June 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?
And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?
That they’ll reach anyone?
…Well there was that one time I—
Yeah, that was a fluke.
Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.
I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.
Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.
And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.
That I wasn’t enough.
“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”
I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.
[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.
Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—
“All the time,” Melanie said.
Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:
“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published—”
“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine—”
“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers—”
“Land that dream agent—”
How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.
If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.
We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.
Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.
June 5, 2018 § 7 Comments
“What does it mean when your body cannot be one simple thing?” Gabrielle Bellot asks, in her essay “Volcano Dreams,” published recently in Unruly Bodies (a web anthology curated by Roxane Gay).
“Volcano Dreams” opens with an anecdote about a sexual encounter in which the author is pursued by an old acquaintance. Though the acquaintance is clearly flirting, the author questions his seriousness, explaining that her identity as a trans woman often renders her sexually invisible.
I was disinterested and yet vaguely, stupidly desired his desire, as if that would validate something of my womanhood—no but yes, an in-between uncertainty, like the grey smoky nightmares of a slumbering volcano.
This connection between yearning body and volcano, is an image that drives the rest of the essay. In fact, once the encounter ends with the acquaintance’s abrupt rejection of the author’s body—only halfway through the essay—Bellot sets aside the tools of scene and story. The rest of the essay is grounded solely in image and metaphor, in volcano and sea. She develops and balances these images:
My body, I sometimes think, like many bodies, is like Dominica’s. Waitukubuli, the Caribs declared our island before the colonists came, a mountainous world named corporeally: Tall is her body. An unruly island, rainforest one moment, melancholy ramshackle zinc roofs rattling under the metallic drums of rain the next… beaches of nothing but gray stones a hurricane hurled with its roiling rolling arms like a furious crazed cricket bowler, a rough Atlantic beyond the fins of sharks or whales where fishermen in bright-painted dinghies occasionally venture under the spells of their insomniac mermaid dreams and never return. Dominica’s body changes grandly, wider in potential than a Sargasso Sea, yet she is also one defined and whole.
When I left this essay, I found myself haunted by these landscapes, as if I had dreamt them, and as if that dream had lodged itself somewhere between my conscious and subconscious.
I can’t quite explain the meaning of these images because, as Bellot says about the body, they “cannot be one simple thing.” I can tell you that the volcano conjures both anger and desire, that the sea evokes both fluidity and grief. But I can also tell you that these landscapes hold more than that.
Bellot told me these images came to her in a conversation with a friend:
We began talking about volcanoes, and then the conversation shifted, but when I went home, I began to think again of volcanoes as a metaphor for the body, and, in particular, the special, uncomfortable uncertainty and false sense of security a sleeping volcano can present. A body can seem calm and quiet, yet be roiling on the inside, ready to burst. Volcanoes destroy and rebuild. I realised that my experience of the body was connected to that sort of unstable, unpredictable imagery. (I also grew up in sight of one of Dominica’s many dormant volcanoes, and the apocalyptic tales of Mount Pelee’s eruption in nearby Martinique at the start of the twentieth century was one I thought of often as a young adult.) I’ve also long been drawn to the ocean and to the colour blue. Both have long histories for me. A family member was swept by a riptide into the ocean and drowned before I was born, a story my mother repeated to me many times when we drove past a certain white estuary that had become known for its fatal pull. And ‘the sea is history,’ as Derek Walcott put it, a place as much of life as uncountable deaths from the horrors of the transatlantic trade. So the ocean was inevitable as an image for the body as a site of contradiction and open-ended possibility.
Somehow, all of the associations that Bellot describes here reached me as a reader. In one short essay, I absorbed pieces of histories and landscapes, and connected those pieces to the author’s experience of body, of moving between conflict and fluidity.
What makes these images work? It’s not their simplicity but rather their expansiveness. Bellot does not offer simple correlations, such as heart = love or bird = freedom. At the same time, the images aren’t arbitrary or random. As Bellot makes clear in her commentary, they are carefully, lovingly chosen and rendered, and interact with the essay’s topic in meaningful ways. Like the body, these landscapes contain multitudes.
The lesson I glean from Bellot’s work is to fully commit to the images that choose me. If an image truly belongs in a work, then it deserves some oxygen. When given room to grow, the right set of images can do more than enhance a piece; they can drive it.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
May 29, 2018 § 12 Comments
You open your email, and O frabjous day! A publisher has come calling! They’ve seen your work in a literary magazine and wonder if you have a chapbook, or would like to be in their anthology. Or you didn’t win a contest, but your work “shows merit” and “deserves to be published.” Maybe you wanted a faster process than querying agents, or figured your work better suited a small press, so you cast out to a few publishers, and one has bitten.
You read a little further. This publishing house “considers work for both traditional and hybrid publishing.” If your book is seen as better suited to a hybrid deal—perhaps due to “the difficulty in placing the books of new or untried authors, as well as the general increased competition in publishing today”—the publisher feels “that it may be necessary to ask for a contribution from you.”
Maybe it’s even right up front: We’re a hybrid press. Our package costs $XXXX, and you can add on additional services at $XXX, $XXXX or $XXXXX.
The email is reassuring. Someone has recognized the quality of your work. After all the hype about “platform,” someone wants your book based on your writing. You don’t have to hit 10,000 followers or make mailing-list spreadsheets. It’s a relief.
But most of the time, it’s not true.
Not (technically) a scam or a fraud. But a well-designed system to separate hopeful authors from hard-earned dollars, waste their time and leave them with unsold, often un-edited and poorly-designed books.
Remember the old saw about things that seem too good to be true? That maxim goes hand-in-hand with another cliche: You can’t cheat an honest man. You can only sell a five-dollar diamond ring to someone who thinks he’s ripping you off.
Writers who seek hybrid publishing “deals” aren’t grifters. But they are to some extent sidestepping the work of getting published. Submitting and pitching to small magazines, medium journals and mass media. Blogging/newsletter-ing to build their core audience. Going to readings and events, collecting names and emails. Being a literary citizen. We’re all looking for a lucky break, and lightning may well strike, but it usually strikes while we’re in the middle of the process. The process that sets us up to be able to sell books once we do get that publishing deal.
Most authors who pay to publish end up doing the real work anyway. Pounding the pavement to get their book in a few stores. Emailing the target audience (key demographic: “everyone I know who has ever read a book”). They’ll do that work with a larger cash investment than traditional publishing and far less potential monetary reward than self-publishing. Their copyright may end up in the publisher’s hands—the publisher who may also now own all their subsidiary rights.
Remember that part about “the process that sets us up to be able to sell books”? Memoir, creative nonfiction and self-help are hard to sell without “platform.” Basically, the number of people who will buy your book or spread the word about it. Platform can be:
- social media followers (10,000+ real followers who engage with your posts)
- a speaking career (at major events where books can be sold)
- group membership (i.e., a nationwide service club or large religious organization; a class of people like “patients suffering this disorder”)
- writing articles or essays about the book’s subject matter, and publishing them in medium-to-major mass media or significant literary journals
- a public career like radio show host or TV presenter
Without platform, a traditional publisher doesn’t want to buy the book because they can’t sell the book. It’s also hard to self-publish without enough people to sell the book to. Unfortunately, so many books come out each year that, without a built-in audience, it’s rare for readers to discover and purchase any single book. Novelists still market hard, but for some there’s an existing base of blogs, reviewers, and genre fans to help the book get momentum and word-of-mouth. Nonfiction books by non-famous people are usually not newsworthy, so the writer needs an existing audience who will spread the word and buy the book themselves.
One of the things you can do to start momentum for your work is to revise sections of the book as possible magazine or newspaper articles, and seek publication in mass media. You can also turn chapters into self-contained essays to submit to journals. Whether you end up with a traditional publisher or a self-supported plan, getting your work out there will help future sales, and help you gauge your audience. Memoirists who publish a “hot essay” (the legendary venue is Modern Love, but there are plenty more places) often get offers from traditional publishers, or have agents seek them out.
Legitimate publishers have writers beating down their doors. Unless a writer recently did something very newsworthy, made a big splash with an essay, or regularly speaks at large events, publishers don’t come to us. We go to them. Self-publishing is totally legit, but you can coordinate it yourself, and publish with Createspace, Lulu, Smashwords and/or Ingram. That’s more work, but usually costs less, and you make all the money and keep all the rights.
Sometimes a true hybrid publishing deal can be the right choice for some authors. On Thursday, we’ll talk about what a good hybrid deal looks like, why you might want one, and questions to ask the publisher.
May 15, 2018 § 49 Comments
I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.
I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.
An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.
I flipped through.
The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.
In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.
I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.
He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”
I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”
It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.
I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.
I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.
I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”
Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.
I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.
My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.
But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.
Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.
May 1, 2018 § 14 Comments
“When will you write something about me?”
“Mom, you know I only write about dead people.”
End of conversation.
But the truth was, I’d already started more drafts about Mom than I could count.
As she began to have health problems, needed surgery, and finally had to move from her home of nearly forty years, those drafts got longer and became more numerous.
In October of 2013, Mom died. I continued to write. I revised, blended, made maps of the structure of some of the older essays, tore up the maps, wrote a series of paragraphs based on images. Nothing worked.
Eventually, it all went into my “dormant” file.
This is as good a time as any to disclose that I have a bursting file drawer devoted to typed and hand-written drafts, which I have tried in vain to organize. Recently, in an attempt not to waste paper, I’ve made a conscious effort to do less printing. I now have an unknown number of drafts in various locations on my computer and on a flash drive, which appears to be incompatible with my new laptop. Some, I think, are also in The Cloud, but I’m not sure how that happened, nor do I know how to access them.
In February of 2017, I took an online class with Penny Guisinger, “Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction.” Without referring to any of my previous drafts, I wrote a short essay about my relationship with my mom. At Penny’s suggestion, I worked on the ending. After a few more people read it, I made final revisions, and sent it to Full Grown People, where Jennifer Niesslein accepted it.
At least eight years in the making, a plethora of drafts, and a final word count somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 words—a flash essay, by most definitions.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with the fun-sounding GAD. It’s true that, if you add an “l” you have “glad.” But it’s short for “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I began to write about anxiety and ended up with an unruly draft that included my great-grandmother, German cursing, and a metaphor about my washing machine. After many attempts it, too, found its way to the “dormant” drawer.
In 2013, I attended a Summer Writing Workshop at Kenyon College, where I took a creative nonfiction class with Dinty W. Moore. I arrived a day late, courtesy of GAD. When Dinty gave us the assignment for the next day: write directions or instructions for how to do something, I went back to my room in a panic. My self-talk went something like this: You don’t know how to do anything. There’s no time to research. Other people can write a decent draft in one day. You cannot, because you are not a writer. You should go home now.
I told myself to be quiet and stared at my overflowing suitcase. I wrote a draft, in list form, about what it’s like to pack for a trip when you have anxiety. I read it in class the next day, got some positive feedback, and continued tweaking it when I got home. Writer friends reviewed it, I submitted it, it got rejected. I was working full-time, so I let it, too, go dormant.
After I retired, I looked at the draft again and did some more revisions. This time, it seemed like a good fit for The Manifest-Station. Editor Angela M. Giles, agreed, and she published it. This version, which does not include either my great-grandmother or large appliances, was published some six years after its conception. It, too, had gotten shorter over time: from 1,900 to 800 words.
I had been writing drafts about my dad and his love of cardinals since soon after his death in 1995. I submitted a few, and they got rejected. I dragged one version to a writing class at Chautauqua Institution in 2008, where I got some great feedback during a one-on-one meeting with Liz Rosenberg but I still couldn’t get it right.
In the summer of 2016, I was reading River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and I thought again of my dad and cardinals. I started fresh, with the 250-word limit in mind, and this time it worked.
Math gives me a headache, which is just as well. Any calculations involving how many publishable words I can produce in a specified amount of time would no doubt make me despair.
A writer friend commented that the word “dormant” sounded too passive. That made sense, so I looked up synonyms at Merriam-Webster.com, thinking that renaming my draft drawer might speed up my writing process. I found one I liked, but it has little to do with speed.
Latent: a power or quality that has not yet come forth but may emerge and develop.
The possibilities appeal to me. And regardless of the name I choose for my drawer of drafts, there is this:
I am writing.
I am writing.
Melissa Ballard apologizes if any readers are offended by the suggestive titles of her guest posts for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog: Finishing, Stripper Girl, and Slow Flash. Or, having read the posts, disappointed she does not deliver on her promises.
April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments
One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.
[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]
This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.
In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:
J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.
This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.
The revelation arrives in section eight:
I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.
J. fuit hic.
I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.
If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.
This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.
I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:
Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.
I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.
Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.
April 24, 2018 § 20 Comments
Music is great for writing. Pop those headphones in, start up your two-hour Epic Music track or your carefully curated, book-specific playlist, get in your headspace and go go go.
Music is not great for reading. When I edit a manuscript with song lyrics used as epigraphs, or quoted from one character to another, or someone singing along, I have standard cut-and-paste language:
Consider whether these lines are necessary: using song lyrics falls under a specific copyright area that is not subject to fair use, and obtaining permission is tedious and can be difficult and expensive.
The short answer to “What about using some song lyrics in my memoir?” is “You can’t.” To elaborate, songs written after 1923-ish (depending on when you read this blog post) are almost certainly under copyright. The singer or band associated with the song may or may not be the writer(s). Once you google to find the writing credits, you’ll need to track down the publisher through ASCAP or BMI. The publisher does not want to talk to you until you have a publication contract, or specific, written publication plans including where you’ll be selling the book, the cover price, and how many copies you’re printing. Then the publisher bills you.
It can get expensive, Blake Morrison tells the Guardian:
I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75.
But what about “fair use”?
Fair use is the legal principle allowing us to quote lines or paragraphs from books under copyright. Quotations are fair use if the number of words used is a very small proportion of the total words in the original work; if the quote is properly attributed; and if it’s essential to the point you’re making in your own work. Song lyrics have not yet been held to a “fair use” standard. Arguably, even a line of a song is a fairly large proportion compared to say, 200 words from a 90,000-word novel. But poetry can be fairly used and often is. What makes songs different?
Publishers with deep pockets, excellent legal teams, and a strong precedent of defending their copyrights.
Beyond legal battles, it’s worth it to consider what impact the quoted lyrics will really have in your book. Does your reader associate “Janie’s Got A Gun” with that beautiful night you sat in a convertible, watching the ocean roll in below the hills? Or does she remember her school’s anti-violence initiative that used the literal message of the song? Will readers from another generation even know the song you’re quoting? Will they think of it as “Mom’s music” instead of “pulse-pounding jam”? Writers can’t control how readers react, so we might as well use words we can craft ourselves.
In the Brevity Podcast Episode 8, Geeta Kothari and I discussed using quotes within essays and stories. In her experience as an editor for Kenyon Review, lyrics often pull the reader out of the story on the page and into their own associations with the song. JoBeth McDaniel, from the Rush editorial board, mentions in the same episode that even quoting other non-song writing raises legal issues that editors just don’t want to deal with.
Sure, it’s a great feeling when a single lyric conjures up a world of emotion in our heart. But it’s both uncertain and a bit lazy to expect that line to do the same for every reader. Instead, ask yourself what emotional purpose that song serves, and put that feeling in the setting, in the narrative, in the dialogue. Or obliquely quote in a way that makes knowledge of the original song unnecessary:
He banged his head to Sweet Child O’ Mine and I wished hard I could like Guns N Roses. (Titles are OK!)
On the radio, Springsteen was on fire, singing his creepy lyrics about Daddy not being home.
We rolled down the windows and cranked up the stereo–GooGooDolls, The Cure, KLM, all the music everyone was listening to, the bass throbbing in my chest and making me feel like I was part of everyone.
You’ve got something important to say. Don’t lean on a song to say it for you. Use your words. Use your images. Use your experiences. Trust in your power to create your own music in the reader’s head.