From Scraps to Stories

December 7, 2017 § 25 Comments

A guest post by Anne McGrath

Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.

Not any more.

For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.

Here’s how it works:

At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”

Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:

  • hawk died
  • what if I never had kids
  • the art of napping
  • no longer know people in People mag
  • when dad’s work bench turned messy
  • birds – make them come to you
  • wearing uniforms
  • computer passwords
  • phantom pony tail

It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.

This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.

But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.

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Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.

On Not Writing

November 9, 2017 § 44 Comments

Happy children! Loud happy children!

This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?

This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.

This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.

This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.

This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.

This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.

This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.

This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.

This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.

This is the blog post I half-assed through before deadline and I can always put it in Drafts and write something better, at some other time, when my mood and surroundings will be perfect.

This is the free-form piece I begrudgingly typed because even poorly chosen words I will later delete count and I can tick it off in my Productive app and the app will make a pleasing sound like Pavlov’s Writer.

This is the morning I should feel lucky and privileged to get to write while lots of other people go to real jobs and do real things like grown-ups.

Goddamn that TV is loud.

This is the blog post I’m forcing myself to write while children play ball and shriek in Spanish in the schoolyard my Airbnb backs up to.

This is what I am writing instead of the grant proposal I promised to write, instead of the novel I should be working on, instead of the memoir proposal I should also be working on, instead of just freeing myself to write anything in my notebook and open many doors and explore details more thoroughly like my respected teacher told me to.

This is me writing instead of nudging the teacher for feedback on the manuscript I sent even though I warned him it was really bad.

This is the writing I do through self-doubt and worry and too many things on my list. This is the writing I do instead of knocking on the wall and telling the neighbor to please, please turn it down even just a little. This is the writing I do before I go buy a sticky pad and leave a passive-aggressive post-it on their door. This is the writing I do because yes, I’m lucky and yes, it’s not coal-mining and yes, lots of people think they want this life of staying in a cool fun neighborhood in London all by myself with nowhere I have to be on time, because the price of having the life you want is living the life you have.

This is the blog post that says you are not alone in your bad mood and imperfect surroundings and terrible ideas. That I am not alone in sadness and jet lag and irritation and the antsy pull to get out of the chair and do something, anything else. To get out of my life and do something else, except there is nothing else I want to do as much as I want to write and not writing is worse than writing (not by much).

This is checking my tool box and wondering where the secret tool that makes it easy is. This is suspecting everyone else has the secret tool and they’re all only pretending it’s hard so I don’t feel bad.

This is ridiculous envy.

This is the typing before the writing starts, the typing or scribbling or concentrated thinking without an electronic device, the commitment to sit down and write, whether or not it sucks. This is moving the fingers or the pen on an empty tank and hoping the act of moving will make it full. This is watching the word count tick up past the imposter mark.

This is facing the empty page today and knowing it will be there again tomorrow.

This is saying, come get me empty pages. I’m not ready but I’m here anyway.

This is writing anyway.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Of course the neighbors turned the TV off when she finished. Like, on literally the very last goddamn word.

No Room, No Time

August 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

It's a small barrel, but at least it's private

It’s a small barrel, but at least it’s private

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the MFA – its power, its lack of power, using the MFA as a place to polish one’s craft, to find a writing community, or as a clear-eyed shot at getting a teaching job. But in every case, the MFA doesn’t stand alone–it’s part of a writer’s life. Sometimes, a life with space and time for writing, sometimes, as Claire Rudy Foster writes over at The Review Review, a life where writing is shoehorned in in snatched moments and guilty time away from the family. Foster sacrificed to go to a low-residency MFA program, and on the first day:

The writer leading the group asked us to go around the table and, as an icebreaker, describe our work spaces. I listened carefully as the others talked about their rooms, studies, studios, and offices. They all had computers. They had privacy. Their children were in high school or older, not still in diapers. When it was my turn, I told the truth: that I wrote, one sentence at a time, with whatever was at hand. That I wrote on the bus with my son on my lap, taking him to day care before I went to yet another double shift. That I wrote on my breaks. That I texted sentences to myself. I told them that I wrote when my son went to sleep at night, staying up an extra hour to crank out the draft of another short story.

They stared at me as though I was an alien. My ears prickled, and my cheeks flushed. I was ashamed of my poverty—ashamed that I couldn’t afford what they had. Finding an apartment with an extra bedroom was beyond my reach. Taking a day off wasn’t an option for me—we needed every penny. And then, I looked at my classmates and realized that, regardless of the comforts they possessed, they were not better writers than me. They had yet to be published, much less finish a long project. They didn’t know how to work at writing. I did. And I was willing to do anything to keep writing—I had to, if I wanted to produce anything at all.

Foster’s situation isn’t uncommon–I know many writers with children, with day jobs, with the responsibility of feeding and clothing and fight-settling a family. Some with supportive partners and some with supportive families and some with very little support at all. Even those of us with time and space are always wishing for more–if only I didn’t have that business dinner, that pile of stories to grade, that friend’s manuscript to read.

But the pressure of fitting our writing into a smaller space and time can be a good thing. As Foster discovered, having to make time meant making time. I probably generated more artistic work faster as a temp, scribbling between faxes, than I do now on a long lazy afternoon. My work model is best when it’s frantic, when there’s no time to second-guess whether or not something’s going to be good–it just has to be done.

Foster’s essay is brave and true–her realization that the pressure helped her make diamonds, that the lack of time meant using her time wisely. There wasn’t space to be precious about her work, or to stop moving forward. There was only enough room to write.

Read the whole essay at The Review Review. And then use your time today–all of it.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting…and Writing Better, is now available on Amazon.

What Makes Bad Writing?

June 29, 2016 § 22 Comments

635860977597358197-1003640765_writers-block-vintageWe’ve all read a bad book. Most of us have read a bad published book; many of us have read a bad manuscript, perhaps a friend-of-a-friend’s, that we were obligated to read to the bitter end. And then tell the author something noncommittal and encouraging.

You just don’t know what you did there!

You make it all seem so spontaneous on the page…

You…literature…wow.

Truly bad writing–rather than slickly-crafted airport thrillers, or blandly-told stories that somehow tap into the zeitgeist to sell millions–is, Toby Litt writes in the Guardian, “a love poem addressed by the self to the self.”

Litt discusses “excuse writers”:

Bad writers bulwark themselves against a confrontation with their own badness by reference to other writers with whom they feel they share certain defence-worthy characteristics. They form defensive admirations: “If Updike can get away with these kind of half-page descriptions of women’s breasts, I can too” or “If Virginia Woolf is a bit woozy on spatiality, on putting things down concretely, I’ll just let things float free”. If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.

While Litt focuses on fiction, his discussion of the personal story is particularly true for bad nonfiction writers.

Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.

But wait–memoirists are supposed to be truthful, right? Isn’t that the whole point?

Absolutely. And also, no. The point is to cover the facts honestly, but by using structure, voice, style and craft to make the reading compelling to a stranger. To be able to answer the eternal memoir question, So what?

What separates good writers from bad is the learned ability to analyze their own work and the desire to make it better. The willingness to accept that it isn’t enough to have a powerful story. But we already know this, and we think it every time someone at a party says, “I have a great idea! You should write it and we’ll split the profits!”

We know an idea isn’t enough, that even a story isn’t enough. We know it’s about craft plus compelling story plus the will to shape the story into something considered, focused, interesting and beautiful. And along the way, a lot of messing around to learn how writing works, and how we can make it work better every time.

Read Toby Litt’s piece here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Writing Is the Antidote (to publishing in the digital age)

June 22, 2015 § 15 Comments

Acceptances, every one

Acceptances, every one

A guest post from Jennifer Berney:

It sounds quaint to say it now, but a decade ago, before the internet took over the world of publishing, I used to get excited for the mailman’s arrival. Most afternoons, he left me nothing but bills and credit card offers, but sometimes I opened my mailbox and spotted one of the bright red self-addressed-stamped-envelopes that I’d been waiting for.

During that era, I printed short stories every Sunday afternoon, stuffed them into manila envelopes, and sent them off, several at a time, to various literary journals. I purchased red envelopes for my SASEs, in part because they were easy to spot in the mailbox, but also as a kindness to myself. I couldn’t control whether the SASE contained an acceptance or a rejection, but I could ensure that it was packaged in a way that pleased me.

In those days, the process of submitting and waiting for a response wasn’t so unlike the work of writing itself. There was a ritual to it, a set of superstitions. It took discipline to muster up the nerve to send out my work, just as it took discipline to sit down and write. Both the act of writing and the act of submitting required stores of patience—I often revised a story multiple times before deciding to abandon it, and it often took nearly a year for any given rejection notice to arrive. Neither the writing process nor the publication process ever offered instant gratification, and yet they both felt important, character-building, and mutually supportive—the rejections pushed me to try harder, and the occasional acceptance kept me from losing hope.

I took a long hiatus from submitting my work, and when I returned just over a year ago, I discovered that the world had moved online. I no longer need a stockpile of red envelopes, and I no longer wait for the postman. For the most part, this is convenient. Electronic submissions save me time and expense. However, I find that there’s a surprising emotional cost. Because news of publication might arrive in my inbox at any moment, that sense of anticipation—once confined to my thirty-second walk to the mailbox—must now spread itself over the course of the day. Furthermore, there is no rhythm or regularity to the replies I receive. When I submit to an editor these days sometimes I hear back hours later, or sometimes months, or sometimes never. I wonder constantly how to train my brain to bury that anticipation, that curiosity. It’s hard, I find, to focus on the writing itself when there might be news awaiting me just two clicks away.

The process of publishing no longer complements my writing; it competes with it. And, of course, it’s not just the submission process that has changed. Now that most of our work appears online, writers are now privy to all sorts of information that would have once been left to mystery.

When I published my first short story in a small literary journal in 2005, I assumed that some people subscribed to it, that it arrived in their mail and landed on their coffee table. Probably plenty of these copies went unread, or were read selectively, but it seemed likely that some people—a few of them at least—would read my story. I would never know how many, or who they were, or what they thought, or if they caught the typo on the second page of the story—an error I’d noticed too late. I would never know these things, and in some ways it was better that way.

Today, when an essay or story goes live, I have access to data that I can track from moment-to-moment. I can see how many people liked it, tweeted it, or otherwise shared it. I can track how many people clicked over to my blog. If I were bold enough, I could probably ask the editors how many visitors clicked on my story. I can read not only the comments that appear below, but comments on the website’s Facebook page which are often less kind. All of this information means that my readers are less imaginary, more immediate. When comments are kind, they are gratifying, but when they are critical they add yet another layer of chatter to my brain, more voices in my head that I must contend with every time I sit down to write. These voices are louder than the snail-mail rejections, which never contained any clues or explanations. The voices of internet critics speak in no uncertain terms; they carefully enumerate all of my sins.

I do not wish we could go backward. The digital age has offered writers so much—it has allowed us to find each other more easily, to build meaningful communities; it has brought more good work to more people. But while online publishing has undeniably enhanced our writing lives, it has also complicated them. All of the opportunities for submitting and promoting our work, for making connections, for tracking responses—all of this perpetual anticipation and over-stimulation can leave me feeling like an old rubber band stretched nearly to the point of breaking.

When I began writing in the first place, it was because it helped me avoid the constant feeling of being worn thin. And so, at the end of the day, writing itself turns out to be the only antidote I’ve found to the chaos of the information age. Now more than ever, the blank page provides a source of comfort and stillness and silence. The act of engaging with that page, of diving deep to fill it with words, has become the only way I know to quiet the voices of distraction, or ease the feeling of vulnerability that comes from sharing your stories, your truth, and your secrets with the internet.

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Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in The Manifest Station and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.

Listening For The Truth

August 6, 2014 § 14 Comments

By Allison K Williams

Oliver Typewriter, known as the "Iron Butterfly" for the overhead strike motion of the type arms

Oliver Typewriter, known as the “Iron Butterfly” for the overhead strike motion of the type arms

In my head, real writers wake up, head to the typewriter, and happily pound away until their word count for the day is complete. Then, emotionally depleted but happy, they retire to the lounging sofa for the afternoon.

There’s something wrong with this picture. For starters, there’s a typewriter in it.

It’s also (based on every writer I know) completely inaccurate in every other way, too. A big lie that I’ve told myself.

Everyone sweats. Everyone slogs. Everyone feels alone and sad, and like they must not be a “real writer” because “real writers” have a different/superior/classic process.

I finished a memoir and got an agent and spent a month at loose ends. There was a lot of lounging sofa, but not a lot of word count.

I felt like a loser. Like I’d probably never write anything again. That was it, my last good idea, spent. And of course from there I shame-spiraled into the book will never sell the agent just felt sorry for me and now she and her interns spend Casual Fridays hoisting Oreo-tinis and reading out choice bits of my manuscript in funny voices. (Michelle, please don’t tell me if that’s true. Let an intern tell me.)

So I screwed up my courage and asked a writer I respect a lot, “What do you do after you’ve written a book?”

“Mooch around the internet, work in my garden, look out the window, and think about how I’ll never write anything else ever again.”

Oh.

It’s not just me.

Know what?

It’s not just you, either.

There is no magic process that “real writers” do. You are a “real writer” when you write. You are still a “real writer” when you’re not writing, when you’re sitting and listening for words to come. Maybe your listening is taking long walks, or watching cat videos, or reading wonderful books you admire or reading trashy books that entertain you. For me, listening is hanging out on the lounging sofa and imagining a little room. I wait in the room, and my ideas are people coming to me with problems. I listen until someone shows up with a problem I want to solve.

I listen for the truth to show up, so I can tell it.

(P.S. I own the Oliver Typewriter above, and I sometimes turn it to the wall when I imagine it’s silently judging.)
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Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.

Resurrecting the Murky Past

August 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

brokenphoto-1-212x300When Ann Churcher set out to write a memoir of her childhood in Malawi:

The first thing I discovered was how much, how very much, I’d forgotten. And how very much more I’d never known – things that I should have known – or understood. The problem was compounded by waiting to write it until both my parents were dead. There was no one to ask, ‘What kind of lavatory did we have in the bush?’ ‘Did we drink milk from African cows?’ ‘Did I never play with the local children?’ And if not, ‘Why not?’

I’ve had to rely on my scribbled notes, my disjointed ‘snapshot’ memories, old dog-eared black and white photographs and a great deal of research. Fortunately, I throw little away.

In a blog post at Women Writers Women’s Books, Ms. Churcher describes the process of painstakingly reconstructing her half-remembered life, and how she transformed her version of the truth into memoir.

Read the whole thing.

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