March 12, 2019 § 99 Comments
- Writing is an invitation to humility—you realize you’re on the wrong track, you’ve lost connection with a scene, an emotion, a voice. The return on that humility is when your imagination lets you slip into someone else’s skin. The tales you come up with tell the story you are trying to tell when you sit down to write and also the story of the years you spend working on the book. Rendering a/your life into art changes you.
- Trust your intuitions but trust (admit) that you don’t understand what your intuitions are telling you. They have their own truth and direction; your job is to follow where they lead. This doesn’t mean you don’t exert control, but you don’t exert as much control as you think you do. And you are often at your best when you don’t.
- Defend your story; don’t give up on it. At the same time, accept that you actually don’t know what the story is that you can tell. It’s likely that what you thought is your story is not your story but a way to discover your story. The poet Richard Hugo talks about what he calls the ‘triggering town’—the place where everything starts, that lets you fly off on the next leap of the heart.
- Trust your dissatisfactions with what you’re doing. The more you trust them, the more chance you have to make changes.
- Don’t be afraid of mistakes; they tell you what you are trying that you don’t have control over. They suggest that you are venturing into new territory where you’re not yet sure what you are doing. They’re a sign that you are stretching yourself.
- Learn about and trust your own rhythms as a writer. That means not only when you write best in the day or week but where, how often, and in what ways. Do you work from outlines? Write the end and then figure out how to get there? Or do you write with no idea where you are going or why? (And if you’re stuck, then your system isn’t working for you anymore; give it up.)
- Write the first draft so you can get to the second and third and fourth because you can’t get to them except through the awkward and ugly and insufferable and embarrassing and seemingly useless first, second and third.
- It’s nice to think that art develops organically, from seed to sprout to leaf to narrative. Yes and no. Keep asking yourself, “What work is this moment/scene/word doing?” Answering requires calculation. You manipulate characters, alter lines of dialogue, make up narrative moves. You strategize, reorder, play God. You keep returning to the truth.
- Tangents can turn out to be the heart of your book. It might take you months or years to figure out what to do with those seeming throwaways—how to put them where they belong, at the center of the story you didn’t know you were after.
- Make someone else read your work. Forgive them for not loving it or you and for the things they tell you. You asked, remember?
- Send your manuscript out when you think it is ready and be pretty sure you’re wrong—it most likely is not yet ready. But send it anyway. Then send it again. In between, ask yourself why others don’t think it is ready. Pretend you believe they know better than you. Pretend they are wrong. Pretend there is something to learn or do next.
- Don’t waste too much time with the Imposter Syndrome and Fraud Police: that inner voice of doubt that says you have no talent, that everyone knows this but is too polite to tell you. The voice that screams that you are and always have been a fake; that your comeuppance is coming. It might be true. But it might not. And no one knows, even you.
- Maybe my favorite quote about being an artist or human being, and the one I’ve found the most difficult to live by, comes from a Chinese art manual:
Never lose your awkwardness. Awkwardness once lost can never be regained.
If you’ve got anything to add to this world of ours it won’t come from pretending to be someone else. Trip, stumble, admit that you’re an awkward oaf like all the rest of us awkward oafs. Write as you fall, why you fall, how you live with the bruised ego, why it’s worth getting up.
Paul Skenazy won the 2018 Miami University Press Novella Prize for Temper, CA. The book is available from your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Miami University Press.
February 19, 2019 § 35 Comments
Finishing takes forever. Thus far, I’ve published one short writing-life book with a hard deadline from a small press. From idea to publication took three years. I’ve written two more books of greater weight (for me), a memoir and a Young Adult novel. Each took ten years. Sure, they overlapped, I wasn’t writing continuously the entire time, I published other short pieces throughout, but from generating pre-first-draft material to querying agents was ten years.
The memoir agented but never sold. Recently, a friend urged me to revise and send it out again. She texted:
At this particular point in cultural and political history, a searing memoir…might be particularly welcome? Maybe the time is riper now…
While I appreciated the encouragement, that book is over. Years ago I would have been glad to publish. Now it’s not a life I want to present to the world. I’m not that person any more, and now-me looks at that manuscript—at ten years’ work—and says “meh.” It’s just not that good. The level of better I could make it isn’t worth the time it would take.
The YA novel is on a break from submission. Two months ago, I was devastated by a rejection from an agent who’d been very excited to read the full manuscript. She told me more or less, “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.”
It took a week to become un-devastated. A couple weeks to actually receive the feedback and truly consider her words. I mean, hadn’t five beta-readers, all excellent writers themselves, loved it? What about the high-school student readers who agreed to come early to talk about the book and were already deep in discussion when I arrived at 6:50AM? Meanwhile another agent rejected the full: “It slows down in the middle.”
I printed one copy through Createspace having fun mocking up a placeholder cover, thinking if I read it like a real book maybe I’d notice what was wrong. I carried the book through three states and four countries without opening it.
Then a writer contacted me about editing her YA novel. I looked at the first 25 pages and emailed her, “You write very well, but the story hasn’t started yet.”
A bolt of lightning hit me. I dragged out my own book and flipped through.
Chapter One: Girl with gun ready to shoot
Chapter Two: Flashback…to a nap…in a library.
Chapter Three: Flashback...to a scene in which the girl recaps everything we already know to another character.
My readers were wrapped up in clever voice and interesting premise. They hadn’t noticed what a merciless stranger found: Nothing happens in the middle.
You can be an incredible writer and still lack dramatic structure. You can be a sharp structuralist and lack voice. You can make characters live and breathe on the page, then find them staring at each other over a kitchen table while the agent flips ahead to see if it gets good anytime soon. And you won’t know any of these things about your work until after you have invested as much time as it takes you to write a book, plus some more.
I’ve done the Seven Drafts process and quite a few more than seven drafts. I’ve had beta readers and entered chapters in contests. I’ve taken pages to a workshop and paid for query feedback. Theoretically, I’ve done everything right and I’m still not done. ‘Not done’ interferes with my sense of entitlement. I ticked all the boxes! Why aren’t I finished? It’s frustrating and annoying and makes it hard to want to work on the book. But now that I know it’s not as good as I can make it, now that I understand the problem, I need to work some more.
The biggest separation between writers who publish and those who don’t is that writers who publish keep working after they feel entitled to be done. They write yet another draft. They painstakingly revise thousands of words that end up cut. They let time pass.
The more involved we are in a particular project, the more meaningful it is to our writer-self, the longer we spent writing, the more time it takes to let serious feedback sink in.
We all feel the clock ticking, watching emerging writers spring forth apparently fully-formed. We all want to be done, to share our book with the world. It’s not just you. We all need a little more time.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
August 23, 2018 § 9 Comments
Once, from the next room, my fiancé heard the clicking of my fingertips against the computer keys stop. He thought I had finished writing, but when he came to check on me, I was stoically staring out the window barely blinking.
“Where are you right now?” he asked.
I said, “I’m in the morgue standing over my father’s body.”
Now, whenever he sees me sitting too still, staring too blankly, he always asks with trepidation where I am, so he knows just how far I’ve gone.
There are many moments when I get so lost in the past, it’s easy to forget that my feet are touching the ground. Sometimes it takes me a very long while to find my footing and acknowledge that I am not the same lost person I was over a decade ago—to remember that I’m a twenty-nine year old established woman with a career and a fiancé and not an eighteen-year old child who just lost her father.
To write memoir, we have to be multiple simultaneous selves. We need a reflective “I” that is our present with all our wisdom and fortitude. We also need the past “I,” the one experiencing everything for the first time. But the “I” that is not on the page is important, too. The “I” that has relationships and doctor’s appointments and dinner plans and anticipation for Patriots game-watch parties on Sundays.
I flew to the Azores in 2015 to learn and write about my father’s death. At times, my drive to deliver was unstoppable, even a bit manic. I’d get up in the morning, grab a bowl of cornflakes, and sit at my desk near the floor-to-ceiling windows. But rather than gaze out at the cerulean currents scribbled across the navy blue Atlantic, my attention was on the black keyboard and stark white screen of my laptop. I’d spend eight to ten hours typing, only stopping for a brief lunch and the occasional bathroom break.
My feet were on the floor, but my ears were ringing with my mother’s screams, my eyes watering at the sight of my grandfather’s distraught face, my fingertips burning at the touch of my father’s lifeless forearm. This zone of mind is good for writing because it allows writers to sink deeply and emphatically into their pasts, but it is also a treacherous slope—one that must be treated with caution—as it destroys all notions of a present life. Like a moth drawn to light, writers must acknowledge the allure of such a space, but we must recognize its danger, too.
If you ever get lost in your past “I” and need to find your footing again, do something that makes you feel human. I did a lot of cooking while I was writing in the Azores—lemon-frosted cakes, Oreo puddings, double-chocolate cookies, and chorizo-stuffed Portuguese lasagnas at 2AM. I only realized why I was cooking so much after I came home to Boston—because when I ate that lasagna at two in the morning, my senses were on fire. It was hot, spicy and damn good. I felt my bare feet on the kitchen floor, the coolness of the tile. I was cold. I was feeling. I was firmly grounded in the present.
Whether it’s cooking or dancing to extremely loud music or going for a run or having sex—do something that will transport you immediately to the present. Though it seems obvious, it is easy to forget—it is the present and not the past in which we live. Though you may be writing a tragic memoir filled with suffocating experiences that have caused you enormous pain, there is freedom in taking breaks to remember that you are more than just this past “I.”
I’m back in Boston now—back in my real life—but I still have a similar writing process. I dive into my words and drown in them. I find my quiet space, turn the TV and music off, and let the work come slowly, deliberately, out of me. It feels like a birthing. Any time I have produced writing worth reading, I was in one of these zones. A zone where the only thing keeping my body from floating towards the sky like an unruly birthday balloon are my fingers hitting the keys at a constant pace. But whenever I do reach that euphoric, nirvana-like state where the work flows from my fingertips and I am simply the vessel delivering it from my mind to the page, it is important to remind myself that I am not a vessel. I am human. Not a means to an end, but a person, living in the present. As much as it is worth fighting like hell for the past to come alive on the page, it is just as important to come out alive, too.
August 2, 2018 § 27 Comments
I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to write.
Translation: I’m checking Facebook.
I hear a rustle, followed by a sigh, and I see movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look up there is a tall, slim woman with spiky blonde hair lounging on my upholstered chaise. She is wearing black Vans, ripped jeans, and a black t-shirt with “Rabid Feminist” in white letters. Her scent is that of excellent coffee; the to-go cup she’s holding must be from the Slow Train Cafe.
“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get here?”
“I’m your angel, Gloria. Never mind how I got here. So, how many words have you written this morning?”
“Um, I don’t do word counts. That doesn’t work for me. I just write, mostly when I’m inspired. Sometimes for a long time, sometimes not for very long.”
She snorts. “So, then, none? Zero? You haven’t written anything and it’s almost noon?”
“Wait, are you the Angel of the House that Virginia Woolf wrote about? I thought you’d be smaller, and wearing gauzy robes, with long hair in a loose knot. But if you are that angel, you should know I cleaned the refrigerator this morning.”
Gloria rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is the 21st Century. I’m here to make sure you’re writing. So, what’s the problem?”
“The fridge was really dirty. I found sticky stuff that had dried in all the ridges of the vegetable crisper. And in the fruit drawer, bits of the orange plastic mesh bags from the clementines we ate six months ago. Oh, and a couple of cat hairs. We don’t even have a cat!”
“Great. Next time write first, then clean. And now that you’ve cleaned, why aren’t you writing?”
“Well, right now, I’m composting.”
Gloria sniffs. “In your office? Why don’t I smell anything?”
“No, no, it’s a term from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s when you’re thinking about what you’re writing, but not actually writing.”
Gloria squints at me. “What’s that noise? Oh, it’s Natalie. She’s groaning at the way you’ve used her idea about the need to process some experiences before you can write about them, and turned it into a procrastination device. How many books about writing have you read, anyway?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A few.”
Gloria rolls her eyes again. “I have something for you. Catch!”
I usually miss when someone says “catch,” but this time I reach up at just the right time. It’s a good thing, too, because the object is small, but heavy and sharp.
It takes me a minute to realize: it’s a one-inch picture frame.
I smile. “Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird! Right? It’s a metaphor for focusing on one small part of a piece, instead of constantly worrying about the bigger picture.”
Gloria groans. “So, you’ve read that one, too.”
I nod. I squirm in my desk chair, hoping to block her view of the shelves behind me, which are crammed with writing manuals, collections of essays about writing, and memoirs about writing.
“So, it’s not as though you don’t know what to do,” she says. You just need to get out of your own way and write. My work here is done.”
Gloria disappears as quickly as she came. I stare at the empty chair.
Perhaps I imagined her.
As my eyes wander back to my computer screen, I read a card I’ve placed on my desk, in my line of sight. It’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind:
And, finally, I do.
Melissa Ballard composts, checks Facebook and, occasionally, writes from her desk in Oberlin, Ohio. You can read her essays at https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/
July 31, 2018 § 9 Comments
Morning light floods the Infusion Center’s waiting room through the fourteenth-floor windows that overlook Manhattan. It’s 9:30 and nearly all the room’s chairs and benches are occupied. My husband Ed and I stand online at the registration desk behind a man in his twenties whose half-shaved head bears an angry scar.
It’s likely most people are waiting for chemotherapy. I see hats, lots and lots of hats, headwraps, and scarves. An Orthodox Jew with an oxygen cannula pulls a portable tank behind him. A surgical mask covers an African American woman’s nose and mouth. Diversity abounds. Indian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and bi-racial couples sit side-by-side. Caregivers, in agency scrubs, tend to elderly clients in wheelchairs.
Infusees, and those who wait with them, are engrossed in books, magazines, newspapers, cell phone and iPad screens. Others listen through earbuds, doze, or stare into space, arms crossed, legs or feet restless. It’s remarkably quiet until a nurse or patient advocate wanders through, calling out names. No one looks you in the eye.
Ed is here for an Ocrevus infusion, a new drug treatment for MS. He and I have sat in so many waiting rooms since he was first diagnosed, I’ve learned to come equipped: with a book, Kindle, or cell phone, just like the men and women seated around me. Today I’ve brought along Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. I use the blank pages that appear—mercifully—between the glossary and back cover to document what I see as I sit and wait. It keeps me centered, in the moment.
Paying attention, gathering data, recording yields the raw material necessary for our task as writers. It also offers peace amidst the emotionally charged environment in which we observe. As long as I stay focused on such physical details as the tiny library nook (where I once scored a publisher’s copy of an engaging novel), the artwork drawn by children hospitalized next door, or the spinner luggage, plastic carry-out bags, and canes placed at people’s feet, I won’t be envisioning metastasizing cells, or wondering if the man with a damaged liver’s yellow coloring is in his final months, or worrying about how much our insurance will pay toward Ed’s bi-annual, $65,000 infusion. It can get messy and maudlin inside my head. It can also be a waste of time.
When Ed’s name is called, we’re buzzed through a set of metal doors to the treatment area. We follow a hallway that dead-ends into Area D, a cluster of seven curtained cubicles around a nurses’ desk. We know from previous visits that each cubicle contains a window, an infusion chair, a pole for IV bags, a plasma TV, and a chair. A built-in cupboard contains a pillow, blanket, and space to hang outerwear. Restrooms are nearby. There are sixty treatment cubicles on this floor.
A ginger-haired nurse with an Irish accent introduces herself and administers steroids and Benadryl as a precautionary measure before starting Ed’s IV. The infusion will take about six hours. Once the Ocrevus begins to flow, I’ll step out and head for the nearby Starbucks where I’ll fetch a medium, iced caramel macchiato for Ed. Little, tangible things like that make a difference.
Writing creative nonfiction can involve digging deep into our memory, our journals, our past. But it also requires being open to the details of life as it presents itself, in the here and now, in moments we miss if we’re daydreaming or have our noses in a book.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you enter deeply into the moment, you see the nature of reality, and this insight liberates you from suffering and confusion. Peace is already there.”
The desire to be a writer, to write about the reality of my everyday life experiences, has opened me to the peace of observation, and the details of waiting.
Marcia Krause Bilyk works part-time as spiritual director at a long-term residential treatment center for substance abusers in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Compose Journal, The Upper Room, Wanderlust Journal, Drunken Monkeys, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. She and her 125 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog Wally visit local hospitals and schools.
May 1, 2018 § 15 Comments
“When will you write something about me?”
“Mom, you know I only write about dead people.”
End of conversation.
But the truth was, I’d already started more drafts about Mom than I could count.
As she began to have health problems, needed surgery, and finally had to move from her home of nearly forty years, those drafts got longer and became more numerous.
In October of 2013, Mom died. I continued to write. I revised, blended, made maps of the structure of some of the older essays, tore up the maps, wrote a series of paragraphs based on images. Nothing worked.
Eventually, it all went into my “dormant” file.
This is as good a time as any to disclose that I have a bursting file drawer devoted to typed and hand-written drafts, which I have tried in vain to organize. Recently, in an attempt not to waste paper, I’ve made a conscious effort to do less printing. I now have an unknown number of drafts in various locations on my computer and on a flash drive, which appears to be incompatible with my new laptop. Some, I think, are also in The Cloud, but I’m not sure how that happened, nor do I know how to access them.
In February of 2017, I took an online class with Penny Guisinger, “Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction.” Without referring to any of my previous drafts, I wrote a short essay about my relationship with my mom. At Penny’s suggestion, I worked on the ending. After a few more people read it, I made final revisions, and sent it to Full Grown People, where Jennifer Niesslein accepted it.
At least eight years in the making, a plethora of drafts, and a final word count somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 words—a flash essay, by most definitions.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with the fun-sounding GAD. It’s true that, if you add an “l” you have “glad.” But it’s short for “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I began to write about anxiety and ended up with an unruly draft that included my great-grandmother, German cursing, and a metaphor about my washing machine. After many attempts it, too, found its way to the “dormant” drawer.
In 2013, I attended a Summer Writing Workshop at Kenyon College, where I took a creative nonfiction class with Dinty W. Moore. I arrived a day late, courtesy of GAD. When Dinty gave us the assignment for the next day: write directions or instructions for how to do something, I went back to my room in a panic. My self-talk went something like this: You don’t know how to do anything. There’s no time to research. Other people can write a decent draft in one day. You cannot, because you are not a writer. You should go home now.
I told myself to be quiet and stared at my overflowing suitcase. I wrote a draft, in list form, about what it’s like to pack for a trip when you have anxiety. I read it in class the next day, got some positive feedback, and continued tweaking it when I got home. Writer friends reviewed it, I submitted it, it got rejected. I was working full-time, so I let it, too, go dormant.
After I retired, I looked at the draft again and did some more revisions. This time, it seemed like a good fit for The Manifest-Station. Editor Angela M. Giles, agreed, and she published it. This version, which does not include either my great-grandmother or large appliances, was published some six years after its conception. It, too, had gotten shorter over time: from 1,900 to 800 words.
I had been writing drafts about my dad and his love of cardinals since soon after his death in 1995. I submitted a few, and they got rejected. I dragged one version to a writing class at Chautauqua Institution in 2008, where I got some great feedback during a one-on-one meeting with Liz Rosenberg but I still couldn’t get it right.
In the summer of 2016, I was reading River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and I thought again of my dad and cardinals. I started fresh, with the 250-word limit in mind, and this time it worked.
Math gives me a headache, which is just as well. Any calculations involving how many publishable words I can produce in a specified amount of time would no doubt make me despair.
A writer friend commented that the word “dormant” sounded too passive. That made sense, so I looked up synonyms at Merriam-Webster.com, thinking that renaming my draft drawer might speed up my writing process. I found one I liked, but it has little to do with speed.
Latent: a power or quality that has not yet come forth but may emerge and develop.
The possibilities appeal to me. And regardless of the name I choose for my drawer of drafts, there is this:
I am writing.
I am writing.
Melissa Ballard apologizes if any readers are offended by the suggestive titles of her guest posts for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog: Finishing, Stripper Girl, and Slow Flash. Or, having read the posts, disappointed she does not deliver on her promises.