So, my class is on the horizon and I am building the resources I want to use which means find mentor texts for us to read and discuss. I knew definitely I wanted to use Jesmyn Ward’s piece in Vanity Fair, “On Witness and Respair” because it is devastating, honest and brutiful (I stole that word from somewhere…). And I had a few other ideas, but I was scrolling Twitter- which is what you do when you should be writing and have an impending deadline- when I came across a tweet asking for recommendations of personal essays by writers of color. So, I checked the thread and wow, there were some amazing suggestions!
I can’t keep all of them and I am excited to see if any of my writer friends out there have other suggestions, but here is what I have so far. Oh, and if this looks interesting and you want to pop an idea kernel into a full blown polished piece, sign up for my class 🙂 Registration link is here.
What are your favorite personal essays? Drop the title and author in the comments so we can share in the beautiful words!
Not everybody knows I am a former teacher. I loved the students, the people I worked with, the relationships that last far beyond the classroom. But, I am thankful every day I am not teaching this year.
I opened Twitter this morning to check and see if an app I linked was functioning properly and was caught by a teacher tweet in my feed.
“I need to write this down so I don’t forget: if we are still in this mess at the beginning of the next school year…I’m taking a leave of absence and working at…Trader Joe’s or Target or wherever. I love teaching AND I love my mental health more.”
It makes me sad and angry at the same time that so many of my friends, colleagues are leaving a profession they are passionate about because they feel devalued, attacked, in danger of infection, and generally bone-tired. I remember those feelings and that was before a pandemic. I have tried for years to figure out what it is about teaching that draws disrespect from the public that depends on educators to raise and enlighten the next generation. Many times teachers are treated like servants- pay is low, expectations are high, burnout is certain.
This photo was taken one of my first years teaching in Virginia. It is important to me. It stays on display in my office/library to remind me of the good things about teaching. So, I looked at it this morning and remembered all those students whose college essays I read and collaborated on, whose games, plays, and debates I attended to support them, whose worlds I had the privilege of being a part of, whose friendships I still have today. Teachers are people too, with dreams, responsibilities, families, student loans, car payments, child care issues, depression, loneliness, and stress just like the rest of us trying to navigate this upside down world we find ourselves in. I hoped back in March when everybody was praising teacher courage and resilience it would bring change in how we treat and value teachers. I hoped we would start recognizing the great burden society puts on them. Unfortunately, here we are.
I understand when friends reach out to let me know they are leaving the classroom. They have children to worry about, elderly parents to worry about, their own health to worry about. Just.Like.Us. We need teachers who are passionate about their mission, who do it because they love it, who know their responsibility to the next generation. But, I am scared many of those teachers will be leaving the profession, if they have not already.
To those sticking it out, adapting and finding ways to connect with their young charges, I see you. To those who elect to leave because the burden is too great, I see you as well. I know you are all the quiet heroes of many kids’ lives as you stock a fridge with snacks and food for those who have nothing to eat at home, or have a few dollars in your wallet to slip to the kid who can’t afford a ticket to the school play, or buy extra school supplies for those who can’t afford them, but don’t want the stigma of going to the school supply closet for the needy, or buying a couple extra copies of books so the kid who is scared at home has something to keep him company, or letting the boy in the back lay his head down for a few minutes because he works nights to help support his family. You are the caretakers and I see you.
Maybe one day the rest of the country will see you as well.
For some reason I am always drawn to careers that inspire huge personal commitment, long hours, and pieces of my soul. Owning and operating a restaurant was a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year labor of love. Teaching never stayed at school- it was nights, weekends, and vacations filled with inspiring the next generation. Professional Writing seems to be following that trend, but I have the unique opportunity to follow my dream decades after I put it away for careers that were more certain, and that is a great gift. I am grateful.
As I have been reading, teaching myself, and taking classes on the art of writing, pitching, querying, and organizing a successful freelance writing life, I have seen lots of posts about self-care. I just skim these usually, moving on to other items on my to-do list. But, this has been a huge week. I pitched nine articles, submitted two essays, and received five acceptances for some exciting bylines (eeekkk ;)). I also interviewed two sources, and did a ton of research. And, it is only Thursday.
So, when the kittens went down for their nap this afternoon, I decided I was going to take a few minutes for me. I can see why self-care is so talked about- I feel invigorated, cared for, and excited to keep traveling this writing journey.
First up was a little meditation. I like the app Calm.
2. Next came some fresh nail polish. I love OPI, in fact it is all I buy- see what I did there 🙂
3. Then came the wine. I have been watching my consumption because you know, I may have been drinking a little too much since staying-at-home with my kittens and husband to talk to…Back to the wine, Orin Swift, always Orin Swift if I have a choice. They make UH-mazing wine that is a little pricey, but not outrageous. This is the their latest, and my current fave, 8 years in the desert, which ironically feels like this moment.
4. Now for the really good stuff…face masks! I never do these because they usually involve a lot of time with messy stuff on your face. But, my daughter introduced me to these little gems while she was home. Sheet masks are gold! I am staunch in my cruelty-free stance and The Body Shop has been my go-to since I was 13 years old and had my first editorial published in The Burlington Free Press. It was all about the cosmetic industry and testing on animals. When it came out, everybody sent me gift cards and baskets to our local Body Shop, and after trying their products, I was hooked.
5. To round out my interlude of self-care, chocolate was in order. If you know me, you know my love affair with everything chocolate. In fact, our last family dive trip to Grenada included a day at a chocolate estate- I picked cocoa pods, ground it with my feet, saw the processing, tasted an obscene amount, and bought an obscene amount. It was a great day. The place was Belmont Estates and a must-do if you are in Grenada- check out my post on it here.
That’s it. Just a little over an hour, but it was all about doing things for myself. As we weather this tragedy in our country, remember to take a few moments for yourself.
Check out my other posts about the Freelance Writing Life:
I have been at this freelance writing gig for about nine months now, and I have learned some pretty important stuff. First, choosing to start this right as Covid-19 took hold was probably not the best idea. Second, networking is the single best thing you can do to help yourself succeed.
I am an introvert so reaching out to people for help is uncomfortable. But, as I have done this more and more, I have gained some valuable insight about the writing marketplace, pitching and submitting, and the ever elusive rate to charge.
Since we are all home, for the most part, I have been reading a lot. The Byline Bible by Susan Shapiro was truly a holy source. Find my review and tips here. The craft books I have read have also helped immensely, but mostly in the make your writing better game. One of the single best groups I joined was a writing group on Facebook. Generally I consider FB the devil, but this writing network is the exception. For whatever reason, writing groups abound on FB, and many have specializations like food writing, or writing for Medium, or 10 Minute Novelists. All have been priceless! I have gained so many mentors and friends to help with the isolation of freelance writing.
The best thing you can do for yourself is find a writing community, one that helps you learn where to submit, how to pitch articles, volunteers to beta read for you, and helps you up your social media game. But, make sure it is reciprocal. Offer to read and critique, if you have a contact or source, share it, promote and celebrate their publications, support the others as they support you. I dare say I have made friends in these groups I hope to meet face-to-face one day and share a glass of wine. This article has a pretty good list of groups to start with.
From these groups I learned most editors and agents are on Twitter. Naturally, I started digging and following. I came across a tweet mentioning this substack, “Freelancing with Tim” and checked it out. Tim Herarra is the NY Times Smarter Living editor, and has started a free service to help freelancers in these difficult times. He has done a great deal of fundraising for furloughed journalists, but he also puts out a weekly newsletter and does Sunday night Zoom sessions with seasoned journalists where he explores some aspect of the murky world of freelancing. Did I say it is all free? He does have a subscription and donation system set up if you can afford to contribute.
My first one was “Pitch Perfect” and I was hooked. His guest was engaging and the insight into writing the pitch was gamechanging. I highly suggest you subscribe to his newsletter and attend some panels. You can find his substack here.
In his last session he mentioned another newsletter, Opportunities of the Week, by Sonia Weiser which again, changed my life. Weiser, a seasoned freelancer, puts a bi-weekly newsletter outlining all the recent calls for pitches. Yes, you read that correctly. She does the research, finds the contacts and puts it all together in a newsletter for you to access for a paltry $3 per month, or more if you can afford it. I have only received two of these gold mines and already successfully pitched 4 articles- two in my wheelhouse of food writing. It also clued me in to who I should be following on Twitter. You can find her newsletter sign-up here.
This week has also brought on a storm of organization as I start to merge all my editor and agent contacts into one Google Sheet I can work from as I pitch. I did not go to school for journalism. I have six coming publications and a number out on pitch right now, and I owe it mostly to networking, and a little to tirelessly reading, writing, and revising.
I know this is a terrible time to be getting into freelance writing, but here I am. I have wanted to pursue writing since I was young. I am a good student and willing to do the work. I have been reading craft books, taking webinars, writing every day, and sending out pitches. I want those bylines. I want those acceptance letters. I want to see my words in print. I have byline instant gratification syndrome.
My recent purchase was the Byline Bible by Susan Shapiro, and I should have bought it before I even started this little enterprise. Shapiro teaches pitching and personal essay classes at The New School, and since Covid, has been teaching online. I hope to take her class this winter, if it is still online. It is pricey ($750), but I think will be completely worth it. Below are some of the most valuable nuggets from her book (imho).
Write the essays. Even if you plan to pitch rather than submit a completed manuscript, this gives you a polished draft to pull your golden lines from that will sell your pitch. I wrote three of her suggested prompts: the humiliation essay, the humor essay, and the secret service essay. I plan to revise, get another set of eyes and then start submitting.
Good writing comes from revision. Just because you wrote a piece does not mean it is ready for the New York times. Do not proceed without fresh eyes on it. As a former English teacher, I know this to be true. First drafts are usually messy. I have a piece out to Modern Love (I know, I know, way to shoot for the moon out of the gate) that I revised 5 times and then had two different trusted writers look at and give feedback. My piece was better after that process. It has been 3 months so fingers crossed.
Short, perfect cover letters can help sell even mediocre pages. I will admit, I suck at cover letters. I am good at the research aspect of them though- I never write a cover letter without reading the publication, locating the editor, reading whatever they wrote and making myself knowledgeable on their likes and dislikes. This takes time, but the rejections I have gotten have been personal, non-stock replies with invitations to submit something else or general good vibes. Now I have a connection I can reference when I submit my next piece to them. Shapiro provides examples of successful cover letters at the end of the chapter and I actually modeled one I sent out yesterday after hers.
Shapiro provides a number of lists at the end that summarize the main points of the book which you should buy because it is necessary for those trying to break into bylines.
Figure out your audience, tone, and topicality by reading pieces from your target publication
Write the three-page piece editors want
Get a tough critique
Revise more than once
Craft a great 5-line cover letter with the right editor’s name and email
Buy the Byline Bible from your local bookstore and you get great writing advice, as well as supporting your local shop!
Reading craft books has been a priority lately as I try to hone my personal essays and memoir in progress. The latest book is by Sven Birkerts, Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. The Art of Time in Memoir was more academic-leaning than the last couple I read. Birkerts spends time analyzing various texts for how they utilize time. He also wrote about the different entry points of memoir, such as the mother-daughter relationship, the father-son relationship, relationship to trauma etc. I liked his commentary about reflective vantage points and how important this is to successful memoir writing.
“I need to give the reader both the unprocessed feeling of the world as I saw it then and a reflective vantage point that incorporates or suggests that these events made a different kind of sense over time. This is the transformation that, if done well, absolves a memoiristic reflection from the charge of self-involved nave-gazing”
It is the reflection that shows self-awareness. This is something I need to be wary of in my own writing- finding those moments of reflection that can make experiences and lessons resonant to an audience beyond myself.
Birkerts also reminded me of the importance of crafting the narrator, even in memoir. To the reader, the narrator is a character much like in fiction, and as such must have an identity on the page. The reader must be introduced to the narrator and learn to trust her.
Probably the most important nugget I took away was one I have read about in Vivian Gornick’s and Mary Karr’s craft books. “So much of the substance of memoir is not exactly what happened but rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life.” Sometimes I struggle with the fact that I don’t remember every detail about an event I am writing, but I remember the feelings, the moments. This is what is important though, and I need to remember that. It is not about recounting an exact event like nonfiction. It is about recounting a feeling, an emotion, something that touches readers and reminds them of the universal human experience. That is what makes memoir creative nonfiction.
Back in May I submitted an essay to the Modern Love column (I still have not heard anything so I am taking that as a good sign). I read ALL of the advice about how to submit and what to submit, including the editor’s wisdom on books to read. I followed him on Twitter to soak up whatever he had to say. Daniel Jones recommended Vivian Gornick highly as a guide to writing resonant personal essays, ones like he chooses to publish. Here is a link to the Google Doc Holy Grail. I ordered the book immediately and skimmed before sending my submission.
Now a couple months later, I have had the chance to spend some time with Ms. Gornick, and I have to agree with Mr. Jones- she is wise. The slim volume offers some wonderful examples of essays and memoirs the author admires, as well as some sage advice about how those works became great. I really appreciated how she defined the task of identifying the situation you are writing about and the story you are conveying. The situation is, “…the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In thinking about my own writing with this lens, it is much easier to see what is important to the emotional experience, what is the why of telling the story.
This is a worthy read for anybody embarking on the often painful task of writing personal essays or memoir. At the end there is a discussion guide that would be useful if you were using the book to teach a class. Below are some of my favorite quotes from Gornick.
“Nonfiction builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension.” (35)
“The narrator in a memoir must always be reliable, always working hard to get to the bottom of the experiences in hand…” (117)
“For drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.” (35)
I LOVED this book. I am currently in the throes of writing a memoir/collection of personal essays. I know the best way to improve your writing is to read. As you travel the worlds of other authors, you begin to see the styles and lines you admire accumulate. They add to your cadre of mentors. I read a great deal of fiction, nonfiction, poetry etc., but I have been remiss in reading craft books. Enter Mary Karr. Her name kept popping up in discussions so I picked up her book, The Art of Memoir.
Karr affirmed for me the issue I have been suspecting in my own writing, presenting a false self. We all want to see ourselves a certain way, and when we write about ourselves, that ideal can take over. But as Karr asserts, “You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention. Sadly, without a writer’s dark side on view – the pettiness and vanity and schemes – pages give off a whiff of bullshit.” I needed that shot of truth to start evaluating my own nostalgic vision of myself.
This slim volume is packed with advice for those seeking to write memoir or personal essay. There are beautiful passages from memoirists the author admires, such as Maya Angelou’s and Maxine Hong Kingston, with critique about what worked in the passage, and why it is important to your own forays into writing. Karr’s voice throughout is a comfort. She is self-deprecating, generous with her writing heroes, and pragmatic about things like “keeping your ass in the chair.” She also provides some lists for those that decide personal writing is their mission. I particularly liked her “Incomplete Checklist to Stave off Dread,” which includes “the self-discipline to work in scary blankness for some period of time…,” something I personally am still growing accustomed to.
As the pandemic widens, I know writers are seeking classes, webinars, and books to hone their WIPs. The Art of Memoir is a must-read, and annotate, pseudo-guide to personal writing. Plus, it is entertaining and judicious with the swear words 🙂
I didn’t realize how effective a writing challenge can be for keeping you accountable to writing every day until I embarked on #1000wordsofsummer. I wrote…a lot. Reading the newsletters Jami Attenberg sent out inspired me daily to sit down and do the work of writing. The challenge started a habit of writing every day and I was hungry for more accountability when it finished.
As some others did, I tried just posting my daily word counts and a little about what I wrote, but the lack of a community engaged in the same challenge as me made it less fruitful. I looked for another writing challenge that would prod me to keep up my routine and found Camp Nanowrimo running for the month of July. I tried Nanowrimo in November a few years ago, but was not so successful. The goal is 50,000 words in a month. I was not quite up to the challenge. The July Nano Camp is a little looser. You set your goal, and it can be a daily word count or overall word count. They do another one in April set up the same way. I like the community aspect. I joined a group of fellow memoirists and we post our word counts, give each other moral support, and talk about writing.
Nano is not the only challenge out there. Here are a few others I checked out:
Shut Up and Write– Every month they host a prompt-based writing challenge. You have the option of working on your own, or posting your work in their community forums. They also host writing sprints on Twitter every day at designated times. They have lots of writing resources on their site, and an optional newsletter.
Scribendi– So for those who might be intimidated by the scope of a Nano challenge, Scribendi offers a month-long writing challenge that follows a set of writing prompts/exercise. You write however much you want without the guilt of not meeting the Nano goal. I particularly liked Day 11: You are now a dragon. Describe your hoard. I like the prompts from this site. It definitely helps with developing character and world-building.
10 Minute Novelists– I LOVE THIS GROUP! I stumbled across this one as I was looking for online writing communities. It is Facebook-based and you do have to request and invite. They have a website, and it has a blog which has some great tips, but the FB group is where it is at. I actually just registered for a free literary seminar that another member posted this morning. They also have the 365 day challenge which is a very organized group of writers committed to writing every day. You do have to pay to become a member of this challenge group, but their testimonials are fantastic. I was drawn to this group because sometimes I can’t devote two hours of uninterrupted time to write. Sometimes, writing happens in snippets around life. That is the core of their philosophy- write when you can every day.
Writer’s Workout– This site has a number of challenges. There is a bi-annual short story challenge, a monthly micro-challenge, and a prompt-based series. Their site promotes the idea that to get better at what you do, you must practice. They provide lots of avenues of writing practice.
Yeah Write– This site offers three types of challenges. There is a weekly free challenge grid that is open to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each grid has specific submission guidelines and are judged by popular vote. There is also a monthly microprose challenge: 48 in 48. Yes, you read that correctly, 48 words only. There is a prompt and submission guidelines posted on the first Saturday of each month. This one is a lot of fun, especially if you are trying to train yourself to write small. They also have a quarterly super challenge that requires an entry fee and is eligible for cash prizes.
NaPoWriMo– This was a new one for me. I am familiar with Nano, but did not realize there was one devoted to poetry held during National Poetry Month. It is not affiliated with the official Nano site. This challenge asks you to write a poem a day for 30 days. You can either do this just for your own personal viewing, or you can submit your site to NaPoWriMo and they will list you with their participating poet sites roundup.
National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists.
I am certain there are more out there, but as I started poking around, these were the challenges I decided to give a try. Write on!