Strap on Your Running Shoes

July 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Timeless Beauty (22)By Shuly Cawood, a blog post reprinted with her kind permission:

This morning, while trying to think of titles to my essay (and coming up with nothing but corny ones), I decided to lace up my running shoes and head out the door. That’s because I do some of my best “writing” when I am not writing at all. Often, ideas come when I am running or walking (or in the middle of a drive or standing in the produce section). I need to be startled into ideas: they come when I least expect them to, or when I start focusing on something else—say, not tripping over a stick. If I stare at the door, they do not knock. I have to look away, even go away, for them to whistle their way in.

Some tips on making this work for you:

  1. Always have a notebook and pen. I have a mini-notebook that can fit in my pocket, and a mini-pen, but I never take these running. I keep them in my purse, though, at all times.
  2. For walking, running, or sports in general, if you have a cell phone, use the recorder on it. Most phones have them. There are voice-to-text apps, but that is too fancy for me. I just use the basic recorder that came with my phone. I also use a note-taking app that allows me to type my ideas into a note.
  3. Try not listening to music when running/walking. This distracts me. Instead, I think about the writing issue, then let my mind wander and notice the maple tree leaves shifting in the breeze, and the sweep of clouds on indigo sky. This way, the writing issue percolates in the background.

So, full disclosure here: While running this morning, I did not in fact think of any new titles to my essay-with-no-name. I did get three miles of (slow) jogging in, but that’s not all. I did figure out what topics to research on a different essay I have been struggling to expand. Not what I expected, but that’s the whole point.


July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Oliver TwistBraided essay, hybrid essay, mixed genre—all attempts to define a style of fluid nonfiction grounded in the writer’s experience but with…more. More what? How more?

Leslie Jamison, author of the remarkable new essay collection The Empathy Exams does more. Personal events—getting hit in the face, a failed heart surgery, watching reality television—are written as memoir but woven through with journalism and criticism.

In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of our brains light up when we feel for other people. I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better?

If you’re contemplating an essay that you want to be “more,” but unsure how to begin, or if that’s your favorite way to write and you’d like to take it further, Ms. Jamison’s How To Write A Personal Essay, at Publishers Weekly, is an excellent starting point.

Read the whole thing.

The New Yorker Archive is Open

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

imagesThe New Yorker has made all of its archives going back to 2007 available online at no cost until the end of this summer, and Buzzfeed has assembled a cool list of 14 “Fantastic (Fiction) Stories You Should Read from the Archive.

We are headed out of town (excuses, excuses) so can’t slap together the Fantastic Nonfiction version of the list just now, but if anyone wants to put together a list of his or her own favorite nonfiction works in the New Yorker archive, we promise to feature it here.

Send to brevitymag(at symbol) along with your bio note.

Move East, Young Nonfiction Author

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

tumblr_l2kihku4tp1qbo5v7o1_1280Josh McCall offers a fascinating and well-researched discussion of who wins (and does not win) book prizes.  Here’s a taste, followed by a link to the entire Mayborn essay

Suppose you wanted to win a nonfiction book prize, not the attractive but obscure medal awarded by your local Rotary Club but something more illustrious. A Pulitzer, let’s say. And let’s also say you’ve already written a pretty good book, even a great one. What else might you do to improve your odds?

First, you could relocate to that stretch of the East Coast between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Massachusetts. If possible, you’ll hang your hat in one of the regional metropolises, extra points for New York City, likewise for landing a job at a prominent newspaper or magazine, though if your leanings are more academic, similar advantages can be gained by joining the faculty of an Ivy League college. After that, things get tricky. For example, it’ll help, a lot, if you’re a white American, though I suspect you need to be born that way. Similarly, if you have a superfluous X chromosome, you’ll want to exchange it for a Y, or at least display the expected phenotypic traits. These are not uncomplicated strategies, though neither is writing a great book.

Of course, prize juries do not pluck winners and finalists from the literary wilds simply because a writer happens to be white or male or occupy a rent-controlled walk-up in the East Village. And yet there is something about these characteristics that radically affect one’s odds of being plucked, at least for the awards we examined: the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Award (NBA) for Nonfiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award (NBCC) for General Nonfiction ..

Read the entire essay here.


PS — Josh McCall also happens to be the web wizard who put together the various moving parts of our nifty main Brevity site.  If you need web design work, call Josh.

Stand Up Naked and Turn Around Slowly

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

man-wearing-barrel-and-suspenders-after-divorce1How does our willingness to “get naked” on the page form our voice, and how does voice hide our nakedness? What’s more naked: writing fiction and baring all, or using one’s life as fact but perhaps more judiciously?

Dinah Lenney’s craft essay “Not-Quite-Naked” is part of a series at TriQuarterly. Ms. Lenney, the author of Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir and most recently The Object Parade, writes:

Here comes that confession (she starts to disrobe): first, as with acting, I don’t write to disappear, but rather to locate myself. But wait—which self am I talking about? What a stunner to discover—to have to admit—I am not only or even essentially the mother, the wife, the teacher, the student, the neighbor, the friend, the actor, the writer—even as I have tended to write firsthand accounts out of those relationships and situations. But wait again: Don’t fiction writers use first-person narration? Don’t they break the fourth wall? But they’re writing in character, yes? As if I’m not? Of course I am. Does it make a difference—does it say anything about my state of undress that I’m telling you so? I’m certain it does.

Read the essay at TriQuarterly.

Remember In November Nonfiction Contest

July 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

Tin can stiltsThriving indie journal Hippocampus announces their fourth annual Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction. Entry fee is $10 and judging is blind. There’s a $500 prize for the winner and smaller cash prizes for runner-up, honorable mention and reader’s choice, as well as some literary swag to the Participation Award winner.

(You know, when I hear Participation Award, I want to go back in time to Field Day, strap on my soup-can stilts and awkwardly stomp my way across the elementary school playground into eleventh place. I’m pretty sure my mom still has that ribbon. Thanks for the memory, Hippocampus!)

Check out the full rules and details here.

Throwback Thursday: Best Essays of the Past 50 Years

July 17, 2014 § 3 Comments

83142Back in 2011, Flavorwire’s Kathleen Massara sifted through

…innumerable notable essays written between 1961 and today. However, even though it’s a crazy idea to attempt to make a top ten list of the pieces that shaped the era, that’s what we do…

Inspired by the University of Iowa’s Essay Prize, Ms. Massara sought out ten essays she thought “best exemplifie[d] the art of essaying — inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and change.” Included are some legends and some more obscure. And yes, Céline Dion made the list.

Check out the list here. (Some of the links lead to online reads, others to sale pages for books featuring the essays.)

What’s your best essays list? Five Essays That Should Be Famous? Seven Essays That Changed the Author’s Life? Ten Best Essays Under 1000 Words?

Create a category and make your case, then email it to We’ll choose a list or two to feature here on the Brevity blog.


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