
Please start your recording with your name and the title of your piece; this doesn’t count as part of the 60 seconds.
Brevity publishes well-known and emerging writers working in the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form. We have featured work from two Pulitzer prize finalists, many NEA fellows, Pushcart winners, Best American authors, and writers from India, Egypt, Ireland, Spain, Malaysia, Qatar, and Japan. We have also featured numerous previously-unpublished authors, and take a special joy in helping to launch a new literary career. Over the past year Brevity has averaged 10,000 unique visitors per month. The Brevity Podcast launched in 2016, and has featured interviews with Andre Dubus III, Dani Shapiro, Rick Moody, and other nonfiction notables.
Please use the Submittable button below to submit your work, choosing the category One-Minute Memoir.
We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

submit**

From Scraps to Stories

December 7, 2017 § 30 Comments

A guest post by Anne McGrath

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.

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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.

In You We Trust

November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments

Picture of Meryl Streep as a fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada

…maybe just stop talking.

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.”

Wait, what?

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?”

Um, no.

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.

Nope.

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.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her travel-adventure-writing newsletter can show up twice monthly in your inbox, if that’s not telling too much.

Call For Brevity Submissions: One-Minute Memoir

November 13, 2017 § 28 Comments

Rufus P. Turner, developer of the first transistor radio & a professor of literature–Brevity’s kind of guy

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.

Deadline for submission is January 6, 2018.

 

You may submit in one of two ways:

 

1) Text only. Submit a .doc. We will record accepted pieces in the Brevity studio.

 

2) Audio file. Submit an MP3 or WAV of your own recording PLUS a .doc with the text. Read our blog post about recording your own work for basic sound guidelines. We will master accepted pieces. Recordings should be a maximum of 60 seconds.

 

Please start your recording with your name and the title of your piece; this doesn’t count as part of the 60 seconds.

 

Brevity publishes well-known and emerging writers working in the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form. We have featured work from two Pulitzer prize finalists, many NEA fellows, Pushcart winners, Best American authors, and writers from India, Egypt, Ireland, Spain, Malaysia, Qatar, and Japan. We have also featured numerous previously-unpublished authors, and take a special joy in helping to launch a new literary career. Over the past year Brevity has averaged 10,000 unique visitors per month. The Brevity Podcast launched in 2016, and has featured interviews with Andre Dubus III, Dani Shapiro, Rick Moody, and other nonfiction notables.

 

Please use the Submittable button below to submit your work, choosing the category One-Minute Memoir.

 

We can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

 

submit**

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