November 7, 2016 § 5 Comments
We’re back on the air! This month’s Brevity Podcast is now available right here and on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches.
Episode #2 features an interview with Andre Dubus III on his memoir Townie, and the burning question of whether one must have an eventful life in order to write memoir. Suzanne Roberts talks about her retreat program Wordy Girls, and how she figured out that writing was not in fact her first priority.
Who else would you love to hear? Let us know in the comments.
Show Notes: Episode #2 People, Books and Places
Suzanne Roberts’ books include the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award-winning Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, and the poetry collections Plotting Temporality, Three Hours to Burn a Body: Poems on Travel, Nothing to You, and Shameless. Her work has been published in many literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, ZYZZYVA, Fourth River and Gulf Stream, and widely anthologized. Suzanne was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic Traveler Magazine. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-res MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham College.
Suzanne’s essay for Brevity, “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin”
Andre Dubus III is the author of six books, including the New York Times’ bestsellers House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days, and his memoir, Townie. His most recent book, Dirty Love, published in the fall of 2013, was a New York Times “Notable Book” selection, a New York Times “Editors’ Choice”, a 2013 “Notable Fiction” choice from The Washington Post, and a Kirkus “Starred Best Book of 2013.”
Andre has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and is a 2012 recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. His books are published in over twenty-five languages, and he teaches full-time at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Fontaine, a modern dancer, and their three children.
Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College
Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story
Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
October 25, 2016 § 22 Comments
More accurately, as Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) puts it,
The only thing that’s dead is the possibility of making a million bucks on blogging, which honestly never existed as an attainable goal for any of us in the first place. If you’re blogging to make a million dollars you should probably switch to something more lucrative, like…I dunno…making a sex tape. But not with a dead person. I’ve been very clear on this, y’all.
(go read the whole post, I promise those last two sentences make total sense in context)
None of us are going to make any money blogging, unless our blog is part of a global, social-media-exploiting, traffic-driving, email-collecting, drip-campaigning, algorithmic, Twitter-metric, SEO-conscious plan. And in that case, we wouldn’t actually be writing very much, because all our time would be spent driving clicks.
Years ago I kept an old-school Blogger blog. I wrote 3-5 days a week for two years. I linked to other bloggers and participated in “blog carnivals,” which is how we shared links to stuff we enjoyed reading, back when Facebook still insisted on an “is” at the beginning of your status and Twitter didn’t exist. I posted regularly enough that if I missed more than a couple of days in a row, readers emailed to ask if I was sick.
That’s the first value of blogging. Connecting with your audience, and with other writers. Not “building platform,” although that’s a nice side effect, but genuinely interacting with people who care about what you say, and finding out what they care about. To learn what you, as a person with the ability to write, should be examining about yourself and putting into the world on behalf of every reader who has the same story and needs to tell it, but doesn’t have the words, or the bravery (yet). Jenny Lawson’s vivid, hilarious, brutal posts about depression got her a book deal, yes, but she also let thousands of readers know they weren’t alone, that they were allowed to tell what they were experiencing, too.
Blogging taught me to put out work regularly without being precious about it. I blog here for Brevity most Tuesdays and Thursdays (sometimes I’m sick). I keep a list of topics to write about, scribble down ideas when I have a great conversation about writing in person or on Facebook, copy-paste when I get over-explain-y about writing in an email and think, this could just be a blog post and I’ll send them the link. There are still mornings I wake up without the faintest idea of what to write. There isn’t time to wait for inspiration–as it is, I’m daily thankful I live 8 time zones ahead, so I have my morning to figure out a topic before the Brevity HQ’s 7AM. Sometimes I look at the literary news and see if there’s another essay to respond to. Sometimes I remember the theatre director Anne Bogart saying,
If what’s on stage in rehearsal isn’t working, I shout ‘Stop!’ Often I have no idea how to fix it, but I always sit in the very back of the house, and by the time I’ve walked all the way down the aisle to the stage, I’ve usually figured out where to start.
Then I open the New Post window and hope my fingers will figure out where to start. There isn’t time to agonize over every word–thankfully, readers don’t have the same literary expectations of a blog as they do a book. A blog post should be the best we can do, but it’s just as important to get it out there on time. Blogging regularly increases your speed, and your ability to turn an idea into words by force of will, whether ‘inspiration’ has graced you that day or not. Blogging doesn’t replace long, slow, thoughtful pieces that coalesce from many drafts, but it keeps us in the habit.
Blogging gives us something to share on social media. We contribute positively to our civilization by sharing an idea instead of a meme, starting a discussion about a book we liked or an essay we read or an experience we’ve had. It lightens the heart to care passionately about a subject that might stir disagreement but is unlikely to dredge up hatred.
You might like Medium, or Tumblr, where Roxane Gay keeps her blog, or a curated site like The Manifest-Station, which is a little more like submitting to a literary magazine. You might like to write long posts on Facebook, like sex-icon/disability activist Erin Clark. I use Instagram as a place to post micro-essays, because carefully crafting words for 20 minutes in an airport lounge makes me feel like yes, I wrote today, and the little hearts popping up on my phone remind me, someone’s listening. Someone likes my words. I should keep doing this.
October 4, 2016 § 6 Comments
Officially, I’m Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. What that means is I blog here, tweet, help boost the signal on Facebook posts and tweets by/about Brevity‘s journal and blog, and keep an eye out for trends in the literary internet, many of which I report back to you, our Gentle Readers. I also maintain my own social media–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and an occasional personal blog post.
I’m often asked–and I see writers agonizing about–what social media we “should” have. In particular, whether it’s worth it to have a Facebook page for our “author self” as well as a personal profile.
If you’ve already decided Facebook isn’t for you, or you don’t enjoy social media at all, feel free to skip this post. Go write something. But if you’re wondering about Facebook pages vs profiles, here’s the skinny:
Facebook pages are only useful if your agent insists you have one and you have ten thousand likes. Even then, 90% of your followers won’t see 90% of your posts, unless you pay.
Sad, but true. The way Facebook’s algorithms function (as of October 2016) makes pages without paid advertising more or less useless. People will only see your posts if they visit the actual page, on purpose. (Notice that the Brevity “page” is actually a group, which gives us more engagement with Gentle Readers, but requires more time to monitor and maintain.)
You may want one anyway. Facebook pages are useful if you are very concerned about online privacy. Your agent or publisher may insist you have one. And if you do, you may as well copy-paste all your writing-related statuses over there. It’s nice to refer people to, and to show off all your reviews in one place. About every six months, ask all the people you know to like your page, so that you gradually build an audience of people who have volunteered to hear from you. Other than that, leave it alone unless you’re embarking on a specific social media campaign–it’s one more thing sucking your time away from writing.
You don’t need a Facebook page if you’re OK with less privacy. As far as I’m concerned, Facebook is my public face. It’s not a private sharing space. I don’t friend back everyone who friends me, and I don’t post anything I’m embarrassed to share with the world. Right now, I’m also small-time enough that connecting personally with readers is still doable and desirable. For me, this goes hand in hand with the idea that the internet isn’t really a private place, and if I’m ever a big enough deal to get paparazzi-d, they’ll find anything I ever put out there. So it might as well be words I chose.
If you choose to use your personal Facebook page as your public face, don’t post things you don’t want strangers reading/seeing, and check your privacy settings for anything you want to limit to friends or a specific list. Remember that you don’t have to friend everyone back and clog your own feed with the rainbow-pug memes of a thousand strangers–when someone friend-requests you, they become your follower and see your public posts. It can be worth it to spend 5-10 minutes liking and commenting on the posts of people you don’t know well, but who you would like to have become your readers and your far-flung connections–your posts show up more in the feeds of people you engage with. Every day, think a little more about crafting your posts so that you’re revealing what you choose, and you’re pleased to have a stranger see them.
Yes, this can feel a little fake. A little dishonest. Even creepy. But I’m a confessional nonfiction essayist, and my brand is personal me. And “personal me” is a curated, purposeful presentation of subjects I genuinely care about and engage with, much like a “personal” essay. Every time I post, I’m practicing writing to be read. Every time I post, I’m aware that people I don’t know personally are reading it–and I’m pretty happy about that.
December 16, 2015 § 15 Comments
Around the Brevity editorial room, we’re rolling up the legs of our dungarees and stepping gingerly into the whirlpool of podcasts. It’s been in the works for a while–we’ve been listening to our favorites with a new ear, making notes on what makes them great.
There are some terrific resources out there for beginning podcasters:
- Transom is a how-to site with tutorials, gear reviews, and its own podcast, How Sound (the episode My Kingdom for Some Structure is terrific for essayists, too).
- The Third Coast International Audio Festival holds a convention every so often, and their website is a treasure trove of great episodes from newcomers and established podcasts alike. In particular, their conference audio is an amazing resource. After listening to six episodes of Third Coast conference session The Art of the Pitch, it’s much easier to say, “wait, that’s not a story–where’s the story? Perhaps it would be…”
As Social Media Editor, I’ve been wanting to do a podcast–any podcast–for a few years now, but haven’t had the critical convergence of time, desire, topic and support. And here it is.
Armed with four years of research/procrastination, I’ve tested out Call Recorder for Skype. I’ve sent emails to my nonfiction heroes (check your inbox!) and tweeted for more suggestions. I’ve ordered acoustic panels, a Rode Podcaster USB mic, pop shield and shock mount. The acoustic panels are particularly important–I live in Dubai, where all houses have tile floors and hard surfaces abound.
But I had to mail all those things to the USA…
I get to pick them up in January (thanks, Mom!). Meanwhile, I present to you: Studio B.
Note the acoustic deadening effect of two duvets (who the heck needs a duvet in the desert? Now they’re useful) and a yoga mat. I’ll be doing my best with my Macbook Pro’s microphone, and backup recording on my end with a Tascam DR-07 MK II. I still have to check whether noise-cancelling headphones are going to screw anything up.
We’ll be releasing a monthly podcast beginning in January, each one featuring readings from the magazine (past and upcoming) and an interview with a noted nonfiction practitioner. We hope you’ll subscribe. And in the comments, please let us know whose voice you’re dying to hear!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
November 3, 2015 § 32 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, I read a post from
a conservative wingnut someone whose political views differ from mine. It wasn’t their original thought, but a re-posted meme from a hate-mongering politically oriented talk radio station. A photo, with a caption, that touched on an issue I hold dear, that I believe to be genuinely important in my country and to my fellow citizens.
And it was wrong.
Someone was wrong on the internet.
I looked up some statistics. I did some math. I rephrased as evenhandedly as I could. I revised. I posted my response, with substantiating links and documentation that this wasn’t just my opinion, this was verifiable fact.
It took forty-five minutes.
sane and compassionate person who agreed with me, a few likes, and a doubling-down from the original poster, reaffirming her position that people not as white and wealthy as I am are lazy whiners financial difficulty is a moral failing.
It took forty-five minutes. And not just forty-five minutes of writing and research time (time I should have spent on an essay, or freelance editing, or the upcoming Brevity podcast), but forty-five minutes of focused emotional investment during which I was–literally–trembling with rage.
The original poster might well
be a loon have different views from me. But I don’t hate her–I don’t even dislike her. I’ve been her guest, eaten her food, had many lovely and temperate in-person discussions.
What’s right with Facebook is that I can keep in touch with my friends, family and acquaintances. Cheer their successes, console their failures, have a quick online chat to catch up, set up coffee when I’m in town.
What’s wrong with Facebook is that I care. These are people I have a personal investment in, not bloggers I follow or website articles several steps removed by virtue of being “the media.”
What’s right with Facebook is that it invites dialogue. What’s wrong with Facebook is that it invites dialogue.
So I took a break. Moved the icon into my fourth-screen folder next to Apple Watch and Stocks, activated Self-Control for the first twenty-four hours. It’s been tough to change the physical habit of checking whenever I have a minute, but it was easier than I thought to cut the emotional cord. Yes, my thumb strays to the screen, but I’m realizing how much was mindless habit rather than an actual connection to the information. I’ve subbed in Twitter when I feel the pull, and the very nature of Twitter is less emotional. There are fewer people I know as people rather than their media face, I see more subjects faster, and the 140-character limit is not an easy venue for serious argument. It’s the online equivalent of chewing gum instead of lighting up, filling the physical urge without continuing the addiction.
I haven’t suddenly filled that extra time with a fountain of new words of great beauty and technical craft, but I’m no longer spending time dreading multi-day conversations that leave me in helpless fury. I haven’t been in a pointless argument with a friend whose mind I will fail to change. I haven’t “needed” to
assert my moral superiority correct online strangers.
Will I be back? Probably. It’s still the easiest way I’ve found to stay connected to the mix of friends, acquaintances, and fellow writers in my life. This is a separation rather than a divorce. But finding out I may want you in my life but I don’t need you feels pretty good.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity podcast, which will debut in January.
Comic illustration by XKCD https://xkcd.com/386/
January 21, 2015 § 9 Comments
Platform, platform, platform. If you’ve got a book coming out–or are hoping to have a book coming out, or just hoping to raise your profile as an author, chances are you’re buckling down to work on your “platform.”
How many Twitter followers is enough? How many Facebook friends? Do I need an author page separate from my personal page? What about Pinterest? Does anyone even read blogs anymore? What happened to success on the merits of writing, and how did all my time get sucked into the Internet?
Sometimes I suspect ‘platform’ is shorthand for “We don’t know how to sell books any more but everyone seems to be online so the secret must be in there somewhere right? Please let the secret be in there somewhere…”
But I’m doing it. My agent sent a questionnaire asking about, basically, my ability to sell books. Do I have an email list? Do I speak at large events? And yes, how many followers, how many friends, etc, etc. So I’m following and hoping for follow-backs, retweeting my little heart out, setting up Instagram and Tumblr and counting on my 17-year-old intern to fill me in on how it all really works (Thanks, Macy!).
I don’t love Twitter. I do it because book people are on there, because it leads to interesting things to read, and because I can schedule it for a week in advance and then do extra in spare moments (I know I’m not the only toilet-Twitterer out there). Right now it’s in the same mental pile as my MFA–might be useful someday. And I still haven’t really figured out Tumblr, other than to know that if I write a YA novel I’ll probably need to learn it.
But I made a little discovery on Instagram. Yeah–Instagram, the pictures-only one. I sort of staggered along having fun with photo filters, and then I discovered Jeff Sharlet, who’s doing some pretty cool things with micro-essays paired with photographs. And that made me want to do it, too. I travel a lot, and it’s become a joy to sit in the airport waiting for my flight, or gently wake up in a strange hotel room, pick out a photo from the past couple of days and write a micro-essay. They’ve become postcards to my family and friends (I crosspost many to Facebook), and an exercise that keeps me writing more often, more days, and thinking about how to tell the truth simply and succinctly. It’s not a chore anymore. It’s not a platform. It’s a chance to write, every day.
(UPDATE 1-21-15 1:38PMEST) Jeff Sharlet adds:
I love being called a photographer, but the truth is I’m not, except in the sense that I have a phone and I take photographs. I’m a writer and have been all these 20 years of working life. But I started with Walker Evans and James Agee, and under the tutelage of Michael Lesy, and became obsessed with Helen Levitt, and found a copy of the rare and out-of-print Sweet Flypaper of Life, by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava–words and pictures–and then, Instagram gave me my chance.
For what it’s worth, I don’t see it as a platform for selling books. A platform for making one, or two, as may happen. But none of these social media do more than sell a few copies, I think. One of my books was a longtime bestseller, for which I did a lot of media, and gained a relatively large number of twitter followers. If that added 20 sales I’d be surprised. It’s one of the great cons of publishers these days, or maybe they just don’t see it — social media speaks to the converted, OR those who are happy to learn what they learn online.
But, of course, it can also change the way one thinks about writing. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few groups — an MFA program, an arts lecture series — about using Instagram to write. Some want to try it, or their own experiments. I see them as recognizing, as I think you and I have, that there are all sorts of interesting lessons about essays to be had there, about the visual as text and text as visual. Others are horrified: some because they’re aesthetically conservative, some because they believe they’re avant-garde, and either way Instagram is too populist for the priesthood. That’s fine. More room for us.
Platform is a tool like any other. You can hang it on the wall and it will do no good, you can learn to use it as a way to make your work easier, or you can, yes, decide it’s not your tool and do something else. It’s up to you.
Check out Jeff Sharlet’s Instagram, and he’s also teaching a class who are doing photos+micro-essays as @mutantjournalism. And hey, stop by mine, too. I promise I’ll follow back–platform’s a lot more fun when we’re standing on it together.
January 12, 2015 § 7 Comments
More and more, we’re told as writers to find our “platform.” Get x number of Twitter followers. Build a Facebook page and worry about algorithms. Put our self out there, connect with potential readers, be “real,” be “authentic” and sell, sell, sell.
What are we selling? Dani Shapiro writes:
We have our “real” selves, of course—the ones who put dinner on the table and drive the kids to school and go out for a few beers with friends; then we have our creative selves, which require the solitude, the space to access the private, internal place which we write from; and then we have this whole other self, one that threatens to encroach on the other two: our “avatar” selves—the pixelated, haiku version that tweets and maintains a Facebook page and goes on the road in carefully planned outfits (these could be ripped jeans and a T-shirt, but believe me they’ve been thought through) and this—this avatar version—becomes how we’re seen, how we’re responded to, and if we are not careful, we are at risk of it becoming who we are.
Shapiro talks about connection in real life, too, and the internal conflict of telling one’s story so authentically that readers believe themselves connected, email their personal stories, come up after readings to say how much they appreciated the author “sharing.”
How much soft underbelly should we be showing, and how much spiky protective shell? How much of our true selves can we sell before taking something from ourselves we can’t afford to lose?