Expansion Theory: Big Ideas in Flash Packages
March 7, 2023 § 4 Comments
Canine conflict does not a War and Peace make.
By Lise Funderburg
I blame my 138-word essay, “What Bad Owners Say at the Dog Park,” on the photographer James Casebere. He and I were at the same artists’ colony in Italy some years back, and we seemed to have coinciding coffee break schedules, where we would join forces against a perplexing stove in the drafty kitchen of our castle. The extraordinarily detailed and hyper-realistic constructions James is known for involve specialized tools and materials and teams of assistants, none of which or whom he could schlep to Umbria for six weeks. So he put aside his steroidal dioramas and dedicated his residency to making sculptures, small wire croquis that (as far as I could tell) referenced tornadoes.
“I’m expanding my practice,” he explained.
It’s a phrase that has stuck with me since. It’s permission to explore rather than complete or perfect, two compulsions that bedevil most writers I know (and certainly me). Jim’s funnel-cloud armatures were a distinct departure from his usual work, but completely consistent with his inherent urge to reflect, create, and express.
What a freeing thought. I had always intentionally built challenges into my writing projects, but usually while staying within my narrative comfort zone of personal essay and memoir, typically 1500 words or more. In those familiar frames, I would lean into some aspect of the craft that I found challenging, maybe description or character or structure. But now, I wanted to up-end all of that by attempting a flash piece unconstrained by conventional narrative. Figuring out how to deliver a full arc in a fraction of the space presented a delicious, practice-expanding conundrum.
Timing was everything for this flash essay, starting with its inspiration. I was in a holding pattern, waiting to hear back from editors and publishers on a large project, but the dog still needed walking and the urge to write still grabbed at me. Every day, we’d encounter other dogs and their wildly annoying owners and the combination of irritation and amusement I felt at their comments sparked a feeling that I’ve come to know as the beginning of a piece. So part of the origin story is that I was a writer in search of material, and while in that state, I happened to hear some of the same old phrases for the umpteenth time. I am easily amused in general, but it’s when I’m both irked and amused that I have something to put down on paper. Being on edge—having an axe to grind—sharpens my wit.
Flash felt like the right vessel for this topic because it was funny but slim. Canine conflict did not a War and Peace make. I took mental notes of the comments made in various situations, made repeatedly and by different people. These naturally organized themselves into a list.
I love lists. Lists are an efficient way to give a broad sweep of information about a character or place or time, but as I tell my writing students, they have an internal integrity that should be respected and carefully built. I don’t believe in random ordering. I might throw together a list willy-nilly in a first draft, but then I want to go back and see if there’s an ordering that would have greater effect. Joan Didion was a master of listmaking, infusing hers with self-contained rhythm, tension, arc, all the good and delicious stuff. In my case, I played around with order. These archetypal comments had originally been made in no particular sequence, but in constructing my list, I wanted the reader to feel an increasing sense of threat and consequence that could result from the dog owner’s obtuseness.
As it turns out, expanding your practice can be a lot of fun. I laughed out loud as I relished and reconfigured my chorus of dog-apologists. And because I still had the dog to walk every day, my fact-checking was a breeze. I didn’t know what would happen when I started out or if the piece would come together, but in fact, it eventually did find a home, and that was here at Brevity.
Want to write personal essays and memoir that will engage readers and increase your likelihood of getting published? Join Lise Funderburg for Beyond the ME in Memoir, a CRAFT TALKS webinar. More info/register now.
Lise Funderburg is an award-winning author and journalist. Her books include the best-selling memoir, Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, the acclaimed oral history, Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity, and Apple, Tree: Writers On Their Parents. The recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, she teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Find out more at LiseFunderburg.com.
Publicity Lessons: A Cautionary Tale
January 26, 2023 § 20 Comments
By Linda Murphy Marshall
Except for a book I co-authored on the South African “click” language Xhosa, this is my first book, so most of the advice I offer I learned looking through a rearview mirror. I’ve made mistakes.
Even if you can afford a publicity team, they’re not holding your hand 24/7, and their tenure doesn’t extend indefinitely after your book publication. You’re on your own.
* Approach friends or publications willing to include a review or interview, if that’s your goal, but make sure you have enough lead time, at least three months.
* Submit your manuscript to Kirkus, though there’s a fee. I’ve shamelessly parlayed my starred review into a major publicity plug. There’s no guarantee they’ll favorably review your book, but you can choose not to have it published, or can cherry pick words/phrases you like, even if those positive words are drowning in dross.
* Build a website. I did not have one initially and, given my lack of technical expertise, hired a talented web designer to create mine. In the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do category, make sure you know how to update it. I’m a linguist, but honestly, the instructions seem like a language I will never master, so that has been challenging.
* Court libraries. I wrote an e-mail to everyone in my address book (but only bcc contacts) asking them to request that their library buy my book. You’re just asking them to do something you can’t do, while also getting the name of your book “out” there.
* Approach bookstores and libraries from your hometown or — if different — where your book takes place, in my case a suburb of St. Louis, where I grew up. Reach out to your undergraduate university and, if relevant, graduate university. The goal is to appear in your school’s Alumni Notes, the least the school can do, considering the boatload of money you or your parents or someone else paid.
* Find your themes and unique qualities: Ask yourself what makes your book “valuable and different.” What are the sub-themes running through it? In my case it was languages and translation. Capitalize on any and all connections.
* Order swag: stickers for signings, custom bookmarks, posters for book festivals and book signings. My bookmarks have the image of my book on the front, and on the back an excerpt of the Kirkus Starred Review and my website link. You can hand them out wherever you are; not everyone wants to buy your book on the spot.
* Sign up for a portable payment device (Square, Venmo, PayPal) so you are ready to sell your book at festivals, bookstores, or book groups.
* Research contests and submit your book; decide how much you are willing to invest because they can be costly, then choose wisely.
* Talk to book clubs in real life and on zoom. Add book discussion questions to your website to make it easier for groups to find traction.
* Write reviews: if someone says they loved your book, pounce, ask them to please write a review. You need the reviews or your book will disappear.
* Think outside the box: in my memoir I compare my father’s relationship to model trains to Candice Bergen’s father’s relationship to his ventriloquism dummy, so I contacted her on her official website. A former U.S. Senator, Claire McCaskill, is from my home state, Missouri, and currently lives in the suburb where my memoir takes place, so I contacted her on her website. Have I heard from either of them? No. But I’m no longer afraid to reach out to make those connections.
* Be bold. If you’re an introvert, step outside your comfort zone and talk/share/push/plug/ submit/insert your book into every conversation.
As they say in basketball, you only make the shots you take…Good luck!
Linda Murphy Marshall has a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her memoir, Ivy Lodge: A Memoir of Translation and Discovery, received a starred review from Kirkus. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Catamaran Literary Reader, The Ocotillo Review, Mom Egg Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. Two of her paintings were featured in literary magazines.
She is also a Trustee for the National Museum of Language and a docent at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Her second memoir comes out in 2024.
A Review of Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You
September 29, 2020 § 1 Comment
by Liv Mammone
In an interview with Lindy West, Samantha Irby stated that the working title for Wow, No Thank You was Dying Is Fine. The book has a picture of a very fluffy, floppy-eared rabbit on the cover while her original vision was a hissing possum. As someone who bought this book purely on the arched eyebrow I heard reading the title, I can’t overstate my fury at her publishers for not keeping either of those decisions. I think they better express both the book’s overarching emotional state and why it has quite literally kept me from emotional collapse during this year that seems like it is actively trying to destroy us all so we as a species will stop decimating everything in our path. Consider these lines from Irby’s opening essay, “Into the Gross.”
“I like to wake up naturally, gripped by a heart-pounding panic as the sun slices through my eyelids at noon, when it is perfectly aligned with my bedroom windows. I wince against the sun’s garish rays, a sick feeling spreading through me. It dawns on me that I have already wasted an entire day. AGAIN. I grimace loudly.”
In 2019 that was hyperbolic. This year? Many of us are right there. As someone with a chronic illness, I have been for several years. Even the notion of the body’s motions being loud is both a wry turn of phrase and a truism.
There are things I have in common with Samantha Irby and things I don’t. She can name each Real Housewife of New York. I want each of those women guillotined and their wealth redistributed. I love cartoon reruns for comfort. We come from different races and class backgrounds. We have different body types and traumas. I live with both parents while she lost both of hers young. But we both have shaved heads to control the dandruff that can get into our eyelashes. We both have depression and anxiety. We’re both bi. We both have boundless appreciation for 90’s music.
The difference I’m grateful for is while my disability has turned me into an overachieving self-punisher obsessed with external validation through hard work, Irby’s experiences of childhood neglect and of trying to speed date while wearing an adult diaper have made her “okay with just being okay.” When I read the sentence “I don’t do anything hard, because my life has already been hard” my outlook changed. I was staggered by the plain shamelessness of that statement.
Even two years ago, I would have been more than a little superior about Irby’s flat insistence that she’s “never related to someone whose main goal wasn’t just getting a table at a good restaurant and being able to pay for it.” I would have asked if elongated written memes like “Hello, 911?” where she details all her social horrors (“Hello, 911? I am unwittingly at the mall with my skinny rich friend and she insists that I follow her into Anthropologie […] Hello, 911? I have to cancel an appointment.”) and her honesty about loving “STUFF” like lipsticks and expensive soap were really saying anything. This would have been some serious privilege and self hating ableism on my part. Yes, she openly cops to her first book growing out of a blog she only started to have a shot with a guy who was dating a poet. If you’re looking for something about laughing so as not to cry in defiance of tragedy and oppression, something with metaphorical sad piano over it, keep moving. Even the details of Irby’s traumas are only referenced here. They have been spelled out in previous books. Though her subjects–food, bad dates, house sitting for rich people as a teenager, the culture shock of her white hippie wife and stepchildren, and her evil cat–have been mined in previous books, she is not interested in rehashing the hard past. The context around her writing has changed. Here’s how she herself describes her work, dishing on the experience of writing and pitching a pilot.
“How does this fit into a comedy, you ask? Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure. I’ve managed to make a career out of LOL, I SHIT MY PANTS […] More important than that, even if it’s not knee-slapping funny, it would mean a lot to me to put chronic illness in people’s faces, especially the silent kind that you might not even know a person is struggling through. I bet if you met me on the street, you wouldn’t automatically think ‘sick,’ but if you looked at my last CT scans you would, and I want to represent for all my people taking twelve pills a day with bald joints and intestines lined with scar tissue.”
I expected “you wouldn’t think ‘sick’” to be more front and center in this collection because that’s what I’ve been taught to expect of life writing: the challenge, the fight, the resilience. It’s what I expect of myself. And yes, the author does speak to her diseases. But she would much rather talk about the Bachelorette. Rather than a harrowing piece about her diagnosis with Crohn’s, she tosses this image off.
“I’m not saying I haven’t explosive diarrhea while holding up my ill-fitting sequined skirt with both hands, party clutch full of valet stubs and coat check tickets clenched between my teeth, while a line of drunk party animals whine collectively because there’s only one stall.”
Sure, that’s funny. But it also is just the ins and outs truth of her life. Samantha Irby knows her worth beyond the borders of the page. So she has written a book, Wow, No Thank You, about the right to do only what you can. She offers microwavable recipes and admits she can’t eat nachos or live in a house. Not everyone will take her no-frills diction and rooted humor seriously–their loss. Under the fed up groan and flippant exhaustion, this is a book about stillness; about cutting ourselves some slack while still taking unexpected opportunities to be loved, heard, and full.
Liv Mammone is an editor and poet from Long Island, New York. Her poetry has appeared in wordgathering, monstering, Wicked Banshee, The Medical Journal of Australia, and others. In 2017, she competed team for Union Square Slam as the first disabled woman to be on a New York national poetry slam team and appeared in the play The Fall of All Atomic Angels as part of a festival that was named Best of Off Off Broadway by Time Out Magazine. She was also a finalist in the Capturing Fire National Poetry Slam in Washington DC. Her editorial job on Uma Dwivedi’s poetry collection They Called her Goddess; we Named her Girl, was nominated for a Write Bloody book award. She is also the editor of the speculative fiction series Margins and Murmurations by author and activist, Otter Lieffe. Currently, she works as an editor at Game Over Books and a reader for the literary magazine Anomaly.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
How To Fulfill Your Word Count
August 1, 2019 § 6 Comments
If you counted backward from three hundred and ninety one, which is the exact number of words you need to complete your daily requisite word count of one thousand (#1000wordsofsummer)—less now, since with every word, every letter you type, you’re getting closer to that three hundred and ninety one more words to go goal—you might be able to call it a wrap for the day. At this point you only need, from here: three hundred and seven more words, less now, even less now, and isn’t it crazy how when you count down from three hundred and ninety one you’ll eventually hit zero? Or that you can write all these words and not say much of anything?
What this online group writing quest slash your mind’s a blank slash SOS shows is that it takes lots of words to be a productive writer. Or a writer in general. Also, which words count for the win, the tie, or at least the job getting done, and which ones don’t? Who gets to decide? Oh, good one—you!
For example, from right here, here, no here: you have one hundred and ninety six more words to go, which includes spreading out the word one hundred and ninety six into four words, five if you count the word “and,” when in reality, or at least via Chicago Manual of Style, one does not spell out words over ten. Or 10. Unless it’s the first word of a sentence.
You can’t remember exactly and you’re not stopping to check it out, because you can fix that later and look at you go! You’ve written a total of eight hundred and ninety three words, though you haven’t hyphenated where you should have, especially regarding number usage you are completely off the chart wrong, so you are cheating grammar wise but never mind. The countdown is on, and in short, or in long, three hundred and ninety one words turned out to be a lot more than you bargained for.
So much more, you realize you’ve got to sign your name now to fulfill the word count, and you include the middle initial, with the period, because the letter on its own counts the same as the word. Total word count: one thousand, including the title.
Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.
10 Ways I Show My Love to You, My Husband, on Our 10th Anniversary
February 21, 2019 § 10 Comments
- I give you, a non-writer, exclusive, insider access to the writer’s mind, free of charge. On our shared family iPhone calendar, I add ideas for essays daily. For example, today I typed: “IndiAn map crossword.” I may not remember what it means, but the joy of writing is in its mystery.
- I ghostwrite responses to your annual employment review. The bullet points I craft about your achievements are concise and—I’ll say it—artisanal. I incorporate action verbs, cure your passive voice and take your boss all the way to the denouement of your heroic work ethic, which concludes in a raise. (Your annual review has been shortlisted for a Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The $12,000 in winnings will come in handy—submission fees aren’t getting any cheaper.)
- I turn our parent/teacher meetings with Ms. Rivera into elegant craft discussions. When she criticizes our third-grade daughter’s penmanship, she loves it when I ask, “Have you heard of a story arc?”
- At tax time, when I’m especially conscious of all the money J.K. Rowling makes, and that I do not (yet) make, I keep you grounded by reminding you that yes, J.K. Rowling is worth $900 million and has a mansion in Tasmania, but YA is not my genre.
- When you tell me about your ideas, I listen, and give you honest and constructive feedback. Like, “Don’t quit your day job.” (Please don’t.)
- I call the exterminator and provide excellent sensory descriptions of whatever creature has been scratching at that place in the wall behind our headboard. An ordinary person might report, “I think it’s a squirrel.” As a writer, I tell pest control: “So the thing scratching in that wall? It sounds bigger than a mouse but smaller than a horse. I fear it is dining on our electrical wires as if they are fettuccine.” I doubt a non-writer could bring to life the gnashing of tiny incisors in such vivid detail. By the time I’m done describing the invader, the pest control guy thinks he smells an electrical fire.
- I meet you at the door enthusiastically. Since I rarely leave the house except for bus-stop runs with our daughter, my hunger for human contact may come across as more alarming than our mystery vermin. Also, I may not always hear you arrive because I suddenly got a great idea for an essay and I’m living inside a paragraph, trying to front-load my sentences because my teacher, Alex, taught me, “the end is where sentences go to die.”
- I correct our family’s grammar, spelling and usage. It’s called an apostrophe. It’s not a curly decoration. Please use it. I’m always there to erase your mistakes, like a human “delete” key. When your aphasic tendencies flare, and you call dessert “tiramoosu,” I remind you gently, “It’s ‘tiramisu.’” I call these “teaching moments,” not “grounds for divorce,” as you do.
- I deal with the gas-powered furnace when our collapsing aluminum chimney liner blocks the vent and practically asphyxiates us and we have to turn off the furnace during a cold snap. I get the chimney sweep to come the same day as the HVAC guy, so while one examines the collapsed liner, the other can clean out our savings account.
- I offer you a mirror. I can write intensely personal things about you that you couldn’t have imagined me sharing with another human being, let alone an audience of thousands of online viewers. Don’t worry: by the time it’s published years from now, your friends and family will probably be significantly visually impaired.
I ask for nothing in return for my eternal devotion and love. Well, maybe don’t retire just yet. Perhaps wait until my literary memoir about mice or Modern Love essay about correcting your grammar goes viral. After all, we need to pay the exterminator and the HVAC and chimney guys. I’m sure going viral won’t take long. Perhaps a month. Or 24 of them.
Happy Anniversary, sweetheart!
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recently attended a live performance of “Modern Love: The Podcast” and was disappointed that Daniel Jones didn’t ask audience members for essays. She has written 4,537 drafts of her latest essay and considers this progress. You can find her @kpnwriter and kristenscarousel.com.