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. 
  • Retire. 

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? 

For example: 

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 § 18 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.

Writing on Walls

October 20, 2022 § 8 Comments

How graffiti’s origin story helped me make peace with writing for the Internet

By Liz Charlotte Grant

I almost never see my words in actual ink. I’m an elder-Millennial a decade into a writing career. Most of the essays I have published have never made it to paper, existing only on the intangible wires of the Internet. This is the experience of most of my literary generation. We translate our sentences into a digital language we do not understand in order to reach across voids, where our words exist as brief blots of light in the minds of our readers. It’s miraculous and also fleeting in a way writers of other generations never experienced.

Don’t mistake me: I do feel relieved at the ephemerality of the Internet (don’t we all pray that myspace profile will stay buried amongst a zillion search results?). Yet the downside is stark—nearly all our contemporary literature is here today and gone in five minutes. 

I find myself wondering, in this strange age that refuses to preserve even our most treasured pocket technologies across a single decade, how will the literature of the Internet persist beyond the click and scroll? Will any of these works last? How will we keep our most notable writings from becoming roadkill on the digital speedway?

Case in point: did you know that the Associated Press has downgraded the Internet from a proper, capital-worthy noun to an uncapitalized, common one—no longer Internet, but internet, no longer notable or historically significant enough to merit a capitalization, but instead unremarkable and ubiquitous? Remember back when us literati feared the e-book’s power to kill publishing? The internet’s ubiquity might be worse for us writers than e-books ever were.

~

Considering the nature of writing for the internet, I find comfort in graffiti’s origin story, which began as a love story. Darryl McCray was a teenager in inner-city Philadelphia in the 1960s. He fell hard for Cynthia, the prettiest girl in the eighth grade. Darryl, aka Cornbread, had already experimented with tagging back in juvenile detention where he had also acquired his nickname. But his crush made him creative: he memorized her bus route and swapped marker for spray paint, sneaking out at night to cover every free inch of cement along her bus route and block with “Cornbread loves Cynthia.” Ultimately, the romantic gesture won her—at least briefly, until her father moved her out of the school district in order to avoid the “gang banger” (he wasn’t one) Darryl. 

But Cornbread’s heartbreak was brief, as he had discovered a new passion. Cornbread’s tag appeared across the city, on benches, sidewalks, walls and fences and bus depots. Cornbread told a Philadelphia Weekly reporter in 2001 that “riders would sit on the name Cornbread, go to work and see Cornbread, come home from work and see Cornbread again.” Cornbread, the omnipresent. 

Then, when a reporter got the facts wrong and described the tagger as shot when he wasn’t—that was Corn, not Cornbread—Cornbread planned his coup d’état. “I go to the zoo early in the morning, climb over the fence, into elephant’s enclosure,” he told Sandra Shea at the Philadelphia Inquirer years ago. “I take the top off the spray paint, start shaking. The balls start rattling. [The elephant] turns around, he looks at me, doesn’t pay attention. I paint ‘Cornbread lives’ right on his side.”

Cornbread’s tag on the backside of an elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo represents the most naked declaration known to humankind, as old as the first graffiti in Pompeii’s ruins in 78 BCE, as Adrienne LaFrance wrote for The Atlantic: “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here.” Another artifact of Pompeii reflected Cornbread’s original instincts. Archaeologists discovered the following wall scratchings: “Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.” 

In Roger Gastman’s seminal book, The History of American Graffiti, TAKI 183, an early wall writer said, “You wrote it once and a hundred people saw it. You wrote it twice and a thousand people saw it. By your hand, you were known.” Whichever medium we pick, us writers aim to be known, to be noticed across centuries by a crowd—or even by a single person in a single moment.

Though, admittedly, the favorite medium of graffiti artists remains more stable than mine. Cement’s lifespan inches to eternity. A log, and thereby any book, can turn to mush in a year depending on the weather. Plastics are not immune to decay either (a mark against lamination).  But those concrete structures built by the Romans? They’ve lasted 2,000 years and counting. 

~

Imagine with me a future excavation of downtown Philly, given the same attention as ancient Pompeii. What would an archaeologist find? There, beneath the layer of acrylic glopped on by a huffy landlord, the paint will flake off and expose the message Cornbread was here

The handwriting will be unmistakable. The one and only, Cornbread the distinctive, the man who first shook the aerosol can at 2 in the morning to mark all of Philly as his, yes, that Cornbread, once paced this spot in a pair of Reeboks, a bandana over his nose. He flipped off the lid of the can with a pop and then blasted the wall in a stream, his right finger on the nozzle and the air filled with the sharp smell. His arm twisted and dipped as he traced the practiced letters, a dance akin to Pollock’s rhythm paintings. Cornbread was there back then. But also Cornbread exists now in the archaeologist’s sightline.

Back to the Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic, who reminds us that art offers the chance “to be everywhere at once yet nowhere at all.” The first-person pronoun, the paint on the wall, the chisel in the marble. Cornbread and Gaiius and Victoria’s lover and I are all the same: we were here and we wanted to reach past our own time and into yours. 

Perhaps this is why I keep tapping the same language into new pattern, despite the likelihood that my words will vanish before anyone ever stops to notice. I cannot help myself. I’ll keep trying even if it kills me. 

__________________

Liz Charlotte Grant is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado. She’s published her essays in the Huffington Post, Hippocampus Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, Christianity Today, the Christian Century and many more places. Her publication, the Empathy List, was nominated for a 2022 Webby Award, making it one of the top five independently published newsletters on the internet (subscribe to The Empathy List for free). Find her on Instagram

The Old Agony Trope

October 19, 2022 § 12 Comments

By V Hansmann

Writing is agony. 

This trope drifts through the ages as a truth self-evident and universally acknowledged. Its corollaries – solitude, perfectionism, discouragement, envy, alcoholism, book – compound the blood-letting sacrifice of putting pen to paper. If creativity hurts that much, why do it? 

Fear, probably; fear and its slutty handmaiden, pride. Those two feelings are the perpetuators and destroyers of expectations. Fear will concentrate one’s energies to focus on the job to the detriment of all else. And pride will never be satisfied. In the wake of these projectiles is agony. 

Agony feels like a deeply neurotic response to writing. It seems performative and ego driven, but I’m sure it hurts. Writing that book was agony, and yet… and yet… here it is. Suffering didn’t improve the work, but it may serve as a bulwark against criticism. 

Shouldn’t writing be a joy? Bringing a new thing to light, something the world has never seen, a very part of you, to feel how newborns make us feel. So, why is love of writing suspect? Why not exult in the pleasures and satisfactions of craft? In being good at sentences whatever they are? 

You work hard. Be honest. Dig yourself.

__

V Hansmann was raised by wealthy people in suburban New Jersey; growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. In June 2011, he completed an MFA in creative writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, concentrating in nonfiction and poetry. He has submitted poems and essays sporadically ever since. Since August 2011, he has hosted a monthly reading series, first in Greenwich Village which went dark in March ’20, only to reappear six months later on Zoom. Most significantly, V’s now a Vermonter, having converted a derelict nursing home into a twelve-bedroom writers residency, Prospect Street Writers House, in North Bennington. https://www.prospectstreet.org/

Learning to Speak

October 13, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Beth Kaplan

I sit on the bed in the hotel room, staring out the window at the rusty fire escape, sipping water to wet my dry throat and trying to calm my thudding heart. Notes beside me, I whisper my talk to myself for the hundredth time, taking peeks at the paper to be sure I haven’t left anything out.

I’m about to deliver the Wexler Lecture in Jewish History at the Jewish Community Centre in Washington, D.C., and I am terrified.

What awaits me tonight is the nightmare audience I envisaged all the years I worked on my book: a roomful of scholarly Jewish intellectuals. Surely there’s no group in the world more critical, with analytical techniques perfected over centuries of Talmudic study. This august group, attending the eleventh year of the annual event, will be expecting the usual prominent scholar, delivering a lecture weighty with research and theory. 

And instead — me. An imposter disguised as an academic, because although I teach at two Toronto universities, I’m not a tenured professor but on contract to their departments of continuing education in the flaky world of creative writing. Disguised as Jewish, because, although my father was Jewish, he was an atheist who wanted nothing to do with any religion, and my mother was Anglican. So I’m not Jewish. 

Yes, I’m the author of the book I’ve been invited to speak about, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. It’s the biography of my father’s grandfather, a once-famous playwright with a titanic personality who wrote scores of plays produced in New York and then all over the Yiddish-speaking world, including one called The Jewish King Lear. I worked for over two decades on this challenging book. I’m proud of it. But still, I was floored when the producer of these annual talks invited me to Washington, sent a plane ticket, and paid for the hotel. 

Surely she’d made a mistake. Surely a chatty, personal talk about my great-grandfather and his life is not the kind of thing her audience will expect or appreciate. I’ve been struggling to gain acceptance for the book from academics; now here’s a unique opportunity to convince them of its worth. If my talk fails, I fear the book will continue to sink. Have I devoted over two decades to a losing proposition, a 250-page biography no one wants to read?

So I’m pacing about the room in my respectable suit from Goodwill, incredibly nervous, thinking, Who do you think you are? You’re a fake. This will be a disaster. They’ll hate … 

And then I stop. I just stop. 

Wait a minute, I think. I worked hard on the book, and I’ve worked extremely hard on this lecture. I’ve done my best. All I can do is hope they like it. And if they don’t — it’s a shame. But I can do no more.

I realize I’ve set up an enemy, a wall of critical faces. Why? The audience wants to hear a good story, wants me to succeed. Why invent criticism? Why shut myself down? How is the world a better place if I am silent? Silenced? 

I’m offering them something of value, I think, giving the gift of my thoughts and words and work. And standing in the hotel room, I open my arms, palms up. Here it is, my gift to you. 

A moment from the past comes back. I was at a party when, with the help of a glass or two of wine, I felt for the first time how painfully tight and restricted my shoulders were. Lowering them, I made myself relax. How much more easily I could breathe without tension. As I remember that feeling, I realize, When you’re relaxed and open, you’re not just giving, but receiving.

That evening, as I walk out on the stage, I’m still nervous, heart pounding, mouth dry. But I’m also eager and energised, not condemning myself to failure. I take in the audience, rows of intimidating-looking men, yes, but friendly faces, some women and young people too. Briefly, so only I know, I take a deep breath and open my hands toward them. Imagine, all these people have come to hear me. What an honour. 

And then, with a good story to tell, I start talking and continue for more than an hour. 

They line up afterwards to buy the book — we sell every copy on hand — and the producer tells me it’s one of the best lectures they’ve ever had.

Now when I’m nervous about public speaking, I take a moment in front of the audience. It’s not about you, I tell myself. You have a job to do. You have something to give, so make sure they receive it. They’re waiting. Give them your gift.

And I open my hands. 

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Beth Kaplan’s second memoir, Loose Woman: my odyssey from lost to found, was a finalist for the Whistler Independent Book Award. A former actress, she’s the author of three previous nonfiction books: a biography, another memoir, and a textbook guide to nonfiction writing. She has taught memoir and personal essay writing for decades at two Toronto universities; the University of Toronto gave her the Excellence in Teaching award. You can reach Beth at her website

The Sanctity of the First Read

September 29, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Alyson Shelton

“What are you working on?” Someone new in my life might ask.

“An essay.” I’ll answer.

“About what?” 

“Something.” 

And that’s that.

I’m actually a decent conversationalist but not when it comes to my writing. Perhaps I’m superstitious, worrying that the heat of the idea will cool with sharing, but I also cherish that time when my idea is nascent and full of promise. And so, I don’t read very early drafts and I don’t ask anyone to read mine. It is a mostly unspoken policy and one I hold dear. The last thing I need is your pained look, which could be related to stomach cramps or the reverberations of some stupid thing you said to a cashier, to register with me as questioning the validity of my concept.

I didn’t like sharing baby name ideas either. I didn’t want to hear about that guy you once knew, the master manipulator, who had the same name as my soon-to-be-born son. Instead, I wanted to dwell in potential.

I’m still like this. Potential keeps me going on the darkest of days. 

The promise of eventually sharing a work in progress with my most trusted readers keeps me going. The first read is a thing of great beauty. 

And I know they only have one first read to give me. And so, I use it wisely.

I’ve been writing long enough to know when my writing is ready for readers. It’s that beautiful and maddening moment when there’s nothing left to change without feedback. In my eagerness for validation, I have fumbled the hand-off many times.

When I was younger and greener, I craved validation before I put too much time into a draft. I wanted to know I was on the right track. Little did I know that the less time I put into it, the less validation I could expect. It’s harder to love the early idea; it’s muddy and lacks the specificity and punch that rewriting brings. 

I wanted to be “good” at writing. I wanted to be “good” at everything. And I wanted the growth to sting less. 

After decades of writing and receiving feedback, here is my formula for reduced sting:

1, Write that first draft, even if you have to trick yourself. Just get started. Try not to judge yourself. Try not to get in your way. Try not to hate how the words on the page are not matching the idea in your head.

2. Return to it. Make it better. Show, don’t tell. Lean into the pieces that are uniquely you. Your writing superpowers. Don’t try to be anyone else; they already wrote something, this is yours.

3. Read it out loud. This is a great time to refine voice, yours as the writer and your characters’.

4. If you’re thinking of sharing it, consider the questions you’d ask. Would they be about plot holes? Character arcs? Word choice? Connective tissue? Voice? If you know the answers to your questions, or even have an inkling, you’re not ready to share it. Take your own suggestions. Fix it.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you don’t know the answers to your questions. I know something is ready to share when I’m at the crossroads. When I feel with certainty that if I continue to edit my work, there is a decent chance I will make it worse. I will dilute it, editing out the very thing I am trying to capture. 

6. Find a trusted reader. Someone who treats you and your work, with care. Someone who never ever starts notes with, “Well, what I would do here is—”

No. Full stop.

Find someone who always, without fail, begins their notes with all the things to love about your work. Someone who sees what you are trying to do and works with you to make it more of that very thing.

I bet you’ve read more than once that trusted readers are gold. They are, which means they might not be easy to find.

Please know that reading with the care you’d like, the kind that stings the least, takes time and energy. It’s best if it’s not done as a “favor.” It’s best if you are acknowledging someone for the service they are rendering. You can pay them in kind, by exchanging work, or other agreed upon services, or of course with money. People do like paying bills with the work they do. 

Clear expectations and boundaries make for the best notes. These conversations could feel awkward, especially at first, but wouldn’t you rather it get weird before you show them the work you hold dear to your heart?

Yes, yes, you would.

Also consider how much a cheap or free read might “cost” you emotionally. Is it truly a free read if you walk away feeling deflated, worthless and discouraged?

No.

I’ve received all of the reads there are from the best, where they get it, love it and have ideas for how to make it better, to the absolute soul-crushing worst. I say this without reservation. Receiving an MFA in a truly toxic environment gives me this confidence.

Guard your work. Care for your voice. Believe in yourself and never squander a first read.
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Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award-winning feature, Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, which successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp Little Old Lady (LOL), Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From.

Anatomy of a Reader 

September 28, 2022 § 29 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

To write is one thing, to be read — deeply read, seen on the page for the writer we can be — is another. 

Words on a page amount to something or nothing, until someone other than the writer reads them, and then those words amount to a whole new world. A world of response. A world in which the words give shape to life beyond the writer’s hopes and dreams and take hold as the reader’s. 

The ultimate reader is one who, like you, reads the piece in published form. But before then, the wise and the brave writer asks for feedback on the early, pre-published drafts. If it takes courage to write, it surely takes courage to ask for feedback and then more courage to receive it: Courage and calm and confidence. Not always present in good measure, but even a scrap of each will do to get the process going. 

To be a reader of a writer’s early draft is no less daunting, for it is to be both honoured and burdened: honoured to be asked for comment and burdened to do so, and not everyone is up to the task. 

I categorize draft readers into three groups: the surfer, the pedantic, and the bold. 

The surfers are willing to read, though are most comfortable on the surface of your words; they lack the interest in or capacity for substantive response: “Oh, it’s good,” they might say. “I like it. The dog is funny.” How disappointing when your reader doesn’t match the courage it took for you to ask them to be your reader. The surfers’ feedback — well meaning but in its vagueness void of value — is, if not irrelevant, then dissatisfying and especially so at the early stages of testing out a new piece of writing. In those early stages, writers need bold comment and naked assessment. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Next up, the pedantics. These are eager readers, pencil in hand, happy, so happy, to slice and dice your words. In short, they copyedit, even proofread, well before those important tasks are needed — or wanted. Your work comes back to you with changes marked, tracked, and shouting off the page: “Typo on page four.” “Break up the description of the neglected garden; it’s too much as one chunk.” “Fix the comma splice in line 3.” These comments — commands, really — are well meant but as disappointing as the surfers’. They come too soon: the trees in sharp relief while the beauty — or potential beauty — of the forest is unseen and unremarked. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Finally, the bold. Now, these are the treasures among a writer’s early readers, for the bold understand that feedback on a draft is more than mere opinion and is less, indeed quite different, than detailed editing. It is a commitment to be clear, honest, and constructive in response to what is (or is not yet) on the page. Such a reading requires time and skill, and respect for the writer as someone whose work deserves substantive assessment by a discerning — a bold — reader. Music to the writer’s ear is feedback something like this: “The idea is sound, but you have not written the story you are hinting at. You have sidestepped it with the frippery of the dog’s behaviour, which is amusing but not needed as foreground here. What I want more of is the woman’s childhood and her obsession with the house on the corner. Tell me who lives there and why is the garden so neglected?” 

Perhaps, finally, I asked the right person. 

The feedback from a bold reader gives us substance to work with and to build on. It proves to us that we are creating something of value with our writing, something worth reading and responding to, and, therefore, something worth continuing to work on. Alternatively, of course, it might be something to ditch, to move on from. Having even only one such reader in our circle makes a writer fortunate indeed. 

The lesson? Know the anatomy of your draft readers and choose them wisely. Keep the surfers and pedantics in your circle, for they each have their place later in the writing process. And nurture the bold readers in your midst, for they are few and far between. Be brave enough to ask for their feedback, courageous enough to receive it, and smart enough to heed it. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in Steering the Craft (2015), her gem of a book on the craft of writing: The critique is a response to your work, to your writing. It is not personal. Learn from it. However, you are the final arbiter. The discipline of art is freedom. 

So, at the end of the day, to write is to be free to work with words as we see fit — to choose them and shape them; to work alone when necessary and, equally, to connect with others when needed: Wise is the writer who asks for comment and feedback and input along the way. And fortunate is the writer who has even one reader in their circle willing to be bold and in so being to invest in us their time, their insight, their skill. And when we find you, dear bold reader, beware, for we shall never let you go. 

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Amanda Le Rougetel lives in the heart of the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A retired college instructor, she blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches writing workshops through Writing as Tool.

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