Teachers, Take a Quick Survey and Help Brevity

October 10, 2014 § Leave a comment


Brevity is wealthy with readers (between our magazine and blog, we attract close to 30,000 monthly visitors) but still cash poor, meaning we can’t pay our editors a nickel and can’t expand from three annual issues to four or six. We are considering a new initiative, a book project (Brevity Classroom Companion) that we hope folks who use Brevity in the classroom might use as a low-cost classroom add-on, required for students.

This will take some time and effort, two things we are short of, so please BE HONEST in your responses. If you wouldn’t be likely to use such a resource, let us know now.  Showing your enthusiasm for this idea just to be supportive won’t help us out, even though we know you mean well. So be honest, okay?

If you have any good ideas to add, we are all ears.

HERE’S THE SURVEY: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/K3Y89LK

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.

Pickle Jackpot: Write Better with Comedy

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

indexBefore I was a writer, I was a street performer. Not the dude-on-the-corner-with-a-guitar kind (though that’s street performance, too), the perform-at-festivals-for-huge-audiences kind. And when I worked in English, I had to be funny. The scripted lines had to be funny. The improvised lines had to be funny. And when an improvised line got a good laugh, we revised it, polished it, and put it in the show in a way that still sounds spontaneous after a thousand shows.

When I lived on tips, I had to be funny or I didn’t eat. Dinner’s a great motivation to get better at one’s art. I’m a verbal comedian more than a physical comedian, so I spent a long time working on words. We often did four shows a day, 15-20 shows a week, which is a lot of chances to try a different word order or phrasing. A punchline is funnier if the dialogue tag comes first (“And then he said, bada-boom!”). Individual words are funnier if they end in hard sounds (splat, smack) than soft ones (orange, cushion). Anything with a k in it is funnier (pickle, jackpot). And the best part is getting the audience to put the words together and write their own mental joke for an apparently innocent line (“Don’t worry! I’m a professional!”).

Now that I write the words down, now that I have to trust the reader’s brain for the delivery, comedy serves me well. Even when the essay isn’t funny, the right word order sells a punch or a sob the same way it sells a laugh. Humor helps the reader hope for the storyteller, even when the situation’s dire, and sadness phrased well becomes a kick in the teeth.

As George Saunders said, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” With memoir and nonfiction, we get to slow it down a little and meander. Writing comedy helps us learn to tighten up, so that meandering is a choice.

At The Huffington Post, Siobhan Adcock writes in Why Every Writer Should Take a Humor Class:

Because structure. You’re making a meticulously crafted monkey suit — you gotta remember to put a tail-hole in the pants. Humor writing is about technique and precision, but it’s also about becoming an expert in story and sentence structure. Again, there are technical writerly concepts that come into play here: Snowballing, conflict, reversal, and the good old rule of three writ large (“Get your hero up in a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down” — see how that rule of three works on the plot level as well as the punchline level?) are just a few of them. A humor writing class will force you to learn how to put together a really sharp-looking monkey suit.

Ms. Adcock’s got a terrific list of things writers learn in a comedy-writing class, and if you’ve ever thought gosh, I wish my wordcraft was better on a technical level, comedy is for you. Check out the whole article.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.







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.


Girlie Stuff

October 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

Will Brevity's Social Media Editor give the Editor-in-Chief a literary heart attack?

Will Brevity’s Social Media Editor give the Editor-in-Chief a literary heart attack with a sparkly gif?

This year’s National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction, released last week, included 10 nominees. One was a woman. One was a person of color. Blah blah blah demographics blah blah nonrepresentational–we know all that. And it still sucks. But is any of this inherent in the books themselves? Anne Boyd Rioux writes at The Millions:

Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries).

Are the subjects chosen by women writers seen as less worthy, less weighty? Or is it something in the approach?

Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile…in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction…

Maybe we’re back to the old trope that a man writing about his life is a universal coming-of-age story and a woman writing about hers is a women’s book? When I searched “coming of age story bildungsroman” I got 20 books in the clever picture scroll at the top of the results. At first I was excited–Jane Eyre! Bastard Out of Carolina! Maybe I was wrong! Then I counted. Six books by women. Sure, it’s a Google search, not a definitive literary list–but it represents what’s being talked about on the Internet. What a larger portion of the population believes define the category. (Don’t search “great nonfiction,” it’ll just depress you.)

In Is There No Gender Equity in Nonfiction, Ms. Rioux takes a look at the NBA Longlist, and suggests twelve books by women that should be on the awards radar. There’s some cute little books there, ladies: Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural Historyyou know, girlie stuff.

Read Anne Boyd Rioux’s article at The Millions.


Allison K Williams is the Social Media Editor at Brevity.



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