On a frigid, rainy Tuesday in January, Ditmas Parkers squeezed into the cozy faux-log-cabin outpost perched in Sycamore’s backyard. Huddled around a crackling “fire” and heat lamps, this devoted literary crowd gathered for Ditmas Lit, the neighborhood’s newest (and only) smash-hit reading series.
And now, the series is back for its penultimate lineup tonight at 8pm featuring four unique and acclaimed writers in what feels like the living room of an antique Catskills cabin — with some modern Brooklyn conveniences, i.e. drinks at the bar and tacos from El Super.
Ditmas Lit is the brainchild of prolific writers Sarah Bridgins and Rachel Lyon, who wanted to create a reading series that was inclusive for both literary and bar-going audiences. Tso keep the pace fluid, the night’s poets, fiction writers, and essayists take the mic for about 10 minutes apiece, punctuated by the duo as enthusiastic MCs.
The January reading brought so many people, the audience spilled out of the tent flaps and peeked in through its windows.
“It’s a really beautiful project to me,” said Lyon, crediting Bridgins with sparking the idea. “We admire and care about the work of all the writers we feature. We’re trying to cast a wider net and not just have the same old crowd.”
To get in the literary mood, we met with co-host Rachel Lyon to chat about writing her first novel (which hits the shelves spring 2018), self-editing, and how to know you’re a ‘real writer’. Her work was also recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, so be sure to congratulate her tonight.
Rachel Lyon is the kind of hardworking, devoted writer that will slave over an entire novel, then trash it and start again from scratch.
“I wrote a draft in third-person omniscient, I finished the whole thing and it just wasn’t right,” she said, about her forthcoming novel from Scribner. After doing some traveling, talking, and soul searching, “It became clear that I needed to do something to make the story matter to me more, inhabiting the character and feeling things from her perspective,” she said. So she scrapped everything and started again.
And although the characters are fictional, in many ways Lyon’s book tells her own story. “It’s based in the New York building I grew up in, about the art world,” she said.
Her story ideas are often generated from charged social encounters or political anxieties — like meeting with an old friend or butting heads with someone in a debate. “I process a lot through my work,” she said, like exploring other ways to react in conversation. “What could I have said that could have blown that up?”
In her blog, Lyon documents her work process in engaging snippets, from copyediting her novel (43 incidences of the word “water” in my novel) to finding the right metaphor (TFW after a few thousand attempts). Her work veers from the absurdist and speculative to traditional literary, peppered with essays and creative non-fiction — like this beautiful and pithy New Yorker moment on a Citibike.
As a creative writing teacher and manuscript coach, Lyon spends a lot of time thinking about what inspires writers and how stories are generated. She uses writing prompts like this one, inspired by Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women:
“One of my favorite prompts starts with a list including headings and subheadings, like ‘Crazy Women’ or ‘Frigid Women’. Choose an adjective like selfish, quiet, mediocre, and fill out the list. Like, what does a mediocre woman order at a restaurant”?
Though she was always writing fiction, Lyon studied visual art in college and made the switch when she found herself spending more time with her pen than her paintbrushes.
After grad school for creative writing in Indiana, Lyon has made a home for herself in Crown Heights, where she’s lived since 2012 — not including a stint in Rhinebeck working for a small press. Lyon dabbles in the marketing world as a copywriter, which instilled a sense of discipline into her own work. “There are deadlines and you can’t be precious about it,” she said, noting that with a full-time job she gets most of her writing done in the early morning hours.
“It’s so hard and takes so much chutzpah to call yourself a writer,” she said, noting that she wasn’t a published writer until the second year of grad school.
“But I decided it was a waste of money if I don’t start calling myself a writer. I went into debt to call myself a writer with confidence, so I gave myself that challenge confidently,” said Lyon.
And with the support of her Prospect-Lefferts Gardens writing group and friends, she’s writing more stories now than ever.
“Now that I do have a book contract, the pressure’s on. I need to send out X number of stories a month, get my name out there, work as hard as I can to make this worth it.”
Read Rachel Lyon’s fiction and creative nonfiction here, check out the exciting lineup of classes she’s teaching here, and sign up for her writing prompt email listserve here. And of course, see more details on Ditmas Lit here.