Forgiving Ourselves

Recently, my former student Michael Sadowski spoke to my class about writing his beautiful memoir Men I’ve Never Been, and also about starting over.

After Michael’s book came out, he finished a novel, but his then-agent doesn’t handle novels. And so, he had to start all over again, researching literary agents, composing a query letter, reaching out, and waiting.

Even as a published author, Michael said, it wasn’t easy.

One of the most important things he learned after going through the process twice?

“Forgive yourself,” Michael said. “You learn how to do the query—how to do anything well—over time.”

The very next morning, one of the students who’d been in the class emailed me to say they’d made a mistake with their writing, and they were sure they’d ruined their chances of ever publishing their book. (They hadn’t.)

While many people are their own worst critics, sometimes I think writers take it to a whole other level. We accidentally send an email with a typo, and we convince ourselves we’re now on some secret blacklist of writers who can’t spell. We pitch a story to an editor who says it’s not their kind of thing, and we convince ourselves they’ll delete all future emails from us without reading. In our minds, every misstep is career-ending.

Not only is this kind of thinking unpleasant to live with, and just plain wrong, it can do real damage. Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, says that harsh self-talk can actually make it harder to recover from setbacks—including rejection. Writers looking to publish work need to be persistent and resilient, and our harsh inner critics make that harder.

Self-compassion, Boyes says,  makes us not only more adaptive, but more likely to engage with other writers, where we can find support. It’s an essential skill for writers, to replace the critic with more compassionate self-talk.

What does that sound like? According to Boyes, it’s softening the tone you use with yourself to make it kinder; it’s reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can.

“It’s recognizing that pain is a universal human experience,” she wrote recently. “And it’s taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions that neither suppresses or exaggerates them.”

It takes practice and repetition to tame the harsh inner critic. It’s worth the effort, though, not only because it helps you persist through adversity, and hopefully find a home for your work. Self-compassion can also make you a better writer.

“At a certain point,” said the novelist Angela Flournoy, “you have to be kind to yourself as a writer and … allow yourself to let loose, pursue a good story, and create people who feel real.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Possible Endings

Warning: This letter contains (many!) spoilers of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel and film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Have you ever had a story just humming along, when you realize your ending is like a horizon, constantly remaining just out of reach?

My crackpot hypothesis about that is it’s a sign. It’s time to start deciding how the story will end. Not the exact scene or sentence, but thematically, emotionally.

One way out is to just choose three or four possible themes and notes, and then rough them out, and see what happens.

Put another way, try Lord of the Rings-ing it.

If somehow you have not seen Peter Jackson’s 11-hour, three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, the final movie The Return of the King actually ends five—five! — times. Each with its own distinct mood.

Ending No. 1: The survivors of the Fellowship of the Ring reunite in a gauzy, sunlit room, overjoyed to find each other alive. Many stories about war or odysseys end this way, with companions reunited in victory. It’s an ending of elation, and triumph, and it infers (without showing) that the world will heal.

Apparently, inference wasn’t good enough, so onto…

Ending No 2:  Aragorn is crowned king before the Fellowship and a crowd that’s basically the United Nations for Middle Earth. Rose petals cascading around him, he talks of unity, reunites with his beloved, and kneels before the four Hobbits, prompting the entire crowd to do the same. This ending is victory and unity and honor, with a touch of romance.

But wait, there’s more!

Ending No. 3 follows the Hobbits home to the Shire, where they return to their favorite pub, and celebrate Sam-Wise’s wedding, and they realize, everything is restored, and nothing is. This ending gives the audience the satisfaction of seeing the Hobbits safely home, while also acknowledging war changes people.

Which leads us to …

Ending No 4: Four years (!) later, Frodo leaves Middle Earth, heading into the Undying Lands with the Elves, Gandalf, and his uncle Bilbo. “We set out to save the Shire,” he says, “and it has been saved — but not for me.” His Hobbit friends wave and sob as he and Gandalf sail off into a golden sunset. This takes the triumph and homecoming, and makes them bittersweet.

Still, Jackson was not done.

Sam-Wise returns to his wife and children after seeing Frodo off, gazes out at the Shire, and says, “Well, I’m back,” the last line of Tolkien’s novel.

Unless you’re Peter Jackson, you won’t get away writing a story with five endings. Unity and romance? Bittersweet homecoming? Joyful reunion? You will eventually have to choose.

But sometimes the best way to navigate your way to it is to map out several destinations, and point your sail toward the one that feels like home.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Trimming the Flash

The other day, Gotham’s own Arlaina Tibensky and Josh Sippie were talking flash stories in my general vicinity, when Arlaina said something that blew me away. 

“Flash stories are like bonsai trees. First you grow a huge tree, then you prune and prune it,  and shape it into a beautiful tree you can put in your pocket.” 

It’s the perfect way to describe writing a flash piece (a work that’s anywhere from 50 words to 1,000, but no more) because it heads off two common mistakes people make when drafting a flash piece. 

One, they write a sequoia. Three or four characters!  A plot and a subplot!  A convoluted major dramatic question! All of which quickly grow into a 100-foot seedling, which the writer then tries to prune, and ends up ruining. 

Or, they write a single reed of feathergrass, and find themselves with nothing to shape. 

A better approach is Arlaina’s — write as many words as you want about one character experiencing one change. Then, visualize the tree’s shape before you start clipping and trimming. Cut judiciously, so that you create space for the story’s true magic to flourish. 

In her flash fiction piece “Mayretta Kelly Brunson Williams Bryant Jones (1932-2012),” Deesha Philyaw starts with a hermit crab — one story borrowing the recognizable shell of another —specifically, an obituary. Within that familiar structure, she tells the (rollicking) story of Mayretta’s life in outline—that’s the plot. Philyaw then wraps those bare facts in asides and commentary, in Mayretta’s distinctive voice, to reveal the story’s deeper (hilarious) meaning. 

Take the first paragraph, which reads almost exactly like every other obit—almost:

“On, March 14th, 2012, Mayretta ‘May’ Brunson Kelly Williams Bryant Jones slept away peacefully right into Jesus’ arms after a long undisclosed illness (and if that big-mouth Margaret Hill says May had a nasty woman’s disease, she’s a goddamn lie).” 

Essayist Bhante Sumano accomplishes similar magic with his flash nonfiction piece “Buoy” by focusing his story on a split-second, very awkward moment between himself and his roommates. He breaks the moment—five dudes eating breakfast with NPR on the radio —into increments, each with its own paragraph. In between them, he grafts on observations and reflections, like, “I sip my orange juice at the table while the room shrinks—wishing, in hindsight, that I had refused the breakfast invitation, slept in.” 

On their own, the external scene or the internal dialogue would be interesting, but together, they’re a slow-motion car crash. And the tight focus gave Sumano room for the highest-impact moment of all, what he wished he’d said.

Both Philyaw and Sumano’s stories illustrate another common mistake writers often make when writing flash — they assume, incorrectly, these deeply affecting, memorable, big stories are small.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty