July 13, 2016 § 10 Comments
Yesterday, a writer I work with confessed her greatest fear–lack of originality. She felt she didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been said. What could she offer that was new, different, worth reading?
I’ve felt that. The sharp stab when seeing an essay gone viral, or a book about an experience I’ve had, too. The feeling of that should be mine.
In The Millions, Kaulie Lewis writes about seeing other writers’ books and essays and wishing desperately that she’d written them:
…I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first…My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
It’s not just us. Everyone (well, maybe not Jonathan Franzen) worries that what they want to write has already been done, probably better, by someone else.
It doesn’t matter.
There’s room for Wild and A Walk in the Woods. For Bird by Bird and On Writing and The Art of Memoir. For Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. What matters is not the subject, but what the writer brings to the table. It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the rarity of a specific expression of that idea. I went for a hike–why? I learned to write–how? My family won’t stop fighting so I can find love–guns or swords?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.”
But we do. No-one else can tell our particular, unique, specific story. It’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.
It’s up to each of us to discover not just the general appeal of our work (cancer memoir! lost a parent! recovery!) but the nature of the story that is so personal, so intimate, it can only be told by one person. Here is a topic that everyone cares about, and here is a new way to think about it.
We are seldom original. But we can always be rare.
Kaulie Lewis’ essay at The Millions is well worth reading, and mentions what to do when you feel like your piece has already been written.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her most recent essay, at Story Club, is generally about being really angry, but specifically includes a goat sacrifice.
June 9, 2016 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Jennifer Berney:
This week, nearly thirty years after his death, Arnold Lobel (author of the Frog and Toad books) was outed to the world in a New Yorker piece by Colin Stokes titled “Frog and Toad”: An Amphibious Celebration of Same Sex Love. I read the piece with interest because as a parent and a writer, I’ve been an abiding fan of Lobel’s work. In the countless hours I’ve spent propped against pillows, reading Frog and Toad books aloud to my sons, I find myself always half-immersed in story, and half-immersed in my own wonder at how flawless those stories are. As a writer who works primarily in the genre of memoir, I cannot read fiction without wondering where the author’s life intersects with his art. I am nosy that way.
Most Frog and Toad stories are composed of brief, everyday moments that, when arranged with Lobel’s precision add up to something that is at once startling and funny and layered with meaning. For instance, in one of my favorite stories, “A Swim,” Frog and Toad go swimming in a river. Toad requests that Frog avert his eyes as he leaves the water because he’s afraid that he looks funny in his swimsuit. But then a turtle comes along, and then a group of lizards, a snake, a mouse, and finally a pair of dragonflies. When Frog asks them to leave so that Toad can come out of the water, they insist that if Toad looks so funny, well then they are going to wait around to see.
Each time I read the story (even though by now I know the ending), I halfway expect that it will end with Toad being reassured that he looks fine, not funny, that he was silly to worry after all. But instead it ends with all of the animals—even Frog—laughing, because of course Toad does look funny in his swimsuit. How could he not?
In this and all his other stories, Lobel presents us with a world that is at once candid and charmed, a world that acknowledges that we do look funny in our swimsuits, that our friends may look when we ask them not to, and laugh even if they mean us no harm. It is a world where, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that cookies taste better than willpower. Lobel’s stories always teach lessons, and yet they never moralize.
And so, each time I’ve read Frog and Toad to my children, I’ve wondered about Arnold Lobel himself. One time I looked him up to find the picture above and to learn that he had a wife and two children and that he had died in 1987.
This did not really answer my questions.
I wanted to know where his stories came from, and how he had learned to master the art of storytelling. I wanted to know if he had studied Zen koans or Aesop’s fables, or if he was just some kind of genius.  But I did not want to learn anything that would ruin his stories for me, like for instance that he had been a drunk or an adulterer, or some kind of religious zealot, and so I stopped researching his life and began to simply picture him as the author with the impressive mustache.
It never occurred to me that Arnold Lobel was gay, just as it never occurred to me that Maurice Sendak was gay—a fact I learned just after his death in 2012. Now that I know, I wonder what it means that two of the greatest minds in children’s literature were men who spent much of their lives in the closet. I think that it is more than coincidence, that there is something about having to live in secret that disposes one to work well in metaphor. When we can’t tell our literal stories, we must either get creative or give up.
I think also that the strongest children’s literature is work that explores buried desires and impulses, work that builds worlds where wild things can actually be tamed, and where, if you wait on your front porch long enough, a snail will eventually deliver you the letter you’ve always wished for.
I believe that it’s important to understand Lobel’s sexual identity as a part of his legacy. As a lesbian writer, I feel that I’ve reclaimed some small part of my history any time I learn that an author I’ve admired is gay. I can also acknowledge the possible connection between Lobel’s orientation and the tender affection that Frog and Toad share. However, I worry about the suggestion that we re-read Frog and Toad as (to refer back to Colin Stokes’ title) “a celebration of same-sex love.” Ever since Stokes’ post appeared last Tuesday, others have been quick to hop on that bandwagon. People ran a story titled Are Frog and Toad Gay? and Slate published How Frog and Toad Author Arnold Lobel Explored Gay Intimacy in his Work. But here’s the thing: Arnold Lobel did not explore gay intimacy in his work. That’s kind of the point. He was writing from the closet, compressing his experience into something that readers would find universally true. Frog and Toad are neither gay nor straight. They are archetypal characters and as such their identities don’t require labels—that is a part of their appeal.
Arnold Lobel was not a memoirist. His work doesn’t invite us into his life, but still we want to find him there. We are like the animals who sit on the river bank—the turtle, and the lizards, the snake, the mouse and the dragonflies—all of us gawking at Toad in his swimsuit when he’s so clearly asked us to look away.
 I did find an archived interview with Lobel as I was writing this, and it turns out that he did not study koans or fables, nor did he consider himself a genius. Lobel said, “I’m really rather insecure about writing, which is why I always write my stories complete before I draw pictures. Drawing the pictures is nothing for me. I know how to draw pictures. With writing, I’m in quicksand a bit. I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s very intuitive.”
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Brain, Child, The New York Times, Motherlode, Mutha, and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
October 8, 2015 § 7 Comments
At Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe mourns the passing of what used to be called “autobiography”:
I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.
Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.
Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir.
Monroe doesn’t decry the memoirs of addiction, of abuse, of trauma–but she questions why memoir has become so inextricably linked with traumatic experience.
Somewhere in the journey from famous-person’s-diary to anyone-can-memoir, we’ve lost sight of the idea that unique experience–or universal experience well-told–can be interesting enough. That our genre isn’t Queen For A Day. That it’s OK to be a wordsmith, a world-quantifier, an insight-generator, rather than primarily a sufferer.
Monroe mentions that “most afflictions have been covered now,” and she’s right. How many more journeys do we need through addiction, through childhood sexual abuse, through sex work?
Yet this is not to say OFF LIMITS to certain topics, just because they’ve “been done,” often more than once before. Rather, if we are writing our trauma, we must look for what we have to say that’s new. The “so what” factor is stronger than it used to be for the recovery memoir. The craft needed to sell the story is at a higher level. The reader’s need is for the author’s unique perspective, the author’s ability to generate insight in partnership with the reader.
As Monroe argues, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek.”
January 26, 2015 § 29 Comments
About a year ago, I made a decision. The last relationship I had been in, with a partner who lived in a foreign country, had been very expensive. Flights, time away from work, opportunities chosen for nearness rather than maximum pay. Before that, I’d been the primary breadwinner in a long relationship, then dated an actor and a musician. This time, money was going to be an issue.
I set my online dating profile to the country I wanted to live in — a country with a high standard of living and lots of expats. When messages came in I checked the approximate income level of the job the message-writer claimed to have before responding.
Shallow? Sure. But I’m a white, cisgender woman with no kids. I got a lot of messages. Screening for income is no different than screening for age, height, looks, or doesn’t-post-racist-screeds-on-Facebook. Saying, “I’m not interested in dating anyone who can’t, if necessary, support me.” is no different than saying “no kids.” It’s a status they have some control over, based on choices they made. It’s as arbitrary as liking C-cup brunettes.
Reader, I found him. A kind, gentle man with a wicked sense of humor in a physical package I find attractive. With citizenship in a country I wouldn’t mind living in, residency in the country I want to live in now, and an income, ability, and desire to be the primary household support.
Not paying my own rent is weird. Not having my own residence permit is weird. Letting him hand me money for groceries and taxis is weird.
But it’s better than not writing.
It’s better than squeezing writing in around paid hours of something else, or stressing about the rent, or worrying about what happens if I get sick. It’s better than thinking, “One day, when I have time…”
For a long time, money was the currency I brought to my relationships, and finding different ways to contribute is weird, too. I like cooking and laundry, I don’t like cleaning or being a leech. And sometimes yes, I feel like a “research” day or a “resting” day was a “wasting someone else’s money and support” day, and that makes anxiety.
It’s a job like any other, this writing-while-supported, and I’m learning how to do it well.
At Salon, Ann Bauer writes that it’s a problem when writers don’t talk about where the money’s coming from — it misleads younger writers into thinking they’re doing it wrong. At a reading she attended,
The author was very well-known, a magnificent nonfictionist who has, deservedly, won several big awards. He also happens to be the heir to a mammoth fortune. Mega-millions. In other words he’s a man who has never had to work one job, much less two. He has several children; I know, because they were at the reading with him, all lined up. I heard someone say they were all traveling with him, plus two nannies, on his worldwide tour.
None of this takes away from his brilliance. Yet, when an audience member — young, wide-eyed, clearly not clued in — rose to ask him how he’d managed to spend 10 years writing his current masterpiece — What had he done to sustain himself and his family during that time? — he told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by. I heard a titter pass through the half of the audience that knew the truth. But the author, impassive, moved on and left this woman thinking he’d supported his Manhattan life for a decade with a handful of pieces in the Nation and Salon.
When we walk away from a statement like that, or compare ourselves to authors with an independent income and a room of their own, it’s easy to think I’m not working hard enough. Easy to attribute a lack of bill-paying success to a dearth of talent or skill. But the support of a family fortune, terrific connections, or a willing spouse is a fellowship. A grant to take the time we need to write, to refine our work, to develop our voice without having to sell sell sell.
My instinct is to support myself, and I’ve taken on enough editing jobs to have to reconsider my ability to make money, and how it’s interfering with the time to write larger projects and submit work.
I’m lucky to have that choice.
Check out Ann Bauer’s essay at Salon — there are some interesting comments, too, both agreeing and opposed.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She lives in Dubai and recently became engaged.
November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment
Here at Brevity we’re all about the truth. While some authors–notably Pam Houston in her essay “Corn Maze”–make a case for judiciously incorporating fictional elements that smooth out a narrative–we’re in favor of the tangled web of real life on the page, loose ends, messy plot lines and all.
Other journalists, not so much.
Longform has curated a collection of some of the most notable falsehoods in non-fiction: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke, of course, but also some pieces intended as pranks, such as this gem from the New York Sun in August 1835, describing the discovery of life on the Moon:
At the foot of this boundary of hills was a perfect zone of woods surrounding the whole valley, which was about eighteen or twenty miles wide, at its greatest breadth, and about thirty in length. Small collections of trees, of every imaginable kind, were scattered about the whole of the luxuriant area; and here our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence. In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history.
Equally fascinating is the level of language in the Sun’s story–the article about Dr. Herschel’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made” is flowery beyond novels of the period, and yet this was a mass paper, a tabloid, intended for everyday reading. The life-on-the-Moon story ran as a six-day serial, and it was America’s first “media event.” The Sun sold 100,000 copies at a time when the population of New York was only 300,000.
October 22, 2014 § 7 Comments
…Your journalism’s in my personal essay! But are they two great reads that read great together? Do confessionals really get us closer to the truth than reportage?
At the Washington Post, Eve Fairbanks takes a look at the recent trend of first-person narratives used to fill column inches that were previously journalism, and questions whether they really open up new vistas, or are instead inescapably biased and perhaps even jejune.
…perhaps what we’re really seeing, with the so-called democratization of opinion, is how weird and variegated writers’ lives actually are, rather than a profoundly widened window into human experience. From Homer onwards, it’s always been the duty of reporters to tell stories about the lives of those people who cannot spin great stories out of their own astonishing experiences.
Ironically enough, the article is itself a first-person essay rather than journalism. It’s not necessary for every essay mentioned to be investigated, but this leads to lumping them together as not-journalism. Ms. Fairbanks misses, for example, that the woman pictured with twins (whose essay What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps Ms. Fairbanks cites as an example of the trend) is veteran reporter-turned-stay-at-home-mom Darlena Cuhna, and the Mercedes piece sparked a national conversation on poverty that was covered by CNN and Al Jazeera, among other ‘real’ news outlets.
Should the reporter be in the story? Should a story be the reporter’s story? What makes an essay journalism? Ms. Fairbanks examines these thought-provoking questions from several angles and with quite a few links to first-person pieces worth exploring.
October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Before I was a writer, I was a street performer. Not the dude-on-the-corner-with-a-guitar kind (though that’s street performance, too), the perform-at-festivals-for-huge-audiences kind. And when I worked in English, I had to be funny. The scripted lines had to be funny. The improvised lines had to be funny. And when an improvised line got a good laugh, we revised it, polished it, and put it in the show in a way that still sounds spontaneous after a thousand shows.
When I lived on tips, I had to be funny or I didn’t eat. Dinner’s a great motivation to get better at one’s art. I’m a verbal comedian more than a physical comedian, so I spent a long time working on words. We often did four shows a day, 15-20 shows a week, which is a lot of chances to try a different word order or phrasing. A punchline is funnier if the dialogue tag comes first (“And then he said, bada-boom!”). Individual words are funnier if they end in hard sounds (splat, smack) than soft ones (orange, cushion). Anything with a k in it is funnier (pickle, jackpot). And the best part is getting the audience to put the words together and write their own mental joke for an apparently innocent line (“Don’t worry! I’m a professional!”).
Now that I write the words down, now that I have to trust the reader’s brain for the delivery, comedy serves me well. Even when the essay isn’t funny, the right word order sells a punch or a sob the same way it sells a laugh. Humor helps the reader hope for the storyteller, even when the situation’s dire, and sadness phrased well becomes a kick in the teeth.
As George Saunders said, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” With memoir and nonfiction, we get to slow it down a little and meander. Writing comedy helps us learn to tighten up, so that meandering is a choice.
At The Huffington Post, Siobhan Adcock writes in Why Every Writer Should Take a Humor Class:
Because structure. You’re making a meticulously crafted monkey suit — you gotta remember to put a tail-hole in the pants. Humor writing is about technique and precision, but it’s also about becoming an expert in story and sentence structure. Again, there are technical writerly concepts that come into play here: Snowballing, conflict, reversal, and the good old rule of three writ large (“Get your hero up in a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down” — see how that rule of three works on the plot level as well as the punchline level?) are just a few of them. A humor writing class will force you to learn how to put together a really sharp-looking monkey suit.
Ms. Adcock’s got a terrific list of things writers learn in a comedy-writing class, and if you’ve ever thought gosh, I wish my wordcraft was better on a technical level, comedy is for you. Check out the whole article.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.