Thursday, March 30, 2017

Recognizing When Life (not writing) Could be the Start of a Beautiful....Essay

The actual dress, made to twirl.
If I weren't already a natural born advance planner (or an annoyingly, meticulously, obsessively detail-oriented nag, as my kids and husband might say, eyes rolling), my former career in public relations would have transformed me anyway.

Like many magazines, I often run a few months ahead of schedule. So since I'll be presenting a one-day event on writing short nonfiction prose in May, and a submissions class over the summer, I'm gathering examples for both. Some are my own work because that way I can answer student/writer questions, and by sharing my writing / revision / submission / rejection / acceptance process, I believe I can be helpful to others.

This past Monday, my 250-word work of flash nonfiction, "A Dress for the Wedding," appeared on the River Teeth website, in their Beautiful Things column. I think I'm correct in saying this is a somewhat coveted spot for many creative nonfiction writers, and I'm extremely proud about this particular publication.

Here's how that happened.

In many ways I went about this as I did when working to break into Brevity Magazine with this piece. (I went on to describe that writing/submission process here.).

One of the keys was not trying to slice a small chunk out of an already written long piece. Flash, I've come to understand, needs its own place to, perhaps ironically, expand and breathe, to open up space between sentences, even as it carves away.

The other thing I learned is that, for me anyway, short pieces are more often suggested by something I experience or remember independent of the act of writing. In other words, life is probably the more generous well for these short flashes, not editing.

The dress piece began with notes scratched in the tiny notebook I keep in my purse—while in the ladies' room at the wedding. Having gotten drenched in a downpour walking back from the church to the car, I ducked in the restroom as soon as we got to the reception venue to try to salvage my hairstyle.

It was while looking in the mirror, and twisting to get a glance at the back, when a few things happened. I realized (1) The blowout is a total loss, and (2) This dress was exactly the right choice. Then (3) A cascade of images: turning around in the dressing room at the store…showing my husband the dress choices in our bedroom…all my rules about dressing as a fat middle-aged woman…then: (4) Wait – there's an essay in this…somewhere.

I jotted a few notes. When Frank and I danced an hour later, and I found myself twirling, I had the rest of the piece. So it was back to the ladies' room, a few more notes, and then—I forgot about it.

Forgot on purpose. I wanted it to marinate. Then I returned to it, wrote a draft, read a bunch of past B.T. essays, and revised.

This was my second submission to River Teeth's Beautiful Things; the first, from 2015, was rejected. When I went back to read it again, I realized it didn't stand up so well on its own, and it wound up being absorbed into my memoir manuscript, where it probably originally belonged.

Figuring out how to write for very limited word counts, what to write for which short-form venues we aspire to be published in, and where to send off what we write, are arts that are always evolving. I'm still learning. And though the "rejected" column in my submission tracking spreadsheet is routinely, robustly full, occasionally I do get it right.

And then of course, I annoyingly, meticulously, obsessively record all the details. For any future reference.

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