Words, Words, Words

November 30, 2022 § 9 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. 
  • Retire. 

Based on the scenarios, I asked myself a series of questions:

  • Do I agree with my reader’s evaluations? (Some yes, some no.)
  • Am I willing to do the amount of work suggested? (Not sure.)
  • If, as was suggested, this would be a hard book to sell to a publisher, what about self-publishing? (No. I don’t want to spend limited funds that way.)
  • Do I regret all the time I’ve spent on the book? (No, I don’t think so, for I’ve learned so much along the way.)
  • Was writing the memoir my purpose? My identity? (No, writing the memoir was part of my purpose and part of my identity.)
  • Will I feel like a failure if I don’t continue with this project? (No, and as my husband pointed out, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.”)

In some ways, this is the perfect time to be working on a book. My children are grown, and my grandchildren are in their teens, one in college. My husband is retired and content with his own projects. Both of us are healthy. Nothing prevents me from continuing with this project. 

And yet, when friends ask how my book is progressing, and I attempt to explain my dilemma, more than one person says, “But Nancy, you have worked so hard.” 

True, but did I want to continue working so hard? Is that what this is all about?

The questions swirl around me like fall leaves caught in brisk breezes. Perhaps I need to be the tree and let go. Clearly, it is time to take a break, to pause, to exhale and clear the space.

These mornings, I sit quietly in my meditation space, breathing gently in and out. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, finding my own rhythm. I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely. 

Pat Schneider writes in How The Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, “If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world.” 

I believe that. 

I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world. Writing is a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage leading me towards the person I was created to be. 

I will continue to write, but not my memoir. 

__________________

Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Brevity, Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; and elsewhere. She facilitates a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words: Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice, and blogs at Living on Life’s Labyrinth

Ballet Barre and Memoir

November 11, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Kara Tatelbaum

Pliés, tendus, dégagés…whether you’re in Paris or Poughkeepsie, ballet barre exercises are the same. Most professional dancers are in class by 10 am every morning, whether they’re home or on tour. The routine is expected. You show up for class. You start with pliés. After thirty years of leotards and tights, I know this in my bones.

When I began to write my memoir, I was all over the place. The freefall of rants in the margins of my appointment book felt liberating at first. I scribbled fiercely on the subway, in between dance classes, during rehearsals, and in grubby corners of the gym. One night, after a Pilates class I taught was randomly cancelled, I tried organizing everything I’d written. The sheer volume, disorder, and lack of structure made me dizzy. I knew I had something. But what was it?

I’m sure other writers have faced this too. Especially those of us without formal training. We start with a little bit written here and there. That builds up and makes us wonder what to do with all of it? Am I writing a book? Help! 

At this point in the writing process, I think a lot of us run to find a writing coach, class, or group to join. We look outward to get someone else to figure out what we’re doing. This costs money and time and can also easily waste both. You’re still in freefall and haven’t established any sort of boundaries to anchor your new practice. The act of writing is personal. The discipline of writing is too. Before letting others in and seeking professional help—be it a writing coach or therapist (I ended up getting both!)—focus inward and buckle down. It’s time to establish a writing routine.

Yes, it’s that simple—and inexpensive! But routine takes discipline. This means committing to a time, place, and repetition. Especially for us writers who may not consider ourselves writers, a dedicated routine helps shape our emerging writer selves. You have the impulse to write something, see it through on your own before inviting others in. What begins as a random, personal happening will become an established process. Your process. 

While pleasing the ballet teacher is an integral part of a dancer’s training, ballet class is also where you can take chances, push your technique, fall and get back up. There’s no question you must be in the studio each morning for that to happen. Show up for your teacher, but first for yourself. But how do you show up as a writer? Look right, look left, there are no sweating bunheads cramped on either side of you trying to achieve the same goals. No long stationary handrail for support. No precise start time. No instructor or feedback. Dancers build technique and then push limits. Perfect two pirouettes, then go for three or four. I couldn’t take writing risks in this abyss! I was falling before learning any proper technique. The dancer in me craved routine and repetition. So that’s where I started.

The evening I went through all my writing, I decided to wake up at 5 am the next morning, before my dance and Pilates life started and get to “work.” For me, that meant to show up to write and keep going. The custom centered me. Each morning, I put on my dance clothes, poured myself some form of hot caffeine, popped open my secretary desk, and stuck to it. 

I let myself continue to scratch notes freestyle whenever and wherever too. These improvisations proved to be the guts of my story. Before ballet class, rehearsals, and sessions with clients, I worked on my writing. Sometimes I reread what I had written other places and copied it into my computer. Other times I’d edit the parts I’d inputted or organize what I had written into sections, which later became chapters. I grew to love editing; it felt familiar, like rehearsing in dance. The same way I manipulated dance movements (bigger, smaller, upside down, faster, slower…) I cut, pasted, and played with my words. Making them perfect. Making them fit. 

A year later, I had the first draft of my book. 

I had grounded myself as a writer with the disciplined routine of a dancer. Ballet class starts standing at the barre. Writing begins sitting at my desk. Same time each morning. I showed up.

Turns out my 5 am routine worked for querying too. A few months later, on a pause between pliés and tendus, I snuck a look at my inbox and found I landed an agent.

—————–

Kara Tatelbaum’s debut memoir Putting My Heels Down: a memoir of having a dream…and a day job—a brutally honest look at her life as a dancer and very reluctant Pilates instructor trying to make it in NYC—was released by Motina Books on International Dance Day (April 29, 2022) and was a #1 Amazon Bestseller in Modern Dance. Find Kara on Instagram or visit her website

17 Steps to Accelerate Your Writing Life

November 10, 2022 § 26 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.

  1. I got serious about taking care of my mental health. My anxiety and depression were preventing me from writing. (I started therapy and medication.)
  2. 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!)
     
  3. I joined Twitter and found the #WritingCommunity. The support, encouragement, and inspiration I discovered there have been invaluable. 
  4. I participated in writing classes and workshops to brush up on my skills and to force myself to meet deadlines.
  5. I joined one writing group and started a second one, building community and accountability for my writing life.
  6. I gave up activities that were filling my free time—mainly watching TV and mindless Instagram scrolling.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 
  9. 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.) 
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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. 
  17. 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.

Who’s On First?

November 3, 2022 § 27 Comments

By Regina Landor

A new magazine recently accepted one of my pieces for publication. It had been a long time since I had any of my work published and my first thought was, Really? That piece? It’s a story I wrote during the pandemic about an argument my husband and I had which resulted in our sleeping in separate bedrooms. Was I really ready to invite my friends and family and possibly multiple strangers into my bedroom at the very same time? I must have been. 

It was only after I received a congratulatory email that I gave the story a closer look. I closed my computer before I rounded the end. I groaned. I couldn’t read it. A paragraph stood out that was all wrong. Not only did I feel I sounded arrogant, I felt that some of the tone in that paragraph may have been hurtful to my husband. I had to get a hold of the editor. Publication was in three days. 

I attempted to reach him on four separate social media platforms. I asked him if I could send him a rewrite of the paragraph which began, “During a dinner-time conversation….” on page six. He didn’t reply. I finally made a decision: it was more important to me to get that paragraph right than it was for me to be published. If I can’t change it, I’d like to withdraw the essay, I wrote in another email. I said I was sorry. 

To my great relief, he responded, apologizing for the delay and very kindly telling me to send the updated version. He said he would read both versions and then they’d make their decision. 

Within the hour he wrote back. He preferred the original. It built “a vibrant and immersive scene…” The second version of the paragraph “weakens the strength of the scene.” 

He offered a compromise. If I were willing to keep the original opening of the paragraph on page six, he’d be fine with the other changes I wanted to make. I was relieved. But I was surprised that he saw something in my original draft that I didn’t see. I condensed the paragraph and thought I was making it better. But he thought my first draft was better. I agreed to the compromise—we would keep the original opening words of the paragraph on page six, but I would change how the paragraph ended—and that was that. The story came out the next day.

The exchange confirmed something for me about my own writing. Often, my first drafts are better. I know we’re encouraged to write multiple drafts. Anne Lamott lays that out—after who knows how many drafts—in Bird by Bird. But I’m often blind to what works and what doesn’t work in my own writing. It helps to be in a writing group. But sometimes what comes out of my fingertips the very first time just works. 

Last month I sat in an airport terminal and typed on my phone—with my thumbs!—a Facebook post about having just deposited my first-born son off at college. I’d written the piece in my mind already, while lying in bed the night before, and while walking that long distance through the airport and away from my son, my body numb with letting him go. I only needed to type it out. Sitting in my seat in the airplane, I did a quick check for punctuation, then managed to hit “post” before losing connectivity as the plane roared to life down the runway. I needed to hear from my friends and loved ones when I landed on the other end. My need for love and support was urgent. Grown men cried. From that first draft, I tapped into an emotion that so many could relate to. Somehow, I managed to hit it out of the park. 

It is possible for sparks to fly with our spontaneous acts of writing first drafts.

Once, as a teacher, I sat in the audience of my school’s guest speaker, the children’s author Linda Sue Park. She spoke to the elementary school children about the variety of writers. I remember her saying that there’s not one, single way to be a writer. Even though she addressed a group of children, her words stayed with me. There may be as many methods of writing as there are writers, she said. I hope I wasn’t the only one in the audience who took in her words. 

A long time ago I read an op-ed piece—I’ve forgotten the writer’s name and the paper—about rewriting one’s work. She wasn’t a fan. At least, she was making the point that not everything needs multiple drafts. She was so convinced of her theory, she told her readers that the very piece we were currently reading was a first draft and she wasn’t planning on rewriting it. 

That’s pretty much how I feel about this piece. Sure, I’ll go back and reread what I’ve written. I’ll change a word here and there and reorganize a few sentences. But it’s a first draft and I’m probably not going to write a second. I feel like I accomplished what I set out to write this morning.  

___

Regina Landor, preschool teacher, lives in Maryland. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas, in Serbia, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. She wrote a book called Forever Traveling Home about life in the Foreign Service and moving overseas with toddlers. Her second book, Marry Me Stop, is about her mother’s life and lapse into dementia, and how she lived with Regina and her family in Bangladesh. Regina likes Maryland, but misses the monkeys in Dhaka.

Tinder for Writers?

November 2, 2022 § 10 Comments

Using Reddit to find a writing partner.

By Michael Anthony

Years ago, I was single, alone, and staring at my computer screen. I had a big decision to make: Send the Message or Don’t Send the Message. It was my first attempt at dating online—an unusual concept at the time—and as the minutes of doubt ticked away, I sighed to myself, “Why the hell not?” 

Overall, my foray into online dating worked out quite well (which I won’t go into here). But the thing is, when years later I was looking for a writing partner, I thought for sure it had to be someone I met in person. I figured it would be too weird to not “vibe-check” physically and thus wouldn’t have that same literary spark—which I oddly felt more a necessity for a writing partner than a romantic one. 

I imagined dozens of meet-cute literary scenarios: running into someone at a coffee shop, glancing at each other’s screens from across our tables, seeing what the other needed in their story; or going to a poetry reading and connecting so deeply with each other’s poems that we instantly start working together.

And I tried, I really tried to meet a writing partner in person. I had degrees in writing, which gave me a wide network of writerly friends, and yes, I attended writing conferences, and yes, I went to local writing groups at libraries and from MeetUp.com. And yeah, sure, I ended up having a few tawdry one-night-stand writing sessions. A couple of song lyrics strung together, some poetry verses read, an outline for a short story written, but none of it meant anything. 

Everything changed one day as I was browsing Reddit (a forum-based website). I saw a post about people looking for “Writing Collaborators,” and there in front of me was a piece of artistic work so beautifully crafted I fell in love. I knew nothing of the creator, who they were, where they lived, their age, gender, education, work, or publishing background; all I knew was that it was “love at first sight,” and even though I’d be batting out of my league, I once again sighed, “Why the hell not?” and sent a message.

I made it short: “I like your stuff, are you still looking for a writing partner?” And before I knew it, I had a message back and then we were moving from Reddit to Instagram to Gmail and, eventually, phone. One thing led to another, and I asked them to partner on a project and they said … yes! Within a few months of that “Yes!” we got an agent together, and a few months afterward a book deal for our graphic memoir: Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag: A Memoir.

The point is though, none of it would’ve happened had I not first opened up to the idea of where I could find a writing partner, and what that partnership could look like. And if it can happen for me, then it can happen for you, too, with just a few simple steps: 

  1. Open yourself up to the idea of searching for someone who might not live close; the wider you open yourself up, the more you’ll be able to base your decisions on something besides proximity. Since a Tinder/Bumble for writers does not currently exist, I recommend Reddit (far better than Goodreads forums and Facebook pages): there are groups for everyone, e.g., R/ComicBookCollabs (where I met my partner), R/WriteWithMe, R/Writers, and the larger general group R/Writing. And if a sub group doesn’t exist for what you’re looking for, then start it!

2. Be clear what you’re looking for but open yourself up to the possibility that the perfect partner might be the opposite of what you assume you want, i.e., not local, older/younger, different background, etc.

3. When you do find a potential partner, approach from a place of respect—both for their work, and for their time.

4. Remember that “No means No”: if a prospective writing partner says “no” then just move on.

5. Don’t give up on your search! I spent years looking for a writing partner and you might spend years too—but know that the right partner is worth the wait.

6. When you do find a possible partner, start with an outline for a short story, or go over a few paragraphs; don’t dive right into agreeing to write a book together, take it slow.

Keep up the search and I know you’ll find a writing partner you enjoy and respect just as much as I enjoy and respect mine, the great Chai Simone.

___

Michael Anthony is the author of the graphic memoir Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag, and the award-winning and acclaimed memoirs Civilianized and Mass Casualties. His work has appeared widely across the web in various publications and formats. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and is a volunteer for the Veterans Writing Project. He tweets and does the website thing.  

Chai Simone is Michael’s writing partner. She is a writer, artist, film aficionado and the illustrator for their graphic memoir Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag. She can be found on Instagram.

On Memory

October 27, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Sonya Spillmann

In the shade of a canopied backyard, ten feet away from the base of the giant oak (from which I often pulled bark, I’m sorry, tree) I hold out my thin young arms in a rigid “T.” An imitation. An imagination. I wear white-piped shorts and a page-boy haircut. I must stay as still as possible. 

I cannot keep my arms up like that now, a woman in her forties, for more than a minute without shaking but then, as a girl of seven, I became the shape of a letter for what felt like hours.

From the corner of my eye, a grey squirrel crawls, indifferent, from behind the detached garage, around the lilac bush, and into our back yard. Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move. An incantation. I’m a tree, just a tree, just a tree.  

The creature stops moving, sits back on his hind legs, and shows off the silken white fur of his stomach. I keep my head straight, watch him though, moving here, there, closer, further. Then closer, closer. I hold my breath, close my eyes. It’s as if I can hear the grass move. When I open my eyes again, he’s right under my outstretched arm.  

But then, without warning or notice, not even a chirp or a grunt, he jumps straight up, and bites the supple flesh of the back of my arm. After this, the memory goes dark.  

In the coming years, if a Sunday School teacher places a flannelgraph of all the flora and fauna God made in Eden and the picture includes a squirrel, I shoot my hand into the air, wiggling until I am called on; if my piano teacher assigns a piece called “Let us Chase the Squirrel”; if I meet a new friend and need to brag. I tell this story to anyone, for any reason, until sixth grade, when all the girls cover their mouths and giggle. 

“No, I’m serious, he just jumped up and bit me!”

“Can squirrels even jump that high?” one girl asks.  

I cock my head, never having considered this question before. Never needed to, irrelevant. 

“Can squirrels jump, like, vertically?” she questions. 

I shake my head a little, confused. I’d never seen a squirrel jump anywhere but from tree to tree. But, yes? This one did. 

“Let me see your scar,” she says.    

“My what?”

“Your scar. If you were bit by a squirrel, you’d have a scar.” 

I would have a scar? 

I would have a scar. I stare at her with a blank face, waiting for the room to finish shifting. But—I want to say—I’ve been telling this story for years.  

But, I say out loud, “I don’t have a scar.” 

“Then you weren’t bit by a squirrel.” 

Fact? 

A shrug from her, a head tilt from me. Then the conversation moves along the current that girls this age create with the ease of children circling water with a stick. 

I do not mind her correction, but rather must contend with the unease in my heart. Where did this memory come from? Why did I believe it was it true? If I’d told that story so often, to almost everyone I knew, why hadn’t anyone else questioned me before? 

And now, as I work on memoir, I write the narratives I remember, as I remember them. But because I’m missing no flesh from my arm, I must make room in my heart, if not the page, for possible correction. In the same way that since sixth grade, I begin this same story with, “I used to tell everyone I was bit by a squirrel.” 

__________________

Sonya Spillmann, a former critical care nurse, is a writer currently working on a memoir about identity and mother loss. She is a staff writer for the collaborative motherhood blog Coffee+Crumbs and teaches writing workshops through Exhale Creativity. She was a part of DC’s Listen To Your Mother performance in 2015 and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find her at her website and reluctantly on Instagram. 

Paint What You See

October 21, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Cole T. Bennett

“Paint what you see, not what you know,” Tony said. 

The odour of oil paints and turpentine rags mingled with a whiff of fabric softener — the scent of the Bianco family. 

I was a thirteen-year-old wannabe artist, and Tony Bianco, a painter earning a living creating art, had agreed to give me lessons at his home studio down the road from my house. 

Rather than painting each individual branch and leaf on a tree, Tony encouraged me to squint my eyes, blur my perception of reality and reduce the subject to unfamiliar and abstract shapes; by painting those shapes, the scene would re-emerge on the canvas a tree. 

*

Paintbrushes have long since faded into my past, giving way to a career in photography and video, and I’m now a 34-year-old wannabe Writer

Last year, I sent Tony something I’d written and asked him what he thought. 

“It’s good,” he said, “but it’s a little too telly.” 

His response put a lump in my throat. He was probably right, but I didn’t like it; worse than that, I didn’t know what to do about it. 

I’d recently spent over a month writing what was supposed to be my first book: Survival by Creative. After writing sixty thousand words in a rough draft, I couldn’t stand reading it. 

Survival by Creative? More like Slow Painful Murder by a Know-It-All. 

Nearly the entire document came off as a little too telly. 

For the following year, whenever anyone asked me how my book was coming, I’d get uncomfortable and say something about a great learning experience.

*

I went camping with my family this summer, and as I lay sprawled in the crotch of a hammock, I unlocked my phone and cracked open the massive and very rough draft, afraid to be optimistic.  

My eyes glazed over and I flushed with embarrassment. 

Tony’s feedback circled around in my mind: too telly. 

In some ways, the more I write the more difficult writing becomes.

Maybe it’s meant to be difficult, I thought. Like Ryan Holiday writes in his book The Obstacle is the Way. He quotes Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

I had an impediment, that was for sure, but I didn’t see the way

I’d read a half-dozen books on how to write; I’d worked to apply many of the lessons in my writing—including writing a lot. Maybe it was time to talk to an editor. 

Yeah, maybe that was it. 

While I lay damp and crumpled in the hammock, I posted my problem to r/writing on Reddit. 

It didn’t help – it garnered advice from people who didn’t see the whole picture. 

Sitting in an uncomfortable lawn chair next to an emberless firepit as my kids rode their bikes up and down the campground’s gravel laneways, I talked to my empathetic wife about my writing woes; I was clambering up a gravel hill, slipping on the sand and rocks; I was trying to talk with gravel in my cheeks; I was trying to write a novel on post-it notes using a jumbo sharpie, no thumbs. 

She listened, and I talked; she listened, and I thought and wandered and swung in the hammock; abstract shapes started to nest together and turn into oblique, semi-coherent pictures. 

What did I love about Stephen King’s non-fiction book On Writing? That was a great book. What makes it so very different from a lot of the other writing books? What was it about myself that felt so disconnected from my writing? Disconnected. Dissonance. Why did I struggle to make my writing reflect me?

My writing, my personality, the kinds of books I read, the sixty-thousand words, and the spaces in which I find joy and meaning—they weren’t acting in harmony, they weren’t working together. Where I had big questions, I’d filled them up with answers. Where I had doubts, I’d skipped stones across the surface of faith. I’d been writing from the shallow well of knowing, rather than the near-infinite depth of seeing.

Without realising it, I’d picked up the voice and style of every non-fiction author I’d read over the past ten years—I’d all but abandoned my childhood love of fiction, and it showed. 

No hobbits. No orcs. No wizards. No Swallows and Amazons. 

No magic. 

*

Some of the non-fiction books on my shelf flow with magic under the surface; something beyond the author’s expertise that brings their writing to life. They’re certainly experts, but I wonder if it’s their love of story that causes their writing to levitate and thump with a pulse.

Stephen King has an almost childlike obsession with stories. I love his book, On Writing—and as I thumbed through it for the second time recently, it started to make sense on a deeper level. 

About his fiction, he writes:

I want to put a group of characters… in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety…but to watch what happens and then write it down.

“…watch what happens and then write it down.”

Like when I was thirteen, fumbling with a paintbrush, trying so hard to make my tree look like 

a tree.

I wade into the unfamiliar; I squint; I begin to write what I see.

__________________

Cole T. Bennett writes mostly creative non-fiction and satire. In his day job, he runs a video production company with his wife, Lydia. They live in Ontario, Canada with their three little hooligans. 

The Old Agony Trope

October 19, 2022 § 12 Comments

By V Hansmann

Writing is agony. 

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

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

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

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

You work hard. Be honest. Dig yourself.

__

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

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