Your Personal Essay’s in My Journalism!

October 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

Anybody remember the one with the guy eating peanut butter at the opera?

Anybody remember the one with the guy eating peanut butter at the opera?

…Your journalism’s in my personal essay! But are they two great reads that read great together? Do confessionals really get us closer to the truth than reportage?

At the Washington Post, Eve Fairbanks takes a look at the recent trend of first-person narratives used to fill column inches that were previously journalism, and questions whether they really open up new vistas, or are instead inescapably biased and perhaps even jejune.

…perhaps what we’re really seeing, with the so-called democratization of opinion, is how weird and variegated writers’ lives actually are, rather than a profoundly widened window into human experience. From Homer onwards, it’s always been the duty of reporters to tell stories about the lives of those people who cannot spin great stories out of their own astonishing experiences.

Ironically enough, the article is itself a first-person essay rather than journalism. It’s not necessary for every essay mentioned to be investigated, but this leads to lumping them together as not-journalism. Ms. Fairbanks misses, for example, that the woman pictured with twins (whose essay What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps Ms. Fairbanks cites as an example of the trend) is veteran reporter-turned-stay-at-home-mom Darlena Cuhna, and the Mercedes piece sparked a national conversation on poverty that was covered by CNN and Al Jazeera, among other ‘real’ news outlets.

Should the reporter be in the story? Should a story be the reporter’s story? What makes an essay journalism? Ms. Fairbanks examines these thought-provoking questions from several angles and with quite a few links to first-person pieces worth exploring.

Check it out here.

My Very End of the Universe: The Absent Father

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Installment two of our author interview series celebrating our new “flash” cousin, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form, new this month from Rose Metal Press, features Tiff Holland interviewing Meg Pokrass, about Pokrass’ novella in flash Here, Where We Live:

Meg Pokrass

Meg Pokrass

TH: Meg, the most interesting character to me in your novella was initially the father—his extreme presence in his absence. You mentioned to me once that you did not know your own father. Did you imagine him to be like this father?

MP:  No, I did not imagine my father to be like the father in this novella at all. I wrote this absent father to be what who I wanted my father to have been like. I imagined how a girl, overwhelmed by so much worry and conditional difficulty, might cultivate memories of a dead parent and use them as life rafts. The father remains my main character’s backbone—a force that has some influence in balancing out her difficult luck.

TH: What moved me most about him is that he “died making an old building new.” After reading the novella, I recognized that the narrator is like the father, thus his pull. She’s trying to be a fixer, too. Did you envision this all along?

MP: I was a “fixer” as a kid, yes. I didn’t really envision writing the main character as me, but that is how the character developed. This happens to me a lot. I try to write someone very different from myself, but it ends up being a kind of self-portrait. I wish I could say it was intentional. Writing a character unconsciously becomes, at least for some writers, an internal portrait of ourselves at different ages.

TH: Talk about the role of luck in the piece? I love the line “On our stoop, luck cleared its throat like a Mormon missionary and walked away.”

MP: Thank you for saying so, Tiff. I have always been fascinated with luck. Scientists can’t study it, you know? Our lives are determined by luck from the moment we are born. Wisdom matters, making good choices is huge, but luck is annoyingly present throughout our lives. All of this stuff we believe we can control is mostly wishful thinking. Sure, we can influence the way things turn out, but we can’t do anything about luck.

TH: Did you write the pieces chronologically with the novella in mind?

MP: No. I patched it together from a lot of old stories and poems, wrote some new ones, and wove chronology into it. I reshaped certain chapters/stories to fit into different time frames. It still feels a bit mysterious to me, how it all came together. I had been writing it for years, but didn’t know it.

TH: This isn’t just another coming-of-age novella, this is a novella about active creation/invention. The characters, seen and unseen, stay with you.

MP: Thank you! I’m really glad to hear this. I was strongly influenced by Tennessee Williams’ plays when I was an actress. I studied his beautiful lines and heartbreaking characters. But I was mostly fascinated with the importance of the absent father in The Glass Menagerie. I am glad that the absent father’s presence looms large in Here, Where We Live.


Meg Pokrass is the author of Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) and Bird Envy (Printed on Paige, 2014). Her flash fiction appears in 200 literary journals including Green Mountains Review, Five Points, storySouth, McSweeney’s, and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Meg serves as associate editor for Rick Barthelme’s New World Writing. She lives in San Francisco with a dog and two cats. Find out more at


The Tomatoes Could Be Terrible. Write Anyway.

October 20, 2014 § 15 Comments

heirloom_tomatoesI just started working as an editor. I’m freelance, so I see a lot of self-published work, some of which fits every horrible stereotype about self-publishing. But no matter how near the beginning of their craft the author is, they’re still one up on me:

They finished a book.

They didn’t wait for the Fairy MFAmother to whack them with her magic Now You May Go To The Writer Ball wand, they didn’t let their mother’s dismissals or their lack of time stop them. They followed Nora Roberts‘ (and so many other prolific big-name authors’) maxim:

Ass in chair.

For us creative nonfictioneers, it’s often not a failure of imagination or work ethic, but a fear of not measuring up that dogs our ability to finish–or even start.

Should I write about the cancer? Nah, everyone’s got a cancer memoir. What about that time we broke up? Modern Love did that last week. My dad died? Special to me, but not everyone else. Sorry, Dad.

Fear of not being interesting, fear that our experience is too common, that we have nothing to say, that no-one wants to hear it, can paralyze a writer. After all, why should anyone care?

But there are three paths to memoir: be famous, do something amazing, or write well. We can’t control the first, and the second is often dangerous or expensive. As for writing well, we don’t know until the third, fourth, or fifth draft whether or not we’ve hit the mark. Stopping–or not starting–because we’re scared we won’t measure up is like throwing away the seeds because we might be allergic to tomatoes.

At Women Writers, Women’s Books, Shanan Haislip writes,

I still wonder if my life is a bit boring for a real writer. And it’s funny how the words can silenced by simple insecurity, by doubt, by the writer’s need to measure up to something, somehow. If you let it—and this takes courage—writing always comes through the cracks.

So dig out the damn seeds and plant the tomatoes. Maybe they’ll be bitter, or misshapen, or an odd color. They still might make great marinara. You won’t know unless you plant.

Go write. Not later. Not when you’re “interesting,” not when you’re unafraid. Now.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Every day she wonders if that was the last word she had.

CNF Wants Weather, Boundaries, Teachers, & Crazy You!!

October 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

bbc weatherSpend a second and review the CURRENT CALLS FOR SUBMISSIONS at Creative Nonfiction magazine.  They are reading for two new anthologies from In Fact Books, a special issue of CNF, and the Exploring the Boundaries section of the magazine.

Jan 20

Exploring the Boundaries (section of the magazine)

What to send: Ambitious writing that pushes against the conventional boundaries of the genre, plays with style and form, and makes its own rules.

 Feb 9

Beyond Crazy (a book!)

What to send: Original stories that address–either directly or obliquely–the trials of living with mental illness. 

Mar 9

Becoming a Teacher (another book!)

What to send: Stories by and/or about elementary and secondary school teachers, recalling and reflecting on the most salient moments of their careers.

Apr 13

The Weather (a special issue of CNF)

What’s on the line: $1,000 for best essay; $500 for runner-up; publication in CNF.

What to send: True stories–personal, historical, reported–about fog, drought, flooding, tornado-chasing, blizzards, hurricanes, hail the size of golfballs, or whatever’s happening where you are. We’re looking for well-crafted essays that will change the way we see the world around us.

Lee Martin is the Bomb

October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

Lee Martin is the bomb.  Let’s just acknowledge that.  He is the bomb!  Or whatever cool phrase the kids use these days for “best.”

Here he is instructing readers of his blog how to read like a writer.

bombOne thing I always tell my students is that they have to learn to read the way a writer must if he or she is going to develop a deeper understanding of craft, but what does that really mean? How does a writer read?

I’ll speak only for myself. Years ago, I started reading with an eye for how a writer made a particular piece of writing. What artistic choices did she or he make to create particular effects? I’ll restrict myself to prose, but I suspect the poets among you might be able to apply what I have to say to poetry. Writers should read not only to identify and eventually internalize specific artistic choices, lee_martinbut also to further define their own aesthetics.


It’s important to gauge our responses to the openings of pieces by thinking about the effects they have on us. Openings can come from different aesthetics and have different objectives, but the one thing they simply must have in common is they have to be interesting. We should think about the effects that different kinds of openings have and how the writer creates those effects. A good writer creates his or her ideal audience with the opening and also teaches that audience how to read.

Read Lee’s Full Blog post over here at The Least You Need to Know

Copyediting from A to X

October 15, 2014 § 7 Comments

copyeditor-cartoonI’ve recently hung out my shingle as an editor, and it’s been fascinating to look up and confirm bits of grammar and punctuation I’m “pretty sure” I know, but am now paranoiac about getting absolutely right. Over at Medium, there’s a great rundown on commonly confused words from Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, including this lovely distinction:

One’s sweetheart is “hon,” not “hun,” unless one’s sweetheart is Attila (not, by the way, Atilla) or perhaps Winnie-the-Pooh (note hyphens).

It’s a quick, fun read and you’ll want to bookmark it–if not for yourself, for reference during future arguments with your editor.

Enjoy it here!

My Very End of the Universe: Five Flash Novellas

October 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

MVEotU Final Cover (Low-Res)The flash movement has seen new and wonderful genres emerge, from micro-fiction to sudden fiction to flash fiction, from flash essay to flash memoir to flash nonfiction, from six-word memoirs to #cnftweets, and some of the best work, both defining the genres and providing brilliantly imagined examples, has come from Rose Metal Press.  This month, they introduce yet another genre, the novella in flash.

With My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the FormRose Metal Press celebrates, names, and defines the novella built of standalone flash pieces. The book includes novellas-in-flash by Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, Aaron Teel, Margaret Patton Chapman, and Chris Bower. Each novella-in-flash is accompanied by a craft essay by the author exploring how they came to use the form to tell their stories and how the genre works. Rose Metal Press editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney open the collection with a genre-defining introduction.

To further investigate the unique characteristics of the novella-in-flash, the authors of My Very End of the Universe interviewed each other about their work, and Brevity will be running one of these interviews every Tuesday for the next few weeks.  Enjoy!

Today, Chris Bower Interviews Tiff Holland:

CB: I read an interesting review of your novella that was written by an Irish writer who had no idea what Central Texas looked like and she thought your stories didn’t really show her. It wasn’t a criticism because she went on to explain that so much of what happens here happens inside the house, inside stores, and a lot of time is spent inside the car, going place to place. How important was the setting of this story for you?

TH: I’m glad the Irish writer wasn’t disappointed that the novella didn’t have more of a Central Texas feel. She’s right in that the stories actually take place in cars, apartments, and stores. Still, there is a lot of Texas in the stories. The buzzards in “Barberton Mafia” both in their number and brazenness, are unlike anything I’ve encountered in other places I’ve lived, and I certainly can’t imagine a spontaneous prayer circle forming around my mother (or anyone else) in most parts of the country, certainly not in my hometown in Ohio. For me, the stories start when Betty takes the stage, when she gets in the car, talking about her pee-hole before she’s all the way in or butchers Shakespeare calling up to the narrator’s second floor bedroom window. So, I believe the stories would have been basically the same regardless of setting. They are set any time, any place within Betty’s gravitational pull.

CB: You write in your essay that Betty could be “difficult, demanding, and shinier than I liked.” Even with a character like Betty, who could have easily slipped into caricature, you are always able to find the humanity in her, even when she is being unpleasant. You also wrote in your essay that the opening story, “Dragon Lady,” was your road map for other Betty stories. Could you tell us more about her creation and evolution?

Tiff Holland

Tiff Holland

TH:  I had been writing “Betty” poems for years and realized that the character needed to be well defined and consistent if I wanted to possibly publish them in a collection, something I was just starting to consider when I wrote that piece.

As for her creation and evolution, Betty is very much based on my mother and I tried to be objective in “Dragon Lady.” I expected it to be merely a character sketch, but it ended up being a story, containing an arc that I hadn’t really recognized when I started writing. Betty then evolved as my relationship with my mother evolved. I always say that the birth of my daughter brought my mother and me together. However, I believe that writing these stories helped as well. I try to be an “objective observer” in my writing, to the point that I believe it can be a weakness and characters based on me can be as boring as oatmeal. I’ve learned to appreciate a little shine. I no longer balk at it. By the end of her life, my mother and I came to accept each other as we were. We appreciated each other, both our similarities and differences.

CB: I am fascinated with your evolution as a writer, from a poet to a writer of prose that still relies on your “poets eye” and attention to line.  Also, in some ways I prefer your use of the word “concentrate” to describe what came to be known as “flash.”  Do you feel like you have found a home here in this style and form of writing?

TH: Chris, I’m flattered that you find my evolution interesting. Really, it’s rather boring. I always wrote narrative poems. So, the line between genres was thin. As for “concentrate,” I could add water (words) to almost all of them and turn them into longer stories, novels, but I am partial to the line. I hate the idea of weakening something by adding words. If one hundred or five hundred words get the feeling across, why add more? I have faith my readers can connect the dots. My writing is not intended as instruction manuals but as art. Hopefully, it succeeds on that level. If not, then I’ll work on instruction manuals—I believe the pay is better.


Tiff Holland’s Betty Superman is one of five novellas-in-flash forthcoming in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form from Rose Metal Press. Betty Superman was also the winner of the Rose Metal Press Fifth Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest in 2011.



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