Writing for No Readers
March 2, 2023 § 8 Comments
By Carroll Sandel
After watching the chaos at the Kabul airport in August 2021, my husband and I decided to host evacuees. In November, a young Afghan family moved into our home. The following morning, I felt pulled to the computer as though a huge magnet yanked me there. I needed to write about this life-changing experience my husband and I were sharing.
“I noticed her first,” I wrote. “She emerged from the airline passageway wearing a black hijab, a long dark skirt and a maroon hoodie. On her hip she carried a small boy. A slender man walked in front of her. ‘Abdullah?’ I asked. ‘I speak little English,’ he said.”
Later in the afternoon, through a combination of Google Translator and a CVS test, we learned his wife, Hadida, was pregnant.
At first, I emailed my stories about what had happened the previous day to my sisters, several friends, and my writing group. I then expanded my addressee list to more friends, cousins, and neighbors. What started out as fourteen readers mushroomed to forty-eight. Replies came: “I feel I’m right there with you,” “I can’t wait to read your email every morning,” “You are an amazing writer,” “I’m forwarding your daily installments to my cousin in Wisconsin.” I had become a modern-day Charles Dickens, for crying out loud.
Day eight, in the kitchen at Thanksgiving, my daughter-in-law, Siobhan, asked Hadida how she was feeling. Seeing Hadida’s blank look, I answered by shaking my head and imitated her vomiting. I then pointed to Siobhan and, holding up three fingers, said, “Her, three babies. Never…” and pantomimed vomiting. Siobhan threw her arms in the air and grinned. We all laughed, and I suddenly imagined Hadida in her kitchen compound, sharing fun moments with her female relatives. Writing the next day, I realized she must miss them so.
Each day I felt on the edge of being overwhelmed as our houseguests took over our lives. I lost track of when I last shampooed my hair. But my writing provided energy and solace. Writer-me focused on specificity, sentence length and structure, narrative arc, pumped-up verbs, transitions. By using my art to share what I was learning, I fed others as I was being fed. My writing never felt so important. In my emails, I said that though the couple only picked at my blueberry pancakes, Hadida had put blueberries in her naan batter one morning, making huge crepes for my husband and me. I shared that when he and I brushed our teeth at night, we wondered what mistakes we’d made that day.
Day eighteen after their arrival, a friend and I went for a much-needed walk. She quickly raised her concern about the wide network receiving my daily thoughts. Though I believed I was writing sensitively about our guests, she pointed out that I did not have their permission to share what was happening in their lives. Tears pooled in my eyes.
“Telling stories about our days together is time I have to myself, but also time to tell what is going on with them.” I said. “I’m helping people learn what it’s like for refugees. I can’t give that up.”
As I heard myself defend my emails to my bedazzled readers, I looked at my friend sideways. She was right. Our Afghan guests deserved my respect, their privacy.
I stopped sharing my stories.
For a few days, I grieved the loss of sending emails. Yet I never wavered. How devastated I would feel if one day I were to learn that our family had felt betrayed by me in similar circumstances.
But I made a promise to myself. I would still write every day. About Hadida, who, using my electric sewing machine for the first time, made a dress in one day. And about me, who took three months to discover the family liked goat cheese. As I noticed more about them, I became more in touch with me.
The family moved to an apartment in early April.
And I have 145 stories.
Why did I write for no readers, still paying attention to all the craft tools I learned over the years?
Hosting the Afghans was incredibly challenging and fulfilling. Writing transported me through the experience. It transformed me. Others’ praise may be intoxicating, but putting words on the page focused me, forced me to go deeper. It enticed me to explore what I believe, who I am. Our Afghan family gave me this opportunity. I didn’t need an audience after all.
*Names have been changed.
After a career in social work, Carroll Sandel began writing about growing up on a farm. Those stories morphed into a series of linked essays about her untrustworthy memories. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Pangyrus, Cleaver and other literary journals. She was a 2014 and 2017 finalist for the nonfiction prize in New Letters.
Exposing My Truth
January 10, 2023 § 19 Comments
By Regina Landor
My brother once said to me when we were discussing a disagreement I had with another family member: “Being right isn’t always what matters the most.”
I understood what he meant: peace is what matters. I’ve kept his words with me for many years. They’ve helped me scramble down from the high moral ground on which I sometimes find myself waving a flag.
But it’s tricky. I’m one who feels compelled to set things right. Maybe it’s my mild case of OCD. A picture hanging crookedly on a wall? No thank you. A religious zealot who’s afraid of same-sex figurines on top of a cake? I can’t even. An inappropriate comment made in the margins of a piece of writing from a member of my writing group? Come again?
I wrote a piece recently about a time when I was 13 years old and touched by a boy for the very first time. Raw stuff. Delicate material. Not wanting to spell out the V word, I used what seemed like a compromise: a metaphor. My golden spot, I wrote. It seemed pretty darn golden when it was touched. Who knew there was so much gold down there?
Was I wrong to be angry when my fellow writer’s comment in the Google doc read: I’m not buying this? When she said: This is too sophisticated for a teenager? And even further: This is evasive and I think it would be better reworded—without offering any constructive criticism as to how she thought it should be reworded?
She also wrote, “Plus, total lack of privacy.” It was unclear to me if she meant that because the boy and I were in the backseat of a car driven by someone’s dad the scene lacked privacy (Duh) and was therefore not believable; or if she meant that she was uncomfortable with the privacy of the subject matter. Clear as mud.
The comment compelled me to write an email to our four-person group (I’d only met the writer of the comment online) to spell out feedback etiquette, namely: We’re writing our truth, and we need to be careful not to judge or criticize or impose our values on each other’s work. When starting this group, I suggested everyone read Peter Biello’s essay On Giving Feedback. And for the most part, our members have followed his advice, lending support and encouragement as well as good suggestions.
Was I wrong to be angry by her comments? I may have been wrong in my response, which I made in the margins of my piece after sending my email. As to the “evasive” remark, my husband suggested I tell her I wasn’t talking about my elbow. But I didn’t want to be sarcastic. Instead, I chose edgy. And then I did spell out the V word, just to seal it.
She replied in the comments that she only meant the scene didn’t ring true to her, not that she didn’t believe me. Truthfully, it is one of the most truthful scenes I’ve ever written. Another member of the group wrote in response to the scene: “So powerful.”
Who am I to believe? That the scene doesn’t ring true, or that the scene is so powerful?
I wrote her another email, apologizing for being edgy in my comments, but also saying that her remark about it being “too sophisticated for a teenager” implied that she doubted my experience.
I didn’t receive a reply. At least, not right away.
This exchange took up days of headspace. It also made me wonder whom I could trust with my work. I’m a writer here. I have a nasty habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I was born a sensitive soul. Flippant remarks tend to have the opposite effect on me: they don’t flit away. I like criticism, I want criticism, but what does “I would reword this” do for me except cause me to doubt what I’m doing?
It’s a two-way street: if people offer comments, they should at least be as thoughtful as the writer of the piece. I know it’s all a learning process. We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. But sometimes it’s necessary to push restart and remind ourselves and others what we’re doing here. Our goal is to be supportive and kind. Feedback can help the writing process and it can thwart it.
I got over it. I hadn’t been wounded, only mad. In fact, it spurred me to write a little piece about Pandora’s box. (What was in the box, you ask? You guessed it—vaginas.) I deleted the comment thread and wondered if she’d remain in our group.
Fortunately, after what seemed like weeks (it was only half a week) the writer of the comment responded to my apology email. With grace. She apologized herself. And she closed her email by signing off with one of my favorite words: Onward!
The exchange may have given us both pause. She acknowledged that she “missed the mark” with her comments; I had the opportunity to think about my own sensitivity and how she wasn’t intentionally trying to upset me. I’m glad it’s all behind us and we can get on with the business of writing our truth, however private it may be. As to whose comment I should believe about my delicate scene: I concluded that the one person I need to believe is me.
Regina Landor, preschool teacher, is the lucky recipient of daily hugs from four-year-olds. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas with the Foreign Service, living in Serbia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. While in Dhaka, she wrote the book Marry Me Stop about her mother’s extraordinary life and lapse into dementia. Her first book, Forever Traveling Home, chronicles the experience of moving overseas with toddlers. Examples of Regina’s recent writing appear in the literary magazines Coalesce Community and Black Fork Review. She and her family live in Maryland.
A Publishing Contract: When Jupiter Aligns with Mars
December 14, 2022 § 61 Comments
By Eileen Vorbach Collins
Finally, after a year spent fretting over the difference between a synopsis and an overview, what to include in a proposal, which comp titles are actually comparable, and submitting my manuscript to more than 20 small presses I had three offers for publication.
The first was contingent on my changing the structure, because “essay collections don’t sell.” I’d need to rewrite the book in a more traditional memoir format. Excited to have an offer, I considered it; even spent some time working on the rewrite. But it went against my vision for the book. I want it to be read in the bite sized pieces a bereaved person can manage.
We bereaved can’t focus. Our attention spans are gnats, buzzing around our heads for seconds at a time. By the time we’ve read one chapter we’ve lost our place, can’t remember how we got here. Where are my keys? Did I feed the cat? What month is it? Do I even care?
The second offer came from a small press with some good titles and interesting cover designs, though after a call with an editor, that one didn’t feel right either. It’s hard to explain. The edges were jagged. There was a vague unsettledness and I felt myself holding back, my enthusiasm waning. But who am I to be picky? Shouldn’t I grab the first offer I get? Alliteration notwithstanding, what fun I would have withdrawing all those submissions. “I’ve accepted an offer of publication. Thank you for your consideration.”
Sure, we all dream of a traditional publisher, not necessarily one of the big five, but a press with some heft. A well-known name. An editor who shares our vision. A robust social media presence. Some gorgeous cover designs. But the universe opened her arms to me through the little press that accepted my manuscript. To paraphrase the well-known song from the musical Hair, for once “Jupiter aligned with Mars.”
The offer came from Apprentice House, a small university press in Baltimore, my hometown. Loyola University is my alma mater. It’s where I first started writing about my daughter’s suicide for what became my master’s thesis.
As I looked at the books Apprentice House had published, I noticed one by Michael Olesker, a former syndicated columnist for The Baltimore Sun newspaper. His wife was one of two midwives at the Baltimore Birth Center where my daughter entered the world. Although not present for the delivery, she came to our home the following day for a postpartum visit. Seeing her name brought me back, full circle, to the time of my daughter’s beginning.
When I started thinking about requesting blurbs, one of the first people I thought of was an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins whom I’d met because of a serendipitous flyer posted in an elevator when I worked as an RN at the hospital. He taught a popular course in bereavement in the Pastoral Care program at Loyola. I contacted him and he asked me to send the manuscript.
Whether I’ll get that blurb remains to be seen, though I marvel at how everything is finally coming together. I’ve seen it happen so often now, for writer friends. I still grapple with feeling happy about it. How can I be happy to be publishing a book that I wish I could not have written? Writing the essays in this collection was sometimes excruciating. Why couldn’t I put it behind me? Why couldn’t I move on?
To write about grief, especially the suicide of a child, feels risky. The stigma is real. Will readers judge me? After all, what the hell kind of mother could I be? My child took her life and I’m capitalizing on it, seeking attention by writing a book. Even including some humor. What the hell is wrong with me?
I can only tell you that when newly bereaved, I wanted nothing more than to read authentic stories by real people who had survived the most terrible loss imaginable. Stories that would show me it was possible to find a place of bearable sorrow. I hope my stories will do that for someone else.
Eileen‘s work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives,” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. “How to be the Mother of a Dead Girl” was a finalist in the Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Contest. Eileen’s forthcoming essay collection received a Gold Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association and was chosen 1st runner-up unpublished book of the year.
Author Bio? Author Crisis!
December 12, 2022 § 24 Comments
By Amanda Le Rougetel
Yay! My creative nonfiction piece is complete.
Next: Double-check the submission deadline and guidelines. Check for typos. Then, send: Off it goes.
Happy dance. Cup of tea. Catch up on house chores.
One morning, my email inbox pings: Accepted! Oh, my goodness, yes!
But then, what’s this? They need an “author bio.”
An end piece that describes me as a writer.
Ah. OK. Fine.
But is it?
I’ve been writing for decades yet am sparsely published, so what to say? Shall I count up my blog posts? My Facebook posts? Um, no. An author bio should surely indicate bigger, better accomplishments. While I could pull such a list together, the places my writing has been published are more popular than literary, more journalistic than journal. Does that matter to the CNF world?
Maybe I could ignore those niggling details and simply take a cheerful approach.
“Amanda Le Rougetel is excited by words. She writes CNF at her desk while the cat swirls about her ankles, inspiring and provoking her in equal measure. She is already working on her next piece [insert happy face emoji here].”
Or maybe a studious tone would be more appropriate.
“Since learning to write on a manual typewriter at age 10, Amanda Le Rougetel has toiled with intention, researching the attributes of pieces published in print and online journals. She is committed to a daily writing practice—her focus CNF and occasionally flash fiction—and takes courses to enhance her writing skills.”
Alternatively, readers might be interested in how I got here.
“Amanda Le Rougetel set a goal of being a capital-W Writer by spring 2023. To achieve this, she created a blog in 2018 and posted regularly. Since then, she has gained a (small) subscriber list and a (slightly bigger) readership. Her long-term writing objective is…well, once she figures that out, she’ll include it in her next bio.”
This is much harder than I expected. All those words are just me telling about myself. There’s no showing, no “third party validation” via actual bona fide publication. That can’t be right.
An online search for “how to write an author bio” results in more than 800 million hits, adding to the dilemma. The advice includes “write about yourself, your credentials, your hobbies, and other information you wish to share with readers.” Fine, but what “other information”? And hobbies? Really? Readers care that I garden and bike-ride? And credentials, truly? This isn’t academe, so who cares about my BA and MA?
Stop, Amanda. Go back online and this time look at author bios in the journals you regularly read. That would be smart.
And here’s what I find: Shorter or longer lists—but lists, nonetheless—of the writer’s publishing history. An article placed here. A story there. A piece accepted by an anthology. And more writing in other places. Nothing about hobbies. Nor about the author’s personal activities.
I have come to realize that a list of places published is proof that the person not only writes but is a writer worth reading. No one can dispute that writing vetted by an editor + publication = Writer.
We write CNF because we have something to say, something about ourselves and, by extension, the world around us and those who share it. But how challenging it is when the editor turns the focus squarely on us, putting our skill to the test in crafting a readable, credible piece of micro-autobiography.
The author bio is at once fleeting and lasting. While we who write for publication hope our bio is ever evolving, we know that the version of ourselves that lands on the printed page or screen lasts for an eternity of readers who encounter it in that spot. Our best hope is that we capture in the moment not only the facts but also the spirit of who we are as Writer.
Amanda Le Rougetel writes creative nonfiction, usually personal essays, three of which have been published in Canada’s Globe and Mail. Her work has also appeared in Herizons magazine, and twice in Brevity Blog. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where she challenges herself by writing flash fiction, blogs at Five Years a Writer, and teaches “writing as a tool for transformation” courses through writingastool.ca.
To Continue or Not? Writing the Memoir, That Is.
November 17, 2022 § 62 Comments
By Nancy L. Agneberg
I worked on my memoir for years. Years.
Revising. Restructuring. Changing the focus. Responding to feedback from my writing group (“Go deeper, deeper, deeper”), and incorporating what I learned in classes and from books about writing creative nonfiction.
I was pleased with the current version of my book—and with myself—and decided it was time once again to share the manuscript with a writer whom I had hired to read earlier versions. I wanted her opinion and thoughts about next steps. Obviously, I knew more revisions would follow, but I thought, I really did, that she would say, “Good job, Nancy. You are so close to the query and book proposal stage.”
Instead, she said, “I hope I don’t make you cry.”
I didn’t cry, at least in her presence, but I admit that when I returned to the sanctity of my car, I had a good cry, one I repeated later at my desk.
Wisely, I gave myself space before reading the three pages of comments, as well as those on the manuscript itself. I allowed myself to be stunned. Later I shared the comments with my writing group. They were stunned, too.
Then I entered a time of discernment.
Discernment is a process of deep listening. An intentional process during which insight, that ah-ha moment, has room to make itself known.
First, I posed some possible scenarios:
- Revise the memoir based on the reader’s suggestions.
- Self-publish after revising.
- Self-publish without major revisions.
- Create essays based on specific chapters and submit to appropriate venues.
- End all involvement with the memoir.
Based on the scenarios, I asked myself a series of questions:
- Do I agree with my reader’s evaluations? (Some yes, some no.)
- Am I willing to do the amount of work suggested? (Not sure.)
- If, as was suggested, this would be a hard book to sell to a publisher, what about self-publishing? (No. I don’t want to spend limited funds that way.)
- Do I regret all the time I’ve spent on the book? (No, I don’t think so, for I’ve learned so much along the way.)
- Was writing the memoir my purpose? My identity? (No, writing the memoir was part of my purpose and part of my identity.)
- Will I feel like a failure if I don’t continue with this project? (No, and as my husband pointed out, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.”)
In some ways, this is the perfect time to be working on a book. My children are grown, and my grandchildren are in their teens, one in college. My husband is retired and content with his own projects. Both of us are healthy. Nothing prevents me from continuing with this project.
And yet, when friends ask how my book is progressing, and I attempt to explain my dilemma, more than one person says, “But Nancy, you have worked so hard.”
True, but did I want to continue working so hard? Is that what this is all about?
The questions swirl around me like fall leaves caught in brisk breezes. Perhaps I need to be the tree and let go. Clearly, it is time to take a break, to pause, to exhale and clear the space.
These mornings, I sit quietly in my meditation space, breathing gently in and out. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, finding my own rhythm. I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely.
Pat Schneider writes in How The Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, “If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world.”
I believe that.
I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world. Writing is a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage leading me towards the person I was created to be.
I will continue to write, but not my memoir.
Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Brevity, Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; and elsewhere. She facilitates a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words: Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice, and blogs at Living on Life’s Labyrinth.
Ballet Barre and Memoir
November 11, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Kara Tatelbaum
Pliés, tendus, dégagés…whether you’re in Paris or Poughkeepsie, ballet barre exercises are the same. Most professional dancers are in class by 10 am every morning, whether they’re home or on tour. The routine is expected. You show up for class. You start with pliés. After thirty years of leotards and tights, I know this in my bones.
When I began to write my memoir, I was all over the place. The freefall of rants in the margins of my appointment book felt liberating at first. I scribbled fiercely on the subway, in between dance classes, during rehearsals, and in grubby corners of the gym. One night, after a Pilates class I taught was randomly cancelled, I tried organizing everything I’d written. The sheer volume, disorder, and lack of structure made me dizzy. I knew I had something. But what was it?
I’m sure other writers have faced this too. Especially those of us without formal training. We start with a little bit written here and there. That builds up and makes us wonder what to do with all of it? Am I writing a book? Help!
At this point in the writing process, I think a lot of us run to find a writing coach, class, or group to join. We look outward to get someone else to figure out what we’re doing. This costs money and time and can also easily waste both. You’re still in freefall and haven’t established any sort of boundaries to anchor your new practice. The act of writing is personal. The discipline of writing is too. Before letting others in and seeking professional help—be it a writing coach or therapist (I ended up getting both!)—focus inward and buckle down. It’s time to establish a writing routine.
Yes, it’s that simple—and inexpensive! But routine takes discipline. This means committing to a time, place, and repetition. Especially for us writers who may not consider ourselves writers, a dedicated routine helps shape our emerging writer selves. You have the impulse to write something, see it through on your own before inviting others in. What begins as a random, personal happening will become an established process. Your process.
While pleasing the ballet teacher is an integral part of a dancer’s training, ballet class is also where you can take chances, push your technique, fall and get back up. There’s no question you must be in the studio each morning for that to happen. Show up for your teacher, but first for yourself. But how do you show up as a writer? Look right, look left, there are no sweating bunheads cramped on either side of you trying to achieve the same goals. No long stationary handrail for support. No precise start time. No instructor or feedback. Dancers build technique and then push limits. Perfect two pirouettes, then go for three or four. I couldn’t take writing risks in this abyss! I was falling before learning any proper technique. The dancer in me craved routine and repetition. So that’s where I started.
The evening I went through all my writing, I decided to wake up at 5 am the next morning, before my dance and Pilates life started and get to “work.” For me, that meant to show up to write and keep going. The custom centered me. Each morning, I put on my dance clothes, poured myself some form of hot caffeine, popped open my secretary desk, and stuck to it.
I let myself continue to scratch notes freestyle whenever and wherever too. These improvisations proved to be the guts of my story. Before ballet class, rehearsals, and sessions with clients, I worked on my writing. Sometimes I reread what I had written other places and copied it into my computer. Other times I’d edit the parts I’d inputted or organize what I had written into sections, which later became chapters. I grew to love editing; it felt familiar, like rehearsing in dance. The same way I manipulated dance movements (bigger, smaller, upside down, faster, slower…) I cut, pasted, and played with my words. Making them perfect. Making them fit.
A year later, I had the first draft of my book.
I had grounded myself as a writer with the disciplined routine of a dancer. Ballet class starts standing at the barre. Writing begins sitting at my desk. Same time each morning. I showed up.
Turns out my 5 am routine worked for querying too. A few months later, on a pause between pliés and tendus, I snuck a look at my inbox and found I landed an agent.
Kara Tatelbaum’s debut memoir Putting My Heels Down: a memoir of having a dream…and a day job—a brutally honest look at her life as a dancer and very reluctant Pilates instructor trying to make it in NYC—was released by Motina Books on International Dance Day (April 29, 2022) and was a #1 Amazon Bestseller in Modern Dance. Find Kara on Instagram or visit her website.
Authors: Can You Answer These Questions—Quickly?
November 4, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Sue Fagalde Lick
What kind of books do you write? What is this book about?
Sitting at my table at a recent book festival, I heard the same questions over and over. The authors who sold a lot of books were ready with their answers.
I can’t count the number of times Mike Nettleton [deadlyduomysteries.com] at the next table said he writes “humorous murder mysteries” and then described a book in which a professional wrestler turned private detective runs into Sasquatch in the woods while on a case. His spiel was clear, quick, and interesting. If the potential reader wanted to know more, he would go on, but often this was enough.
He and his wife Carolyn J. Rose, who writes mysteries with a substitute-teacher protagonist, had an attractive display, friendly smiles, and books of a sort that people want to read, and they knew their lines. I couldn’t resist.
During my break, I strolled around seeing what other authors had to sell. I bought some books, but not from any of the writers who hemmed and hawed or who pummeled me with blow-by-blow descriptions of books I didn’t want in the first place. I had 50 booths to visit, and my break was short.
I avoided the writers who called out, “Hey! What do you like to read?” Don’t put me on the spot like that. I bypassed children’s books, religious books, how-to-feel-good books, or anything that looked like I would never actually get around to reading it. I just wanted a good story. All I wanted to know was what kind of book are you selling and what is this book about? If I was not interested in what they were selling, nothing they could say would change my mind.
One author said her books are like Clan of the Cave Bear but rated PG. Another said he writes “biker poetry.” Another offered “inspirational nature photo books”. I didn’t buy any of those, but I appreciated their sales skills.
Remember: so many books, so little time, and only so much money to spend.
Back at my table, I noticed a pattern. People were attracted by the cover of one of my novels, flipped the book over to read what it was about, then glanced at the rest of my books and asked what they were about. Time for me to say my lines. I was prepared.
You have probably heard about the “elevator pitch,” a quick summary of your book that you could spout if you ran into an agent or editor in the elevator during a conference. That doesn’t happen very often, but you do find yourself meeting all kinds of people at meals, in the hallway, or even in the restroom. When they ask, “What do you write?” are you ready with an answer? Don’t start with, “I don’t know how to classify it, but, well, there was this girl and she . . . and then she . . .” By then, they’re checking their email or looking for a way to escape.
No. Humorous murder mystery. Professional wrestler turned private detective meets Sasquatch in the woods.
Even if you never sell your books at a festival or meet an editor at a conference, you need this information. Before publication, it’s your pitch. After you sign the contract, it goes on your book cover, website, and Instagram posts. You’ll need it when you’re trying to schedule readings, when your mom wants to brag about you, and when they introduce you for your Pulitzer Prize.
Coming up with these two pieces of verbiage can be more torturous than writing a whole 300-page book, but it’s worth the effort.
What kind of things do you write? Boil it down to 3-5 words. Walk around a bookstore to see where your books would fit. Hike a nature trail and brainstorm until you find the one that works.
What is this book about? Two sentences. Do not start with, “Well …” Don’t give us every little plot point and describe every character. What is the big story you’re trying to tell? How would a reviewer describe your book in a few words?
Glynnis MacNicol’s memoir No One Tells You This is about a New York journalist who is single and childless on her 40th birthday. She spends the next year considering what her life will be like if she remains alone.
In My Two Elaines, Martin J. Schreiber, a former governor of Wisconsin, offers a no-nonsense account of his caregiving journey with his two Elaines, the Elaine before Alzheimer’s and the Elaine after. Chapters tell of their lives together and how they changed and what he advises others taking care of loved ones with dementia to do.
My own novel Up Beaver Creek is about a young widow who heads west from Montana seeking a new life as a musician. She settles on the Oregon Coast where things are going well—until the tsunami hits.
Take the time to find the right words. Polish them, memorize them, and say them with pride.
Even if you’re not writing books at this point, if you’re submitting essays and articles, you still need to answer these questions in your cover letters and query letters and after you publish. What do you write? What is this piece about? Take the time to figure it out.
Then get back to reading about the detective and Sasquatch.
Sue Fagalde Lick writes memoirs, fiction, and poetry about strong women living nontraditional lives. Her books include Stories Grandma Never Told, Childless by Marriage, and the forthcoming Alzheimered: A Memoir of Mutts, Music, and Madness. She lives on the Oregon coast with her dog Annie. More information: https://www.suelick.com.
Why I Write
October 31, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Diane Forman
One of my favorite prompts, which I give my students near the end of a six or eight-week writing workshop, is a section of Terry Tempest Williams’ beautiful essay entitled “Why I Write.” I love Williams’ words: “I write to discover…to honor beauty…I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams.” My writing group participants disclose similar revelations: they write to remember, to calm themselves, to put into words what they can’t say aloud.
As a lifelong journaler—I write daily in an online journal, but also have 20 hard-bound diaries comprised of my youthful longing and musings, sealed in a box with a warning note to my kids about its contents—I know the power of writing to truth, writing to honesty. Plus I just love words.
When I was older, I began participating in writing workshops. Having thoughts that were previously hidden in a journal witnessed in a group is incredibly powerful. It’s one of the reasons I teach. But a writing group is usually small. And safe.
The reasons I write didn’t change dramatically once I began publishing my work for a larger audience. I still wrote to make peace with things I couldn’t control, to find answers to broader questions. Telling my stories has helped me make sense of my experiences, but I discovered that they often helped my readers make sense of theirs. Although writing is primarily a solitary pursuit, publishing has invited connection with other people.
Amazing things have happened since I began publishing creative nonfiction and personal essays. I wrote a story about finding my mother’s childhood home near Berlin, the one that my grandparents hurriedly and secretly sold to a kind British woman and her husband, before being forced to flee in 1939. This couple’s sons, who now live in England and Ireland, read my piece and learned that the house had been destroyed, then contacted me. That home in Berlin had been especially meaningful and significant to my family, as well as to theirs. Connection.
I wrote about my internal questions (i.e., what would my grandparents think?) and the complicated process of obtaining German citizenship. Subsequently, several people contacted me about their own German relatives who’d had citizenship revoked during the war. Recently, I spent an hour on Zoom with a woman who read my piece and had processed similar haunting questions before applying for German citizenship. She described an intense emotional reaction when handed her naturalization certificate at the German consulate in Boston. I remember also tearing up when standing in exactly the same spot. Connection.
Because of these essays, I have met and been invited into groups of other “2Gs” (children of survivors, second generation after the Holocaust). We share a deep understanding of ancestral trauma because we’ve all lived it. Before I began publishing stories about my German relatives and our family history, I had neither heard of nor known any other 2Gs. These associations are important to me.
I’ve written about other difficult topics too, such as anxiety and disordered eating, child estrangement, hoarding and aging (oh, and some lighter pieces too—it’s not all doom and gloom!). Not all responses to my pieces have been positive; sometimes family members or readers have delivered criticism, forcing me to question my tolerance for personal exposure. Yet even when someone doesn’t like what I say, my words have opened communication, which encourages connection. Some messages from readers, both positive and negative, have led to longer email exchanges or phone calls. Some strangers have become friends. These relationships are important, both as a writer and as a human.
So, while I still write for understanding, for truth, for clarification, to tell a story, to help people, to help myself and even for fun—I also write for communication, for discussion, for connection. In a world that can feel fragmented and lonely, I write to bring myself closer to others.
Diane Forman has published in AARP The Ethel, Boston Globe Connections, HuffPost, WBUR Cognoscenti, Brevity Blog and elsewhere. She was a 2022 finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction. Diane lives, writes, and teaches north of Boston. See more at her website or on Twitter.
Are You Too Young to Write a Memoir?
October 28, 2022 § 19 Comments
By Jessica Gigot
When I told my mother about my new book project, a departure from poetry, her first response was, “Aren’t you too young to be writing a memoir?” The question was jarring. I was in my late thirties at the time and had been writing and publishing poetry for several years. Prior to that I had been a researcher, penning scientific articles for journals like The American Journal of Potato Science and The International Journal of Fruit Science. I was, by all accounts, ready to write a book.
My initial response to my mother, who I don’t think intended any harm, was to point out that this was memoir and not autobiography, a genre that generally contains the entirety of one’s life, follows chronology, and is usually written by a famous person or established personality. Although writing A Little Bit of Land wasn’t a conscious decision—a few poems that never felt right morphed into personal essays that eventually became a memoir—I felt emboldened to branch out into this new genre. I told her that I was not trying to capture the entirety of my young life, just telling a specific story. The process of winnowing out all the details and sticking to a central question—how and why I had an insatiable longing to learn about farming—was the hardest part. I felt a deep sorrow every time I cut out a relationship or event that didn’t resonate with the thru-line.
While my mother’s question continues to echo in my head, I can’t help but think about age, time, and memoir. How much experience is needed to create a good story? How much daylight do we need between life and writing before we can craft an honest and true story unadulterated by revenge or deep grief? As humans, we are growing and evolving all the time which sometimes makes it hard to find a solid and resolute ending.
Carolyn Forché’s engrossing and successful memoir, What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, focuses on her traumatic and transformational time in El Salvador in the late 70’s and early 80’s. While her poetry reflected this experience (“The Colonel” from 1981 being one of her most well-known poems), it took Forché a long time (almost fifteen years) to write the memoir. In an interview with Commonweal Magazine, Forché recalls why she didn’t consider writing this memoir until 2003. “It took me that long to mature and to process my experience.” Forché’s book, a finalist for the National Book Award, was worth the wait.
Some books, like Michelle Obama’s Becoming blur the lines of memoir and autobiography while several authors and poets have written multiple, stand-alone memoirs about various parts of their lives, such as Mary Karr, Joy Harjo, Vivian Gornick, Claire Dederer, and Elissa Altman. Contemplation of the many faces of one’s life, finding meaning in the decisions we make and the unpredictable events that happen to us, like illness and infidelity, is the tough work of the memoirist at any age. The quotidian, as well, can be a wellspring making this genre complex and unique.
Memoir is evolving, thanks in part to new and creative structures that place the focus less on the speaker’s accomplishments and more on the depths of their interiority. E. J. Koh’s masterpiece The Magical Language of Others, which uses old letters as a lens, or the delicately layered Yellow House by Sarah Broom, teach us what there is to learn if we look closely at a key aspect of our history over time, like a relationships or structure. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Natasha Trethewey, is the difficult story of her own mother’s murder. In an interview with Southern Books Review she recalled, “In hindsight, I can see how much I tried to resist writing this book and writing certain parts in particular. I sold the proposal in 2012 and didn’t turn it in until 2017.” Part poetry, part case files, Trethewey’s compelling book is less about plot and more about the social context of her mother’s life, grief, and their relationship.
Zibby Owen’s Bookends, which came out in July, documents her journey from young adulthood to motherhood on the upper eastside of Manhattan to her newfound fame as a book mogul. All along she alludes to her desire to be a writer and the redemptive role of literature in her life, especially during periods of grief. One of the more piercing parts of this book is the death of close friend in the 9/11 attacks. Writing about and reflecting on her friend’s tragic passing has taken time and Owen confessed in the book that this story had many previous iterations. Coming to memoir was the shift she needed. “I wanted the chance to tell my own story from the beginning and not have to hide the truth behind a novel.”
While age and time might be irrelevant, creating a good memoir requires ample room to process, to see our past selves apart for our current one. Who was I then and who did I become? What happened and what did I learn? As the poet Mary Oliver writes, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” The readiness of the memoir largely hinges on the readiness of the writer to finish the book objectively and with an editor’s eye.
So, Mom, I know I am not Eleanor Roosevelt. However, I am a writer who observes and learns from my life. And there are more stories to tell. Memoir might not always feel like the right container, but I am grateful for the clarity and inspiration this genre continues to offer.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, and writing coach. She lives on a little sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour, was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Her writing and reviews appear in several publications such as Orion, Ecotone, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, and Poetry Northwest. Her first memoir A Little Bit of Land was published by Oregon State University Press in 2022.