Writer Heidi Barr published the best little craft essay yesterday on Brevity’s Blog. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find better writing (and life) advice. This five-minute read is worth your time. I printed it off and am keeping a copy at my writing desk.
By the way, Barr’s new book of poetry, Cold Spring Hallelujah (which I reviewed for Harbor Review), is publishing on November 1, 2019. I am not given to hyperbole when I tell you that Barr is stepping into the void left by Mary Oliver’s death. Hallelujah!
If you are local to the Twin Cities metro area, you can catch Barr’s launch party at Gustaf’s Up North Gallery in Lindstrom, MN on November 7th, 2019 at 7 pm.
“Don’t write for a market. Write what you need to write and work out the pesky details later.”
Jill Christman, AWP’19 Panel: Going Long: Editors & Writers of Longform Nonfiction in Conversation
I recently returned from my third AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference. As with previous conferences, I am inspired and, I am overwhelmed. I find myself, once again, swimming in the vast sea that differentiates my writing from more skilled writers, especially those seasoned essayists whose work I deeply admire. Writers who’ve written essays like:
Can you tell, I have the True Story series–a series made up of longform narratives–by Creative Nonfiction on my heart and mind today? Although I’ve been subscribing to True Story for about a year now, I covered the AWP panel, convened by Jill Christman, on longform nonfiction writing for Assay Journal. From attending that panel discussion (and listening extra hard), my interest in writing longform has only magnified.
But I know I do not yet have the layering skills of Christman, the probing reflections of James Blackwell, or the breathtaking lyrical underscoring of Gwartney. So, what does a writer do when she cannot yet bridge the distance between the kind of essays she wants to write and the kind of essays she is currently writing (or not writing, in my case)?
She brews five cups of tea, she edits photos taken out and about Portland (backdrop to this year’s AWP), she eats the dairy-free chocolate eggs intended for her nine-year old son. She also does a load of laundry and then spends long moments contemplating whether she’s finally beyond her fixation with blue bottles, contemplating whether perhaps blue bottles are now simply too blue, contemplating how she can fall so completely in and out of love.
I’ve made this observation through nearly five years of reading, studying, and writing personal essays: they are definitely written with differing degrees of skill. Some very fine essays only scrape the surface of one single subject; these seem to work best when they come from the writer’s soul. Some essays attempt to weave in a second counterpoint and implode. Better perhaps for these to have kept to one point and to have executed it well. Some amazing essays successfully layer, balance, and weave multiple points of juxtaposition. These are the kind I so admire, these are the kind I desire to write. Even when they involve the oddest subject matter, I will immerse myself in the sheer enjoyment of the skill it took for the writer to pull off such a complex weave.
Do essayists begin writing these complex weaves? Do pianists begin with Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor? Unlikely, although some might arrive at the destination sooner.
So what does a writer do when she cannot bridge the gap in her own ability? For me, the answer is probably not sit around, drinking endless cups of tea while dreaming of the kind of essays I would like to be writing. Instead, I need to work on my scales; instead, I need to begin (again) where I am today. While I may never write essays like “Spinning” or “Lethe,” I will surely progress, I will surely improve my craft, if only I dare dive into the mediocrity of right now. If only I dare to write what I need to write.
I read recently that the definition of a professional is someone who works daily at the things she loves, even on those days she doesn’t love them so much.
As 2018 comes to a close, I’ve found myself questioning whether I really am a writer. I can sum up the external net results of this year pretty quickly. I published two pieces early in the year, a review and a personal essay. I had one other flash essay accepted in late summer, but it has not published and I cannot get the venue to respond to my request for an expected pub date (although I’ve already been paid for the piece). Nothing makes me feel less like a validated writer than a lack of response from a publishing venue.
It’s not as if I haven’t been plugging away at my writing; I have. I’ve even written one of my favorite essays to date. Since November, I’ve submitted the essay to four dream publications. I am committed to seeing this essay through to publication where, in the past, I’ve often quit after the first few rejections. I will keep on submitting this one down the line of most desired publications.
I’ve submitted 38 times this year–many of those are still outstanding. I think my “goal” last year was to submit 100 times. I guess I fell short of that goal, but the intention behind the goal had me submitting at least twice as much as I did in 2017. Part of the issue now is that I’ve become more selective with where I want to publish. Perhaps I need to view this as a sign of the developing writing professional in me.
In August I attended Hippocampus Magazine’s annual writing conference for creative nonfiction writers–HippoCamp–for the first time. After this marvelous conference, I signed on as a reader for Hippocampus, fulfilling an intention of mine that took shape in grad school. Reading essays each week for Hippocampus is an act of literary citizenship and an education, all in one.
During the first half of this year, I worked intently on my memoir-in-progress. I thought it was complete but developments in my life over the summer made me rethink that “doneness.” I put it aside and, this fall, signed up for Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words class for the first time (although I’ve attended many of Kate’s retreats). Even after receiving my MFA in CNF, Kate’s class had much to teach me. That’s where I began (and completed) my *favorite* essay–a long form essay. I also began another promising essay that I’ve let rest during the month of December.
December was devoted to my own health. Menopause has been doing a number on me this past year. I finally admitted that–30 years later–it was time to return to treatment for an ugly eating disorder that has reared its head along with my changing hormones (not unlike adolescence). I had to hit pause on my writing practice.
Health first. Health always first. I cannot write effectively when 75% of my brain and soul is devoted to thoughts about food and self-imposed body politics.
To be perfectly honest, 2018 has been kind of a sucky year for me. I am ready to brush the dust off my feet and move on. I hope that renewed mental health and a new maturity (and decreased hot flashes) are on the horizon for next year.
Earlier today, I also read the latest from Assay Journal (a piece by Vivian Wagner) on writing book reviews as a form of literary citizenship. I am bookmarking Wagner’s essay, which provides a clear way forward for writing more (and better) book reviews.
So here are my intentions for 2019:
Keep on writing, even when I am not loving it;
Tell myself I am a writer, daily;
Return to my memoir when it calls to me (I know it will);
Continue to finish some of those many essays trapped in my computer and send them out into the world on a regular basis;
Write a handful of book reviews;
Get emotionally right side up;
Learn to use my “real” camera;
Walk more, sit less;
Keep on swimming to the other side of menopause; and,
After posting a copy of my writer’s contract yesterday, the moment of reckoning has arrived. And why not? During my decade in the corporate world, I drafted objectives (with strategies for achieving those goals) for the year ahead. I’d also sit down with my manager for an annual performance review. My raise was tied to my success in achieving objectives set the prior year. I dreaded those reviews as much as I embraced them. While it was painful to see where I hadn’t quite hit the mark, I liked receiving feedback. Having once been a grade-driven student, my performance review was my annual report card.
As a freelance writer, external rewards and recognition are hard to come by. I guess this is why, when I publish an essay or article, I long for some of my peeps to read my words and say, “Good work, Heidi.” Because that doesn’t happen often, it’s important for me to recognize myself, to celebrate my own success–even when it amounts to having sat in my chair writing for 15 minutes on a day I commited to writing. And when I’ve spent a day submitting essays? Then, even more of a celebration of this achievement; because as hard as it is to get myself to sit down and write, it’s 100 times harder for me to send my work out into the world (so many essays remain trapped on my computer’s hard drive).
When I woke up this morning, I was hit by the realization that the time period covered by my writer’s contract had expired. This is a contract I entered into last year (prompted by Professor Kate Whouley) as I exited my MFA program. I haven’t often referred back to the terms of the agreement, but I’ve allowed my days (and year) to be governed by its key directive: write, only write.
In a follow-up blog post, I undertake a performance (self) review to evaluate my compliance with the terms of this agreement. To give context to that later blog post, I am copying my writer’s contract here:
Dear Idea Heidi (aka Heidi Parton),
From our past dealings, I know that you like movement and action; you crave progress. I get it and I appreciate the many times this trait has served our joint enterprise. I am, however, asking that you thoughtfully consider my offer of a one-year contract of employment. Your “work,” during this year’s time, will be simply to practice the art of waiting. Indeed, it will be much like a vacation for you; I plan on doing the heavy lifting this year. But I need your full cooperation.
To be in full compliance with the terms of this agreement, you must not seek out additional employment (even if the brightest, shiniest job announcement or offer comes along) during the entire calendar year, commencing on June 1, 2017 and ending on May 31, 2018. Any move toward “outside” employment, will be taken as a violation of the non-compete that I will be asking you to sign, in exchange for the full consideration of the opportunity to explore the job of your choice (be it in teaching, publishing, bookselling or otherwise) at the end of this term without any resistance from me.
As further consideration, if you do find your so-called “dream” job (after the term of this contract), I will no longer whine to you about not getting proper writing time. You will be free to engage with the broader world unhampered by my nagging pleas for more time to write. I promise that I will, at that point, be content to slip my writing into the margins of your employment situation. To gain this career freedom, however, you must sit back, rest, and wait out the entire term of our contract.
Because I know how impatient you are with inaction, I’ve outlined my mission statement and plan for the year below. Please trust that I will be using our time in an efficient and productive manner.
I will encourage and uplift other creative nonfiction writers, of which I am one, on their writing paths. The success of each writer will be celebrated as my own. We all win when we tell our stories and bring our truths into the world. There is not “you and me,” only ever all of us, here together. There are no finite limits on publishing opportunities. These opportunities only grow and expand as the world has more opportunity to be introduced to an ever-increasing supply of compelling, well-written works of creative nonfiction.
I will participate in the world of creative nonfiction on a daily basis. I will find ways to celebrate the wonder of emerging talent and stories, mine and those of other writers.
Plan for Diligent Execution of “Free” Year of a Writing Life
During this year I pledge to:
Spend at least fifteen hours per week on my own writing (strive for a minimum of 2,500 words each week);
Read creative nonfiction books (at least one book per month) and, after reading, take at least one of the following actions:
Reach out to the writer directly about their book
Write a review on Goodreads
Tweet the book, copying author when available
Write blog post/review
Write review to submit to literary journals;
Read at least two essays each week in online literary journals and comment on one;
Continue administrative role in The Fisher Cats—an online writing group of “motherhood” writers—encouraging submissions and celebrating the publishing success of group members;
Submit a minimum of one new essay or poem (to multiple publications) per month;
Attend writer-based events in my own local literary community (at least one per month) AND network at event;
Get together for coffee or a meal with other writer(s) once a month (breaking bread with those of similar interests/backgrounds lowers stress and burnout risk);
Make time for three writer’s retreats (at least one carried out in solitude);
Read four books outside of my genre (for these purposes, graphic memoir will be considered “out of genre”);
Take two relevant writing classes at The Loft Literary Center;
Continue steady work and progress on my memoir (at least 5,000 words/month); and,
Search for an agent or submit directly to indie publishers and/or contests (when or if my memoir feels ready).
In full consideration for signing the below non-compete, the undersigned will be, on June 1, 2018, granted full and unencumbered permission to search for paid employment in the the world of publishing, teaching, or book selling (or, even, to pursue your interest in becoming a death doula).
Very truly yours,
Heidi Fettig Parton
(AKA Writer Heidi)
Your signature below will serve as the full and complete execution of the non-compete agreement set forth in the above letter.