April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments
One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.
[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]
This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.
In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:
J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.
This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.
The revelation arrives in section eight:
I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.
J. fuit hic.
I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.
If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.
This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.
I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:
Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.
I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.
Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.
Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.
Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books
Find out more about:
Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:
- bad boy
- future addict
- serious and accomplished
- brainy but beautiful
- more than likely delusional
- bright but misguided
- hurt, badly, baldly
- trying real hard to be good
April 3, 2018 § 24 Comments
If the road to hell is paved good intentions, there are a lot of bricks down there with my name on them. A few of the things I’ve vowed over the years: Do more yoga. Meditate. Write every day. Read better books. The list goes on. I’m sure you have one, too. Instead, my life looked more like Whack-a-Mole, with me desperately swatting at tasks, sometimes connecting, sometimes not. Most days, the alarm went off at 6AM and my husband and I snoozed till 6:30AM. I went downstairs, made coffee, checked Facebook and Twitter, and wrote in my journal if I had time before getting our boys up at 7AM.
Things changed around the new year, after my husband read Discipline Equals Freedom by a former Navy Seal, Jocko Willenk. George set our alarm an hour earlier so he could go to the gym. It was his change of routine. I could have kept sleeping. Instead, I got up too. Rather than rushing to coffee and my phone, I did a few yoga poses, then journaled in my office, instead of downstairs at the cluttered dining room table.
After a few days, something weird happened.
I didn’t quit.
I went to sleep earlier so I could get up earlier, and I started to do a little more each morning. I remembered a chant I’d learned at a yoga retreat a few years before. In my office I had a few items I rarely used: at my desk, a light therapy lamp to combat the dark Minnesota winters. On the wall, a wooden labyrinth that used to be downstairs until one of my sons used it as a maze, tracing the meditative path with a red Sharpie. On my bookshelf, memoirs and books on writing, many unread. I threw these into the mix. After yoga, I chanted. In my office, I turned on the sun lamp, took the labyrinth off the wall and traced it with my fingers. I wrote in my journal, ending the entry with a short to-do list for the day. Then I read ten pages from one of the writing books and took notes.
After a few days of this expanded routine, something weird happened.
I didn’t quit.
Instead, I looked forward to getting out of bed and into my office. It went from being something I should do to something I wanted to do. In a short time, one seemingly simple change—getting up an hour earlier—resulted in a morning routine I’ve done every day for almost three months now. I didn’t have to buy new gear or equipment, or even learn new things. I started with yoga and my journal, then glommed on things already at hand.
The whole thing fits into about an hour. I’ve done it in as little as 20 minutes on days I need to get to work early, and for over an hour on weekends. Since I started, I have only missed one morning, when my husband was sick. One of my favorite parts is the short daily list. Each morning, I look back to check off what I did the day before. Since I begin every list with the steps of my routine:
- Make bed
- Do Yoga
- Read 10 pages
I can always quickly cross off six items from the previous day’s list. Plus, I’m more consistent about the rest of the list. Sitting in my writing chair first thing warms it up; I’m eager to get back in it as soon as I can, even if it’s hours later. My writing productivity has increased significantly since the beginning of the year. After months of wandering in the middle of my memoir, I was finally able to finish the second draft.
After years of wishful thinking, I now have a morning routine that includes meditation, reading, writing, and yoga. I don’t do anything in depth, but I do a little of several things that matter to me. I leave my office energized, and not just from the sun lamp. It’s uplifting to know I’ve done all these things before my day has even officially begun. Like the Queen boasted to Alice, I’ve accomplished six impossible things before breakfast.
Kristin Boldon writes memoir, essays, and fiction. She was born in central Ohio, moved as far away as Guam, then settled in Minnesota sight unseen, where she lives with her husband and sons. Her work has been featured on the Taste Blog of Minnesota Monthly, and at Simple Good and Tasty. She blogs sporadically at girldetective.net, and is a member of too many book groups.
March 20, 2018 § 31 Comments
- Marked the rejection on my list and reassured myself that it was only one
- Thought: two isn’t bad. Imagined the soaring joy of acceptance that would come with the next notification.
- Reread essay and decided I still liked it.
- Repeated to self: “Rejection is just another step on the way to success.”
- Read too much into the “In Progress” notification on Submittable.
- Ate chocolate.
- Reread the essay. Found words, phrases and whole sentences that could be cut. Clawed in anguish at the proverbial bosom. Cut the damn words.
- Sent the essay to another batch of journals. Checked Submittable in a non-obsessive way.
- Was able to quote from memory all of the variations: “We’re sorry, read with interest but, not for us, not the right fit, pass this time, good luck.”
- Ate more chocolate.
- Made another list of journals and sent the essay to a dozen of them. Nothing grim about it. Nothing at all.
- Castigated myself for ever imagining the soaring joy of acceptance.
- Watched Netflix during designated writing time.
- Reread the essay and decided it was awful. Got a friend to read it. Didn’t know if they were just being nice by saying they loved it.
- Sent out another batch.
- Considered whether “Received” or “In Progress” held more possibility. Decided both were inscrutable and, possibly, sinister.
- Went to Costco to stock up on chocolate.
- Marked off the rejection on my list and wondered if it would have been better if I had chosen another color besides red for my color-coding system.
- Determined that two Costco-sized bags of chocolate-covered blueberries were, in fact, inadequate for my needs.
- Resorted to sports analogies: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
- Made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t check Submittable any more.
- Checked Submittable.
- Reread the essay, decided it really wasn’t so bad.
- Got a pair of trusted eyes on the essay. Sank into the depths of frustration and despair when told, “It needs something.”
- Repeated to myself my first writing teacher’s encouraging words: “We’ll throw a party for the first person to get 50 rejections!” Half-way there!
- Realized that my only success might be in failure.
- Sent the essay out again because I was like those zombies I watched but shouldn’t have. Nothing could stop me but a blow to the head.
- Read articles claiming that sugar is the cause of all ills. Read articles stating that chocolate has 4 grams of protein per half cup.
- Decided that I couldn’t please everyone else and maybe couldn’t please anyone else but myself. Pretended that this made me powerful instead of lonely.
- Gave myself a stern lecture about doing the work for the work’s sake. Very nearly believed it.
- Decided that the essay did need something. It needed me to not give up on it.
- Checked Submittable.
A knitter, gardener and avid dog-snuggler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch and Hippocampus, and she is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.
March 6, 2018 § 40 Comments
I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. To simply sit down. Every day. And write. To learn the novice mistakes. To correct them. To learn more novice mistakes. To correct them. It’s an endless cycle.
I don’t like calling myself an “emerging” writer. Think about what emerging means…to rise up, to come into existence, to develop. Would I call myself a “developing writer?” Apply that to another career choice—a developing plumber. A developing doctor. Who wants to take a chance on a developing anything? I’d say, “Call me back when you’re developed.”
I visually see “emerging” as a butterfly bursting from a chrysalis. When is the transformation complete? When the writer is published? When I stop making rookie mistakes? Never?
A rookie writer submits her pieces too soon. My father, a self-published author who would never call himself “emerging,” but simply a writer, reminds me that work needs to sit and season like a stew. This comment brings out the teenager in me: “I know that, dad! Everyone knows that!” But I still finish a piece at 10:01 and shoot it out across Submittable at 10:02.
The emerging writer entertains many rejections. What’s more painful—The pubs that don’t reply or the ones who reply within an hour? We knew THAT quickly you weren’t good enough.
Lynda Barry’s quote is posted at my desk: “Is it good? Does this suck?” I never know the answer for sure.
I attend literary events. I meet authors. I start to better understand the writing community. But then someone says “are you going to hear Colson Whitehead’s reading next week?” and I say, “who’s Colson Whitehead?”
I tweet about a local author’s book hoping they’ll retweet it, because I feel pressure to build a platform. The author re-tweets everyone else on Twitter except me. I read a roundtable interview with agents on how to successfully publish a memoir. “A robust platform is given equal footing with voice and story.” I need ten thousand followers. I spend a week being more active on Twitter. At the end of the week I am nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two followers short.
Then there’s the question of whether I’ve suffered enough. I sit in class, writing on a Lenovo Yoga while drinking Tazo ginger tea and wearing burgundy fingerless gloves woven in Peru. Do I even have a right to be here? I’m just another progressive white woman nearing fifty, writing a sad memoir. Love stories with a spouse killed by cancer are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. My teacher, a talented poet, shares her beginnings—how she wrote into the wee hours each night while raising children alone and working two jobs. Is it my imagination, or is she looking at me?
But I’m here. I’m here because the ghost of my dead husband follows me around. I’m here because outside of raising his children and a demanding corporate job, I’ve made time for writing classes at night in the damp rooms of Seattle’s Hugo House, and the subject I always write about—for fifteen years now—has been my grief. I’m here because two years ago the pounding of a voice telling me “it’s time, it’s time, if not now, when, it’s time to write his story, it’s time to write your story” sat on my shoulder, madly distracting me from staying the corporate path. I’m here because I saved and saved and saved to keep our household running for a few years so I could focus on this project. I’m here because my current husband and extended family withheld their worries, instead saying, “go, we believe in you.” I’m here because I loved a man deeply, and his life was cut short, and we didn’t say the things we should have said because we were young and naïve, and there have been days when I’ve been stuck on the cold tile floor in fetal position heaving wet grief at the regret and guilt I carry for his death. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.
And maybe you can’t hear me. Maybe I toss in an adverb too many. Or my story doesn’t have a universal point. Or the tension isn’t building. Or a sentence that should end with a clang ends with a whoosh. Or I don’t have a platform. Or my memoir is too non-traditional. Or not traditional enough.
But here’s the thing, dear reader, dear agent, dear publisher, dear author, the story is eating me alive. The. Story. Is. Eating. Me. Alive. So, lacking skill, lacking platform, lacking a through path, I keep going. I show up. I sit down. I keep writing. And by the grace of my pen, I will get out on paper the suffocating grief within me to remember a man, a good man, a simple man, a handsome man, a dead man.
Perhaps the transformation from emerging writer to writer has already happened. More likely it never ends. It’s enough that the story rises from me, and I catch it be penned. That is my metamorphosis.
Rachel Greenley is a Seattle-based writer who would like you to follow her on Twitter.
February 27, 2018 § 16 Comments
Who aims for rejections? It’s a crazy notion. Not for the fainthearted. And definitely not for those prone to negativity. But since the beginning of 2017, I’ve been aiming for rejections. This intention spurred writing, encouraged finishing, and helped me put more pieces out into the world than previous years. An original idea? Nope. In late 2016, I read a piece on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections A Year. Sold.
Years ago, such a risk would have stopped my writing. I’d spent dollars on therapy to deal with my writing demons. I wrote pieces about quitting writing. I swore that I didn’t stand a chance in the world wide of publication. Fear. Yes.
But after years of writing workshops, sending out random pieces here and there, and on rare occasions getting an acceptance, I felt ready to commit. Ready to say I have work worthy of reading. Ready to risk rejection.
I created a writing intentions calendar, noting pieces that needed revision, listing pieces I wanted to create, placing deadlines for submissions of particular pieces complete with lists of potential homes. Each month, I crossed through what was done, and when things weren’t touched, I re-evaluated, deciding whether to move them to another month or simply remove that intention.
I began submitting. Aiming for rejections. And I received them.
Eighty-two times in one year.
In the past, I’d received rejections without much grace. Often, I’d utter nastiness at the publication, holding a fuck-you finger to the computer screen. Other times, I’d run to my faithful partner and ask her if I was wasting my time (I still occasionally do this after too many rejections in a row). But starting last year, I handled it like a business. I persevered, refusing to let external readers determine my writing life. I’d note the rejection in a list, add the number to a tally for that month, and evaluate whether the piece should be sent to other journals or put back into the revision pile.
When my rejections passed 50, I got a bit excited.
I hadn’t crumbled.
I hadn’t stopped writing.
I hadn’t submitted to fear.
There were moments I wondered if I could truly withstand 100 rejections. For years, I had worked and reworked an essay about the onset of my father’s Parkinson’s disease. Writing pals declared it ready—it would find a home. I sent it off to my dream publication, checking the box that said I wasn’t simultaneously submitting. I waited. It took only six weeks to receive a friendly, impersonal rejection wishing me “the best in placing [my] writing elsewhere.”
I submitted the essay to what I thought would be a sure shot. I’d read their issues. Read their mission. This fit. Again, it took only six weeks for the rejecter to wish me “the best finding a home for it.”
Fortunately, encouragement occasionally showed up in my rejection pile. Several pieces garnered “…we hope you will consider sending us more in the future.” Then there was the rejection that I celebrated as much as an acceptance. A hybrid piece of polyvocality, part Twitter/part narrative, had made it up to the editor’s table at another dream publication. The rejection came directly from the editor. She told me how interested they were, that it was a close call, even though my essay didn’t make the final cut. She gave me hope for a piece that was having difficulty finding a home.
My new mission of aiming for 100 rejections helped me finish pieces. After years of generating lots of starts and little finishes, I knew that in order to have enough material to aim for 100 rejections, I had to actually produce and finish work. A specific number gave me accountability.
At the end of last year’s experiment, I had four pieces published and one forthcoming. I had enough polished work that when someone solicited me for a potential submission, I actually had several pieces I cared about to send in (and one was selected for publication). It’s too early to predict this year’s outcome, but I’m into 2018’s writing intentions with a busy calendar filled with promise—and rejection.
Amy Braziller is a former punk rocker, sometimes banjo twanging foodie, and current Professor of English at Red Rocks Community College. Publications include Front Porch, Entropy, Split Rock Review, and Hippocampus. Amy is working on a hybrid memoir related to her punk rock days in NYC. She writes about food, film, music, GLBT issues, and social media distractions at amybraziller.com.
February 22, 2018 § 26 Comments
A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.
They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?
I said, “But there’s this countdown…”
“Countdown to what?”
And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.
I’d spent seven years with this character and story in my head. For me, the gun was just there. Why wouldn’t it be? But it wasn’t on the page.
Editing memoir, I often see the same quirk of a major missing piece.
Dad’s an alcoholic? That’s why he acted like that? It’s not in here for the reader. Adult-writer-you might want to make that clear even if child-narrator-you is oblivious.
There’s a ton of money supporting this giant home renovation in another country. The reader wants to know at least briefly how you got it.
Wait, there was an implied sex scene after the picnic at the end of that chapter? Please write enough of it that we know it happened. Even if you just take off her shirt or stroke her hair.
It’s hard to remember all the information readers need to make sense of our story–not because there’s too much to tell, but because we already have a full background briefing. We’re sick to death of the details. We’re afraid to be too obvious, to overwrite, make our work too simple or somehow un-literary by speaking plainly.
I’ve said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before he’s caught, the reader feels ripped off if they don’t have the breadcrumbs to follow your trail. Think about re-reading a classic sleuth novel, and the pleasure of noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, how each puzzle piece falls into place, the last detail snapping into focus right at the villain’s unmasking.
Writing memoir also calls for careful clues. Show the life experience on the way to discovery of illness that shows you can fight (or are fighting for the first time), and the team of doctors, family and friends fighting with you. The hints of family history overheard as children, that now you know were secrets covered up.
It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t surprise the reader. When we reveal the hidden reasons behind our torment, or show our triumph, or beat the tumor, we want the reader instead to be shocked. Fascinated that it turned out this way, but realizing that of course that’s how the story had to end. We want our books to be heavily laden vehicles with bad brakes, rolling down hills toward brick walls. We’re shocked at the impact–but having watched the dump truck full of chickens gather speed, we’re not surprised. If the brakes suddenly worked again, stopping the truck abruptly inches from the wall, it’s still a powerful shock (plus relief!) but again, it’s not a surprise. One way or another, everything pointed to an explosion of feathers and squawks.
Take a look at your essay, or your manuscript. What’s the stunning conclusion, the revelation, the connection the reader makes at the last minute? Go back and find the clues. What logically leads to this conclusion, step by step? Is it subtle enough to still need to finish the story to find out what happens, but clear enough that a reader who doesn’t know the plot already will say, “Ohhhhhhh. Yeah. That had to happen–it’s the only way.”
The illusion in our heads is of a fully realized world, provided with every necessary action and relationship to contextualize our story. The reader only gets what’s on the page. Give them enough cards and top hats to be in on the illusion, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. No chickens were harmed in the writing of this post.
February 15, 2018 § 19 Comments
Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:
…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.
Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–
I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.
Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?
I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.
We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.
We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.
I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.
It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.
It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”
There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.
February 13, 2018 § 16 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
February 5, 2018 § 16 Comments
Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.
Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.
There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:
It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.
When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.
Most of my “writing” days look like this:
- 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
- 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
- 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
- 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
- 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
- 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
- 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing
Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.
What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.
When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”
Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.
Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.