David Sedaris and Humor

I had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris on stage again and he inspired me to, this morning, try and write something funny again. I consider myself a funny person but it seems that whenever I want to write something lighthearted, happy, or funny, it always ends up crushing and tragic. This isn’t an aspect of my work that I particularly enjoy and don’t like being referred to or know in my program as “the trauma writer.” Mind you, I do like to write about trauma and I think it is critical to my healing, but I don’t always want to write about it.

I don’t know what changed for me this morning, but I was able to write a funny story. Perhaps it was really listening to Sedaris and the way he blends trauma and the serious with his own form of humor. I realized that my stories don’t have to be either/or and that was key. Anyway, I’ll be unveiling the new nonfiction short at the Graduate English Association party on Friday. I’ll let you know how it goes. It’s about food so maybe I’ll send it to Alimentum. I can’t remember if it would mean my third or fourth rejection from them, but I’ll keep trying. One day…

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors

51W5fiDabHL._SY380_This is a bit of a belated post. Last summer, I was contacted by James Borton to see if I was interested in helping put together a manuscript for a call he had done on illness narratives. By the end of the year, and after countless hours of work, we had a book. An anthology to be exact. The Art of Medicine in Metaphors – A Collection of Poems and Narratives came out in January and it makes my heart feel good to see the stories out and in the public. These are people, myself included, writing about illness, injury, and death. These are family members, patients, and care-givers. That’s part of what makes this collection unique. We have doctors writing poetry alongside patients writing poetry (or narratives).

In putting together the collection, I had to read the manuscript several times (it was with these stories in mind that I created the cover painting). It began with reading the Chicago Manual of Style and figuring out things like how to create a table of contents, how to number the pages, and what is the difference between a prologue and a preface. If you are a writer, I suggest you spend an evening reading it over. It is eye-opening. Even armed with this knowledge though, it was a steep learning curve when the manuscript got accepted by Copernicus Healthcare. There was formatting in the document that I wasn’t even aware of. Each time I looked over a new e-version of the manuscript, I found additional errors. We even had outside proof-readers. I guess, no matter what, there will still be some issues but it is worth the work to make sure you have put out a quality product.

What we ended up with was a quality product. When my sister proofread, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors – A Collection of Poems and Narratives she found it overwhelming. It brought up a lot for her. To me, as a memoirist, that’s the highest honor a work can receive. To have a reader say, I feel so much when I read this that I have to take it in a bite at a time is huge. To know that there is a community that has developed out of this work  makes my heart happy. The comments that have started to come in on Amazon and the reviews on multiple blogs and websites prove attest to the book’s reach. The collection is $14.95 and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and many other booksellers.

Typing Away

It’s been over a month since my last post. So, what have I been doing with myself? A lot of reading for one. I reread Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. I also read Alice Sebold’s Lucky, Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure and I am in the process of reading DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo. None of these works are on my comprehensive exam list, but they have been instrumental in helping me start my memoir. I’m in weekly therapy sessions, working through The Courage to Heal, and tutoring a group of students taking a memoir class at Kirkland Correctional Institution.

It’s been a struggle. So many ugly things from my past have come up and now that I am not using compulsive overeating as a way to deal with them, I have to sit with the related feelings. The good news is I am writing. I am using my typewriter again as I find I am less distracted than on the computer. It is also easier to read than my handwriting. Thus far, I have forty pages I have converted into a manuscript on MS Word. I still have a pile of both handwritten and typewritten pages plus pages of old writing I want to sort through and include some of. I also find the typewriter helpful as I can stop mid-thought and come back and add a word or two at any point. I just leave the sheet of paper in my typewriter. This is easier than having to boot my computer and open up the document. Besides, just turning on the computer usually leads me down a rabbit trail of cute animal pictures, feeds, and interesting YouTube videos. Something about the noise of the typewriter helps me focus too.

So that’s where I am at. Still depressed but working and that makes all the difference in the world. Happy writing.

Trauma and the Body

I’ve spent the last few weeks unable to work on my memoir. There have been several false starts but nothing substantial. I’m in therapy so I’ve been discussing the writing process a good bit. I realized that part of my fear is upsetting others (family members etc). I’m afraid of being successful because it means that people close to me will read my work and may get upset. Mind you, I work hard at being nonjudgmental and letting the facts, as I remember them, do the talking. I don’t focus on something someone else did as good/bad or right/wrong. It is simply stated as something that happened. So, instead of writing a work that will help me (and perhaps others) heal from trauma, I self-sabotage. I won’t let myself be successful. I often think of this a writer’s block but it is really me getting in my own way to varying degrees of consciousness.

Today I did a painting using my body as a brush. It was fun but also strange at the same time. As someone who has gone through sexual abuse, it was strange to see my flesh as something that could be used positively, as something that could create beauty. I’m also a big girl and have been made fun of or shamed throughout my life for it. To see my body as something that can create is strange. So much of trauma is invested in the body. It is why I use food to self-medicate (working on that). It is also why my body physically reacts to yelling (my therapist has called my reactions PTSD like). So much of what I went through is trapped in my body but also in the times I can’t remember. I’ve tried to protect myself.

It’s very scary and threatening to try and take away those protections. I’m working with a nutritionist on my eating and I am seeing a therapist and psychiatrist. The memoir I am using to try and take away the mental protections, to try and find out what else happened. The strange thing is that once I painted, I was able to write. The tie is so strong in the body that I needed that freedom of movement and thought to be able to move forward. Perhaps I will start painting regularly.

On the Inside

Yesterday was my first day tutoring at a local men’s correctional facility here in South Carolina. I wasn’t sure what to expect and, to be honest, I was nervous. Not of the people so much but of the experience of going inside. It’s a strange feeling to be in a place you cannot easily get out of. Anyway, this particular group of men work with a local Christian college to earn an Associates degree. They are individuals who will never see the outside of the prison. I find it amazing and inspiring that the college sees the worth of these people and works to educate them. Once they finish their degrees, they can be placed in other facilities to be aids or provide ministerial support. There are two groups in the program and the one we met is taking a memoir writing class right now. I went in with a couple of colleagues and after we introduced ourselves, they went around the room and told us their names. I was surprised by the positive attitudes I encountered. Afterwards, several of them came up to us and wanted to ask questions about writing, to share an experience, or even have us read a short work they had written. It was amazing to see such commitment to writing and a desire to improve craft. I could take a lesson from them in that department as I’ve had a little trouble getting my memoir started this summer. I don’t have much else to say besides that it was such an uplifting experience for me. I’ll be back next week so I will keep you posted.

First year of MFA done!

I started working on this post about a week ago. I wanted it to be some sort of grand wrap-up with everything I’ve learned over the past year. What a pain in the ass that turned out to be. It was also an uninspiring prompt. Instead, I will post things as they come to me.

One of the greatest lessons this year is to find a writer friend who will talk about your work openly and honestly. I was preparing to present a piece for Graduate Student Day and was stuck. For about a week, I kept trying to rewrite it but it didn’t seem interesting to me anymore. It was a nonfiction story I wrote last fall and I just wasn’t happy with it anymore. Instead of continuing to agonize over it, I sent it to one of my friends. She is a nonfiction student in program and took the same course with me. She was also in the poetry class with me so she had a pretty good idea of my style/voice. Her response was that the work wasn’t in my voice and that I was missing the body (so much of my work is focused on bodies yet here was a piece on reproduction that totally ignored it). She was right and I needed that kind of honesty from someone familiar with my work.

The piece was originally two stories wove together. Then I had a very vivid dream that I realized was related (I dreamed I gave birth). When I wrote the dream down, it was powerful and compelling in a  way that the original piece wasn’t. Then I started writing other sections that were related. By the end, I ended up with a braided narrative with the dream as a recurring sequence. It was in my voice and I was proud of it.

I think that can be part of the danger of MFA programs (or writing classes in general). You start writing for the assignment and lose part of yourself. I have to remember to play and be flexible with my work. I lost my voice but then I found it again and it is stronger than ever. If you don’t have a peer to read your work, find one and make sure it is someone who will be honest with you. The worst feedback (and the most common) is “it’s good.” Find someone who can articulate why it’s good or where they got lost/disconnected.

I’m looking forward to getting some writing done this summer. Next semester I am taking a longer nonfiction class so I want to go into it with a clear idea of my thesis project. There’s a great book that’s been helping me with that. I’ll post about that in a couple of days. Happy writing!

Drunken Boat Rejection

I’m leaving for Charlotte tonight and then it is off to Boston tomorrow for a quick visit before the semester starts. In the meantime, here’s the rejection I got from the Drunken Boat. Strange that it was emailed to me at almost 1 am. That did not help me sleep. Fairly standard automated reply.

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for sending us your submission. Unfortunately, our readers felt that it was not a good fit for Drunken Boat, and we will be unable to publish it.

Sincerely,

The Editors of Drunken Boat

Less is More

Yesterday I read a great article in the Jan/Feb issue of Poets & Writers. It is the inspiration issue and it was phenomenal. I spent all day yesterday reading it. The article I want to focus on is “Inner Space: Clearing Some Room for Inspiration” by Frank Bures. In the article he talks about spending less time online in order to create room for inspiration. He cites a University of California study that showed “in 2008 Americans consumed thirty-four gigabytes of information per day, the equivalent of one hundered thousand words — or 350 percent more than we consumed on a given day in 1980.” Holy crap right? I started to think about my own internet usage. Some time ago, I put a timer on my internet browser. I was surprised to see how much time was sucked away by checking my email, Facebooking, and feed reading. I often disappear down a virtual rabbithole that ends up with me watching cute baby animal videos for an hour. Not very productive to say the least.

As a response, I turned off my phone’s email notification setting. There are many times when I have been working on something that it goes off. I check it and put it back in my pocket. Moments later, the phone goes off again. I probably check my phone about a hundred times a day. Since yesterday, I have already noticed a difference in my productivity. I spent the day reading which is unusual for me. I am often afraid people will find out how little time I spend reading and writing and kick me out of the writer’s club. Yesterday I was a model student. I spent the day reading, did a writing exercise, and wrote three pages toward my thesis. Today I’ve worked out, done some reading, and am now blogging. I like checking email when I have time and choose to do so, not have it foisted upon me by my smart phone.

I spent the day reading the issue of Poets & Writers. There was another great article on inspired reading lists. It made me think about how much I have sitting around that I haven’t read. Hopefully, with the time freed up with less internet, I will get to that reading. I also want to be able to do all of the reading next semester. We’ll see on that one. Start thinking about what is holding you back. Is it TV and internet like it is for me? It is good to have some downtime by why can’t reading be a way to relax and unwind? That is a little hard for me as I was/am an English major and all reading feels like work. Happy writing.

30 Below Results (Not Me)

Thought I would share my latest rejection letter.

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for entering “Title” in the 30 Below Contest. We were grateful for the opportunity to read and consider your work, and we regret that your entry was not one of our winners or finalists this time.

An announcement of the winning stories will soon go out to the magazine’s readership, and in January we will publish the winning stories. In addition to the winners, many of the finalists’ stories will also be published. This year’s 30 Below Contest has brought forward a remarkable number of works by notable new and emerging young writers whom we are delighted to feature.

We are grateful to you for taking part in the contest, and we hope you will keep Narrative in mind for your work in the future.

Again, thank you for your entry, and please accept our kind wishes.

Sincerely,

The Editors

Expect to Write Crap

Recently, I read a really terrible short story. I mean really bad. To be fair, everyone writes crap when they start out. It is called paying your dues. The trick is to know when your writing is terrible. I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I had years of writing absolute garbage. As a writer, you read more and you write more and you start to improve. That’s just how it works. Consequently, I think this is where most people get discouraged and give up writing.

Sometimes I still write crap, but I am at the point where I can (generally) recognize when my writing stinks. There is such a push to become published that many writers submit work that is painfully not ready yet. I’m not trying to be offensive and I do applaud these writers for producing something and putting their work out there. Most people can’t get past the blank page.

That being said, here is some advice for the new writers out there. This is just my opinion so feel free to disagree. If you balk at this and you are a beginning writer, consider why you are resisting. It’s like Alan Rickman says in the trailer for Seminar, “if you’re being defensive, you’re not listening.”

1) Exclamation points: Use these sparingly or, preferably, not at all. If someone is yelling, find a way to convey it through their word choice and body language.

2) Semicolons: Use these sparingly too, especially if you don’t know how they are supposed to function in a sentence. Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences. The semicolon indicates a close relationship between the two sentences. Check here for more info.

3) Adverbs: If you are using lots of adverbs (verbs ending in ly), your writing is not strong enough. Don’t tell me she picked up her teacup daintily. Tell me she pinched the cup with the tips of her thumb and forefinger and extended her pinky. You can use some, just don’t overdo it. It will really stick out in a flash piece or short story.

4) Use quotation marks. I’ve seen this several times. Some writers think it is original or cool to omit quotation marks around dialogue. This just makes it harder for the reader to separate what is said from the action that is taking place. Here’s an example of a section of text from Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet: A Novel with all of the quotation marks removed:

I can, I said with a show of carelessness, but I’m not sure that I shall. I turned to my mother, who sat sewing by the empty grate. You won’t mind, will you, I said lightly, if I go back again tomorrow night?

Pretty hard to follow right? It does not come off as clever or avant-garde. It is just confusing.

5) Each action does not need to be in a paragraph of its own. Movement is difficult to write, I’ll admit, but making each movement a paragraph of its own makes it hard to follow. Action aside, try to shy away from single sentence paragraphs. They are alright every now and again but become unbearable when there are a lot of them.

6) Make sure the subject is clear. If I say that the fence ran past her, I am not saying that she was running past the fence and the background became a blur. What I am saying is that the fence is literally running by her. The reason for this is the fence is the subject of the sentence so the verb ran is showing the action of the fence not of the woman.

7) This is primarily for non-fiction writers: don’t name drop. No one really wants to hear about that yacht trip I took with the Princess of Monaco…well, not unless something really interesting happened. Otherwise, the reader just thinks I am bragging.

8 ) This should go without saying but don’t be racist. I get that some characters are racist and that it can be part of characterization. My thought is though, if there isn’t a reason for it don’t include it. Be aware of where you are writing from. I recently read a piece with a privileged, white main character working in retail who believed he had suffered as much as a migrant worker. This could have been used to show more about the character and his skewed perception of the world, but it was presented in a serious manner with no hint of irony. One issue I’ve come across a few times is the word Oriental. Oriental is a term used for objects not for people.

So that’s it for now. I wanted to get up to ten but I’m tired from too much turkey. A disclaimer to this is that you can get away with a lot more in a novel. Why? Because it is such a lengthy work that some of these writing issues go by unnoticed. The story is generally more involved and sweeps the reader past such problems. That is, if you can get the reader to get past the first few pages. There are exceptions to these rules, I know. Sarah Waters uses adverbs but she’s Sarah Fricking Waters. I think a lot of beginning writers equate experimenting with rules (breaking them that is) with voice and originality. All I can say is don’t worry about your voice, it is something that will develop with time. In the meantime, just keep writing and try to create polished pieces that are easy for the readers to follow.