Two By Two

February 20, 2018 § 20 Comments

I’ve never been a writing group person.

We can’t leave until Janie gets back from the bathroom. Again.

1) I travel a lot (you may have noticed) and it’s hard to commit to meeting regularly with the same group.

2) It’s hard to find the right group.

Honestly, “right group” is the biggest obstacle. I would–and have–driven hours to write with the right people. I’ve extended stays in cities where good writing people live, fought down jet lag, gone through airport security twice on a layover to meet a writing pal in the landside coffee shop. Why go to the hassle when there’s plenty of Meetup groups in my hometown?

The right people are worth a lot of effort.

The wrong people, on the other hand, are a waste of writing time. Groups focused on genres I don’t write, or on self-publishing (no shade, but I need writing time, not marketing chat). If a group is way above my level, it’s hard to get good feedback–they aren’t working on the same craft issues I am. If they’re all beginners, I end up teaching people I don’t know for free. The jolly glow of literary citizenship is great, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a writing group.

Over at LitHub, Kaethe Schwehn points out why many writers are reluctant to start or join writing groups:

Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.

Schwehn also sings the praises of finding a group that’s the right fit, saying the mix of cheerleading and critique can be more effective than only picking work apart. That having a small writing community lets authors discuss craft and concepts beyond specific manuscripts, and that working in a group without an official leader allows freer exchange of ideas, without jockeying to earn the teacher’s approval for ‘best critic.’

I absolutely hear this. And I have it. Just a little differently. My writing ‘group’ is two great buddies I meet with 3 days a week when I’m home in Dubai. They haven’t met the writing buddy I sit down with when visiting my mom in Florida, or my first reader/muse I email and text and phone. Peripheral members include the blogging community I sat down with in a London co-working space, and the NaNoWriMo groups I sidled into last November. I wasn’t doing a novel in a month, but timed writing sprints among 30 people focusing in a Pret-a-Manger basement got me to my daily goal on a cold and lonely day. Sometimes, my group and I read to each other out loud or exchange work. Sometimes we set a goal at the beginning of a writing session–number of words, a blog post, number of submissions sent out or pages edited–and check in at the end on how we did (my favorite!). Sometimes we smile and say “Nice to meet you,” while packing up our laptops and forgetting each other’s name.

I wish I was a solitary genius, but I’m not. I can and do write alone, but it’s a lot more fun with other people around. The energy of showing up (and let’s face it, showing off–look, I’m still typing! Everyone else keep going!) fuels me, makes me finish that chapter I wanted to quit in the middle of–but everyone else was still going.

Your writing group might be on Meetup or the NaNoWriMo forums or online at Wattpad or Absolute Write. It might be a friend you know is typing something–anything. (I finished my chapter! You finished your expense report! Go us!) There’s no right way to do a writing group.

Yeah, sometimes people think it’s weird that I showed up once for their group meeting and came back a year later. But when I come back I’m ready to work, with whoever wants to work with me.

Read Kaethe Schwehn at LitHub on finding and keeping a great writing group. And let me know if you’re ever in Dubai–I know a great coffee shop.

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Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a writing-group-ish-thing in India in June.

It Broadens the (Writer’s) Mind

December 19, 2017 § 11 Comments

Let me tell you about my book, Señor…

The sticky joys of packing the kids into car seats. The triumph of cramming your daily life into a carry-on, victory dance cut short by a full bottle of contact lens solution. The stoicism of sleeping on the lumpy foldout sofa.

There’s nothing so delightful as travel at the holidays.

Fortunately for writers, it turns out travel broadens the mind regardless of destination. It’s not where you go, or even for how long–the process of moving to and within a new location is stimulating, even if it’s Aunt Hildy’s instead of Buenos Aires. As Jonah Lehrer writes in the Guardian,

…problems that feel “close” – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination.

Travel breaks patterns. Motion jogs loose ideas from the bottom of the brain. Even the idea of distant places makes us more creative–when a group of study participants were told the puzzles they were trying to solve came from California, they came up with more and more varied solutions than another group told the puzzles came from the office down the hall.

I’m lucky enough to travel a lot. In fact, this is the first year since 2003 I’ve spent more time at home than I have on the road, thanks to retiring from a travel-heavy job. Now I’m away only(!?!) about three months a year. Sometimes it’s super glam–I’m headed for Taiwan in a few days for hiking and hot springs, to skip Christmas and ring in the New Year. Sometimes it’s a little more prosaic, spending time with a dear friend in Shreveport, or teaching at a conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. But every time, it’s new.

I did a weird thing in Ohio last month. I’ve been slowly clearing out belongings from my former home in Michigan. It’s hard–there’s a lot of sentimental items, things I associate with my former much-loved career and my first (also much-loved) marriage. When I open up a box in the basement, I can get through about half before I start crying and decide today isn’t the day for this. But this time I packed four boxes into the car and took them with me to the conference. After class, I went back to the Best Western, put on the TV, and worked through the boxes.

It. Was. Crazy.

Clothes I remembered adoring looked faded and ill-used. Books I’d been meaning to read were unappealing. Knickknacks I once treasured? Clearly junk. I didn’t even have to ask my standard “keep or toss” question (would I buy this today for a quarter at Goodwill?), I just chucked item after item into the “donate” pile. Outside the house full of memories and guilt and loss, it was easy to see the items as they were–stuff I used to enjoy and don’t need any more. I went home with one small bag, and the Bowling Green Salvation Army got the rest.

Relocation works for writing, too. There’s a reason we go to coffee shops or co-working spaces or long for an office of our own. Place dictates function, and the function of home is to be in the feelings we’re having, connect to the people and animals present in reassuring and predictable ways. Home is not an analytical space. But travel, Lehrer writes, raises constant questions:

The same details that make foreign travel so confusing – Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me? – turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises.

Are you going anywhere over the holidays? Use at least some of it as a way to think new thoughts. Lock the kids in a room with an Xbox and go for a long walk. If you’re at home, make a familiar space foreign. Leave your phone in another room and watch the interactions of the people around you at parties. Write, or read, or dream in a new coffeeshop. Eat a new food. Get on public transit and transfer randomly until you don’t know where you are–then find your way back home without opening GoogleMaps. Start a conversation with that person who looks tedious or emotionally needy and find out what makes them tick. Make some notes. And write about the experience, or during the journey, or inspired by it when you get home.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up to follow her travels with the bimonthly I Do Words adventure postcard.

 

Let’s Be Bored!

June 22, 2017 § 22 Comments

The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.

I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”

As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.

On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:

Used payphones.

Bummed change for payphones.

Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.

Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.

Got lost.

Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.

Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.

Looked out the window.

Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.

Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.

Read ads and billboards and posters.

Figured out train and bus timetables.

Asked strangers for directions.

Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.

Whistled or waved for taxis.

In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.

I need to be bored.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She still plays Alphabet by herself on long drives.

 

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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