December 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Happy Third Day of Hanukkah! The season’s closing in–“Festive Winter Holiday” time, as the department stores around Dubai call it–and you may be wondering what to get the writers in your life. Or someone you love has asked that horrifying question, “What do you want for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Diwali*/Yule?”
…An agent, book auction and five-figure deal?
…Jesus to show up and explain pointedly, he really meant the part about taking care of the poor and the sick?
…A time machine to peek at 2020 and see if building a survival shelter in the present is a smart idea?
Sadly, none of these items are (currently) available for purchase. But there are plenty of other gifts for the writer in your life, and for you as the writer in someone else’s life.
Classic elegance: Buy their book, preferably from your local indie bookstore, but here at Brevity we also understand the desire to never leave the house again. Fortunately, Powell’s also ships. Double points: buy two and give one as a present to someone else, or leave it in a Little Free Library. Already own it? Review their book online!
Stocking-stuffer: See what books you’ve bought in the past six months but haven’t reviewed yet. Spread some goodwill around by writing some quick thoughts and clicking four or five stars. Especially if the writer is at less than 50 reviews: crossing that threshold really helps their visibility online. Copy-paste Amazon reviews to Goodreads, because every little bit helps.
Fellowship: Take a like-minded friend to a reading at your nearest bookstore, no matter who the writer is and whether or not you’ve ever heard of them. If it sucks, you’ll have text-LOLs for days. If it’s great, you’ve made a discovery. Either way, buy a copy of the book and know that it’s balm to a writer’s soul when strangers come to their reading.
Peace of mind: There is no vision more horrifying than the Blue Screen of Death. Why not gift your favorite writer a large-capacity hard drive or a subscription to a cloud backup service? When the ruin of the laptop lies before us, the sole comfort is knowing your manuscript’s safe.
Creative time: Offer to watch the babies for two hours, once a week, for a few weeks, so the writing parent can get some words down. If you’re lucky, she’ll schedule for naptime. Otherwise, enjoy looking at what the kids see, or finding out what they’re interested in. If you write YA, middle-grade or picture books, this is research–the gift that keeps on giving!
Creative tools: Have they been considering Scrivener? Final Draft? A creativity or organizing app? If you’re not sure exactly which one, there’s always an iTunes gift card, with a personal note saying you thought they liked X, but this is flexible just in case. For special bonus points, find out EXACTLY what kind of notebook they use, and stock them up on a few. (I love these red Moleskines–nice enough to feel special, not so fancy that they’re “too good to use.”) Likewise, do you know EXACTLY what kind of pen they like? Remember, a $935 pen is useless to someone whose words flow from a 17-cent Bic…and leaves them around everywhere.
Literary Citizenship: Sponsor your friend–or make a donation for scholarships–to a writing conference. Gift subscriptions of your favorite literary journals, or ones you know they’d like to be published in. We’re all supposed to be reading where we want to submit, and subscriptions aren’t cheap. Help their road to publication by getting them in the habit of reading in their venue. And Brevity is always happy to accept a donation in honor of a friend.
For yourself: If you don’t have an Amazon list, consider making one. We all try to be good writer buddies by reading for others when we can, and most of the time it’s a trade or a deposit in the favor bank against future need. But every so often, we end up doing professional-level or time-consuming work for someone we’re not comfortable billing. It’s easy to say, “I’m happy to help out, and will you get me something off my Amazon list?” They can choose whether to get you a great new book, a great used book, or that Belgian linen duvet set.
Remember, if you do some holiday shopping on Amazon, starting at Smile helps Brevity with a small percentage of your purchase at no extra cost.
And if you’re stuck awkwardly trying to tell people your desires, or wedged between “Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything” and the uncomfortable knowledge that yes, you do need to get them something? Just send a link to this post. Hopefully, they’ll get the hint.
*Yes, I know Diwali was in October but it’s never to early to stock up on tea lights and gold jewelry.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.
December 12, 2017 § 20 Comments
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me:
Twelve children quarreling
Eleven guests arriving
Ten addiction triggers
Nine Secret Santas
Eight dinners cooling
Seven picky eaters
Six spouses slacking
Five traaaaaa-ffic jaaaaaaams!
Four messy rooms
Three loud screens
Two touchy in-laws
And an obligation Christmas party.
I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live in a country where December is a festive shopping season. I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past ten Christmases, and this one I’ll be in Taiwan.
Not everyone is that lucky. My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”
My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”
An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three pairs of crutches in three weeks. “They’re just going to have to do overtime.”
I suspect, Gentle Reader, you have similar items on your holiday list. In-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was gone the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Writer-friends who didn’t get Cat Person.
But your holiday experience is up to you. You don’t “have to” do anything. You may not like the consequences of not doing it, but it’s still a choice.
So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list right now of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, and choose your favorites. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep and results in a carload of baked goods–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do.
All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.
What a shame our schedule filled up so much–let’s do something in January.
Our budget is gone–it just devastates me we won’t be able to make it.
Goodness, it sounds like that situation really bothers you–I hope it gets sorted out.
Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “I agree, it’s just awful how things turned out. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”
If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)
Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. It’s not even your job to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I love doing. If you’d like to plan it, let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”
Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Betty has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Sally’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.
Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, mutter “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.
And if all else fails? Hit me up. I know a great noodle shop in Taipei.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you want to hear about Taiwan, please do sign up for her bimonthly adventure news.
December 7, 2017 § 30 Comments
Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.
Not any more.
For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.
Here’s how it works:
At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”
Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:
- hawk died
- what if I never had kids
- the art of napping
- no longer know people in People mag
- when dad’s work bench turned messy
- birds – make them come to you
- wearing uniforms
- computer passwords
- phantom pony tail
It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.
This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.
But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.
Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.
November 7, 2017 § 16 Comments
Last week in my workshop on self-editing at Mid-American Review’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, writer Terry Korth Fischer asked a great question:
How do you stop editing as you write?
I was a little confused by this question, because that’s normally not my problem. (My problem is Ass In Chair.) But everyone else in the room nodded–How to avoid editing ourselves in early drafts? How to keep the writing flow going without second-guessing every word?
Online, there’s some common solutions to compulsive self-editing:
Turn off your monitor. I think I’d freak out and have to keep turning it on to hit “save” every minute. For fabulous touch-typists maybe?
Start each day with a fresh page–at the end of a writing session, copy the last sentence into a new document along with some instructions to yourself about what’s next. Next session, start from there.
Write with a timer. Don’t stop or go back until the timer rings. Suzanne Roberts does a variation on this: for dedicated writing time, she sets a timer for an hour. If she checks social media, gets lost in research or leaves the chair, she restarts the timer. Maybe restarting the timer on each edit could break the habit?
Write by hand. It’s harder to delete pen on paper.
…I don’t do any of those things. What keeps me from self-editing too early?
Whether we’re quitting smoking or unhealthy eating or nail-biting (guilty!), it’s hard to replace a habit with nothing. First ask, what problem is the existing habit fixing?
Our brain nags to edit because we’re afraid. Anne Lamott says,
I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions […] and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.
We’re afraid if we don’t stop and fix it RIGHT NOW, it’s going to be terrible forever. How can we reassure our tiny, frightened lizard brain, “It’s OK, I’m going to come back to it, I promise”?
What works for me:
- Edit first. For ongoing projects, I spend the first 15-20 minutes reviewing yesterday’s work. Tweaking words and sentences helps me get back into the flow of the story. I rarely do a massive rewrite–if something’s pretty bad, I’ll start the scene again from a different angle, or accept the challenge to write a new scene addressing the problems in yesterday’s work.
- Work on deadline. Most of my Brevity blogs get written about two hours before going live. My newsletter stories go out bimonthly. I feel worse about being late than being imperfect.
- Placeholders. More research needed? Type LOOK UP COURT MANNERS. Not emotionally ready to dive into a memoir moment? NEED SCENE WITH MOM IN KITCHEN HERE. Sometimes I highlight the placeholder, or put XXX on either side so it’s easy to find in the next draft.
- Look ahead. The work I did yesterday can be bad–terrible, even. Because I’m not promising every word a place in the next draft. I already know I’ll be cutting whole chapters and rearranging paragraphs. That lowers the “fix it now!” urge.
- Plan to practice. Musicians painstakingly learn plenty of music they’ll never record. Artists fill pages with drawings they’ll never work on again (in fact, they have pads full of newsprint to sketch without wasting expensive paper). Dancers who don’t perform classical work still show up at the ballet barre to maintain their technique. Why should writers be exempt from skill development? Why not write pages and pages of a novel or memoir that are simply “practice” and not an early draft of something great? Why not intentionally write some essays that never get edited, that stop at a first or second draft? Every other artist spends time on foundations that don’t directly build a final piece, why should we get to skip skill development?
Whatever tips and tricks we use to stop editing as we go, it boils down to this: Let go of the dream of being perfect. Inside all our hearts is a tiny hope:
I’m going to make something beautiful, on the first try, without working very hard for it. My emotional experience and love of story will compensate for any lack of skill or coherence. I’m entitled to have my thoughts come out exactly right on the page, the first time, and as long as I’m still messing with it, it’s still the first time.
It doesn’t work that way.
We know it doesn’t.
Let it go.
Let it flow.
November 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
Not long ago I was working on a piece I was pretty sure was about the woman who founded forensic science. My editor, however, pointed out it was also about the struggles of women past a certain age, who are pegged only as grandmothers, lacking usefulness. Her comment made me realize: I usually write about the experiences of women whom society sees as past their prime. This shouldn’t have been a revelation: I write a monthly magazine column about intergenerational dialogue and have a degree in women’s history. Yet the new awareness of my specific focus has already helped me prioritize projects and pitch pieces to new outlets.
While much has been said about how writers must ‘build platform,’ in the sense of becoming a marketable expert on their book’s subject, this thematic focus seems more like a beat—that is, developing authority while writing on a number of related topics. So how do you create your beat? How can you nurture it?
Bustle writer Tabitha Blankenbiller says her beat
is fashion and style, which like any good subjects, parlay into a myriad of other themes: pop culture, body image, class issues, aging, feminism…[but] I find that when I put out fashion-related writing, it tends to be some of the better-received work. It feels like it ‘has legs.’
When she founded Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Athena Dixon embraced her editorial beat to “further diversify our current writing community by calling attention to the glaring diversity issues and offering at least one safe space for writers to submit and be read.”
Maisha Johnson has worked as a domestic violence survivors’ advocate and holds an MFA in poetry. She writes primarily about abuse and healing, race and racism, and intersectional feminism, as well as everyday ways we come across these topics, like pop culture, creativity, and identity. Articulating these intersections helps her deepen the lens and purpose of her work, and define who she is as a writer.
A writer’s beat ties into their social media presence, but isn’t just a marketing construct. Maisha says it can be equally important to unplug.
Because I work around issues like racism, trauma, and abuse, I know being constantly plugged in is going to take a toll. But also [I can’t be] totally absent from trending conversations. So I’ll use a social media tool like Hootsuite, and schedule articles I see trending from other writers. I’ll also add older [or evergreen] articles of my own that relate to the current topic. I don’t have to be on the cutting edge of every conversation in order to maintain a digital presence.
Your beat also needn’t be constantly “on.” Tabitha, whose book Eats of Eden comes out March 2018, says her beat requires
less hoop-jumping and more mountain-scaling. I am a slower writer than many freelancers I’ve known, who are churning out essays and stories along with news cycles… I can’t keep up with that pace, so when I’m writing standalones, I have the luxury of bowing to what’s really screaming at me. It may not be the hottest trending topic, but every so often you have good timing and what you’ve been obsessed about is in sync with the rest of the world.
Relevance can be serendipitous, Tabitha says.
Sometimes the fire comes totally from left field…[for example], a little essay I wrote for a now-defunct food site about my tendency to steal things like condiments, pint glasses, and steak knives from restaurants stirred up this big viral trollstorm.
For Athena, managing a beat is all about making choices: “I made a conscious decision to include all black women on my editorial board and to champion voices I believe may not be given a fair and equal chance to be published.”
How do you decide what to focus on? Maybe you already see a common thread in your work. You might make decisions based on pragmatic goals for publication in particular venues, or by paying close attention to what makes your writing flow and what works best for you and your work specifically. I jump at any opportunity even remotely related to aging, because juggling multiple projects keeps me on deadline. Maisha keeps a list of potential articles, prioritized by what she’s most passionate about.
Tabitha says, “Don’t discount what you love. Passion and joy are your greatest allies, no matter what sparks them within you.”
“Don’t be afraid to begin with what you know best, no matter how unique or particular,” Maisha says. “If you’re the only person who can write the story, that story might really need to be told.”
Athena Dixon agrees. “Be confident in what you know and share it widely. You have no idea what kinds of opportunities you may be unlocking.”
Hillary Moses Mohaupt serves as Social Media Editor for Hippocampus. She holds an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon, and her work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and Distillations. In her fiction and essays she frequently writes about the presence of the past, intergenerational relationships, and lying. Follow her on Twitter @_greyseasky_.
October 26, 2017 § 57 Comments
I need a sweater. So I go to the mall. (The mall is a temple of consumerism with an indoor ski slope overlooked by The Cheesecake Factory, because I live in Dubai.)
The first store specializes in argyle sweaters. Argyle is just not my thing. Do I:
A) Assume this brand is garbage and everything they will ever make is argyle.
B) Say “no thank you,” and head for another store, dismissing argyle from my mind because it’s not that big a deal, I’m shopping all day anyway and hey, someone else is going to love diamond plaids.
In the second store, I see a terrific red sweater. It’s got sleeves of exactly the right length and those cool little thumbholes so you can pull the wristbands over your hands, and it’s super soft. Then I look at the tag, and it’s 30% wool, which I am allergic to and makes me itch. Do I:
A) Laugh heartily at the incompetence and stupidity of anyone who would dare make a sweater with wool in it, exiting the store in the grip of near-hysteria?
B) Sigh, because it was otherwise just perfect, and remember the store because they will probably have something else I like another time, maybe a dress or a coat that is totally perfect instead of mostly perfect.
In the third store, I lay eyes on a gorgeous blue sweater. Sleeves, check. Thumbholes, check. No wool, check. In fact, it’s glorious!
My husband already bought me a blue sweater yesterday. I like that one too, and it came from a no-returns store (also a thing in Dubai), and today I really want a red one. Do I:
A) Think whoever made this sweater sucks, and they should never make another garment.
B) Sigh sadly because I already have a blue sweater, and resume the hunt for a red one.
You get where we’re going, right?
Rejection is not feedback.
Rejection is not feedback.
No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.
As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.
None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.
The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.
Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. We can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of sweaters we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.
Rejection is market research.
One rejection tells us one specific thing: this journal couldn’t use this piece at this time. None of those variables is a judgment on the quality of our work. Once we have ten or twenty or fifty rejections, that’s enough information to start reassessing. Is the piece really ready? Have I gotten any personal comments in my rejections? Have I gotten an outside opinion from a reader I trust? We don’t get better from nursing hurt feelings. Considering the answers to those questions helps us improve.
Rejection will always sting at least a little. For me, it hurts less when I have more submissions out, and when I remember that rejection is part of the job, that a 10% acceptance rate is excellent for a full-time professional writer and more than that is gravy.
Every “no thank you” is proof we’re doing the work, and getting our work out there. Any single “no thank you” is the equivalent of a single shopper not buying a single sweater–one failed transaction says nothing about that particular piece.
Besides, it’s Dubai. No matter how amazing it looks and feels, nobody needs a freaking sweater. Anybody got a nice cotton tunic?
October 12, 2017 § 28 Comments
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., edited by E. B. White.
In 1974, my Journalism 101 professor gave only two pieces of required reading: the local city newspaper, and The Elements of Style.
One book. One daily.
What could be easier?
Turned out, a lot of things. Concise writing takes diligence, skill, and patience. Three things I lacked as a college sophomore. But I pecked away on my typewriter, practicing every day, until I finally scored a coveted reporter’s job, the first of many.
Thirty years later, resurrecting my writing career, I faced a no-nonsense adjunct teaching The Art of Flash Nonfiction. She required we start small—only 250 words written to prompts she provided the first week, 500 words the next week, then 750, until we reached a polished 1000-word essay by the end of the semester. Plus we would read a series of essays from a website called Brevity. We could email her brief questions only if absolutely necessary.
A thousand words. On-line reading.
What could be easier?
She passed out a Brevity essay, Debra Marquart’s Hochzeit. “Read the essay to yourselves,” she said, “then tell me what’s different about it.”
The story swirled in front of my eyes in a whirlwind of colors, sounds, flavors and scents, as the author remembers a family wedding from her childhood. Thirty-nine sentences in seven meager paragraphs transported me to a Polka hall in the Midwest, the beat and bellow of pumping accordions, “whoops and yips” from spinning dancers in their flared skirts and beribboned finery, and the burning sweetness of “gold pools of wedding whiskey.”
Marquart’s writing was different from anything I’d read. It wasn’t your standard nonfiction piece, it wasn’t journalism—even if you could measure it in column inches, and it wasn’t the New Journalism the old me left behind decades ago. I needed to know why the piece left such a visceral impact on me.
When the instructor asked what we thought, my hand crept up. “The writer omitted needless words?”
“Yes. That’s one thing. Thank you, E.B. White. Anyone else?” The class tittered.
“The who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, are clearly up front,” I added, reaching back to the first rules I learned about newspaper reporting.
“Yes,” she said, “but what else. Anyone besides Ryder?”
I sunk back down in my hard plastic chair. What exactly was it about Marquart’s essay that had awakened me?
Our assignment for the week was to write two 250-word essays. If they were one word over, they would not be read or graded. We were given more essays from Brevity—Anne Panning’s Candy Cigarettes; Sarah Lin’s Devotion; Erika Dreifus’ Before Sunrise—to study for style, voice, metaphor, lyricism. Carefully. If we did not understand the terminology we were to email her—briefly—before the next class.
For seven long days, I slaved over my two pieces, editing and re-editing. I dissected the reading assignments like a frog in freshman biology, peeling back each story’s tiny skin layer by layer. First the story line, then the structure, finally the writer’s word choices. I searched for every metaphor, each simile, every omitted word. What was it about these little essays that left me with a feeling of such grandiosity in so few words?
It came to me on the seventh day—driving the twenty miles to campus alone, windows rolled down to bright September. My eyes took in the reds, golds and oranges of the maple leaves flickering across my windshield, backlit by a sky the color of the bluest sea. The sun shone on my arm resting on the open window, the last of summer falling onto my Shetland sweater. Finally, I understood. It was the smaller details that made the larger story.
After we handed in our assignments, the instructor asked what we’d learned reading and writing short prose. I shot up my hand.
“Yes?” she said, sighing a little.
“The words seemed hand-chosen, cherry-picked, then boiled down to extract only the most essential details. The writer shows the reader a dreamlike memory, crystal clear in the telling.”
“Bingo!” she said and smiled broadly.
Two semesters later, I entered a Brevity Blog contest and won second place. The first person I emailed was my instructor. Writing, I realized, is not just about following style books and memorizing classroom notes. When you omit the needless, you choose the necessary– and sometimes, that is one perfect ray of sun falling on the back of your hand.
Ryder S. Ziebarth runs the Cedar Ridge Writers Series and blogs for Proximity. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals.