Little pieces: why write vignettes?

What is a vignette?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd. ed.) says:

vignette 1a a brief descriptive account, anecdote, essay, or character sketch.

At times I’ve questioned whether or not I should publish a piece of writing on my blog. I’ve wondered if the stories I have to tell are too trivial, too self-centred, too lacking in meaning for anyone but myself. After all, I’m no longer an elite runner with exciting reports about international competitions.

But as I thought about it, I decided there are many reasons to write vignettes on my blog. I came up with the following:

  1. Blogs are a perfect medium for vignettes. Blog posts are supposed to be brief. (I know, I fail.) Blog posts are immediate and (often) personal, tied to the moment, the circumstances, the season, what’s in the news.
  1. Is there any reason to be ashamed of the “smallness” of what I write about? No—I say it’s good that I can be satisfied with small pleasures and events because they are what I have. I can’t afford to travel. I can’t afford to attend expensive cultural events or concerts regularly. I don’t have a job with earth-shattering consequences and responsibilities. Moreover, in smallness, one can dig deeper. Apparently mundane events, places, and people can grow in complexity in two ways; first, by using a metaphorical microscope to examine them more deeply—there are almost always more layers of significance and detail. Secondly, complexity sometimes reveals itself by accident: someone walks into the running store when I’m working, and a real conversation develops; a potentially perfect photo is revealed to my ready camera; a new song instantly elevates my mood; I learn something new from a movie, a video, or a TED talk that I happen to stumble across. Temporarily, I escape from the smallness of myself and my ego-centred existence in the world. These “accidental” deepenings require only the ability to be receptive, to recognize and welcome them when they come.
  2. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the sense of life’s abundance. Other times I forget. Vignettes try to capture a tiny fraction of those riches, to suggest the abundance that is still untold.
  3. Storytelling can occur in a single paragraph or in a novel of over a thousand pages. It can be simple. Something happens to me or to someone I know, and for some reason I care. Personal stories are powerful if writers reveal themselves in a way that makes others care.
  1. Vignettes are a weapon in the battle against the most common excuse for not writing: “I don’t have enough time!”
  2. And after all—writers are compelled to write.

A good example of a vignette blog (not this one!)

Since I don’t have a new vignette to include here, I wanted to recommend a wonderful example from the blog of a fellow writer who was a classmate of mine in the Print Futures writing program at Douglas College several years ago. Jennifer Markham has mastered the art of writing extremely brief blog posts. Her vignettes are, above all, funny. She exploits her own flaws for comedy, but she also makes me care about her because she is observant, spunky, and unashamed of who she is.  Jenn’s blog, unlike mine, takes almost no time to read. Try her Mother’s Day post for a taste of the vignette world.

VignetteCollage-1

Little pieces of my everyday life from the past month

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Social Media & ePublishing with Sean Cranbury at Canadian Authors Vancouver

Canadian Authors Vancouver Meeting, March 12, 2014

Social Media & ePublishing with Sean Cranbury

by Nancy Tinari

On March 12, 2014, Canadian Authors Vancouver had the privilege of hosting Sean Cranbury, creator of Books on the Radio, as the guest speaker at their monthly meeting.

Cranbury overwhelmed his listeners (in a good way) with his energy, his humour, his obvious love of books, and his expertise in the subject of ePublishing and the role social media plays in it.

About Sean Cranbury

Cranbury began his presentation by summarizing his experience in books and publishing. His career in books started out in the late ‘80s when he worked for an independent bookstore, Chapman Books. He subsequently also worked at Sophia Books and the Virgin Megastore in downtown Vancouver.

One of his key achievements was starting the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series in 2010. In February 2010, as most people will remember, Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. Cranbury realized that no literary events had been planned to celebrate the talent of Canadian writers during this world-class spectacle. So he started the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, which showcased the work of 44 writers over four weeks during the time of the Olympic competitions.

Cranbury also created Books on the Radio, a radio show that airs on the Simon Fraser University (SFU) station CJSF 90.1 FM. You can find more information about Books on the Radio and the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series at www.booksontheradio.org. On Twitter, use #BOTR.

Cranbury also works with the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SIWC) and put in a few plugs for that event during his presentation. SIWC is an international literary festival where writers can meet other writers as well as agents, editors, and marketing experts. Writers can sign up for 15-minute blue-pencil sessions with an agent to pitch their book. You can find SIWC at www.siwc.ca . This year’s conference takes place October 24–26, 2014, with master classes on October 23. The conference hosts a writing contest that includes several categories and cash prizes; submissions are $15 each. You can read more about the contest at http://www.siwc.ca/writing-contest/2013-writing-contest-rules .

Cranbury’s rave about the Internet

Very early in his presentation, Cranbury raved about the Internet. He said something like, “It’s the biggest achievement of mankind since the invention of language.” According to him, the Internet is ending the traditional business model.

Piracy

Most people and businesses talk about piracy of content—in whatever medium, whether it is the written word, music, photography, etc.—as being a huge problem. Cranbury energetically opposes this view. He believes the books that are shared the most online are also the ones that sell the most! Sharing is what sells books: online sharing generates enthusiasm and has the potential for exponentially-growing publicity.

Cranbury gave us a whirlwind oral tour through topics relating to self-publishing and social media that lasted just over an hour. He only had time to touch on each subject for five or ten minutes, but it was clear that he could easily provide an hour or even a day-long seminars’ worth of information on every topic. I will briefly mention some highlights of his talk.

Social media platforms: which to use?

Cranbury emphasized the power of social media throughout the evening. At the beginning of his talk, he asked if any audience members had heard about a recent forum on Canadian literature that took place in Montreal. Only one audience member was aware of this forum. When she volunteered that she had learned about it through a post by a Facebook friend, Cranbury leaped in, saying, “Aha! That’s how it happens!”

However, it  was reassuring to learn that he doesn’t think it’s necessary to use every platform out there. His advice was to use the minimum number of tools necessary to do the job. He recommended Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress. For book lovers, Goodreads is also helpful. Someone in the audience asked Cranbury about using Google+. He said it is used only by select groups; you can ignore it unless you’re  interacting with these groups.

The key idea is to use social media to build relationships that will help you in your work. And even though he is keen about the Internet, Cranbury acknowledges the irreplaceable value of meeting others in person.

Self-publishing

This is a huge topic, but Cranbury specifically mentioned the website http://pressbooks.com/ for Do It Yourself (DIY) publishing. This company was started by Hugh McGuire. Cranbury quoted a recent tweet by @hughmcguire; it was something like this: “The distinction between ‘the internet’ & ‘books’ is totally arbitrary, and will disappear in 5 years.”

Pressbooks.com is a one-stop publishing platform. It is free unless you get the premium version that will give you custom templates, cover design, editing help, or access to a distribution network. The free service will allow you to produce online file forms (ePubs) for various devices. However, Cranbury stressed the need to have a properly-designed book; you can’t just plug your Word file into the site without formatting it carefully.

I did some research by looking at the Pressbooks website. It is a nicely organized, simple website that is easy to navigate. The site includes some guidance and links to extra help for writers who are proficient with software and want to do everything themselves. The free version includes a choice of three templates plus the option to individualize templates, but it does not include editing or cover design. Paid versions of the service are available, varying in price between $300 and $700, depending on the length of the manuscript and the number of images included. A custom design option allows you to create a unique in-house style, but this is expensive! It costs $2,500 or more to have a theme built from scratch.

You can also pay for a distribution network. Cranbury stressed that this is extremely valuable for writers. Starting at $99, authors can have their book listed on the databases of the books giants for distribution into Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo.

Print On Demand

Cranbury mentioned the growing availability of POD. There are machines all over the world that can print your book.

Soundcloud.com

Cranbury is a big fan of this site. It’s an audio-sharing site, and you can get a free account that allows you to share a few hours of audio a month. Soundcloud is mainly a music site. When I explored it briefly, I was overwhelmed by the choice of music available. The site offers new musicians great exposure, but Cranbury pointed out that it can be a great tool for writers as well. You can do readings from your book to generate publicity. Also, you will attract new followers by catering to an audience that prefers to listen to content rather than read it. Podcasts are very popular, and people can listen while driving or doing other activities that can’t be mixed with reading.

Again on the subject of piracy, Cranbury offered a fascinating tidbit: “More vinyl records are being sold now than ever before in history!” They come with free, sharable MP3s. This demonstrates, again, the value of sharing.

https://soundcloud.com

Internet listening posts

Cranbury talked about metrics briefly, and stressed the importance of finding out how people are looking at your content, who they are, how long they spend on various pages, etc. One example of an Internet listening post is Google Alerts. This is a great way of following the topics and people you want to keep updated about. You can use your own name as an alert to see what people are interested in about you and your content.

Responsive design

Ensuring that your content looks good on all types and sizes of reading devices) is critical.

Thank you

Thank you, Sean Cranbury, for a most entertaining and informative evening!

Sean Cranbury can be contacted at the following:

e.seancranbury@gmail.com 778-987-8774

 

Exposed: secrets and stories

cropArmsUpFacingSilhouetteA few days ago someone asked me to remove one of my posts from my running blog because he thought what I wrote would be damaging to his professional reputation.

I had been careful in writing this post to respect his privacy as much as possible—while still retaining a story that expressed at least part of the emotional truth of the situation.

After reviewing the post, I decided to leave it as is. But I didn’t take his request lightly, and it caused me to think again about one of the moral issues writers grapple with: how is it possible to write honestly about ourselves, first of all, and more significantly, about the people who are or have been close to us?

This is not a new question for writers. There are numerous examples of famous writers who’ve published damning books about their ex-husbands, lovers, or other family members, whether as fiction or memoirs. Sometimes writers may have been motivated by anger, hurt, or a desire for vengeance. More often, though, I suspect that these writers are trying to analyze, to interpret, to create a narrative about the significant events of their lives in an effort to explain (to themselves as well as readers) the mysteries of intimate relationships, how love turns to hate and harmony mutates into conflict.

What reasons make it morally justifiable to write about personal topics, even when poeple’s secrets will be exposed?

A few authors have made lots of money by publishing sensational memoirs that became huge bestsellers; two that come to mind are The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Both of these books were about severely dysfunctional families. Both were also well written, and provided constant jolts of shock, amazement, and sometimes, inspiration.

I’ve also read some good books by heroin addicts that have depicted the extreme depths of addiction; the way a life’s focus becomes reduced entirely to where the next fix is coming from, all morality and loyalty to anyone else obliterated. Does understanding addiction better make me a more compassionate person?

Some reviewers criticize the readers of such books for being voyeurs who are encouraging the proliferation of this “drug writing porn.”

Perhaps both the writing and the reading of sensational or highly personal books are justified if the writing is good. Does the creation of what we could call Literature or Art justify exposing or hurting other people?

How can we judge whether a book (or other piece of writing) is a work of art? It has to do not only with technical writing skills but also with the universality of the book’s themes and characters. Does the book inspire readers in some way? Even ugly truths can help readers, by giving them the comfort of knowing that they are not alone in experiencing terrible thoughts or emotions; perhaps a dark book also includes messages about recovery or learning.

That request to remove one of my blog posts seemed like a personal violation. Why should I hide a piece of creative work that had taken me much effort to write and deliberation about the risks involved? Yet I understood that person’s reason for making the request, and it forced me to examine my reasons for writing a blog. Why do I write about personal topics, not just running?

I write to express myself, and there is no doubt that writing is therapeutic for me. Yet I could simply write a diary and keep it all to myself. Why do I need to publish what I write?

It’s normal for writers to crave an audience: writers want feedback about their work. Hasn’t part of the power of books always been to connect the minds of writers and readers? The difference now is that with blogs and social media, the interaction between writer and reader can be almost instantaneous. It can be more mutual and personal than it used to be. The blog writing style is powerful mainly because of its immediacy and its personal nature. Readers often expect a blog to convey not only facts and stories, but to express the writer’s personality and style.

The conflict I have in exposing my writing publicly is that many of the topics I’m most fascinated by are personal ones—the timeless themes about relationships—sex, love, betrayal, denial—and how modern technologies have affected how relationships evolve. Where do I draw the line about what I write, and who I include in my stories? Where is the line between writing something worthy of readers’ attention, and writing as a narcissistic or exhibitionistic act?

These questions can all be seen as part of a wider discussion about how we present ourselves online. What are the repercussions for me personally, and for the people I write about? Will I become unemployable by writing about failed relationships or drug use? Social media gurus advise us to include some personal messages on our sites, to convey something of our individuality in our marketing efforts, but in reality you can’t veer very far to the Dark Side without risking your professional and personal reputation.

I’ve already made the choice to take that risk. I’ve rejected the idea of presenting myself online as always being the upbeat, successful, ever-persistent athlete who followed my passion and talent for running without ambivalence.

According to marketing experts, a blog should be about one clearly defined topic that is geared to a specific audience. I’ve rejected this advice because having a wildly successful blog, perhaps even a money-generating one, is not my primary objective.

Instead, I write my running blog for the reasons I’ve given above—for self-expression, for therapy, and as a way to connect with friends and strangers. My blog is an experiment to help me make a decision about the direction my writing will take in the future. Will I write some kind of memoir about my running career?—and if so, will it include some of the negative aspects of making running the top priority in my life for so many years? Or will I write a fictional book that draws heavily on my own experiences but bends the facts by disguising real people and using my imagination to play with real events?

A (relevant) aside about two books

It’s ironic that at the same time as I’ve been thinking about how to represent myself honestly in my blog, and how much of my real life to expose, I’ve been reading two books whose themes are about the devastating psychological consequences of living an unfulfilled life, of denying one’s true nature and living hypocritically.

First edition photo of As For Me and My House

First Edition, published in 1941.

These two books could hardly be more different from each other in form and in context: the first, As For Me and My House (1941), is a classic Canadian Depression-era novel by Sinclair Ross. The second, Fury (2001), by Salman Rushdie (famed author of The Satanic Verses), is a brilliant, sophisticated novel set in New York City just before the terrorist bombings.

The similarity between the books is that both their protagonists have compromised their artistic natures in exchange for money: both are tormented psychologically, and have ruined their marriages. Philip Bentley in House has repressed his dream of being an artist and become a small-town minister (though he doesn’t even believe in God), and Malik Solanka in Fury has allowed his beloved creation, the subversive and intelligent Little Brain doll, to be hideously transformed by popular media into a creature whose behaviour and values are diametrically opposed to her creator’s original intentions. Though the Little Brain franchise has made him a multi-millionaire, Solanka’s self-disgust has manifested itself as a fury that directs itself even at those whom he most loves, his wife Eleanor and their young son.

Book cover of Fury

Fury was published in 2001.

I mention these two excellent books (each worthy of a full book review) because they reinforced my belief about how important it is to represent oneself with integrity, being true to one’s values rather than being hypocritical. I feel that way about my blog writing: where is the value or purpose in writing if the truth is evaded or watered down to the extent that there is no emotion left?

Yet I’ve also learned that in the real world, the world of real jobs, corporate culture, and getting along with co-workers, I need to be more flexible in my beliefs, less outspoken, and more diplomatic in my communication with others.

My blog remains a place where I can “be myself”—where I can write about the topics that matter to me and take some risks in revealing my personal opinions and experiences.

The blog post that I was asked to remove was, in fact, one that many readers responded to in a positive and supportive way. Their feedback reassured me that I had made the right decision to publish the post. But perhaps the readers who thought it was inappropriate kept their comments to themselves!

What do you think?

Is it ethically wrong for writers to publish material that could hurt others professionally or personally?

What reasons justify the publication of sensitive material about living people?

Is it a mistake to publish sensitive material if one expects to ever work in the business world?