The Golden Age

October 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

In Tuesday’s New York Times, the Bookends column asks Cheryl Strayed and Benjamin Moser, “Is This A Golden Age For Women Essayists?”

Strayed opens with a shot across the bow:

Would we ever think to ask if this is a golden age for men essayists? Is it even credible to use the phrase “men essayists”? Why does it sound incorrect in a way that “women essayists” doesn’t? And why does a writer like me — female, feminist, familiar with the discreet and overt forms of sexism in the literary world and beyond — bristle when presented with such a query, one undoubtedly intended to celebrate rather than diminish the achievements of a category of people I admire and to which I belong?

And she’s got a point there. Is what’s celebrated about women writers also ghettoizing them? Are you a woman essayist or a man essayist, both, neither, or something in between? Does your gender identity identify your work?

Check out the column here.


On Being Pointless: Wrestling with Geoff Dyer

October 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

Amy Bernhard reviews an essay classic, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage:

51-sw2ymycL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I met Geoff Dyer in the fall of 2012, when he was the visiting writer at my MFA program. On the first day of class he strode into the English building wearing jeans and a plaid button down shirt, still creased from the suitcase he’d unpacked only twelve hours before. It was late August, one of the hottest summers the Midwest had ever seen, and the campus was damp with sweat and first day jitters. We watched in silence as Geoff took his place at the front of the room, lowering his tall, rakish frame into one of the stiff plastic chairs. Rummaging in his pocket for a handkerchief, he lifted his eyes to peer out at our wet faces. “This place,” he said, in his deadpan English accent, “is a miserable hell.”

Nervous giggles. Geoff cocked his head, his lips curling into a wide, slow smile. “I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about the seminar and the work we’ll do,” he said, as around me notebooks fell open and pens clicked into action. Geoff arched his eyebrows, amused. He continued, “But since there’s nothing I hate more than work, we’ll be reading simply for the sake of reading—for the pure pleasure and experience of it.” He paused, a tiny grin playing across his mouth. “Consider the point of this seminar as endeavoring to have no point at all.”

It’s this same leisurely attitude that both frustrates and delights in his 1997 memoir, Out Of Sheer Rage. On the surface, the book is about Dyer’s thwarted attempts to write an academic study of D.H. Lawrence. First, he’s uncertain whether or not he should begin his project on Lawrence, or work on his novel: “Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel, and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I’d had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either.”

Then, there’s the question of where to write—or rather, fail to write—the book on Lawrence: “One of the reasons, in fact, that it was impossible to get started on either the Lawrence book or the novel was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere, all I had to do was choose—but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere.”

Though Dyer, in other reviews, has been called “one of the whiniest writers on the planet,” I can’t help but be charmed by the prose’s lackadaisical frenzy—the lengthy diversions and maddeningly diffusive sentences—because D.H. Lawrence isn’t really who Dyer’s wrestling with; it’s himself. Without chapters or section breaks, we follow Dyer wherever he leads us as he circles his subject like a carefree teenager on a bike. Along the way, his frank, yet funny assessments of his various agitations—from Do-It-Yourself projects, literary criticism, and a shortage of doughnuts in the local bakery—are surprisingly insightful, and cross the borders of memoir into a more essayistic study of distraction, inertia, and disappointment. “I may hate disappointment,” Dyer writes, “but perhaps I also long for it. Perhaps it is not luxury doughnuts I want but the experience of being denied these things I think I want. Perhaps what I want, in other words, is actually not a luxury doughnut but the chance to consummate my disappointment, to experience what I most dread…which is, precisely, experiencing disappointment.” Like a nesting doll, one digression reveals another, and then another, until it becomes clear that diversion itself is the book—the essay within the essay, the point within the point.

Amy Bernhard

Amy Bernhard

While the lack of a concrete plot is sometimes frustrating, it’s also what has made Out Of Sheer Rage so important for me as a writer. In graduate school, we devoted hours each day to evaluating and debating an essay’s worth. “What’s the point?” one of my professors liked to ask before each workshop, his eyes searching the room as we ducked our heads, scribbling down themes and symbols in the margins of our notebooks. It wasn’t long before his question took on a constant refrain in my head. Sitting at my desk, fingers curled over my keyboard, I stared at the blank page before me and waited for the words to come. What’s the point? I asked the walls, the computer screen, the drained mug I’d been unknowingly gripping for hours in my hand. What’s the point? What’s the point?

It was only during my second year in graduate school, when I became a teacher myself that I realized how alienating this question can be for students. Opening my workshops the same way—“What’s the point of the essay?”—I watched brows furrow and shoulders slump. Mistaking silence for disinterest, I spent the remaining ninety minutes firing off question after question, watching the clock out of the corner of my eye until my students rose, silently gathered their books, and slouched out the door to their other classes.

I was frustrated. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong until Rachel, one of my brightest students, came to my office for her midterm conference. Together we sat and talked about her goals, her writing, the essays we were reading in class. As she stood to leave half an hour later, pulling a messenger bag across her shoulders, she turned to me and said, “Why do you always ask us what the point is?”

I didn’t know what to say. A new teacher, I’d simply been modeling the classroom techniques used by my own professors.

“It makes me feel like I don’t have anything to write about,” she confessed, a faint blush rising in her cheeks. “Like if I don’t say something profound, then no one will care.”

Her words resonated with me. I began encouraging students to focus first on the micro details of an essay—sights, sounds, smells—before worrying about macro-level concerns like theme and meaning. As a result, one wrote a devastating piece about the contents of her refrigerator for her final portfolio, while another reflected on a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon spent in traffic. Both writers, in their embrace of what might at first seem to be mundane or ordinary subjects produced essays that celebrate the human condition in all its neuroses and trivialities, arriving at deep, difficult truths. Maybe this is what D.H. Lawrence meant when he wrote, “Let a man go to the bottom of what he is, and believe in that.” Like my students, I feared that my experiences weren’t big or loud enough to really matter, to fulfill that capital-P point we were always fretting over in graduate school. But now I wonder if it’s actually in our smaller moments—in all of the traffic jams, half-eaten sandwiches, and luxury donut shortages that make up our days—when, as D.H. Lawrence suggests, we are most deeply human, and maybe most profound.

Which brings me to the end—the point, if you will—of this essay: to tell you what Geoff Dyer has taught me about writing. I could praise again his unbridled sense of humor (a four-page seduction fantasy about his girlfriend’s best friend), or his loose, improvisational prose style, both of which draw us closer to our hidden desires and anxieties. I could marvel at his keen psychological insight (as when he observes that “To be interested in something is to be involved in what is essentially a stressful relationship with that thing, to suffer anxiety on its behalf”), confronting us with our own neuroses, peeling back the deepest layers of our humanity. Or I could emphasize his belief—which I now share—that idleness gives birth to insight; that as essayists, we should follow our digressions wherever they lead us, and trust that the point will be waiting there.

I could try to tell you how much I’ve learned from Geoff Dyer, and yet I have a confession to make: I only attended one of his classes. The very first one, in fact. I was too worried about my own class that I had to teach later that same evening, distracted by deadlines, grading, and unfinished essays for workshop. Besides, I assumed Geoff wouldn’t care—“Consider the point of this seminar as endeavoring to have no point at all,” he’d declared that first day, dismissing us without even a syllabus. Why bother? I’d think when Thursday mornings rolled around, hitting the snooze button and burrowing deeper into my blankets.   

It’s only now, two months out of graduate school and a professor myself that I think I understand what Geoff was trying to teach us. It’s the same lesson I hope to impart to my own students: we can only arrive at an essay’s point later, when we’re ready. As writers, we need to trust that meaning will creep up on us even—or maybe especially—during our idle hours, as Geoff Dyer and Out Of Sheer Rage have, post-MFA, snuck up on me. Dog-eared and worn, his book is lying open on my desk as I write this, the only item in my otherwise empty study that has not yet been packed into boxes. I’m moving in a few weeks, unsure what comes next, but rather than fixate on the future I think I’m going to try to force myself to enjoy experience of getting there for once—to endeavor, as I’ve learned from Geoff Dyer, to have no plan at all.


Amy Bernhard is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays appear or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, The South Loop Review, and The Toast, among others. She lives and teaches in Iowa City.





Essay as Terrarium

October 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

imagesGretchen VanWormer discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Extinctions:”

My geology professor used to be a ballerina.  A ballerina.  So she had sympathy for us—we “non majors including non-scientists” taking her course to check off a distribution requirement.  She herself had only become entranced by strata after hanging up her pointe shoes.  “It will be fine,” she said, “if you’re not that into rocks.”

Her story was like a Greek myth.  Apparently you could wake up a ballerina and fall asleep a geologist.  Surprise!  “Bedding” means something far nerdier to you now.

My writing process is similar to this in that:

1.  I want to learn stuff, and

2.  I want to be surprised.

In the case of “Extinctions,” while the emotional origin of the essay is Theresa’s death, I really didn’t have anything until I’d read Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us.  It was more of a recreational read:  a science-laden thought experiment about what would happen to the Earth if the entire human race decamped.  I was guessing she’d say, Phew.  I was mostly right, but it was more complex than that.

Chapter 5, “The Lost Menagerie,” covers a mass extinction, and that’s where I saw Theresa’s mother—a woman I hadn’t given much thought to as a child or an adult.  I asked my own mom what she remembered, and she said she’d never seen anything as sad in her life as Theresa’s mother crossing the street, carrying those stuffed animals.  So that turned into the first line, and the essay itself became a lot about mothers.

I sometimes picture an essay as a terrarium, and will sit there for a while, trying to figure out which species of words to plant together.  The World Without Us helped with that as well, because now I wanted the language of creatures and a bit of a hunting vibe.  Before reading the book, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to populate an essay about Theresa with those words.

Weisman’s acknowledgments end with the line:  “Without us, Earth will abide and endure; without her, however, we could not even be.”  It seems obvious now that a book about mother Earth would spin me away from my own experience of Theresa’s death and point me toward her mom, but it surprised me, and I learned stuff.

Gretchen VanWormer’s chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans, is forthcoming from CutBank Books.  She teaches writing at American University.

I’m Not Not Telling the Truth

October 7, 2014 § 9 Comments

A guest post from Penny Guisinger:

fakingWriters like me know that there’s a certain defensiveness in our genre’s name: creative nonfiction. It’s like we need you to know that what we write is true, but it’s also creative. We want  you to know that we’re not writing software manuals.

Further, it’s the genre that defines itself by what it isn’t.  Non fiction. What we write is not fiction, because fiction is not true. We write what is not not true. I looked up “double negative” in the dictionary, and read that it’s a “syntactic construction containing two negatives and having a negative meaning.” Our genre has a negative meaning. That’s not easy to live with.

Maybe if our genre had a sexier name, or at least a more accurate one, fewer careers would be ruined, fewer dreams dashed on the jagged rocks of the Oprah show. Maybe that’s why we try to think of something else to call it – reportage, personal narrative, lyric essay –  something that doesn’t work so hard to hold our feet to this hot thing people think of as “truth” – for we are not not ever really able to capture what is not not truth.  (I don’t even know what that means.)

In October 2013, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and spent a hungry afternoon wandering through an exhibit called Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.  I was hungry because I couldn’t find the cafeteria, but also for the incredible works of art I was seeing. Images that were made from multiple negatives sandwiched together or transformed through darkroom trickery like dodging and burning, adding and removing light. Photos that were printed, photocopied, photographed again, painted on, then re-photocopied. And I thought, “That’s creative nonfiction.”

One of the earliest photographic prints, made in 1846, is an image of four monks posing on a terrace in Malta. But an examination of the negative shows a fifth monk standing behind the group. The photographer, working undercover in the darkroom, just took that fifth one out. We don’t know why, but we also totally know why. It made a better story, or it fit the rhythm of the piece better, or it made a cleaner composition. The fifth monk was clutter – a distracting, irrelevant detail. His removal made the image more true to that artist’s vision of the world. It was what he wanted us to see in what he was seeing. He made a choice.

Even straight photography has a slippery relationship to the truth. According to the incredibly expensive book I splurged on from the exhibit at the Met, “…there is no such thing as an unmanipulated photograph. The process of making a photograph – of translating the constantly changing, full-color, three-dimensional world into a flat, static, bounded image – involves dozens of conscious and unconscious decisions.” Early prints had no color, and had to be painted by hand to look “real.”  Inflexible film emulsions required that land and sky be captured in separate frames then sandwiched together in order to show what the scene really looked like. And I can tell you from my years spent as a wedding photographer that I had to work hard to capture images of the weddings people planned rather than the weddings they actually had. Capturing reality requires acts of omission and other treacheries.

For us it’s all about the alphabet and how we stick letters together on the page. Those are our truth-making tools – and sometimes people don’t like how we employ them. Remember all the trouble John D’Agata got himself into back in 2003 when he  unapologetically changed some facts to get at his version of an artful truth? Among other things, he described “invisible black mountains” behind the Las Vegas skyline, and the fact checker (because he checked) felt that the mountains would be more accurately described as “brown.” There’s more to the story than just that adjective, and it’s an easy case to make that he changed too much. But at AWP 2012 in Chicago, in a room filled with hundreds of writers just like us, a shouting match broke out over D’Agata’s choices. Or his transgressions. Or his artistic brush strokes. People were actually yelling at each other about this piece of art. There were calls for greater accountability, more truth.  I think most of us can get behind that. After all, we’re not writing what’s not true, remember? Yet, it feels impossible for us to hold each other’s feet to the fire in terms of facts when we probably can’t even agree what color the flames are. Are they orange or are they red? If we can’t even ask for hard facts from our cameras, why would we demand it from our writers?

There’s a line from a last year’s NYT review of Scott McClanahan’s book Crappalachia in which the reviewer notes that”…the truth may be unimpeachable, but the facts are up for constant review.” Photographic memories are no better than photographs. Memoirs are just memories. Essays are just attempts. Reportage is not reporting. And have you read a software manual recently? They’re packed with confusion and lies.

Creative nonfiction writers: we are not not the writers of truth that is not not creative. Do you not know what that doesn’t mean? It means we’re not not artists.


Penny Guisinger is an essayist whose work has not not appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Solstice, and other not unamazing places. She isn’t not the founding director of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and she didn’t fail to receive her MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.


Digested Research and Nonfiction Writing

October 5, 2014 § 3 Comments

Holy_Trinity_B_Falls_3We’ve just run across Julija Šukys’ blog “Writing.Life.” in which she adroitly examines the craft of nonfiction writing, including a recent post that delves into what she defines as the “holy trinity of creative nonfiction” – SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.  In the snippet below, she discusses the hardest part for many new writers, digesting the research:

For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.

When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.

Read the full blog post here.



Why a Good Editor is Like a Good Psychotherapist

October 3, 2014 § 9 Comments

Nina Gaby

Nina Gaby

A guest post from our friend Nina Gaby:

At a recent writer’s workshop on short form essay writing I scuffled to the edge of my chair, the proverbial ADHD kid, as if I knew all about the idea that had only made a half sentence out of the workshop leader’s mouth. The ever patient Barbara Hurd, the workshop leader, was recapping a craft article from September’s Writer’s Chronicle by Sean Ironman where he describes the z-axis in essay writing. This is an article that I had not read much less heard of, but I had already figured out the moment she began to talk. “Pick me! Pick me!” I waved from my seat. Just the mere suggestion of an axis that spanned a third dimension was too much for me to quietly bear alone.

Ironman describes the process of artist Joe Rivera. The award winning cartoonist Rivera often talks of moving his paintbrush not only up and over along the obvious x and y axes of the page, but also up and away from the page– the z axis. “The z-axis is the artist’s distance from the page,” I would later read. “When the brush is kept close, the mark is thick and dark. The farther away the brush is from the page, the thinner the mark. Altering the thickness and darkness of a line gives the image perspective, depth.” [1] So the axis must continue, I extrapolate. Not just past and present but through. Piercing the heart of the page. I totally know this, I think, I’ve just not heard it put quite this way. It’s just like what I do as a therapist, like what I did as an art student. Like what I’m trying to do as an editor.

Hurd used this as a means to explore the craft of the short essay, reminding us that the obvious story was very different from the real story, depending on the writer’s distance from the page. Yeah, yeah, I read Gornick, I am impatient. I know the difference between the situation and the story. But then she told a workshop participant whose words were just shared that she still hadn’t exposed the real story. I got uncomfortable at that, stopped waving my hand. How many times have I let the real story slip by? “Keep going,” said Hurd. Deeper.

I move the mental brush back and forth, up and down, as I generalize this to the process of editing, which I had just spent two months doing. I am a somewhat neophyte essayist, putting together my own anthology, and by virtue of that, becoming a neophyte editor.

But I am not a neophyte psychotherapist. Nor am I a neophyte artist. I know about the pressure on a line, the quality of a shadow, when the z-axis may be too close to the bone, when to draw back. Too much. Too little. It’s all about the contract we have with the subject – be it image or patient or essay contributor. Splice, slice, dice. With permission, of course. Find the connective tissue. Respect the data and the discomfort. I found myself doing the same thing with the 24 essays handed to me by the contributors of my anthology. At first I’m not even sure I know what I’m doing. Then I realize – it’s the same thing I always do.

My first day back from the writer’s conference I entered my workplace, my “real job,” to find a handwritten letter left for me by a patient who had been discharged while I was gone. “Thank you for helping me save my life.” Note I didn’t save the patient’s life, as if I were an EMT in the field shoring up blood or a surgeon in the operating room splicing pieces together. My contract intact – I just helped.This, the very same day that I prepared my anthology’s final manuscript, gathering together all that data for the publisher.

And the contract is the same, the parallels obvious as I wave excitedly from my imaginary seat. “Here,” says the patient, the writer, “I offer you my words, I offer you my narrative, I offer you my history.” The patient’s own thoughts, like the writer’s own words, may just need some help searing a path through the extraneous tissue, a flashlight along the z axis, getting to the vital energy at the heart of their matter.

[1] Sean Ironman, Writing the Z-Axis: Reflection in the Nonfiction Workshop, The Writer’s Chronicle,September 2014


Nina Gaby is a past contributor to the Brevity blog. By day she is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and the rest of the time a writer, visual artist, serial television addict and sometimes blogger at Her anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women,which includes two flash essays, is being published in early 2015 by She Writes Press.



It’s Never Just Me: Jill Talbot on “All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven”

October 2, 2014 § 10 Comments

An informative, fascinating inside look at Jill Talbot’s writing process:

JillTalbot-243x366According to my laptop, my first draft of this essay was saved on March 12, 2013, when I was teaching an Advanced course on the flash essay at St. Lawrence University.  On the first day of that class in January, I challenged my students to avoid the established themes, the easy-groove patterns, and the go-to predilections we had all come to know of each other’s in the beginning workshop. I even told them I’d do it, too, because I write what I ask my students to write (I’ve read Brenda Miller describe how one of her essays came from a writing exercise she did with her students.) So I told them I’d do it, too, and that meant one thing:  no Kenny. Their eyes widened.

I said, no, really, he won’t be in any essay.  When I said it, I felt as if I were standing out on some essayistic ledge.  Then I knew:  I could write about my twenties in Texas to find out who I was in the years before meeting him. What choices did that girl make that led her to love a man who would end up leaving?  So I started a series of flash essays about my dusty, self-destructive twenties in Texas. In fact, one of those essays, “Stranded,” appears in the Fall 2013 Issue of Brevity.

All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven began with Hemingway.  I was flipping through The Garden of Eden and came across one of my underlines: “When you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.”  And I thought, yes, it is, so I decided to try to write an essay about how I was doing that back then.  I included the Hemingway line as an epigraph and started the essay: “Because you’re Jill Talbot, it’s all empty beer cans and skinny dipping.”

That semester was one of experiments, so not only did I write with my students, I also signed up for a workshop date, and I submitted a draft of this essay titled “Self-Portrait.” One student said about the opening line: “We’re tossed out of the essay if we’re NOT Jill Talbot.”  That allowed me to see I was not using the 2nd person as direct address. I was writing to myself (and as essayists, we have to make connections with our readers).  When it came my time to speak in workshop, I mentioned what the bearded man said that night—about there being a “little Jill Talbot in all of us,” and they suggested I put that into the essay.  I’m glad they did.

The next draft was titled “Scattered,” and it was.  It wasn’t clear I was addressing a younger self or even writing about the past because the draft was in present tense. At one point, it was in the past tense, but that implies distance and reflection, and this girl of the essay had neither. I was trying to capture a phase of my life from a collection of moments—like photographs—and those are always in present tense. I did try a draft in the first person, but I decided “Jill Talbot” needed to be different from the name at the top of the essay, and I had to make clear that this was the twenty-seven year old version. I let the title do that.

The guitar player, the lover, the PhD student in geology, and the Texas/Mexico border were always there, though not as united in form.  Initially, the only parenthetical in the piece was “(this one a PhD student in Geology),” but when I was still revising the draft in early 2014 (when I had the privilege to be teaching with David Lazar and asking him at the Panera on the corner of State Street and Congress about his parentheticals), I realized I needed to be stylistically consistent, so I added one in each section.

One major change that didn’t come until an entire year of revisions?  The diction. The third section, the Geology section, always had “surveying her neck” and my favorite word in the essay that came from my then neighbor, Dr. John Huntley, a paleontologist in the Geology department at St. Lawrence—who is now rocking it (sorry) at the University of Missouri.  But back in New York in 2013, I called him one day and explained, “I want a geology-related word like erosion but something more sudden, destructive, aggressive.”  And that’s how I got “corrade empty streets.” Only after looking at the draft for a year did I realize each section needed such precision.  So I tuned the guitar section, let the bearded man “[play] the same chord” and “[strum]” the water; I added the bob and weave between me and my lover’s wife, the “sheets taut as a boxing canvas,” and the phone throwing rings like punches. And I slowed down the Texas border scene by pushing the lyricism—all those “s”s and “t”s—which in my mind whispers the beginning of a certain word. Because I still wish I could tell that twenty-seven year old woman standing on a rock to stop so she will no longer feel that “desert inside.”

[Side note on considerations when submitting to a particular journal: There was a line, a line I really loved:  “In the back bedroom, where you thought he would be fucking you by now, the phone throws its high-pitched rings like punches.”  But I hoped to place the essay in Brevity, and I couldn’t recall one “fuck” in the archives—beyond Lee Martin’s “Talk Big” and William Bradley’s “Julio at Large”—and neither Martin nor Bradley were using the word the way I was, so I took out that phrase after deciding Brevity wasn’t a “fucking” journal.]

As for Hemingway? I held on to him for dear life, worried the reader wouldn’t get “danger” unless I held it at the top of my essay like a flashlight guiding the way. But one afternoon, I tweeted: “To epigraph or not to epigraph this flash essay is my question.” And while a few of my followers suggested “Yes!” Ryan Van Meter replied, “My vote is no.”  And that’s all it took—I admire and envy his writing so much I immediately deleted the Hemingway. Only then did I understand that the epigraph wasn’t a flashlight, it was a weight, because it’s my job to show the reader the danger. I added “All or Nothing” to the title in a private nod to Hemingway (not to mention Sinatra) and to hint that with all the “Alls” I had going on back then, I had nothing.

In the end, the most problematic portions of the essay turned out to be those one-liners. In fact, the second major revision began: “It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.”  It didn’t take long for me to see I couldn’t begin with the abstract—I had to begin with “empty beer cans and skinny dipping.” After all, the essay is about emptiness and baring myself.

I’ll end here with the progression and revisions of what ended up being the final five lines. By the way, thanks to Steve Edwards who showed me that “82 west out of Lubbock” was the only way for the essay to end. With “Jill Talbot” trying to leave herself behind.

It was lightning storms in the distance. 

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

It was “Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

Letters you now wish you’d kept.

It was all Marlboro Lights in a soft pack.

Pay phones outside gas stations.

82 west out of Lubbock


It’s all notes in the margin. 

A tired story.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

“Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

82 west out of Lubbock.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

It’s the Hemingway professor. 

And it’s dangerous.


It’s all underlining words in used novels.

And hole-in-the-wall bars.

It’s letting the machine get it.

Pay phones near exits.

It’s all the hard mornings in the same black skirt.

America’s Greatest Hits.

82 west out of Lubbock.

Gold drinks from a silver bar.

It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do. 

It’s dangerous.


It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

A pay phone on the corner.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

82 west out of Lubbock.


Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.


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