Social Media Summer Cleaning

June 20, 2017 § 14 Comments

I did another self-funded mini-Amtrak residency last week. One of the best parts of the train is inconsistent/slow wifi and poor cell reception. I spend a lot of time looking out the window and thinking thinky thoughts. Another best part is shared tables–Amtrak seats strangers together until a dining car table is full. And usually, that’s pretty awesome.

Last week, the man beside me began dinner conversation by passing out scraps of paper with his name and “bn.com” so we’d know where to download his books. Give the man credit–he was of an age that paper media was probably a more comfortable way to connect than whipping out a smartphone and asking for our Twitter handles. Unfortunately, he also brought up a strong political position over the salad course, at which the lady across the table joined me in a chorus of, “Oh, we never talk politics with strangers!”

Maybe because the day before I’d heard a strong political position from my beloved hairdresser that made me rethink whether the terrific face-framing layers were worth it, or because that morning I’d gotten into a tussle with a stranger on Facebook, it hit me pretty hard to hear another diatribe in a place I thought was safe.

As writers, we’re “supposed” to “build platform.” Get to know people in our field, online and off. We tend to accept most friend requests, join most groups that seem vaguely simpatico, check what’s happening online like it’s a duty instead of a way to duck writing a tricky sentence (guilty!). Until November 2016, this all-access plan was mostly good. Since then, I’ve found a lot of my social media time feels like running through a paintball game.

Click–Bam! Racism!

Click–Pow! Horrible event I care about! Where’s my senator’s number?

Click–Zap! Surprise bigot in the comments!

Maybe you’re feeling some of this, too. And as the Social Media Editor around here, I want to give you permission (nay, encouragement!) for a good summer clean-out. Look through your Facebook friends–anyone you truly don’t remember? You don’t have to unfriend them, just unfollow. (For a more gradual process, check the birthday notifications. Anyone you don’t care enough to wish a happy day to can probably be unfollowed.) If nastiness pops up on a friend’s feed, block the source and you won’t see them any more. Every time you see something awful on Twitter (that isn’t a citizen’s duty to be aware of) mute that account.

What kind of social connections do you want to be making? What idea exchanges do you want to have? Instead of waiting for the sore spots to get poked, take ownership. Pick one day a week or one time a day to participate. Decide what topics you care enough to engage on and let everything else go–even if you have the BEST FACT EVER to refute with. Start a newsletter (Tiny Letter is pretty easy) so that it’s you reaching out when you choose, and people who email you back are likely into what you have to say. Remember social media as a place to have fun, and share silly memes, make jokes, and express your personal voice about your garden, your dog, or your writing process.

When I got into the train dining car the next morning, I saw the male author headed my way, and I whispered into the hostess’ ear that I’d rather not sit with him, please. She put me at a table with a couple. I asked them where they were from. “Seattle!” chirped the woman. We talked about Broadway musicals and mime and their children and my husband, and I didn’t once bring up my book.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Shhhhhhhh…

Getting In: Writing the Perfect Residency Application

June 13, 2017 § 4 Comments

They all rocked their Artist Statement

It’s residency application season!

Well, it’s always application season. Spring applications for fall residencies, fall for spring, summer whenever, and that really prestigious place we apply to a year in advance and just figure we’ll cancel everything else in our lives if we get in. The joy of looking at our calendars and trying to figure out whether we can legit send the kids to camp and get someone to watch the dog six months from now! Nothing says fun like summarizing one’s job history, publications and self-worth in a one-page statement, CV, and work sample!

Glendaliz Camacho understands, though–from the Other Side of the Desk, she describes jurying applications and the delicate balance of Writer-Needs-This-Time-to-Succeed vs Writer’s-Already-Good-Enough-to-Be-Here:

-All I look for from a resume or CV is continual involvement, effort, and learning. Not publication in The New Yorker.

-That’s not totally true. Maybe that’s all I look for but I do notice if there are honors and publications I recognize. Too many of them and it does give me the feeling that this person is swimming along just fine and will do so with or without this residency. Too few and I wonder if it’s due to the quality of the writing.

I’ve been accepted to a few residencies, and rejected from a few more, and literally the same application packet–same work sample, same artist statement, one paragraph revised to say why I want to study with that writer/at that place–has led to both those results. Once you’ve got a solid application you’re happy with, it really isn’t personal.

As a theatre professor, I told student actors they only needed one strong minute of monologue–the auditioners know right away if they want to work with you. That’s true about writing, too. Readers can tell from the first paragraph if they’re in good hands. I also taught that, as terrifying as it feels, auditioning is not an adversarial process. Jurors want you to be good. Each time someone opens a residency application and flips to the work sample, what they’re hoping for is “Yes! This is the person who is going to be perfect!” They are looking for reasons to accept you. And you can give them those reasons:

Send your best work. Check the guidelines carefully–if it says, send what you’re planning to work on, send the very best pages of that. Run those pages past a writer friend, even if the whole piece isn’t ready. If the application doesn’t require what you’re proposing to work on, send your very best pages in the genre of your application. Unless they specify unpublished, it’s often worth it to send something published, because that’s been polished under a stranger’s eye. It doesn’t matter if that’s not the project you’re working on–this where they want to see results. If you don’t have many (or any) publication credits, this is the time to show how your work is so good, it’s going to be published sooner or later.

Speaking of publication credits, know your level. Near the beginning of their writing career, a writer is unlikely to get in to Yaddo, Macdowell, Hedgebrook or the Millay Colony. Don’t waste your time and application fee; apply to a place that’s within your same general accomplishment level. Find this out by looking at profiles of past residents. If the website doesn’t list bios, search for Name of Residency + “author” and see who pops up. Do they all have Pulitzers? Maybe wait until your book deal. Are they publishing in the same literary magazines you are? Full steam ahead! If you’re still uncertain, ask your mentor/teacher/workshop leader. I was surprised to hear that my teacher thought it was a good idea to apply to a residency I’d assumed was beyond my reach; I would also have valued him saying, “Maybe wait until you have more publications.” If you’re worried about your qualifications and it’s within your financial reach, try a pay-to-play residency, where the odds of getting in are better and then you have one residency already on your CV. Some paid residencies are income-sensitive, too, and that’s worth looking for or asking about.

Be honest–within limits. A pure, direct statement of your need and ambition can be captivating on the page. But this is not the time for pipe dreams or raw discussion of the faults we all have. Don’t tell them you have a hard time finishing work at home. We all do. Focus on what that specific venue, geographic location, philosophy of work, or master teacher has to offer you. Tie in something unique to that residency to something unique about you. “I want to work with Writer Who Makes Collages A Lot because I’m eager to expand my work in collages and build a chapbook from my publications in Journal of Collage.” “I’m working in soundscapes and want to bring my equipment and use it in the music studio available at this residency site.”

Glendaliz Camacho’s blog post is full of brilliant, reassuring, enlightening information on reading and writing applications (and a wonderful digression into telling-vs-showing in describing setting). In particular, she points out “A great artist statement tells a story,” and “A great work plan is plain and direct.” Go read the whole thing.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her favorite residency venue is Atlantic Center for the Arts.

 

 

Who Do You Think You Are?

September 27, 2016 § 7 Comments

woman-looking-in-mirror-vintageIt’s residency application season. Again. So many cool places to go: A modernist treehouse in Switzerland! A quaint Arkansas village! Cabins for women in the Pacific Northwest!

Residency applications are usually pretty easy to start. Name, rank and serial number, give the CV a once-over to make sure my most current publications are listed, fret for an hour over what to include in the writing sample. Summarize a project I might have started/finished/still be working on nine months from now, figure out who to bother for references–again.

And then I get to the Artist Statement. What issues and ideas inform your working process? How will the residency positively impact you and your work?

Ummmm…I wanna hang out in the woods with other writers while someone else does the dishes?

Sadly, that’s probably not going to get me in, even if I could expand it to 500 words. Writing the Artist Statement feels huge. It feels opaque and pretentious. It feels like walking a tightrope between “Huh, kind of a boring artist…” and “Gosh, she brags a lot, doesn’t she?”

If you are experiencing the same pain, the Artist Statement Guidelines at Getting Your Sh*t Together may help. While aimed at visual artists, the basic principles definitely transfer. As a writer, I’d paraphrase their most important elements as:

  1. Write it in the first person, and in your own voice. This is another chance to introduce the community to who you are, and bring your resume and project alive in their minds.
  2. Ask yourself “What am I trying to say when I write, beyond the message of a single piece?” “What writers/genres/cultural movements/politics/periods in history influence my work?” “How do my methods of working (form, voice, deliberate creative decisions) support the content?” “What are specific examples of these elements in my work?”

GYST suggests this format for a general introduction to your work, a body of work, or a specific project:

  1. Open with the work’s basic ideas in an overview of two or three sentences or a short paragraph.
  2. The second paragraph should go into detail about how these issues or ideas are presented in the work.
  3. If writing a full-page statement, you can include some of the following points:
    • Why you have created the work and its history.
    • Your overall vision.
    • What you expect from your audience and how they will react.
    • How your current work relates to your previous work.
    • Where your work fits in with current contemporary art [for us, literature].
    • Sources and inspiration.
    • [Writers] you have been influenced by or how your work relates to other [writers’] work, other influences.
    • How this work fits into a series or longer body of work.
    • How a certain technique [form or presentation] is important to the work.
    • Your philosophy of art making or of the work’s origin [how did you come to be working on this, and how it fits your overall mission].
  4. The final paragraph should recapitulate the most important points in the statement.

GYST also suggests two technical elements we’d be well-advised to use in all our writing, whether applications, fiction or nonfiction:

  • Vary sentence structure and length. The length of a sentence should relate to the complexity of the idea.
  • Organization of detail is important. Significant ideas should be at the end of each sentence for emphasis.

Even if you aren’t applying for anything right now, writing an Artist Statement can be an exercise to help you consider your body of work, what you’ve accomplished so far, and where your ambitions lie. If you’re wavering between two projects, knowing your mission as an artist will help you pick. If you’re feeling stuck in your career, your artist statement could help you choose a new track, or recommit to the important elements of what you’re already doing.

Check out the GYST Artist Statement Guidelines, and get started–really, it’s not that bad.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines, now available on Amazon.

The Self-Made Amtrak Residency

August 18, 2016 § 24 Comments

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classical domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classically domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

Last weekend I spoke at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference (round-up post coming!) in Lancaster, PA. It was a fantastic experience full of ideas and inspiration, and I knew I’d want a couple of days to decompress. My next destination was Louisiana, and I took the train.

There is a formal “Amtrak Residency,” where writers are chosen from a pool of applicants to receive a free train trip. I’d considered applying, but the first year there was some dubious language about Amtrak owning copyright in submitted work samples, and last year it seemed like a lot of hoops to jump through for a short residency period. And most of the winners looked either more famous or more social-media-gifted than me. Instead I bought my own trip.

It didn’t start well. I gave up my seat so an older couple could sit together, and went to work in the café car, where I got trainsick while typing and had to stop. The café car closed, and I wandered the length of the train looking for another open seat. Downtown Pittsburgh is no doubt charming before 10PM, but finding a restaurant on a four-hour night layover was tough. The guy next to me in the charmless waiting room spent an hour explaining smart phones to an Amish family, who patiently smiled and nodded while clearly understanding modern technology they were choosing not to use. I felt my bedtime ticking away.

But once on the train to Chicago, tucked up in my “roomette”–basically a bunkbed with just enough room to put on shoes before staggering to the WC in the night–all was forgiven. The rocking of the train really was soothing. The next morning hit the observation car, enjoying huge windows and morning light while working away. Turns out I need to face backward on the train, contrary to all my instincts.

A morning layover in Chicago let me scoot to Walgreens for snacks, and the afternoon-overnight-morning to Texas was gorgeous. There was technically wifi on the train, though I barely used it, and just sitting and thinking was peaceful–I felt meditative watching the world go by. The showers were as clean as a gym’s, and the bedding was comfy. Seating at meals is communal, and I met people who gave me their emails to let them know when my book came out, a lady who’d lived in Istanbul, and a man who was riding every train line across the country as his bucket list. (He recommends the Southwest Chief as the most beautiful route.)

Now, I’m a freelancer with no kids, I live in a country where I don’t have a work permit so I don’t have to hustle back for a job, and my husband is deeply supportive and understanding, so it’s possible for me to say, sure, I’ll randomly take a few more days for myself! which is not everyone’s experience. But if you have a couple of days, consider a self-made mini-residency. You don’t have to pass an application process or bother your references or agonize over which pieces to put in a work sample or guess which dates you’ll be available 18 months from applying. Doing your own can cost less than flying to an established residency.

  • Airbnb makes renting an apartment doable just about anywhere. Pick a place that’s unpopular or small and reasonably cheap. I’m planning on Baku, Azerbaijan because for me it’s a short flight; you might try a landlocked town in a state known for beaches, or a college town during spring break, or a farm community, or the “boring” suburbs of an exciting city.
  • State parks often have cabins to rent at a reasonable price, and during shoulder season can be easier to get a reservation.
  • Bring your own Lysol and rent in one of those seen-better-days mom-and-pop motels along the highway that used to be the main highway before they built the interstate. Bonus points if it’s walking distance from a truck stop. You’ll almost certainly encounter people you can refer to as “denizens” in your essay.
  • Ask your friend who has a vacation house if you can use it. Start with “No is a totally OK answer, but I’m looking for a place to do a three-day mini-retreat to write. Would you ever consider…” Leave the place sparkling and drop off a couple of nice bottles of wine or a restaurant gift card.
  • Off-seasons in general are usually quiet–a ski resort in September, the less-popular part of Cape Cod after Labor Day (try a ramshackle cottage within walking distance of great chowder in Onset, MA).
  • If you have children, see if you can team up with another writer with kids: rent a place for a week. You take the kids for three days, they take them the other three, and in the middle you spend one family day doing something fun all together.
  • Stock up on snacks and don’t be shy about eating out–it’s worth it to open up the mental space that would be spent choosing, cooking and cleaning.

I didn’t actually write very many words on the train. But I found some open spaces in my brain that I needed to write when I got home, and it was wonderful to think over what I learned at the conference. 4/5 stars–recommend.

Have you done a self-made residency? Tell us what worked (or didn’t) in the comments!

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better, is now available on Amazon.

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