Can Young People Write Memoir?

May 20, 2015 § 9 Comments

Leslie Jamison offers up her usual incisive brilliance in a NY Times book review discussion titled “Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir?” Here’s a bit, followed by the link:

I probably shouldn’t venture any further into my defense of young memoir before acknowledging that I’m a young writer who has written about my life. I’ve got skin in the game. And my skin flinches, in particular, at the second part of Yardley’s argument: the notion that even those who have had experiences worth narrating will be “too young to know what to make of them,” which feels like a willfully reductive evasion of a more complicated truth.

I do see where the critique comes from. In its sophisticated form, it’s a call for drafting and revision, for the ways we can productively re-examine our own stories and dig underneath our familiar narratives of self to find the more surprising layers beneath. The work of this excavation can often happen more easily with distance. But it seems futile to project categorical algorithms onto when this excavation can happen — how long it will take, how many birthdays it requires.

Of course someone will look back at his first broken heart with a different perspective at the age of 40, or 60, or 80. But that doesn’t mean that these perspectives are better, or that our self-­understanding travels toward some telos of perfect consummation with every passing year…

Benjamin Moser’s take, following Jamison’s, is well worth reading too:

In a World…

May 18, 2015 § 22 Comments

Movie-Trailer-posterWhile editing another author’s work this morning, I found myself wrestling with how to say, “You have 170,000 words, but you don’t have a story.” They are well-written words, they are good words, they are interesting words…but as Gertrude Stein wrote about Oakland, California, “there’s no there there.” Nothing is at stake. No-one is risking their health or happiness in service of a greater goal.

As writers, we’re often told “raise the stakes.” How can we tell if the stakes are high enough in our own work, even before asking for the opinions of our fellow authors or our teachers?

The “In a World” test.

Think about the cheesy movie-trailer cliché. There’s a shot of alien-created devastation. Or a sunrise over a battlefield. Or a sunrise over a castle. A deep voice intones, “In a world…”

That’s the stasis, the situation as it is now, the situation that cannot be sustained. Overturning this situation is a high-risk, high-stakes problem.

“One man must…”

That’s the protagonist’s quest/goal/objective. What they want. The rest of the movie will be about the protagonist overturning the unacceptable “world” and trying to get what they “must” have.

In fiction, the “in a world” moment is almost always in the first chapter, often in the first paragraph. The moment is usually pretty easy to figure out:

In a world…where a kid is alone and on the run…One kid must locate a priceless painting before he and his friend are killed by gangsters. (The Goldfinch)

In a world…where Kathy has no choice but to care for the dying…One girl must find out if she has free will. (Never Let Me Go)

In a world…where poverty can kill you and a girl is a washed-up old maid at twenty…One girl must marry a rich husband without violating her own scruples. (Pride and Prejudice)

I’d argue that it should be there at the beginning in nonfiction, too. At the very least the premise should be clear within the first chapter. What’s the untenable existing situation? What’s at stake for the protagonist? What’s the positive effect on their health and happiness if they overturn the situation, and how will they be harmed if they don’t?

In a world…where I’ve screwed up my relationships, taken too many drugs, and slept with too many people…I must walk 2600 miles to find myself. (Wild)

In a world…where my mom is rooting through a dumpster…I must become at peace with the rotten past that made me who I am. (The Glass Castle)

Chances are, if it’s hard to find your “In a world…one person must…” moment, your stakes aren’t high enough. The starting place isn’t untenable enough. Your narrator (possibly you) doesn’t have enough at stake to make the story compelling.

So try it. Stand up, deepen your voice, and state the premise of your memoir. Does it sound cheesy and overdramatic when you say it like that? If it does, you’re probably starting from the right place.


Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She also freelances as The Unkind Editor.

Just Keep Knocking

May 14, 2015 § 16 Comments

Just keep going, buddy.

Just keep going, buddy.

Once or twice a year, I take a month and send out a submission to a journal, literary website, or a radio show every day. Thirty or thirty-one submissions (choosing February seems like cheating), formatted and cover-lettered and sent, click, click, click. I’m all about the scattershot approach — rejections drift in slowly over the next six months or so, and by the time my next submission blitz rolls around, I don’t even remember what got turned down where (God bless spreadsheets!).

But what about the persistent, single-minded submission process? At The Missouri Review, Michael Nye writes about seeing stories come in from the same authors, over and over, and hearing an intern ask,

How does someone keep sending work to a magazine that keeps rejecting the work?

Assistant editor Evelyn Somers spoke up at this point, explaining that getting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never hear get the chance to read the writer’s work again. To emphasis this point, she noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.

It’s a fascinating article, with some great behind-the-scenes information about the submissions process. But it doesn’t end with, “And this is the time we finally published them!”

Which makes me think, it takes more than ordinary persistence to keep sending out work in the face of form rejections and silence. It’s hard for a writer to know if they’re just missing the mark, or not playing in the same league.

How can you tell? How do you figure out where to submit your work more than once?

Check out Michael Nye’s article at The Missouri Review.


Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Issue 49: The Experience of Gender

May 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

Sarah Einstein and Silas Hansen

Sarah Einstein and Silas Hansen

Brevity’s 49th issue, our themed issue on the Experience of Gender, has just launched.  This issue features work from Kate Bornstein, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Ira Sukrungruang, Brian Doyle, Eunice Tiptree, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Sandra Gail Lambert, Cade Leebron, Deesha Philyaw, Jessica Hindman, Jody Keisner, Madison Hoffman, Mark Stricker, Samuel Autman, and Torrey Peters.

These brief essays shine a light on the intersections of gender and race, sexuality, disability, faith, and social class, interrogate our strongly-held beliefs about what gender is and what it means, and show us how to embrace and celebrate gender fluidity.

In addition, our craft section includes work on writing transgender characters in fiction and writing memoir about a transgendered daughter by Pamela Alex DiFrancesco and Judy Hall.

The thing we love most about essays is that they are perfectly suited for exploration and conversation—for discovery. The end point of an essay isn’t an answer; it’s a better, more nuanced, more informed question than the one that brought the writer to the page. That’s the goal of this issue: to bring you a selection of essays that will serve as a starting point, a road map, for our ever-evolving conversations about gender identity, gender expression, and gendered experience.

Thanks for reading,

Sarah Einstein and Silas Hansen

Guest Editors

The Soul of Twit: The Book Has Cometh, Finally

May 12, 2015 § 3 Comments

downloadA guest post from Harrison Scott Key, followed by a link to this essay in tweets:

So, my book came out today, which is great. I started writing it about a million years ago, and about 500,000 years ago I made the mistake of telling people I was writing it, which means for about the past 250,000 years I have been answering this question:

“So, when’s your book coming out?”

This is a very disappointing question to answer almost every day it is asked.

“Oh, that’s a long time from now,” I’d say, when people first started asking. I almost scoffed, not at them, but at the ridiculousness of the question and the improbabilities it brought to the fore of my hurting brain. The distance between the terrible thing that happens at the writing desk and the thing that happens when you are reading a book in a bathtub is immense and can generally only be traversed by gods and angels and the persistent few who’ve wrestled blessings from them. So I just laughed when they asked, which they considered rude, to which I didn’t disagree.

“So, when’s that book coming out?”

When I finally got an agent, about 100,000 years ago, it seemed like less a ridiculous question and more like impatience.

“Eventually,” I said, not wanting to explain the process of proposals and sample chapters and the cryptic, fleshy methods of good literary agents, which mine was, I believed, because these people, most of them, didn’t care. And why should they? But the word eventually felt hopeful. With an agent, the vastness between writing (in between thoughts of suicide and elation) and being read (in between two covers) collapsed into a seeable distance, as though God had granted me eyes that could see past the 14-mile horizon and around the curvature of the earth.

keyman“So, when’s this book coming out?” friends would ask, about 50,000 years ago, after news of my book deal spread through social media channels populated by my people.

“A year? Two years? Fifty thousand?” I said, sheepishly admitting my ignorance of what happens next in the process of going to auction and signing a deal and agreeing to manuscript delivery dates, which seemed to confuse the askers of this question. How could I not know these things? Hadn’t I been writing it for nearly a million years? What was taking so long? Wasn’t I almost a billion years old?

“Leave me alone,” is what I wanted to say, but why be cruel to the few people who were kind enough to remember that I was a writer?

“So, when’s the book coming out?”

“As soon as I write it.”

This was about 25,000 years ago.

“Oh, it’s not finished?”


“Then how’d you sell it?”

“I have no idea.”

“That must be a lot of pressure.”


I delivered the manuscript about 10,000 years ago.

“Now what happens?” they asked.




“It’s not edited?”

“Not by an editor.”






About 5,000 years ago, when photographs of advance review copies started appearing on the internet, posted by funny editors and book reviewers and marketing interns who wanted to show people what early copies looked like, that’s when everybody really started asking.

“Is your book out yet?”


“When does it come out?”

“May 12.”

“That’s like a thousand years away.”


“I’ll wait.”

They seemed angry at me for making them wait, and I didn’t blame them.

Now, a million years later, it’s May 12, 2015, and my first book is out, and now I don’t have to explain why it’s not, which makes this a day for celebration.

And now, if you would like to know a little bit more about how I actually wrote the book that is now out and available for sale—that is, if you care, and many of you don’t, and I get that, and I feel you, I do—but if you want to a little vantage into how one little social media platform actually not only allowed people to learn about my book, which was great, except for all the asking, but also how this platform actually aided in the writing of the book that I was being asked about, then you should read this thing I wrote for Brevity and published on Storify, called “The Soul of Twit.”

It’s about how I wrote the book, sort of.

And then you should consider buying the book. It’s called The World’s Largest Man.

I look forward to your questions about it.

Really, I do.


Find out more about Harrison Scott Key at and on Twitter (@HarrisonKey).

Petite and Potent: Sonora Review’s flash nonfiction contest

May 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Sonora Review is seeking submissions for its Miniature Nonfiction Contest through May 15th (and they allow 50 more words than those stingy editors at Brevity).

If we can agree that the truth cannot be told head on, how then will you evoke the truth in less than 800 words? How much history can you squeeze into one seemingly small scene? How far can you send a simple exchange rippling? Petite and potent. That’s what Sonora Review’s flash nonfiction contest is all about.

$1000 and publication in Issue 68 of Sonora Review will be awarded for our annual essay contest judged by Amy Leach, author of the essay collection Things that Are.

Hybrid work is welcome, but each entry must be a complete story/essay unto itself. All finalists will also be considered for publication in Issue 68. Entry fee is $15. Include a cover letter with full name, title of work, mailing and email address, and phone number. The author’s name should not appear anywhere on the manuscript. Submissions must be previously unpublished.

An Open Letter to Anyone Who Will Listen (#SAVECITYUMFA)

May 6, 2015 § 5 Comments

Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang writes today on his reactions to the #savecityumfa campaign and the dwindling support for arts and humanities on many fronts:

I was taught to always keep my emotions in check, to not speak out, to watch but not act. I was taught to blend. This, my Thai mother said, would keep me safe. This, she said, would help me go far in the world. Keep quiet. Keep level-headed.

But the last few weeks have made it hard for me to heed my mother’s advice. Hard to stand and watch and not say anything. I find myself with an urge to scream at this world that has let me and my friends down. This world that has broken its promises. This world with its racial injustices and its devaluation of the arts.

To this I say: What the fuck?

It’s all I can say.

I am robbed of any ounce of intelligence. Any ounce of patience. I have found myself out of rationality. I am tired—I’m sorry, Mother—of watching.

Because I love this world. Because I breathe this air. Because the hurt of many is my hurt. I absorb it like a sponge. I carry it in this fleshy body. This body that feels every punch, every rock, every fire, every charged word of hate, every pronouncement that what I do, what I care about has no value in this new world we live in, this new world that cares more for numbers and commerce, forsaking the very thing that makes us feel.

Art. Voice. Expression.

We have become an unfeeling culture. We have become a finger-pointing culture. We have become a culture of moral judgement, as if there is one and only one way to be in this world. There is not. There are so many wonderful ways of being. It is what makes this world beautiful. A man marries a man. A woman, a woman. A single parent raises a child. A man becomes a woman. A woman, a man. A boy chooses to be a writer, a painter, a singer, instead of a scientist, a doctor, a CEO. When my mother first came to America, she remarked on the open spaces everywhere in this country. “America is so big,” she said. “There is room for the world here.” There is. There should be.

And yet, I find myself always defending my place in this world. I see colleges close doors to the arts. I see severe cuts in the humanities. I see English Department budgets shrink. I see businessmen decide what is right for education. A colleague at the English Department I work at in Florida said the other day, “This won’t change. They don’t care about us.” And then it happened. The feeling I got when I was a child, when I was being bullied for being Thai and fat, the feeling of helplessness that numbs the entirety of me. The feeling of picking at a scab until it bleeds. That same feeling is happening now. This feeling of being undervalued and unnecessary and unwanted. Bullied.

When I voice my concerns, I am placated. I am given a generous nod. An of course, of course. A sentence in the passive voice that claims no ownership. Your concerns are being looked at. A thank you for bringing this issue to light. And then nothing. And then I feel, as soon as the door is closed, that they are saying, Here is another minority bemoaning fairness. Here he is playing the race card. Here is another writer fighting for uselessness. Here he goes again with art matters.

This is what the powerless feel. Placated. When the courts rule unjustly. When university humanities programs get cut.

So we rage. So we fight.

So we say, Don’t placate me. Don’t placate us.

savecityumfaThis last week, among all the other going-ons in the world, among riots and earthquakes, a small international low-residency MFA program in Hong Kong got axed for incomprehensible reasons–City University HK MFA. This was a program like no other, producing writing like no other. It was not only shaping literature in Asia but also adding diversity to the western cannon. The faculty, which I’m lucky to be part of, are truly stellar writers and teachers. They care. They believe the willed word can fill the fractures of the earth. They believe wholeheartedly that the writer matters still in this world, that her voice can affect change. Story. Poem. Essay. It’s what we teach. It’s what we do. These students, these writers, are vital to the life of global literature. This program bridges the East and West. These students are impassioned. They want. The program’s closure is reprehensible. Short-sighted. Unwarranted. Just plain stupid.

But here is the thing: Has it stopped the students from writing? Has it stopped the students from raising their voices? Has the administration stifled these young and loud cries?

Look at the uprising. Look at the Facebook page. Look at all the letters. Look at the website and pictures. Look at the wave of protest on social media. Look.

They sing loud.

They write louder.

We are writers! they say

We matter! they say.

Give us back our program! they say.


I admire them. Applaud them. Love them. It’s one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a teacher. It’s not about publication. Not about accolades. It’s about being heard. Damn it, it’s beautiful.

Their heart is my heart. Their voice is my voice. I raise it with them. I stand with them, though I am 8000 miles away. I’m here. In every respect.

I we—don’t ask for much. We ask to be listened to. We ask to be included in the conversation. We ask that you care for what we do and what we’ve added to the community. We ask that you do not placate us.

Most of all, we ask for fairness.

We ask for fairness here, too. In America. In Ferguson. In Baltimore. In the places and communities many have forgotten. We ask for justice. It seems obvious, a no-brainer. We ask you to listen.

Please listen.

I’m tired of stifling my voice. I’m tired of remaining quiet when everything I love is evaporating. A program. A country. People. Art.

I owe my life to this country. This country gave my immigrant parents jobs. This country provided a suburban home in the Southside of Chicago. This country offered me an exemplary education. For this I am indebted. It’s hard not to echo the sentiments of James Baldwin in moments like this. “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

I was born on June 23, a couple of weeks before America’s bicentennial, when the country celebrated its break from a ruthless and unjust monarchy. When the citizens of this country sought to be heard. When a document read: We the people We. We. We. We must become the we again because we live in a world of separation, where power is decided by color and wealth and greed. My criticism is not aimed at America. It’s aimed at humanity. Because we are part of it. I am part of it. I can’t go on without voice.

So hear me.  So hear all of us. Our voices—interlaced, interwoven—are powerful.

With so much love,

Ira Sukrungruang


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