Why I Love Shame
March 28, 2023 § 10 Comments
Connect connect connect connect.
By Nerissa Nields
How to fall into a shame spiral:
1. Rent your AirBnB studio for 30% off. Forgive the guest for nicking your van. Give him a 5-star review anyway. Watch as the ingrate gives you your first ever 4-star review. The kicker? His comment: Not worth the value.
2. Come across a high-school paper for a course you excelled in. Think, I’m going to show my 16-year-old so she can see how smart her old mama was. Turn to the last page to admire the A. Be appalled to see, instead, a B+. Teacher’s comment: Does not quite rise to the next level.
3. Observe the vortex forming at the center of your chest, pulling all of you into it, like one of those puppets that disappears into a hand-held cone. Like a black hole, it feels as weighty as…well, as a literary rejection. Your writing is beautiful, the agent says. It’s a really hard call for me, but I’m going to have to pass. I just don’t feel the passion I’ll need in order to represent you.
In other words—B+.
My husband doesn’t like the novels I’ve been writing for umpteen years. He wishes I would stop polishing sentences, deepening the characters, creating new plotlines, and just self-publish the damn things already. Generally, he loves my writing. Just not these novels.
“Be done with them,” he says. “Move on to other things!” Most days, I tolerate this betrayal. After all, they’re based on my life as part of a folk-rock band, which I co-founded with my sister and my first husband. Would I want to read about his former marriage?
Then, I see a dedication in someone else’s novel: I want to thank my wife who believed in my book when I could not.
So I rip the scab off, trying once again to figure out why my husband doesn’t like my books. Too much about the music business? Was he threatened by my past? Could it be he’s an asshole with a terrible personality and bad taste?
This only wrecks the day for both of us.
I Google, Spouses who hate their partners’ art but instead of discovering happily married folk who blithely disregard their spouses’ genius, what comes up are images of storied literary marriages: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Even Catherine Blake, illiterate when she married poet-artist William, believed in his genius unconditionally. I conclude I am either the only great writer who has chosen a witless partner, or else…my partner must be married to a witless writer.
I begin to wonder if my anger at Tom is really just my own self-doubt. Reading over a draft, I saw how many ways I’ve failed. At the moment, it’s a definite B+.
What if I knew that it might never get above a B+ no matter how many years I work on it?
Would that be liberating? What if my best work really is ahead of me and I can’t write it because I’m obsessively tinkering with these books?
On the other hand, would I self-sabotage by pulling the trigger too soon? The idea of self-publishing depresses me. I think highly of self-publishing—but I would miss working on the books. This fictional world is my playhouse. If I publish these books, I can’t change them. Then what am I going to do for fun?
It used to be fun to send my work “out there,” throwing CDs of my band’s demos to the wind. We got lots of rejections but enough valuable connections to build a 30-year career. I used to post silly videos, half-edited blog posts, incessant questions to my social media followers. What’s stopping me doing the same in my literary life? And why, come to think of it, have my various profiles all gone silent?
Trusting a suggestion to visualize “my life’s purpose,” I saw a view of Earth from space. There I was, a dot on the east coast, em-dashes of gold shooting steadily in multiple directions––like a graphic Internet companies use to demonstrate that the modem is connecting to the router. Steady on, these little golden flashes of mine, all over the world. Blink, blink, blink. Connect connect connect.
What’s keeping me from this simple job of sending out my words, music, novels, essays, videos? Nothing but my old acquaintances Fear and Dishonesty.
I don’t want to tell you about my husband’s dislike of my fiction. I’m afraid you’re going to think I’m merely a B+ student, 4-star AirBnB host, and an average writer. The lie I try to get you to believe is that I’m brilliant, extraordinary, essentially the cat’s pajamas. But why? Don’t I know by now that the safest place is also the most vulnerable place?
Tom’s inability to see that my novels are the cat’s pajamas means that every single day I get to practice toughening my skin, an essential attribute for any writer. It’s no one’s job but mine to love them. Moreover, that stuff inside my black hole of shame is the primordial ooze of me, the very material stories are made of. There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in, writes Leonard Cohen. Each little dash of light emanating from my spot on the planet is my own unique morse code that sings the world’s song, endlessly noble, endlessly humble: connect connect connect connect connect.
Nerissa Nields is a musician and writer living in Western MA. Her work has appeared in J Journal and Maine Review. She’s the author of the YA novel Plastic Angel (Scholastic); All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family (Roost Books/Random House) and How to Be an Adult (Leveller’s Press). She is the director of Writing It Up in the Garden Workshops and Retreats and holds an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Facts Create Feelings: World-Building in Memoir
February 16, 2023 § 11 Comments
Make readers cry for you, not with you.
By Allison K Williams
I always write down the notes. When it’s my turn for workshop feedback, no matter how much I disagree, no matter whether I put “Stupidhead said…” before a note that seems irrelevant, I write every single critique in my notebook. I learned this as an actor, when a director told me, “Write down all the notes, or you won’t remember the note, you’ll only remember how you felt when you got the note.” Examining my notebook a few days later, when my writerly feelings have faded, I’m able to dig into the actual notes and find their true usefulness.
I think that person is wrong…but two other people had problems with the same scene. What really needs revising?
“Consider writing this totally different scene I dreamed up for you.” No thank you, but I do need to show my dad in a different light. What about…
Writing memoir is a way of giving feedback to ourselves, on our journey and our character. How was that performance? Did the protagonist make us cry while we watched them fight for something better? Or did we experience page after page of unbroken misery, feeling sorry for them and wondering why they didn’t fix their life?
As writers, we are both performer and director. It’s very hard to genuinely critique our own work—our feelings are so tightly connected to the facts. But to improve our writing to a publishable level, we have to move past how we felt to what happened. Rather than merely unearthing our trauma and pain on the page, making it clear whose fault that all was, we must step back and show the context.
World-building isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction. Memoir also needs that creation of the larger surroundings. Our world-building is showing the reasons our villains acted the way they did, the cultural environment that made unequivocally bad behavior seem tolerable, and the good and normal times that kept us from leaving unpleasant relationships or situations. As writers, that means not beginning scenes with “My mother was about to hurt me again.” (OK, fine, we can skip ahead a few pages!) As people, that means showing the hope that kept us trying before we got out.
Show the reader the days you enjoyed hanging out with your abuser, and they’ll be shocked with you when the abuser shows another face. Loving actions from a parent lull the reader into thinking, Maybe this time will be different, just as you did.
As the writer, honestly portraying the good times also allows ourselves grace for not leaving the situation earlier, not standing up for ourselves. We can remember and show why we justified that other person’s actions or tolerated a terrible relationship. Humans are mammals, and mammals respond strongly to unpredictable rewards. Give a dolphin the treat every time, and the trick gets sloppier and sloppier. They’ll do the minimum. Random treats make mammals do their best and keep trying. Slot machines pay out just enough for gamblers to keep feeding in quarters. Your terrible boyfriend apologized just enough to keep you coming back. Your mom gave just enough love to keep you desperate to please her.
Show why the people who hurt you behaved as they did. Genuinely interrogate your antagonists’ history and beliefs, and give them credence on the page. What they were fighting, what they hoped for and lost. Your book will be better for watching the “bad guys” betray themselves even when they try to be good.
But pain and trauma stick out in our memories, much easier to access than the “reasonably OK” interludes. How do we get to the good times?
By noting the facts instead of our feelings.
Write down the negative events in all their awfulness…but in the next draft, move past what you felt. Move past how terrible the antagonist was. Write what happened. What you physically experienced—not just actions you took or that were taken against you, but what you smelled when you fought with your dad in the kitchen. The temperature of the diner, the slight greasiness of the table, the taste of the cheese fries when you said, “I want a divorce.” The music throbbing from someone else’s car at a stoplight when you realized you had to leave home.
Expanding outward beyond the emotional content of a scene, often through sensory writing exercises, helps us recall details that may have blurred into the general trauma of the experience. Sharing those sensory details on the page helps the reader feel the pain with us, rather than watching our pain and feeling pity. “Sucks that happened to you!” doesn’t help them understand your experience—or change their own life after sharing your journey.
Constant trauma on the page diminishes its own impact. The reader begins to disassociate from the writing, because they don’t want to be hurt, either. But watching the good parts of life, feeling cautiously optimistic with the narrator, builds tension. Watching your hope interrupted is far more powerful than trudging through a pit of despair. You don’t need the readers’ pity for your tears—make them cry for you instead.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Writing memoir…cautiously? Join her for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma & Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings Feb 27th with Jane Friedman. Find out more/register here.
Exposing My Truth
January 10, 2023 § 19 Comments
By Regina Landor
My brother once said to me when we were discussing a disagreement I had with another family member: “Being right isn’t always what matters the most.”
I understood what he meant: peace is what matters. I’ve kept his words with me for many years. They’ve helped me scramble down from the high moral ground on which I sometimes find myself waving a flag.
But it’s tricky. I’m one who feels compelled to set things right. Maybe it’s my mild case of OCD. A picture hanging crookedly on a wall? No thank you. A religious zealot who’s afraid of same-sex figurines on top of a cake? I can’t even. An inappropriate comment made in the margins of a piece of writing from a member of my writing group? Come again?
I wrote a piece recently about a time when I was 13 years old and touched by a boy for the very first time. Raw stuff. Delicate material. Not wanting to spell out the V word, I used what seemed like a compromise: a metaphor. My golden spot, I wrote. It seemed pretty darn golden when it was touched. Who knew there was so much gold down there?
Was I wrong to be angry when my fellow writer’s comment in the Google doc read: I’m not buying this? When she said: This is too sophisticated for a teenager? And even further: This is evasive and I think it would be better reworded—without offering any constructive criticism as to how she thought it should be reworded?
She also wrote, “Plus, total lack of privacy.” It was unclear to me if she meant that because the boy and I were in the backseat of a car driven by someone’s dad the scene lacked privacy (Duh) and was therefore not believable; or if she meant that she was uncomfortable with the privacy of the subject matter. Clear as mud.
The comment compelled me to write an email to our four-person group (I’d only met the writer of the comment online) to spell out feedback etiquette, namely: We’re writing our truth, and we need to be careful not to judge or criticize or impose our values on each other’s work. When starting this group, I suggested everyone read Peter Biello’s essay On Giving Feedback. And for the most part, our members have followed his advice, lending support and encouragement as well as good suggestions.
Was I wrong to be angry by her comments? I may have been wrong in my response, which I made in the margins of my piece after sending my email. As to the “evasive” remark, my husband suggested I tell her I wasn’t talking about my elbow. But I didn’t want to be sarcastic. Instead, I chose edgy. And then I did spell out the V word, just to seal it.
She replied in the comments that she only meant the scene didn’t ring true to her, not that she didn’t believe me. Truthfully, it is one of the most truthful scenes I’ve ever written. Another member of the group wrote in response to the scene: “So powerful.”
Who am I to believe? That the scene doesn’t ring true, or that the scene is so powerful?
I wrote her another email, apologizing for being edgy in my comments, but also saying that her remark about it being “too sophisticated for a teenager” implied that she doubted my experience.
I didn’t receive a reply. At least, not right away.
This exchange took up days of headspace. It also made me wonder whom I could trust with my work. I’m a writer here. I have a nasty habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I was born a sensitive soul. Flippant remarks tend to have the opposite effect on me: they don’t flit away. I like criticism, I want criticism, but what does “I would reword this” do for me except cause me to doubt what I’m doing?
It’s a two-way street: if people offer comments, they should at least be as thoughtful as the writer of the piece. I know it’s all a learning process. We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. But sometimes it’s necessary to push restart and remind ourselves and others what we’re doing here. Our goal is to be supportive and kind. Feedback can help the writing process and it can thwart it.
I got over it. I hadn’t been wounded, only mad. In fact, it spurred me to write a little piece about Pandora’s box. (What was in the box, you ask? You guessed it—vaginas.) I deleted the comment thread and wondered if she’d remain in our group.
Fortunately, after what seemed like weeks (it was only half a week) the writer of the comment responded to my apology email. With grace. She apologized herself. And she closed her email by signing off with one of my favorite words: Onward!
The exchange may have given us both pause. She acknowledged that she “missed the mark” with her comments; I had the opportunity to think about my own sensitivity and how she wasn’t intentionally trying to upset me. I’m glad it’s all behind us and we can get on with the business of writing our truth, however private it may be. As to whose comment I should believe about my delicate scene: I concluded that the one person I need to believe is me.
Regina Landor, preschool teacher, is the lucky recipient of daily hugs from four-year-olds. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas with the Foreign Service, living in Serbia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. While in Dhaka, she wrote the book Marry Me Stop about her mother’s extraordinary life and lapse into dementia. Her first book, Forever Traveling Home, chronicles the experience of moving overseas with toddlers. Examples of Regina’s recent writing appear in the literary magazines Coalesce Community and Black Fork Review. She and her family live in Maryland.
The Celestial Vault
December 22, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Deborah M. Prum
Years ago, I read a book that animated and forever changed my creative process.
In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers says, “It is a universal experience that a work of art has no existence apart from its translation into material form.”
That is, people think a painting doesn’t exist before it’s painted, a sculpture before it’s sculpted, or a story before it’s written.
But Sayers went on to posit that a work of art, let’s say a story, not only lives in our minds before we write it, but exists before that first thought inspires us.
Her unconventional idea moved me to envision a celestial dome, a ceiling resplendent with a riotous swath of lustrous stars splashed across a blue so deep and dark you could lose yourself in the magnificence. I imagined the arched archive housing my creation, glimmering outside my experience of time and space.
With my story orbiting in that space, all I need to do is inch my way toward an entity that already exists. As words pour out of my soul and the piece emerges, it’s as if I’ve ascended into the vault and embraced my creation. And if I wind up deliberating over every word, that’s fine, too. Either way, I feel less anxiety during the process.
I’m driven to finish most tasks as quickly as possible. My fiction projects, though, may linger in limbo for years. The concept of a vault helps me relax as I wait for the rest of the tale to emerge. The waiting is never static. New experiences and discoveries inform and change me—often providing what I need to complete a story. Rather than force myself to churn out a product, I allow myself space to be attentive and expectant.
As a writer, I’ve struggled with self-doubt. Early on, I’d ask, “Can I even call myself a writer?” Mid-career, I’d admit to being a writer, but question whether I was successful. Now, I wonder if I was successful enough. But, when I remember to view my writing as a calling and see myself as receiving a story that I’ve somehow already created, my doubts dissipate.
This perspective enables me to risk multiple failures at the start of a creative venture. I’m more likely to fling myself into the process, to explore a new style, a new genre. This has led me to write poetry, young adult fiction, audiobooks and iBooks.
Quantum physicists might not think the idea of a celestial vault so strange. Many believe that the past, present and future happen all at once.
To help us understand that concept, Brian Randolph Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and co-founder of the World Science Festival, suggests we picture a giant loaf of bread, each slice a life parallel to the other slices, all part of the same loaf, all lives happening at the same time. Past and future are merely perspectives, different slices of that long loaf.
What if we creatives were to think of time as a long loaf of bread, each slice a bit of glittering eternity? Furthermore, what if we were to envision a celestial vault arching over slices of that loaf, a personal, heavenly shelter for all our creations, past, present and future?
One can poke holes in the idea of a celestial vault. We know all that glitters is not gold. There is no guarantee that the world will consider my completed creation as brilliant or to even have merit.
Perfection isn’t the point. This way of thinking is an invitation to a life of joyful creation. Ms. Sayers might be rolling in her grave at the liberties I’ve taken with her book, but I’d have to say, it works for me.
Deborah M. Prum’s non-fiction has appeared in The Washington Post, Southern Living, Ladies’ Home Journal and elsewhere. Her radio essays have aired on NPR-member stations. Her fiction has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Across the Margin, The Virginia Writers Centennial Anthology, and elsewhere. Her articles on writing have appeared in The Writer, The Writer’s Handbook and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin. Deborah leads workshops on topics such as giving voice to grief and forgiveness, writing history for young adults, and humor writing. She teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Words, Words, Words
November 30, 2022 § 13 Comments
By Marcia Yudkin
During one of my entrepreneurial projects, I stood in a recording studio at Berklee College in Boston performing a script I’d written on increasing one’s vocabulary. Another woman and I took turns saying each word, defining it, then illustrating it in a sentence. During a break, the other woman turned to me and commented, “You really feel words, don’t you?”
I looked at her. Did I?
Euphonious: nice-sounding. The salesman disarmed me by speaking in euphonious tones.
In elementary school, tinkering with words was as natural for me as other kids playing with trucks or dolls. An aunt gave me a hardcover anthology of poems for children, and I was hooked. The sound of words and ways they could rhyme captivated me. I would read verses from The Golden Treasury of Poetry out loud and in a wire-bound notebook scribble stanzas of my own. At age seven, I read two of my creations on a local TV show, swinging into the echoes of “know” with “snow,” of “spring” with “king.” That aural resonance was the thing
Flaunt: display flagrantly. Though he had so much he could never spend it all, Richie Rich tried not to flaunt his wealth.
From the enchanting sound of words, I moved on to their meaning. With my weekly allowance I bought a paperback called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It cost 35 cents. Before going to sleep, I studied it, learning words like “ascetic,” “querulous” and “vindictive.” I especially devoured a chapter called “Words for Mature Minds” containing words that the author, Wilfred Funk, said nine-year-olds would not be able to understand.
Not long afterwards I injected one of those words—“maudlin”—into a composition for my third-grade class. “You see, I was not the maudlin type,” I wrote, noting how surprised I was that other kids cried their first day of school. “So there, Dr. Funk!” I thought with great satisfaction (although my use of “maudlin” was a bit off kilter).
Apotheosis: culmination or highest point. Marilyn Monroe was the apotheosis of Hollywood glamour.
Words also gathered associations. Today I can’t hear the word “obstreperous” without thinking of my grandfather. Self-educated because he’d had to leave school at 13, he read mysteries and histories in a high-backed wing chair in our living room, tapping the lit tip of his Havana cigar into a beanbag ashtray. Even when we kids behaved well, he called us obstreperous, I think because he enjoyed having that complicated a word roll off his tongue.
Since I too read like a fiend, I collected phrases from books that stuck word for word in my memory. This might consist of a bombastic nonfiction title, like What You Should Know About Communism and Why, or a snappy line from Catcher in the Rye, such as “If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff.” And as a grownup, I felt thrilled when I was able to insert—appropriately, wryly—Jane Eyre’s “Reader, I married him” into one of my books. With just four words I could breathe a puff of Charlotte Bronte’s passionate intensity into the tale of my own clandestine romance.
Visceral: felt immediately in the gut. Her opponent’s insult had a visceral impact on the governor.
As my Berklee College script-reading partner had intuited, for me words have one more element. Besides sound, meanings and associations, they have oomph. Words can shoot out of you like pellets of energy or at you like a baseball hitting your solar plexus. “Obstreperous” has oomph. So does “albondigas,” a punchy word from my seventh-grade Spanish class that I loved so much I would say it again and again with exaggerated vigor. (It means “meatballs.”)
Sometimes the oomph is personal. I spent a year working in China at a time when outsiders stood out. When I traveled, kids would run after me and my blond companion, gleefully shouting “Waiguo ren!” (“Foreigners!”). When I rode the bus in Beijing, adults would stare. After eleven months of this, a five- or six-year-old boy leaped into the air with “Waiguo ren!” when he saw me, flicking a switch I didn’t know I had. Without thinking, I stalked toward the boy. Just as quickly, the boy’s father stepped in front of his son. “He’s welcoming you, you see,” he said in Chinese, giving me a worried look.
Catharsis: emotional release. After so much struggle and pain, the funeral represented a catharsis for the poor man’s family.
Ah, words. In any language, they dance, sing, point and sometimes sting.
Marcia Yudkin lives in the woods of Goshen, Massachusetts. The author of 17 books, she publishes a Substack newsletter called Introvert UpThink, in which she critiques society’s myths and misunderstandings about introverts. In addition to her newsletter, you can follow her on Twitter.
To Continue or Not? Writing the Memoir, That Is.
November 17, 2022 § 62 Comments
By Nancy L. Agneberg
I worked on my memoir for years. Years.
Revising. Restructuring. Changing the focus. Responding to feedback from my writing group (“Go deeper, deeper, deeper”), and incorporating what I learned in classes and from books about writing creative nonfiction.
I was pleased with the current version of my book—and with myself—and decided it was time once again to share the manuscript with a writer whom I had hired to read earlier versions. I wanted her opinion and thoughts about next steps. Obviously, I knew more revisions would follow, but I thought, I really did, that she would say, “Good job, Nancy. You are so close to the query and book proposal stage.”
Instead, she said, “I hope I don’t make you cry.”
I didn’t cry, at least in her presence, but I admit that when I returned to the sanctity of my car, I had a good cry, one I repeated later at my desk.
Wisely, I gave myself space before reading the three pages of comments, as well as those on the manuscript itself. I allowed myself to be stunned. Later I shared the comments with my writing group. They were stunned, too.
Then I entered a time of discernment.
Discernment is a process of deep listening. An intentional process during which insight, that ah-ha moment, has room to make itself known.
First, I posed some possible scenarios:
- Revise the memoir based on the reader’s suggestions.
- Self-publish after revising.
- Self-publish without major revisions.
- Create essays based on specific chapters and submit to appropriate venues.
- End all involvement with the memoir.
Based on the scenarios, I asked myself a series of questions:
- Do I agree with my reader’s evaluations? (Some yes, some no.)
- Am I willing to do the amount of work suggested? (Not sure.)
- If, as was suggested, this would be a hard book to sell to a publisher, what about self-publishing? (No. I don’t want to spend limited funds that way.)
- Do I regret all the time I’ve spent on the book? (No, I don’t think so, for I’ve learned so much along the way.)
- Was writing the memoir my purpose? My identity? (No, writing the memoir was part of my purpose and part of my identity.)
- Will I feel like a failure if I don’t continue with this project? (No, and as my husband pointed out, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.”)
In some ways, this is the perfect time to be working on a book. My children are grown, and my grandchildren are in their teens, one in college. My husband is retired and content with his own projects. Both of us are healthy. Nothing prevents me from continuing with this project.
And yet, when friends ask how my book is progressing, and I attempt to explain my dilemma, more than one person says, “But Nancy, you have worked so hard.”
True, but did I want to continue working so hard? Is that what this is all about?
The questions swirl around me like fall leaves caught in brisk breezes. Perhaps I need to be the tree and let go. Clearly, it is time to take a break, to pause, to exhale and clear the space.
These mornings, I sit quietly in my meditation space, breathing gently in and out. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, finding my own rhythm. I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely.
Pat Schneider writes in How The Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, “If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world.”
I believe that.
I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world. Writing is a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage leading me towards the person I was created to be.
I will continue to write, but not my memoir.
Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Brevity, Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; and elsewhere. She facilitates a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words: Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice, and blogs at Living on Life’s Labyrinth.
Ballet Barre and Memoir
November 11, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Kara Tatelbaum
Pliés, tendus, dégagés…whether you’re in Paris or Poughkeepsie, ballet barre exercises are the same. Most professional dancers are in class by 10 am every morning, whether they’re home or on tour. The routine is expected. You show up for class. You start with pliés. After thirty years of leotards and tights, I know this in my bones.
When I began to write my memoir, I was all over the place. The freefall of rants in the margins of my appointment book felt liberating at first. I scribbled fiercely on the subway, in between dance classes, during rehearsals, and in grubby corners of the gym. One night, after a Pilates class I taught was randomly cancelled, I tried organizing everything I’d written. The sheer volume, disorder, and lack of structure made me dizzy. I knew I had something. But what was it?
I’m sure other writers have faced this too. Especially those of us without formal training. We start with a little bit written here and there. That builds up and makes us wonder what to do with all of it? Am I writing a book? Help!
At this point in the writing process, I think a lot of us run to find a writing coach, class, or group to join. We look outward to get someone else to figure out what we’re doing. This costs money and time and can also easily waste both. You’re still in freefall and haven’t established any sort of boundaries to anchor your new practice. The act of writing is personal. The discipline of writing is too. Before letting others in and seeking professional help—be it a writing coach or therapist (I ended up getting both!)—focus inward and buckle down. It’s time to establish a writing routine.
Yes, it’s that simple—and inexpensive! But routine takes discipline. This means committing to a time, place, and repetition. Especially for us writers who may not consider ourselves writers, a dedicated routine helps shape our emerging writer selves. You have the impulse to write something, see it through on your own before inviting others in. What begins as a random, personal happening will become an established process. Your process.
While pleasing the ballet teacher is an integral part of a dancer’s training, ballet class is also where you can take chances, push your technique, fall and get back up. There’s no question you must be in the studio each morning for that to happen. Show up for your teacher, but first for yourself. But how do you show up as a writer? Look right, look left, there are no sweating bunheads cramped on either side of you trying to achieve the same goals. No long stationary handrail for support. No precise start time. No instructor or feedback. Dancers build technique and then push limits. Perfect two pirouettes, then go for three or four. I couldn’t take writing risks in this abyss! I was falling before learning any proper technique. The dancer in me craved routine and repetition. So that’s where I started.
The evening I went through all my writing, I decided to wake up at 5 am the next morning, before my dance and Pilates life started and get to “work.” For me, that meant to show up to write and keep going. The custom centered me. Each morning, I put on my dance clothes, poured myself some form of hot caffeine, popped open my secretary desk, and stuck to it.
I let myself continue to scratch notes freestyle whenever and wherever too. These improvisations proved to be the guts of my story. Before ballet class, rehearsals, and sessions with clients, I worked on my writing. Sometimes I reread what I had written other places and copied it into my computer. Other times I’d edit the parts I’d inputted or organize what I had written into sections, which later became chapters. I grew to love editing; it felt familiar, like rehearsing in dance. The same way I manipulated dance movements (bigger, smaller, upside down, faster, slower…) I cut, pasted, and played with my words. Making them perfect. Making them fit.
A year later, I had the first draft of my book.
I had grounded myself as a writer with the disciplined routine of a dancer. Ballet class starts standing at the barre. Writing begins sitting at my desk. Same time each morning. I showed up.
Turns out my 5 am routine worked for querying too. A few months later, on a pause between pliés and tendus, I snuck a look at my inbox and found I landed an agent.
Kara Tatelbaum’s debut memoir Putting My Heels Down: a memoir of having a dream…and a day job—a brutally honest look at her life as a dancer and very reluctant Pilates instructor trying to make it in NYC—was released by Motina Books on International Dance Day (April 29, 2022) and was a #1 Amazon Bestseller in Modern Dance. Find Kara on Instagram or visit her website.
17 Steps to Accelerate Your Writing Life
November 10, 2022 § 27 Comments
How simple changes propelled my writing productivity beyond my imagination
By Bethany Jarmul
I’ve loved writing since I was a child, but I haven’t always made it a priority. Last year, I published two pieces of writing. I was thrilled with those publications, but when it was time to make my 2022 New Year’s resolution, I decided to go all-in: to give it my best effort for one year and see what would happen.
This year, I’ve had 33 pieces accepted for publication in literary magazines. Here are the changes I made to make this kind of productivity possible.
- I got serious about taking care of my mental health. My anxiety and depression were preventing me from writing. (I started therapy and medication.)
- I set a tiered goal for myself to publish a certain number of pieces. Even if I couldn’t achieve the top goal, I could achieve one of the smaller ones. I celebrated every time I reached a goal. (I’ve now surpassed my top goal of 25 publications!)
- I joined Twitter and found the #WritingCommunity. The support, encouragement, and inspiration I discovered there have been invaluable.
- I participated in writing classes and workshops to brush up on my skills and to force myself to meet deadlines.
- I joined one writing group and started a second one, building community and accountability for my writing life.
- I gave up activities that were filling my free time—mainly watching TV and mindless Instagram scrolling.
- I decided to follow my passions, to write whatever I wanted, to experiment, to dabble, to follow my whimsy, to write whatever gave me the most joy in that moment, not worrying about where it would get published or about staying in a particular genre.
- I decided to focus on writing and getting published instead of trying to make money or trying to get into the most prestigious mags—writing and sharing being the two things that brought me the most joy. I reframed writing as my super fun hobby.
- As a mom to two young kids, I decided to write in whatever small pockets of time I have, and to write in messy, loud spaces (because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t write at all). No more excuses about not having the time or the space. Having limited time became motivation to get words down. (I wrote another Brevity Blog post about how I do this here.)
- I submit a lot. Each piece of writing, I submit to a minimum of five places, sometimes up to 12 to 15 places at once in a wide array of lit mags. The more I submit, the less the rejections hurt and the more chances I have to get published.
- When in doubt, I submit anyway. If the piece might fit the submissions call, if there’s even a tiny chance the editors could choose my work, I submit. I don’t self-reject.
- I very rarely abandon work. I just keep editing and transforming it until it’s something better, or I pull pieces from one piece to use for something else.
- I don’t write every day, but I do think about writing every day. I brainstorm ideas and try to be aware of my surroundings, always searching for interesting people, facts, places, ideas in whatever is happening around me.
- If I’m too tired to write, I read. If I’m too tired to read, I sleep. I’ve learned to respect my body and mind when they tell me to rest. Pushing through exhaustion doesn’t lead to good writing. Getting rest and exercise in my life helps my writing.
- I befriended other writers, and the few friends that I already had who wrote I brought into my writing groups and spaces. Now my personal life includes other people who also are passionate about writing.
- I gave myself permission to fail, to try new things, to get rejected—again and again and again. Because if it was easy, that would take away some of the fun.
- I also gave myself permission to learn from others, to see myself as a student again. I’m not afraid to ask questions or reach out to others for ideas or help when I need it.
I originally published these tips on Twitter, and I’ve been blown away by the number of other writers who found them helpful. I’m grateful that I could offer something valuable to the writing community that has bolstered me many days when I needed the encouragement.
Whether you are a seasoned writer or brand new to writing, I’d love to connect with you on Twitter.
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, editor, and artist. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has been nominated for Best of the Net. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. Bethany enjoys chai lattes, nature walks, and memoirs. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Connect with her on her website or on Twitter.
Sharing the Studio
November 9, 2022 § 22 Comments
Why aren’t we teaching writing technique?
By Allison K Williams
Writing is the only art form without a focus on technique. Sure, we take English class in high school and learn about the past perfect tense. College Composition 101 implants the five-paragraph essay, which must later be uprooted to write creatively. And workshops give us feedback on the emotional impact of our pages, the character’s journey or the storyline.
None of that is technique.
Technique—in any art—involves formally examining one’s fellow students’ work and immediately applying the lessons of their success and failure to one’s own work, under the guidance of a skilled teacher.
Ballet students spend hours at the barre, perfecting small movements before stringing those steps together. The teacher singles out the best pliés, the strongest knee position, even the most attractive foot arch, and points out sloppy posture, poky elbows and jutting chins. Every student dancer hopes to be singled out. Praise means you’re doing it right; criticism means your teacher thinks you can do it right.
As an artists’ model, I held still while students sketched, including one memorable lesson where, with my permission, the teacher circled my “fat pads” with washable magic marker on my skin, to show how drawing the female body is less dependent on musculature. After that, and every other sketching session, students circled the room to inspect each others’ work. As they moved from easel to easel, the teacher pointed out on each drawing where the line was strong, or a student had nailed a tricky shadow, as well as where they’d gone wrong, often adding a few quick pencil strokes to show what should be on the paper.
Musicians sing or play hours of scales, then rehearse with a conductor calling out missed notes and coaching the emotional interpretation of the score.
In most writing workshops, we discuss “craft” in terms of expressing emotional content on the page. Show-don’t-tell. Sensory details. Honesty. Those elements are valuable, and we need them to write. But we also need technique. What word arrangement best shows that sensory detail? How do the rules of grammar transform into strong paragraphs?
I’ve been to plenty of prestigious workshops and residencies, studied with noted teachers and gotten an MFA. My playwriting classes talked about structure and character objective; I’ve never studied either in a prose writing class. Playwrights learn to write dialogue so the actors will be guided to say it as we envision by the words themselves—not by stage directions like (angrily). I’ve heard “no adverbs!” many times, but I’ve never been taught in a prose workshop what to do instead.
Most of us teach ourselves what sentence structures make powerful writing by trial and error. One glorious day, I discovered the difference between a purposeful long sentence and an ineffective run-on: prepositional phrases! Words like across the room or in her hands or two days ago locate the reader in time and space. Too many relocations and they’re lost. Truly at that moment, I felt the angels sing.
Workshops can usually only cover short sections of full works. Too often, we’re not aware of the pace or rhythm of the whole book. Did you know that scenes need to accelerate near the end of a book, to create a feeling of inevitability in the reader, and one way to accelerate is by making each scene a little bit shorter? I don’t know if Cheryl Strayed teaches that, but Wild ends with chapters of 25 pages, 12 pages, 15 pages and 11 pages, then closes with 10 years’ worth of epilogue on a single page.
Many writing workshops reward the students who arrive with the most talent by helping them get better from where they are. The students with rougher skills can hope to apply the feedback to their own work, but too often what they get boils down to an inspirationally-delivered, “Great idea! Now scrap everything you’ve got and start over!”
But with what tools should they rebuild?
Most writers want to be able to analyze their own work and make it better. We all go through stages where our great idea has outstripped our ability to express it on the page.
Writer Deborah Lucas commented beautifully on this blog:
Art in any form, whether it be words on a page or paint on a canvas, I have found, goes through a process I like to call “the uglies.” It’s the destruction of the caterpillar before becoming the butterfly in the chrysalis. Even on emergence, the wings must dry and the body must warm before it can take flight. If your work is seen by the wrong person, say a less-than-matured editor, it can be devastating, even lethal to the creator.
Getting through the uglies means acquiring and using specific tools that have nothing to do with the power of the story or the emotional commitment of the teller. Improving our craft means receiving and applying feedback on the mechanics of language, and formally observing our fellow students’ works-in-progress to see those mechanics in action. Technique shapes great ideas into considered, focused, interesting and beautiful books—and more of us should be teaching it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
I Wanted to Write a Memoir. I Wrote It in Music First.
December 8, 2022 § 5 Comments
Had I written the essays as personal therapy, or did they belong with the work?
By Buick Audra
I walked away from my solo music after the release of my second album in 2011. In the years that followed, I gained clarity around the decision; I just had to figure out how to share it. I took workshops about writing memoir and personal essay and wrote down everything, even the parts I didn’t understand or agree with. I could sort that out later. I was gathering wisdom and experience; I was grateful for all of it. But some people talked about how their memoirs had taken a decade to write. I didn’t have a decade.
* * *
Up to 2019, I’d gladly given all of my time and creative energy in a Metal band called Friendship Commanders. But my solo work had called me back in a recurring dream over the years, and I had finally taken the call.
The idea to make my first solo album in nearly a decade came from five songs I’d written in a wildly transitional season of my life that held a divorce, the incarceration of my only sibling, my relocation from Brooklyn to Nashville, a record deal, and two Grammys. The songs told those stories more or less, but I’d never properly recorded them. I’d left them in demo form for my future self, like a time capsule waiting to be rediscovered. I thought that giving them their due might serve as amends to my former selves, cauterize a wound I’d grown all too used to. There was only one problem: I was no longer the woman who wrote them. I didn’t even sing like her anymore. It would be like cosplay to render and release the work with no qualifiers, no notes. So, I sat down and wrote five songs in response, updating the stories. One for each of the original five. An answer for every question. I had been waiting to tell these anecdotes for years, and now I could. The result was satisfying, healing—and easy. It poured right out of me like I’d been planning to do it all along.
I would write some essays to further expand on the narratives in the songs, I thought. I’d simply round them out and release them together. The memoir in songs was already in place; what was a handful of essays?
As the shutdown changed plans and lives all over the globe, I accepted temporary defeat. 2020 would not be my release year after all. I would have to be one of many disappointed and frightened people and wait. In the meantime, I would work on the essays. Classes, talks, and groups all moved to Zoom. I signed up for any I had free access to, and a few that I paid to attend.
I started with a paragraph about the human voice. My singing voice had gotten bigger since I’d written the original batch of songs, and that intrigued me. As drafts and versions unfolded, that paragraph remained. Months marched on, structures emerged and were abandoned; ideas that had once seemed brilliant dulled in the harsh light of a new day or week. Over the course of eighteen months, I wrote a few drafts with too many feelings and too few conclusive points, the last of which was fifty-five thousand words. And then I put it away. I had to return to my other band. We had tours to do, an album to record. The solo album and its essays could wait. Again.
When I came back to the writing, I was overwhelmed. Some of the manuscript, I loved. Some of it was off-track. But off-track from what? I had taken a memoir structure class online. It hadn’t solved the riddle of what belonged and what didn’t. I was still on my own with my tales and tangents. As my music team started to nail down the solo album release timeline for 2022, the pressure increased. Had I written the essays as personal therapy, or did they belong with the work?
The album. I had drifted away from the album. There was the structure. She stood there, waiting, like a dress form waiting to serve as an armature for something else. I scrapped all of my clever chapter titles and replaced them with the song titles. I faced the working draft and cut, just like I would cut any length of fabric that didn’t belong there. This project was just another piece of art. I knew how to make those. I had briefly forgotten.
I created a new Scrivener project and called it “One More.” And then I followed my gut. When my gut had questions, I followed the songs. The songs never faltered. They knew the way. After all, they had paved it.
By the time the album was nearing its release, the essays were ready. I couldn’t have planned the timeline if I’d tried. Acts of god had been involved, and I had merely used the time. The two projects were released on the same day, as I’d always hoped they would be.
Conversations with My Other Voice: Essays is my first memoir in prose, a book that I can now hold in my hands. But it’s based on my first true memoir, and that’s the one that I wrote in songs. I wrote the first version in my first language: music.
Buick Audra is a Grammy-award-winning musician and writer living in Nashville, TN. She is the guitarist and primary songwriter and vocalist in the melodic heavy duo Friendship Commanders Her new album, Conversations with My Other Voice, was released on September 23rd, 2022. The album is accompanied by a memoir in essays by the same name.