But when Indy literary pal Sarah Layden offered me her ARC of The Story I Tell Myself About Myself to preview, I was all in. She’s such a peach and her debut novel, Trip Through Your Wires, such a tasty treat, I jumped on the opportunity to lose myself in her ability to concoct mood and character in her honey-chipotle way.
Okay, a confession: I didn’t realize Sarah’s latest book, set to release August 30, was a chapbook of flash fiction—not until the third page. Problem was, by the second I was transfixed. And then page 3 crushed me with the realization that I wouldn’t get to spend the remaining pages with story one’s messed up characters all mangled by modern love. Until her second micro-story, with the stranded single mother who broke my heart. She hooked me with her magical skills, then made me feel what her characters feel, over and over again.
The thing that chaps me about flash—and short stories in general, I suppose—is that they’re just so annoyingly in vogue right now. I’ve tried writing them, and even had a couple published, but they’re just not my thing. It’s probably me. I tend to resist the popular. I never saw Titanic in theaters. I never ate, prayed, or loved. I admit this trait may be a flaw.
But another thing about brief fiction—it’s nearly impossible to write well. I feel for the editors of magazines that publish flash, to think of the mounds of mush they must have to plow through from newbie submitters who think, “Flash fiction? I can do that.” Only, they can’t. It takes discipline, skill, practice, and talent to create worlds, populate them with living beings, build and resolve tension—to fulfill the duties of a fiction writer—often in under 500 words.
Only, Sarah Layden can and does, page after page, with enviable mastery.
The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is, to a writer, maddeningly excellent. To a reader, it’s a twisty, turny, delicious way to spend a few hours. Dammit, Sarah Layden!
Last time I posted I was on a toot about the evil, annoying necessity for writers to build platform using inbound marketing, but I think that’s really more essential for a certain type of author.
Authors of fiction, on the other hand, need most to focus on the being of writing. Platform is irrelevant:
“J.K. Rowling didn’t have a blog when she wrote Harry Potter. Does she have a platform? Stephen King doesn’t have a Twitter account. Does he have a platform? Agatha Christie, the bestselling novelist of all time, wasn’t alive when Facebook was invented. Did she have a platform?” –Joe Bunting, “What Fiction Authors Really Need to Know About Their Platform”
I know a guy who’s writing a book. His career goal is to be a speaker at this type of thing. He is already a subject matter expert with an advanced degree that starts with a P and ends with a D, and he has a solid, healthy career with a reliable customer base. The challenge, according to prevailing publishing wisdom in 2015, is to prove all this to his target audience: agents, acquisitions editors, and the people in charge of booking leadership conference speakers.
Got the Goods But Not The Ears
Word of mouth works to a point, but there’s no way to connect the right mouths to the right ears. So he’ll need to cast a wider net.
This extremely capable fellow first came to me wanting help with his book—maybe a little editing, maybe a little help working out the structure—he wasn’t really sure exactly what. The beating heart of his inquiry was a yearning for advice on getting his book published, because in his mind (and probably in real life, to some extent), book = speaking opportunities.
What I told him stunk . . .
I’m not sure what he hoped to hear, maybe a magic formula, a referral to someone who could connect him to what he longed for, maybe. What I told him stunk, that I could help him with his book or refer him to another editor who could, but that he needs to ramp up his inbound marketing efforts and all that jazz.
He has a blog, to which he intermittently posts because who has time? But he needs to leverage his online presence to build that dadburn platform. Ugh! I hate that!
Bookstores and Interwebs
It sounds so crass, doesn’t it? Why can’t a person with stellar ideas just write a book and become widely recognized as an expert? That’s how it used to happen, right? I mean, look at Patrick Lencioni and Posner and Kouzes. They wrote books and their popularity and influence caught fire on a massive scale. But no. That was in the ’80s, before Al Gore invented the Interwebs and killed the bookstores. They got in on the ground floor, those thought leaders/authors.
Now you have to Have A Robust Online Presence [gag]. Writers can’t merely show up with useful ideas and a good book anymore. [By the way, even Pat Lencioni and those leadership challenge guys invest in inbound marketing. I know: I worked on content marketing to help their publisher sell their books.] This author is the inboundmarketingest author I know. If those guys need to do it, how much more does the unknown, yet-to-be-published leadership author?
And one way to build a platform and “create buzz” is to create relevant, helpful searchable online content—blogging being just one of many tools that can be used to achieve this goal of inbound marketing.
So I told this guy: “Mr. Author, you are smart. You know how to write and organize your thoughts. You are credible in your profession and lousy with testimonials from happy customers. You do need an editor for your book (everyone does, and I’m happy to help), but to increase your odds of capturing the attention of potential readers, an agent, and an acquisition editor, you need to ramp up your online activity—starting with posting regularly to your blog and being involved in social media. And for heaven’s sake, open a Twitter account. I mean, how are you or your friends promoting your blog posts?”
TWITTER, RHYMES WITH SH*****
My first encounter with Twitter occurred under duress, and I was not a fan. On the front edge of inbound marketing I decided to open and operate a Twitter account for a previous employer. (I was the first Beth Bates on the then-new social media platform, evidently, hence @bethbates.) I dutifully engaged, tweeted, followed, and RT’d, but I did not enjoy it, AT ALL.*
Most writers I know are introverted and would rather not expend energy connecting on Twitter or IG or Facebook or LinkedIn or Goodreads or She Writes. They want to just do their thing, write their memoirs, novels, essays, or how-to books, and that should be enough. But it isn’t enough. Connecting, for most authors, is an onerous necessarily evil.
BUT: A Silver Lining in the Pacific Northwest
But how exciting is it that I can write a blog post and a woman in Australia or a dude in the UK reads it, feels something, apprehends it as something of value, and becomes an ardent follower? Or through a reciprocal blog following I make meaningful connections with a cadre of writers and readers in the Pacific Northwest likely to be buyers of my own book (someday, maybe, when I have created a stronger platform and find an agent with the editorial vision my MS deserves).
How cool is that?! You couldn’t do THAT in the ’80s.
At least that’s what I tell this author. And myself.
*Now I honestly appreciate and even enjoy Twitter. It’s a marvelous, low-barrier way to connect with fascinating, otherwise inaccessible folks around the globe. I’ve had meaningful exchanges with memoirist Mary Karr and (LOST) composer Michael Giacchino, to name a few. When I was in the dumps a couple weeks ago, Steve Hely gave me recommendations of books that make him laugh. How cool is that?! Fun!
The English language is one of the most complex in existence. With more words than any other language in the world, it is no wonder even native speakers don’t get it quite right all the time. Here’s a quick run down of my top ten most misused words. Some I am guilty of misusing myself, others are absolutely my pet peeve.
A sweet friend from my Montrose halcyon days recently reached out from Vancouver, BC, over Facebook, in search of writing help. I suggested a writing group, workshop, or a Creative Nonfiction online course, but her season of life limits her time and mobility, making those options impractical. So once a week, I’ve been emailing her reading and writing assignments, primarily to coach her into cultivating the habit of writing daily.
They say it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and J worked diligently to develop hers. She and I started our long distance writer/coach relationship around mid-January, and now she’s ready for more focused instruction. Her first two assignments were throat-clearers, and now we’re getting down to business. I turned to Poets & Writers for her next prompt and encountered this arresting poem by Ansel Elkins.
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
“Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. / I leapt / to freedom.” The ending of Ansel Elkin’s [sic] poem “Autobiography of Eve” is packed with confidence. Write an essay reflecting on a time when you felt a similar sense of empowerment. Maybe you ended a stifling relationship, or went back to school to train for a new career? Write about the initial fear and the certitude of your actions.
“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'”
This blog post is not my trickle. I fuel my trickle in the margins, when no one is looking or paying attention or reading or critiquing or praising or liking or RTing or sharing. Keep feeding your trickle, sweets.
While recovering from my summer vacation heart attack last July in the small Colorado western slope town where I lived when my children were small, I stumbled upon hidden treasure on the bookshelf of my dear friend’s guest room. Like an IV drip of creativity energy, leafing through the pages of Madeleine L’Engle Herself pinked up my cheeks and kept me going while I was in limbo.
All these months later I bought my own copy. Here’s a 2-cc dose that sets me to writing again now that life’s back to normal and I have the luxury of thinking I’m too busy to create on a daily basis.
An Incarnational Event
Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.
On an ice-glazed morning, today’s reading thaws my cockles. Thanks again, Annie L:
When all is said and done, spring is the main reason for Wow. Spring is crazy, being all hope and beauty and glory. She is the resurrection. Spring is Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Buds opening and releasing, mud and cutting winds, bright green grass and blue skies, nests full of baby birds. All of these are deserving of Wow—even though I have said elsewhere that spring is also about deer ticks—and everywhere you look, couples are falling in love, and the air is saturated with the scent of giddiness and doom. Petals are wafting and falling slowly through the air, and there is something so Ravel, languorous, reminding me to revel in the beauty of things wafting.
Did you know the list is a legit narrative nonfiction form? Yep, and it’s ancient. McSweeney’s did not invent the list. Around the first day of the first month of Noah’s 601st year, as the ground was drying out, a writer in Sumeria (now southern Iraq) carved wedge-shaped letters into stone tablets, composing a work of wisdom scholars consider to be the first work of literature. It was different from the lists kept for commerce or civic life: goats, bushels, grapes, and the like. The List of Ziusudra showed the writer’s mind in thought. It was, arguably, an essay. Some of the most well known examples of the form come from ancient writers whose lists persist as time capsules, preserving the writers’ thoughts and cultural contexts. So for your weekend writing prompt, sharpen your pencils and write away. Make up some paint colors that describe your day, your week, or a month or year in your life, and list them. It’s fun, and discovered years later a list can be a little bit fascinating. I found this list in the free-write vault, no doubt leftover from 2010 when I was eyebrow deep in kitchen remodel decor decisions. It’s not the most refined list, and to say it’s an “essay” is a reach, but each silly little entry instantly revives in my memory a story from my family life at the time it was written.
My Paint Chip Memoir (2010)
Age Spot Tan
First Gray Hair Greige
Stubborn Toilet Ring Gris
Heart Cath Bruise Purple
Dust Bunny Taupe
Burnt Rhubarb Pie Crust
I want to read your paint chip memoir, I really do. Post them in comments?
Collage, fragmented, montage, segmented, lyric, sectioned: a mosaic by any other name was still a thorn in my flesh. The first mosaic I ever tried to write amounted to little more than a clumsy knockoff of a Richard Rodriguez essay assigned in my first MFA nonfiction workshop.
Three years later, I tried again. I picked up the same Rodriguez and works by Montaigne, inventor of the form.
I read and froze.
I re-read Rodriguez. I couldn’t grasp the peculiar features of the form firmly enough to do it myself. Reading Rodriguez did not help.
Stained glass makes sense, the image my professor used to illustrate the mosaic essay. Like stained glass in a church, each paragraph or group of paragraphs a single scene, which viewed with all the other scenes, make sense alone but make the most impact only when the last scene clicks into place.
But my own mosaic attempts continued to be stilted, round-peg-square-hole experiments. Shrinky Dinks in my mother’s oven.
More research. More reading. If I can grasp “the rules,” I can write a mosaic.
Montaigne, On Some Verses of Virgil. I meditate more on Montaigne’s words searching for clues. Of Books: “Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it.”
Nester’s Teaching Blog. Daniel Nester: “What Papa Montaigne means, I think, is that the form of the essay, the way the essay reflects the consciousness of the writer, is just as important, if not more, than what is addressed.”
Ned Stuckey-French lights a candle and guides me toward understanding in his characterization of Rodriguez’s Late Victorians. “(Appearing) as a mosaic personal essay – constructing a solid theme through bits and pieces of different subjects.”
Closer to clarity, I can’t think of a single topic to squeeze into a patchwork prose quilt. Maybe I’m trying too hard to get it.
I scour my public library, the Internet. Ninety-day diet.
I gobble up every mosaic essay I can find. Over three months, I rack up $10 in overdue fines for the convenience of Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies on my bedside table for multiple nighttime readings of the same mosaics.
Magic. Osmosis. Click. Eula Biss breaks through with pure, original mosaic, with only the faintest hints of Montaigne or Rodriguez.
Robin Black grabs me by the throat, her heartfelt essay reflecting the angst of parenting decisions in its own herky-jerky structure and section titles.
Ander Monson’s quieter mosaic offers another, contrasting example of how a fragmented essay can be daring in its structure, through the use of titles, tone and pace.
Dev Hathaway breaks my heart. “North Pole, South Pole, the Sea of Carcinoma” presents medical facts with deft restraint of sentiment.
All my favorites differed from examples left by the inventor of the mosaic and from one another; but they are all indeed mosaics. I immersed myself in these works. I stopped trying to apprehend the concept of mosaic and gave in to the experience of mosaic. And I got it.
The more I tried to comprehend the rules the more I realized that the key to mosaic is its suspension of the usual narrative rules. Nester’s rationale behind Montaigne’s approach to mosaic personal essay was the final tile in the mosaic of my search that made the form clear to me, at long last:
The demands of a narrative, of exposition, of having to explain everything can frustrate the writer who has other things to say. The desire to write a piece of nonfiction that lets other, perhaps nonlinear, factors affect its shape goes back to the origins of the essay itself.
Nester nailed it. I had other things to say. I scanned through my daily writing entries, found one with a topic that had eluded me for ten years, and started riffing. Riffing sans structure freed an essay to collage itself to life. I gave it permission to emerge in tiles that “tell a story individually and in the aggregate” with its its content and its form.
Me and Mosaic
In the process of grasping a form I’ve found a new friend, a secret weapon that helps me write about the most complex and slippery subjects from as many different angles as my mind can think to write.
“Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth. But is there a crack where a ribbon of light might get in, might sneak past all the roadblocks and piles of stones, mental and emotional and cultural?”
The truth in this quote seized me from the pages of one of my Christmas gifts, but typed up on this 17-inch screen the words are damning. My heart is tender, too tender, and so I have learned, finally, to seal it up tight to keep the hurtful barbs of life and crushing betrayals from causing more cardiac damage. But then, at what point does guarding this most critical muscle give way to hardening? And isn’t a hardened heart far more tragic than a broken heart?