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.


Please Don’t Bother to Like Me

October 13, 2014 § 21 Comments

letter_writi_24714_lgBack in June, I landed an agent. She sent me a questionnaire. How many Twitter followers do you have? How many Facebook friends?

The first answer was ‘zero.’ I’d never really understood Twitter. And Facebook–well, I’d like to keep saying whatever I want, so I figured it was time to make an author page. And set up a Tumblr. An Instagram. That new Ello thing. Klout. Hootsuite to organize it all. Started writing here at the Brevity blog.

Four months later, I’m at 1000 Twitter followers. I wake up every morning and squint into my phone, four inches from my un-contact-lensed-eye, send out some retweets, check in with Facebook, browse through Instagram. Sundays I set up social media for the whole week, lay down a base of 3-5 tweets a day of things I think my connections would like to know. When I’m waiting in a line (or hey, I’ll admit it, on the toilet) I send some tweets, upload a #picoftheday, like a few statuses, save up links for next week.

It’s not working.

That is, in the sense of

Plan A: Become Media Darling,

Plan B: Go Viral,

Plan C: Sell Books.

I’m pretty much an abject failure. I’m toting up a few retweets at a time, gaining followers, discovering that a Facebook Page (as opposed to profile) is basically unseen unless one pays to advertise, I don’t get Pinterest and I’m too old for Tumblr until I start writing YA.

Over at Creative Nonfiction, Stephanie Bane writes:

The reality is that successful online marketing, just like successful offline marketing, is driven by money. A social media presence with no cash behind it doesn’t do much for the average author when it comes to selling books, and squandering precious hours on building a platform that few people will ever see—hours that could otherwise be spent writing—is a mistake that can hurt your productivity and, therefore, your career.

Ms. Bane’s experience as a digital marketing specialist has taught her that the rate is about the same as any other form of direct marketing. One percent. Got a thousand followers? Ten will buy your book–if you’re doing well.

But I dig that morning Instagram time. What’s new in #travel? There’s my friend’s baby rabbits, a new way to wear a hijab, I’ll upload a picture with a recipe as a postcard to my mom. I’ve connected on Twitter with people I never thought I’d be able to talk to (Hi Emily Gould!). I finally decided my personal Facebook was public, and I don’t post anything I don’t want the world to see (my privacy bar is admittedly low).

I’ve decided to stop caring about platform. To, as Ms. Bane says, “monitor and participate in the intellectual life of the publishing community.” To affiliate myself with issues, topics and ideas that I want to write about, so that I’ll know what people care about and what’s already been said. To write blogs that encourage fellow writers. To stay connected with people whom I will one day ask, “Can you please ask three friends to come with you to my reading? Not with a retweet, but pick up the phone?”

There’s more great information on if and why to blog, tweet, and otherwise frolic through the social media playground in “Platforms” Are Overrated at Creative Nonfiction. Check it out–for anyone struggling with “platform,” it’s a relief.


Ironically, Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Don’t bother to like her FB author page, but she’s happy to meet you on Twitter.

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.


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.


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