June 15, 2017 § 2 Comments
Gentle Readers, you may have noticed our Brevity Editor-in-Chief’s new book, The Story Cure. Perhaps you’ve even been moved to hop over to Amazon or pop in to your favorite indie bookstore to pick it up. Or maybe you’re still wondering, what the heck is this book all about?
Over at HuffPo, “certified writing geek” Stephanie M. Vanderslice has the dish.
What I appreciated most was Moore’s personal take on the most essential elements of the major prose project: the primal story or the problem of the heart, and the invisible magnetic river. The problem of the heart is the primal element of the story, the human current that runs deep within its core that pulls the reader in and makes them care about it, makes them unwilling to put it down. The invisible magic river is, likewise, the current that carries this story and that every single element of the work—”word, element, scenes, snippets of dialogue, reflection,” should be drawn toward.
Vanderslice and Moore talk about keeping the focus on the reader, and the advice Dinty W. Moore now would give his younger writer self. Her interview is a fast, thoughtful read–check out the whole conversation here.
June 8, 2017 § 27 Comments
First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.
You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.
Thinking time counts.
Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.
But there’s still value in completion.
Process is great. We all need process. But every now and then, we embrace process to the point of avoiding finishing. We dive into six projects at once, knowing in our under-soul there’s no way we’ll get through even two of them. We embrace multiple genres or venues as a way to write what we’re “in the mood” to write, whichever essay or proposal or article or chapter calls to our heart at the moment we’ve finally cleared our mental decks and sat down.
Some days it’s important to be our beautiful wayward writer self. Explore! Play! Freewrite!
Other days, it’s time to sit our butt down (“the only secret to writing is ass in chair” as the saying goes) and bang out some words. Some good words, maybe. More likely some crappy words. But remember how much easier it is to turn shit into something passable than it is to turn nothing into shit? No? If that’s not a memory you hold, maybe next writing session is a good time to pull out something you gave up in despair and take another look at it with a cold editorial eye. Perhaps there’s one sentence in there worth saving. Perhaps there’s a whole new piece based on the third paragraph. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the whole thing’s nowhere near as bad as you thought when you walked away. If there’s truly nothing you can find in there worth working on, you have two options: send it to a friend and ask if there’s anything they think is worth working on; or toss it.
Hit delete. Crumple it up and put it in recycling. Burn the notebook. Make room for something else you want to write. Get the unfinishable crap off your desk and call it practice. Be grateful you learned what that piece taught you and move on. The practice of writing is also practice. It is the height of arrogance to scold ourselves for not putting something perfect on the page in a first go–what other job, what other sport, what other art gets things right the first time, every time they start something new? Wow, Mozart, that was awesome and you wrote it once, in pen! Gee, Usain Bolt, now that you’ve run as fast as you ever will around the track this morning, you’ll never need to train for the Olympics again!
Practice/rehearsal/training involves mistakes, screw-ups, wrong paths, poor choices and loss of interest. We don’t save a videotape of every time we go to the gym, we count ourselves happy if we hit that second pull-up, or stay on the seated bike checking Twitter until it’s suddenly been twenty minutes and hey I’m done! Now I can do all the fun things I’m bothering to get in shape to do!
Practice also involves sitting our ass down and deciding we’re going to finish something. Now. Today. This week. In fifteen-minute increments while waiting for carpool, or in one wild coffee-fueled weekend.
I will ride the bike for thirty minutes.
I will clean this closet.
I will purchase these six items.
I will put dinner on the table.
I will get to the end of this sentence, this paragraph, this page. This essay. This book.
Be a beautiful free-spirited artist. Be a tortured soul contemplating the horror of the page not living up to what’s in your head. And then sit your ass back down and write to the end of the page. Set a day, or a week or whatever interval works for you, aside to finish your shit. Pick up a piece and decide if you want it or not. If you want it, finish it. See what it feels like to do whatever it takes, to revise or seek help or break it apart and rebuild, or let it go and move onto something else you want to finish. Let go of the hundred weights of half-pages that once seemed like a good idea. Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas, hundreds, thousands of them. Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Don’t settle for half-finished.
June 7, 2017 § 25 Comments
That Writer. Every writing group or class has one. The person who talks more than everyone else combined. Who comes in stoned, or just high on life. Who interrupts the teacher we’ve all paid big bucks/gone through a tedious application process to hear. Who comments as if they themselves are the teacher. Who says things like “Well, you know what Flannery O’Connor said” as if we all know exactly what Flannery O’Conner said, and it wasn’t “Nobody cares, shut up.”
Look around the table. Do you see That Writer? No no, don’t point—Instead, draw a smiley face expressing pain and show it to the writer next to you by turning your notebook on the table.
If you can clearly identify That Writer, I’m sorry, there’s nothing you can do. Practice your expressive smileys, and how to say “could you unpack that a little more?” with respectful seriousness for the days you haven’t done the assignment and are trying to run out the clock (That Writer has their usefulness!).
Wait—what? You don’t see That Writer? Oh dear. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you carry a bag of pens? Do you rummage in this bag more than once per class?
Have you ever cut your nails in class, you know, just that once when you had a bad hangnail and it was under the table and really quiet, not at all like it might be additional punctuation in the story of whoever was reading out loud at the time?
Does your jewelry make a delightful collection of wooden and metallic sounds?
Have you ever entered the room prior to class to find a previously arrived fellow-writer typing vigorously, earbuds in, and signaled that you need their attention? When they remove one earbud and say “yes?” in a sharpish tone, have you then courteously let them know you just need to use the printer and will that be OK? Did you then sing quietly to yourself while printing?
Have you written a chapbook of poetry, not self-published by any means but issued by the small independent press you own that has published several of your chapbooks and those of two other writers? Would you like to give a copy of that chapbook to every member of the class, and a few days later discuss it over coffee?
Do you often have a different interpretation of the work being discussed, possibly rooted in Freudian theory or any psychology named after a dead Slav?
Do you make sounds that people think indicate you are about to speak, but you are in fact just signaling agreement or a blocked sinus?
Have you ever started a comment with, “Well, this may be a little far afield, but this just puts me in mind of Wittgenstein, when he says…” and ended that comment four hundred words later with “does anyone else get that?” Were you discussing a humorous parenting memoir?
Have you come to a class where the guideline is five pages and indicated that your twelve pages of 1.5-spaced, 10-point sans-serif is “really a pretty quick read”? Is there an explicit sex scene on page 9? Does it have anal? Do you need to discuss how anal sex symbolically represents your relationship with the patriarchy/your creative muse/your mother?
Look at the body language of the person on your right: is that writer scooted to the extreme other edge of their chair, tilting toward the teacher as far as possible without falling off? Are you sure the chair-legs are uneven?
Have you ever said, “I know we’re not really workshopping today but perhaps we could just talk through my pages sentence-by-sentence?”
Are you disturbed by the number of questions you’re answering yes to? Are you just trying to help? Have you noticed other writers angling their notebooks towards each other, scribbling what can only be pictographs of the deep emotional reaction they can barely contain in response to your work? All is not lost!
First, take your pages for today’s reading. When you get to page six, rip it off and any following pages and throw them in the recycle bin. Trust that your lengthy story summary prior to reading will cover it. If there are any chapbooks in your bag, remove them. Have you smoked pot yet today? Skip it. If that horse is already out of the barn, maybe consider taking a sick day and coming to class next week instead. Or smoking later today, especially if it’s a 10AM class. Now remove your jewelry. Select a single pen and one additional backup pen, leaving your pen-bag aside. Check your manicure. Once in class, open your writing notebook. Every time you think of something to say, write it down. Make a tick mark by anything you thought that anyone else says. Now you don’t have to say it. Of every five remaining un-ticked comments, speak one of them. Then bask in your Buddha-like silence and smile wisely.
And don’t ever quote Wittgenstein again.
November 17, 2016 § 1 Comment
Understandably, we’ve all been a little distracted. But if you’re ready for a break from fighting the good fight, please enjoy the Brevity Podcast’s second episode, featuring interviews with Suzanne Roberts and Andre Dubus III. Some highlights:
- Suzanne reads her powerful piece from Brevity, The Essay Determines How It Will Begin, and talks about where writing is on her list of priorities (it’s not at the top! It’s not even second!).
- Andre discusses making a safe home for his kids in a violent world, and reads a section of his memoir, Townie. He also shares his thoughts on the value of writing about hard family moments, and how writing goes hand in hand with dealing with the actual problem.
- Political content: 0
Stream/download through most podcast apps.
And whether it’s listening to us, or to your children, or writing something messy, or lying on your back and watching the clouds, take a little time today for your writer self.
November 15, 2016 § 10 Comments
The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going!” And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, patiently awaiting his arrival.
An author I work with sent me another draft of a scene from a book she’s writing. I sent it back with more notes, for the third time. She wrote:
I love diving in deeper and hearing where things can get amped up. Am only worried it will take another year to edit the book if I do this for each scene 😉
She’s probably right. It may well take a year. Yes, some writers write much faster. But for most of us, polishing each element of our book–scene by scene, character by character, sentence by sentence–takes time. Time at the page. Time ruminating while walking, or gardening, or staring into space. Time away from the book and working on something else. Time at our day job, where one day someone says something in the break room that snaps a recalcitrant plotline into place. Time absorbing the world.
I wrote her back that yes, it’s time-consuming,
…but bear in mind that right now you’re also learning more about writing, and everything you learn will go much faster on the next round! Plus, material at the beginning of the book goes slower than the end, because things are being set up and you’re building the world. And as a human functioning in the real world, you’re probably already changing how you look at things and record details in your head, and being more aware of what makes a scene/character/world will speed up your process, too.
It’s worth remembering those things for my own work. Every time I write–whether a blog post, an essay, a memoir, a how-to book or a novel, I learn more about writing. The lessons from failed work, bad drafts and trashed sentences inform the next attempt. The end of a book may not be “fast” in terms of creative choices, but it’s definitely faster to finish typing a project than it is to start from an empty page. And certainly, as a human moving through the world, I’m noticing more of what physical situations and gestures trigger my judgment, so that I can “show instead of telling” on the page.
It’s OK if it takes ten years–or twenty!–to finish a book. Great work is often made with care. Right now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sees more than a million writers around the world tearing through a first draft. Agents dread December: it’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Inbox Hell, as enthusiastic writers skip the all-important revisions and multiple drafts in their eagerness to share their work with the world.
That doesn’t mean don’t finish a novel in a month, or “don’t write fast.” But if you are a slower writer, or have finished a first draft, allow yourself the patience to let your work blossom both from your tending and your absence. Trust that building a network of literary support also happens one meaningful interaction at a time. That being open to the world for inspiration also sometimes includes shutting down, putting up our shields, and listening to our inner voices for a while. In our most recent Brevity Podcast, Andre Dubus III says it takes him five years to write a book–during that time, he shows it to no-one.
I am over 40. I see round-up lists of exciting new (always young) authors and it hurts to know I have missed that window. It’s weird to be both proud of a published book and sad that it’s not the book I thought I’d publish first. I’m a tinkerer, and tend to move slowly through a draft, revising as I go, rather than tearing through to the end and then going back. It’s hard to see friends finishing November with 50,000 words and realize that I have some blog posts and most of another how-to book and five more pages of novel but nothing is done. But the difference between a parable and real life is that the tortoise and the hare can both win at their own speed. I’m tempted to say “I hope” after that, but finishing a book is not a hope. It’s something I can control, and the only choice is whether or not to be OK with the time it takes me.
See you at the finish line.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.