Happy Birthday Assay

April 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here at the Brevity blog, we like to boast that we are the single best resource for all things nonfiction, but we are boasting a lot more softly these days, sort of whispering actually, because the new website Assay — a magazine, blog, pedagogical resource, research hub — is doing such a stellar job.  Assay just completed its first year and has published an Annual Report outlining what has been accomplished and great plans for the coming year.

Hint: Blog reports from NonfictioNOW, an exploration of Best American Essays (both critical and statistical), more syllabi and topic lists for classroom use.

Someone’s breathing down our neck. And we couldn’t be happier.

Age Makes You Wiser, But Is Time Running Out? On Writing and Aging

April 23, 2015 § 28 Comments

unnamedGuest blogger Nikki Stern on the challenges of writing past mid-life, adapted from a panel discussion at the recent Out of the Binders Women Writers Conference in Los Angeles:

All my life I’ve been trying to communicate. The funny thing about wanting to say something is that no matter how articulate you become, how presumably skilled in getting across your point, you may never feel you’ve nailed it. I’d guess most writers are plagued with the impulse to make themselves understood. I know I’ve been that way since, well, forever.

I wrote my first short story when I was six. By the time I was sixteen, I decided music was the medium and wrote all sorts of original songs, including music and lyrics for school productions. After graduate school and a short stint on Capitol Hill, I was slaving away as a “singer-songwriter” before falling back into the less glamorous but more lucrative career of public relations. Along the way and relatively late in life, I got married. I was forty.

A dozen years later, my husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Impelled by the need to express my sorrow and find my healing, I wrote. The very public death of my husband along with thousands of others gave me a platform. I produced essays, editorials, speeches, delivered via major outlets. I was fifty-two.

I then wrote a book about post-9/11 contemporary culture. Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal, published in 2010. I also began publishing on a now-defunct platform called Open Salon. Two years later, another book I wrote was published about my search as a skeptic for a version of hope I could believe in. Hope in Small Doses was published when I had just turned sixty-three.

After nearly three years of practicing on short stories, some of which were published and many of which were not, I published my first novella, Don’t Move, a suspense thriller. Now I’m working on a novel.  I’m . . . well, you do the math.

Second chance vocations, avocations and passions are all the rage nowadays with organizations like ENCORES and AARP promoting opportunities. A recent New York Times article focused on people finding (and defining) success “well past the age of wunderkind.”

Silver linings.

I have yet to discover whether I have a literary career ahead of me. I’m occasionally appalled to find my chosen field so very crowded. Everyone is a writer; really, ask anyone: they will tell you they’re writing.  #amwriting is a more popular hashtag on Twitter than #amreading, which begs the question: are there any readers for all the writing being put out there?

No matter—well, most of the time, no matter. I’m human after all, still searching for a way to be heard above the din. Age has possibly made me a little less competitive, though, I never really was.

And I’m financially secure enough in my retirement that I don’t need to scramble for $50 in order to supply “content” to some website that makes no distinction between good and not so good writing.

Good writing—including my own—is paramount to me. I delight in putting words on paper but I’m a deliberate sort. Although I’ve written dozens of essays and short stories, I;m not a “high producer.” Not only that, I’m a very compact writer—I say what I have to say in a few lovingly crafted and carefully edited words.  Industry standards say 40,000 (sometimes 50,000) word count is the necessary minimum for a non-fiction book and 80,000 words for a novel. E-publishing and even improvements in printing, along with varied delivery systems allow us to blur, if not challenge those numbers.

Good, because I’m not about to spend ten years on a novel.

Age is not just a number; it’s reality. I have fewer years ahead of me left to write and possibly fewer than most of you. I fight some anxiety about having the time and the cognitive ability to send into the world a decent number of thoughtful, interesting and above all entertaining things to read. Writing helps, though; it gives me purpose and focus.

Age may make you wiser, but in my case, not less sensitive. I sense my age may make me irrelevant to the world at large, until I turn eighty-five and turn out a book and have everyone ooh and ahh and say, “Isn’t that amazing! At her age!” probably while I’m in the room and can hear them saying it.

Oh well. I need writing and I hope to discover that writing needs me.  So full speed ahead.  BTW, I’m almost cool with my impending role as elder writing statesperson, should that be an option. Almost.


Nikki Stern is the author of Hope in Small Doses, an Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal Finalist and Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal. She’s also written several short stories published at Fictionique Magazine and elsewhere and has published Don’t Move, the first in a trilogy of novellas about a retired assassin. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, Humanist Magazine, CBS Sunday Morning, Salon, and many other venues. Follow Nikki @real nikkistern or visit nikkistern.com.

Embracing the Painfully Impossible in the Human Heart

April 21, 2015 § 4 Comments

A guest post from Kelly Morse, examining the work of Claudia Rankine, one of the anchor authors for our forthcoming Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization:

When the world all around is calling for clear distinctions, loyalties to Self and hatred of others . . . . —smooth narratives—what greater threat exists than that voice which rejects such easy orthodoxies with their readily understood rhetoric and urges, instead, the most difficult readings, those that embrace the painfully impossible in the human heart?”

 – Maria Rosa Menocal, from Shards of Love: Exile and Origins of the Lyric

nbcccitizenrankineLyrical writing, like the lyre it originally accompanied, holds its heart in song and in the address of another. It is an observation shared with someone else, when the ‘I’ of the singer births a ‘you’ in the form of an audience, or a writer a reader. However, there’s a funny trick that happens with lyric: a blurring begins. The pronouns get mixed up. It occurs every time you sing your favorite song – the ‘I’ of another enters your mouth. You temporarily share someone’s else’s identity, their turn of phrase, and you want this moment, because this ‘I’ has captured something that feels true to you, even if the story being told is outside the scope of your regular life.

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and the mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.

Recently, Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was nominated for both the poetry and nonfiction categories of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. This has never happened before in the award’s forty-year history. Thought it eventually won the Poetry Award, the dual-genre nod was the only one appropriate to the hybrid nature of the collection. ‘Collection’ works doubly hard here: Rankine gathered anecdotes of racist moments people of color have experienced when they felt most safe, amassed quotes from CNN reporting on Hurricane Katrina, collected World Cup audience transcripts, curated images of art that speak to the experience of being black in America. As she explains to an interviewer:

The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.

Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ approach to short prose pieces (most log in at a page or less), to my mind inhabits the world of lyrical flash nonfiction. At the heart there is an elasticity of experience. As Marcia Aldrich writes, “The lyric essay does not narrate a story so much as express a condition – often named, sometimes called human, but still to us unknown. It reverses foreground and background, cultivating leaps and juxtaposition, tensing between the presentational and the representational.” Rankine seeks to understand, a word that in its etymology means ‘to stand between, among; to be close to’. Rankine tries to make the reader ‘understand’ her pieces by narrating micro-aggressions from the intimate, close place of ‘you’.

The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so.

With lyric, you may be suddenly seeing with multiple sets of eyes. In Rankine’s case, pronouns become a transitional space for a reader, especially if he is white; through his imagination he inhabits this racialized ‘you’, but at the same time the very foreignness of this experience serves to highlight the fact that he as a white person has never been treated this way. The blurring of ‘you’ and ‘I’ is disorienting; this painful impossibility echoes in the narrator’s refrain of What did you say?

A condensed layering of the self is what lyric flash holds in its heart. “The lyric essay doesn’t care about figuring out why papa lost the farm or why mama took to drink,” writes Sue William Silverman. “It’s more interested in replicating the feeling of that experience . . . the reader accepts the emotion of the piece itself as the essential ‘fact’.” Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ asks a reader to explore what it means to have a black body in this world. She actively destabilizes her own text, asking her reader to cross lyric’s transitional space over and over again. Rankine: “I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image.”

This trembling and doubling and wandering between what each small ‘I’ knows to be real and the possibility of what each ‘you’ suggests, this lyric nonfiction, is more important than ever. Smooth narratives are dangerous ones, if not deadly. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” How can we express our griefs, our outrages, our complicated hearts, if not by breaking silence, breaking into song? When the verdict of ‘not guilty’ was announced in the Michael Brown case, over and over I saw a line from Rankine’s book being shared on Twitter:

And where is the safest place when that place

must be someplace other than in the body?

The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.


Kelly Morse is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Quarter After Eight, Linebreak, Flyway and elsewhere. Her translations and reviews of Vietnamese poetry appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, and she recently won Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize for Translation. Kelly has had work nominated for Best of the Net, is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient.

Roxane Gay to Co-Anchor Our Race, Racism, and Racialization Special Issue

April 15, 2015 § 5 Comments

The Witty and Wise Roxane Gay

The Witty and Wise Roxane Gay

We have yet another exciting announcement about Brevity’s upcoming special issues: Roxane Gay has agreed to be the second anchor author for our Race, Racism, and Racialization Special Issue due out next March!

We are all a-twitter (and, in fact, Twittering) about this.

Gay, whose Bad Feminist has taken the world by storm and who we think is one of the most important public intellectuals of our time, writes insightfully about both key social issues and pop culture, often at the same time. Her unique mix of whimsy and wisdom has won her a unique place in the writing world—both as an author and as a public figure—and we are excited to be bringing a new work by her to our readers (again).

Gay will join Claudia Rankine, our other anchor author for the issue, and guest editor Ira Sukrungruang in Brevity’s exploration of lived experiences of race and racism. We believe that creative nonfiction, at its best, offers an opportunity for readers to expand their understanding of the world by seeing it through another person’s eyes. Gay’s writing—which is both intimate and universal—does this in ways that take our breath away. We are thrilled to have her joining this effort.

Our upcoming Gender issue, by the way, will be anchored by authors Kate Bornstein and Jennifer Finney Boylan.

And these issues are the reason behind our ongoing Kickstarter campaign.  We want to pay the authors well, advertise the issues well, and keep growing so we can bring more quality nonfiction to our loyal readers. Please help, even a little bit.  We are hoping to hit our enhanced goal before the Kickstarter ends on April 22nd!

Gender Issue Deadline Extended

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

two specA deadline only days after AWP? What were we thinking?

So we are keeping submissions open for our special gender issue until April 30th.

Here’s the link to submit: http://brevitymag.com/submissions/

And we are still in need of KICKSTARTER DONATIONS to push us over the top for the special issue focusing on Experiences of Gender and featuring new work by Kate Bornstein, the original gender outlaw. Ms. Bornstein’s books include Gender OutlawMy (New) Gender Workbook, and Queer and Present Danger, as well as work from Jennifer Finney Boylan.


A Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization guest-edited by Ira Sukrungruang and featuring new work by Claudia Rankine. Rankine (as if you didn’t know) is the author of five collections of poetry, including most recently Citizen: An American Lyric, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry

Filling Blank Pages

April 14, 2015 § 26 Comments


Kate Parrish

A guest post from Kate Parrish:

Sometimes (every week) I sit down to write and I stare at the blank page and wonder in terror how the words in my head that I haven’t thought of yet will make it onto the page. Where will they come from? What will they look like? But most importantly, will they appear at all? And at some point each week, without fail, there comes a moment when I think, Nope, I don’t have it in me this week. I have nothing to say about anything. I should just quit and eat some snacks instead. 

But also each week, without fail, I think, Oh, stop being so dramatic and just write something. I’ll give you a snack if you just finish something. And never one to turn down food, I return to the blank page one more time.

The words appear; they always do. They aren’t always the words I like, the words I expect, or the words I want, but something always shows up to fill the blank page. Sentences and paragraphs I never knew existed find a home outside my head on the page.

What I’ve learned, too, in writing each week is that I’m a terrible judge of my own work. Many times the articles I love, the ones that get me super fired up when I’m writing them might get little or no response, and the ones where I feel like maybe I said too much or didn’t say enough or didn’t even make sense will really resonate with people. But I forget all this when I sit down to face the blank page each week. I forget that I don’t really know what is or isn’t going to connect with people, that where I am in my life might align perfectly with some and not at all with others, and that no matter what, it really is all okay. What I have to remember though is that I’ll never find out what works and what doesn’t, who connects and who doesn’t, what helps me and what helps others if I write nothing at all.

You don’t have to be a writer to know the ache of a “blank page.” Everyone has their own blank page, the thing they’re terrified won’t get filled. It’s the parent unsure of how he’ll entertain his kids all day, until lunch even (but he does); it’s the unemployed person who can’t submit one more resume (but she does); or it’s the runner who can’t see the mile marker around the bend (until he does). We don’t know what we’re made of, who we’ll connect with, or what we’ll achieve until we show up.

Embrace the blank page. Roll around in it. Fill up the lines and margins with effort; with trial and error; with excitement and joy some days and fear and disgust the next. Just don’t leave it blank. Be glad for blank pages. They mean there is still more good work to be done.

Kate Parrish is an MFA candidate at The University of the South located in Sewanee, Tenn. When she’s not in school, Kate lives in Nashville, where she writes a weekly blog, Aiming for Okay at www.aimingforokay.com.



So You Didn’t Get to Go to AWP

April 13, 2015 § 12 Comments

Picture of Bookfair

It’ll be just like this.

Another year of AWP has drawn to a close, and countless editors, writers and journal staffers are heading back to their home institutions with swag bags, connections and newly autographed books.

Not everyone got to go to AWP, and I just want to say that’s OK. We’re all in this together. In case, like me, you were at home watching the literary world scroll by on social media, here’s what you can do to recreate the AWP experience:

First, stock up on wine. You’re going to need a lot of it. Start with half a plastic cup of unfortunately-sharp white as you pull from your shelves every literary journal, small-press book, and poetry collection you own. Arrange the books on your dining or coffee table in a pleasing display. Rearrange three times. Settle on the original arrangement–it should be about the work.

Find the last tote-bag you got for free from a conference, signing, event or those Girl Scouts at the Super Walmart when you bought six boxes of Thin Mints. Fill the bag with two hotel soaps, a crunchy granola bar if you prefer chewy (or vice versa), five pens bearing the names of businesses you can’t remember patronizing, and some sticky notes. Carry it everywhere.

Switch to half a plastic cup of weirdly-tangy red wine. Even though you know you’re going to get a headache, it’s so much easier to mingle when you’ve got something in your hands.

Print out the first fifty pages of your newest manuscript, just in case. Put it in your tote bag. Each time a page gets crinkled or dog-eared, drink.

Using Google Images, download photos of Junot Diaz, Dinty W. Moore, Sue William Silverman, Karen Russell, Stu Dybek, Roxane Gay, Alicia Ostriker, Dani Shapiro, Arthur Sze, and anyone you can find from The Rumpus. Now, add in photos of similar-looking people that Google Images suggests. Create a slideshow with all of the photos and set the time to 1 second per photo. As the pictures flash, guess who each person is. Each time you get one right, choose a book from your pleasing display and put it in your tote bag. Each time you get one wrong, drink.

Scroll through Twitter on your phone. Favorite the tweets and follow anyone using the #AWP or #AWP15 hashtag. Retweet anything that makes you smile wryly.

Browse the books in your pleasing display and ask yourself of each one: Do I know this author personally? If so, why did they only sign their name and not something that says how great I am and how much they can’t wait to be beside me on the bestseller list? Each time your heart is stabbed with bitterness, drink.

Retreat to the safety of your sofa and watch CNN for 20 minutes. Then head for your kitchen. Turn the lights down low. Put on some music as loud as you can stand it. Go to that YouTube video of the coffee shop sounds and put that on, too, turned all the way up. Pour yourself a full glass of wine you actually like and call a writer you met anywhere last year, on speakerphone. Drink every time one of you says, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” At the end of the conversation, look through your display for any journals in which that writer’s work appears and add them to your tote bag.

Flee to the bathroom (leave the music on). Lock yourself in and look through the books in your tote bag. Find a poem so powerful all you can do is lean your forehead against the coolness of the wall and wish you had written it, even though you have never even contemplated making a poem in Sapphics.

Leave the bathroom and go to the nearest Starbucks in a taxi. Have whatever you normally order, but a size larger and with an extra shot. Go to Brevity’s list of craft essays and read six of them. Every time you find the word “ruminate,” drink. Scan the coffee shop. Does anyone look like any of the pictures of authors you downloaded? If they do, see if you can work up an excuse to talk to them without looking like a doofus. If they refuse to start a conversation, slink away, then drink. If they chat enthusiastically but are not in fact who you thought they were, drink. If you can’t figure out how to end the conversation gracefully, drink. Eventually you can excuse yourself to pee.

Go back home on foot. It will be farther than you remembered. Turn off all sounds in your home and enjoy the blissful silence and partial sobriety. Leaf through the last few books in your display and just take anything you want. Then sit down and look through everything in your tote bag, being honest with yourself about what you should keep. When you’ve decided “All of it,” start looking at the names of publishers, and writing down agents who are thanked in the Acknowledgements. One of them’s gotta be right for you, and Tuesday morning, you are totally gonna be on it.

Imagine a kind-eyed flight attendant with a cart of assorted complimentary drinks. Have a ginger ale and feel virtuous. Find the poem you loved in the bathroom and read it again. Imagine the writer you love most in the world feeling that way about your work. Pass out from exhaustion. In two hours, wake up and write something right away, before you lose the magic.


Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. In the past ten days she edited two books, directed a show with 86 children in it, and moved to a new house. It was almost as action-packed as AWP.


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