On Writing Outside of Academia

September 30, 2016 § 6 Comments


Natalie Schneider Brooks

By Natalie Schneider Brooks

All my writing has taken place within a bubble. It is either trapped in the hard drive of my computer or resides in the piles of essays I have submitted for classes. Apart from a brief foray into the blogosphere during my last two years of high school and part of my freshmen year of college, none of my writing has left the brick walls of my academic institution.

There is something safe about writing for academia. In this protected environment it is like jumping off a cliff with a bungee cord; it may be terrifying but there is always something there to safely pull me back.  At times it feels like writing without consequences. Sure my writing impacts my grade and potentially my future, but I only have to worry about one audience: the instructor. Usually I can gauge what that audience is looking for after a couple of small assignments and predict what I need to include in my work. Combine that with the drafting process and a healthy dose of pestering during office hours and you’re pretty set when it comes to the results of the final project.

In college there is no rejection. Your writing is going to get accepted and read no matter what and as long as you are reasonably competent and put the work in, you can get the results you desire. This is the environment where I first discovered I could write. A freshmen composition class gave me the tools I needed and my first British literature class introduced me to the joys of literary analysis. This summer I was exposed to the world of creative nonfiction for the first time and I rediscovered my childhood love for creating stories. In the classroom, I still have control over my words and I don’t have to worry about setting them loose in the world to fend for themselves.

However, all of that is changing.  I have spent the last five years writing within the walled garden of academia, protected by rubrics and guidelines, inspired by prompts and assignments with a friendly face to guide me through every step of the process. But soon, I will graduate with my masters, step out into the real world, and confront the reality of whether or not I can write outside of classroom.

I sort of tried once. I took an undergraduate class about freelance writing. It was all online and I was expecting the same protected space as my past classes, with no external impacts. This was not the case. Part of our assignment was to write real articles that were going to real publishers. It was one of the most anxiety inducing classes I have taken. In the end, I got a good grade in the class and nothing I submitted got accepted for publication. I could remain safe in my isolated college space and ignore the risks of writing for an expanded audience.

It is ironic that I am so anxious about my own writing since I teach English composition as part of my graduate teaching assistantship. In class, we spend a lot of time focusing on audience and I regularly have to remind my students to keep in mind the hypothetical audience for their papers, attempting to manufacture an artificial representation of the real world they will enter after leaving my class. Many of the students I teach come to college hating writing. They feel bad about their ability and they don’t want to reveal their voices to the outside world for fear of rejections and ridicule. Even though several years and a diploma separate us, I see these same fears echoed in my own thoughts.

As a composition instructor, it is my job to coax students along, helping to grow their writing skills without silencing their individual voice. It is a beautiful sight to see them develop their skills over the course of the semester and some of them truly cultivate a beautiful voice as they write. However, to do that, they have to take that first step. They have to commit themselves to the page and open their identity up to be examined and critiqued. My Master’s program has forced me to do this more than my undergraduate classes did. I have had to challenge myself to do more than just write for the grade; coasting is no longer an option. But after the classes are finished and I walk across the stage at graduation once again, will I be able to push myself on my own? Or will I remain trapped, leaving my love of writing locked behind me once again? At this point I don’t know, but I hope that doesn’t happen. I want to continue along this path as a writer. Maybe simply committing these words to the page is the first step.


Natalie Schneider Brooks is a Master’s Student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha studying Rhetoric and Composition. She works as a Teaching Assistant and in her free time coaches for the MavForensics competitive speech team. She also writes fairly regularly on her personal blog Homeschool Alien.

It’s My Story (And I’ll Tell If I Want To)

September 29, 2016 § 24 Comments

lesley_gore_-_its_my_partyRoz Warren writes revealing personal essays for a living. When she found out her partner had been cheating on her, intensely, intimately, for ten years, she wrote about it. Of course. At Broad Street Review, she addresses the obvious question:

Why? I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I write about everything that happens to me. It’s how I cope and how I understand my life. For years, I’ve been writing about how wonderful Mike is. He’s turned up over and over again in my essays. I told the world how funny and clever and loving he was. How I loved him. How much fun the two of us had together. I’ve even appeared on the Today show, where Savannah Guthrie interviewed me about an essay I’d written for the New York Times in which Mike was featured, being fabulous, loving, and supportive. When Mr. Wonderful turned out to have been Mr. Infidelity all along, why wouldn’t I write about that too?

Roz talks about the tiny voice she heard–a voice I’ve heard, too–when her partner admitted the affair.

“This is awful. This is devastating. And unbelievable. And hateful. And…this is amazing material.”

At moments of horrifying emotional trauma, part of my brain steps back and starts noting down metaphors. No, I’ll tell it like this–hey, remember that detail, the song you’ll always think of as the soundtrack to this moment…

Roz Warren’s partner was, not unnaturally, unhappy about her new topic. Furious, in fact. But one of her friends quoted Anne Lamott–“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people want you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

That’s how I feel, too. I also write personal essays. I also talk frankly about bad behavior. And I believe that not only is it possible to do so ethically and kindly–for a given value of “kind”–but that writing ethically makes better work. Recently, a friend who’d experienced a public, traumatic, but unintentional insult asked me, “What are your thoughts on writing something that might be unflattering to someone who will also likely read it (I’d keep them anonymous as much as possible)?”

I told her I was all for it. That I’d kept an anonymous sex blog for two years and at least three of the people I was having sex with, and with whom I shared my work, read some very unflattering things about themselves. My now-husband is the only person in my life whose privacy is more valuable to me than a story, and I still wrote a piece that included a line about our mutual pornography habits.

To my friend, I suggested some guidelines to remain ethical and kind while telling one’s own truth:

  • First write it. Always write before any negotiation with yourself or anyone else. Don’t sabotage your first draft. First drafts are private.
  • In a subsequent draft, make sure you are at least as harsh with yourself as you are with everyone else. How do you reconcile your own behavior with the situation or the end result? Is there anyone who deserves the benefit of the doubt? Self-hagiography is boring. Nobody wants to be told you’re the hero of your own story, and very few situations truly involve a wronged innocent.
  • Make sure you’re showing instead of telling–Is the person’s behavior clear through visible action, rather from your feelings about their character?
  • Figure out where you’re going to publish. If you want to maintain a good relationship, think about how much publicity may happen, and plan ahead. For example, I had limited consent to tell a story about a friend in a venue outside the friend’s orbit. The story was republished by another outlet (beyond my control) with a bigger audience. Even though it was one of my bucket-list venues, I didn’t promote it, because doing so would have brought it into my friend’s line of sight and been hurtful. Try not to publish the essay about your horrible mother in the magazine all her friends read. Shaming is for editorials.
  • Remember that sharing information is not asking for permission. If you choose to tell the person you’ve written about before publication, try, “I had some complicated feelings about X and I’ve written about them. Would you like to know anything about the content before I publish it, so that you’re aware of what’s out there?” You may or may not wish to add, “I value our friendship, and I’m not mad at anyone, but I needed to process how I felt in the moment, and this is a snapshot of a particular time and place.” Then, based on what they say and who it is, you can allow them to read the actual piece, summarize the content, or summarize just the part they’re in. Think of yourself at this stage not as the writer, but as the fact-checker. It’s hard and uncomfortable to share work that’s already close to our hurt feelings with the person who hurt us, but it can deepen the piece to ask the person, “why did you do that?” and see if their stated motivation belongs in there, too. If you are already estranged, you don’t have to seek them out. You’re writing about your world, not theirs.
  • Remember that not everyone wants to know. My husband has said, “there are a lot of books in the world, and that’s one I won’t be reading,” about my memoir. I’m OK with that. Respect boundaries.

A writer’s obligation is to the truth as they experience it. We should be fair, but we don’t have to stay quiet for fear of hurting feelings. As Roz Warren puts it: “I wish with all my heart that Mike had been the loving, trustworthy man I thought he was, and that I didn’t have this terrible betrayal to write about. But I do. So I am.”

Read her whole essay at Broad Street Review.


Allison K Williams is the Social Media Editor for Brevity and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.

You Put Together a Book: How Does That Make You Feel? An Interview with the Anthology’s Editor, Sherry Amatenstein

September 28, 2016 § 2 Comments

By Estelle Erasmus
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I have a history with Sherry Amatenstein, the editor of How Does That Make You Feel? Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch, and a therapist herselfWe were both magazine editor-in-chiefs at concurrent times in the mid to late 1990s with competitive publications. In the midst of this cut-throat competition, we founded a friendship, confounding our publishers.

After I dropped out of the publishing scene to get married and have my daughter in midlife, after a long struggle with infertility, Sherry and I reconnected. That’s when I learned that she was putting together an anthology with the unique viewpoint of therapy from both sides of the couch (therapists and patients). Anthologies are tricky. I have known people who have gotten involved in less than stellar publications, with less than adept editing and curating. I knew for sure that with Sherry at the helm I wouldn’t be.

I had a long buried secret in my past, that I’d told to a handful of people (including my own therapist of many years), but I knew that in Sherry’s capable hands, the story would not be made into click bait.

Thus, along with 33 other widely published writers, such as Patti Davis, Anna March, Susan Shapiro, Janice Eidus, Pamela Rafalow Grossman, Amy Klein, and therapists/writers like Juli Fragra, Jean Kim, and Jessica Zucker, I entrusted my story to Sherry.

I wrote about the sex-talking therapist I had sessions with as a teen in an essay I titled, “Therapy Undercover: Satin Shirts and Sex Talk.” There was a great early review of Sherry’s book in the Washington Post the other day and in Tablet.

I spoke with Sherry to dish the therapy dirt.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

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Sherry Amatanstein

A: An early ambition of mine was to be a therapist. As a child of Holocaust survivors I was immersed in pain. I thought of becoming a therapist, but winded up going into publishing instead.  Then I volunteered at a suicide hotline, and at Ground Zero Food Service after 9/11. When I became a therapist in midlife, it was the culmination of a dream, because I had wanted to do it for so long. Frankly, becoming a therapist has been very hard work, but it has helped me to accept myself more. We are all crazy and neurotic. Being a writer and being a therapist are very similar. It involves being curious about other people, listening and writing.

I felt that the therapist is this blank screen, and then your patient projects on to you what they want to project. There is this profound exchange in the room, a compelling connection, but when you leave after 50 minutes, it’s over.

I put together the book, because in the age of the Internet, a therapist can’t be just that blank screen any more. I decided I wanted to demystify the process and obliterate the boundaries for people who are in therapy as well as therapists.

People idolize therapists and treat them in ways that are not good for them. I wanted to illuminate the relationships from both sides. I also did the book to preserve therapist’s sanity. We have to take care of ourselves. It’s like you are never off duty. I mean, I sometimes get calls from patients who are suicidal.  You need to set boundaries, and be there for patients as well.

Q: What did you look for in contributors?

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Estelle Erasmus

A: Everyone had to be a professional writer. For a lot of people it was like a therapy session writing these pieces, because some of them had difficulty going to such a deep, dark place. Your piece was really good right off the get go. I have to say I was like a shark. Whenever I saw anyone had any therapy related stories, I pounced.  I also met writers I loved at events and invited them to submit. Once I had the deal with Seal Press, it became even easier to get people to contribute.

Q: How did you approach the essays from the therapists?

A: It was harder to get therapists who were good writers. Some very well known therapists dropped out of the book at the eleventh hour, because they were worried about exposing themselves. I was looking for a wide range of voices and for them to reveal the truth about their doubts, fears and processes.  Jean Kim, talked about her own therapy, Jenine Holmes wrote about how black people don’t go to therapy, Megan Devine wrote about feeling “imposter syndrome” as a therapist,  Nina Gaby’s piece talks about boundaries between therapist and patient.

The therapists are showing that they are real people and don’t need to be placed on pedestals. I had concerns about displaying their essays, but I thought it was important. My point of view is you can’t do this work without caring about the people.

Q: Do your patients know about the book?

A: I’ve been telling my patients about it, although I’m a little nervous about it. I’m still me, but I wanted to be revealing in a way that didn’t hurt my patients. I run groups for writers with self esteem issues. Most knew I’ve published other books in the past, but I don’t mind if they don’t buy my book.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Right now, I’m not looking into doing another book. After this experience, maybe I’ll dive further into my therapy.


Estelle Erasmus is a widely published journalist, writing coach and former magazine editor-in-chief. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, NewsweekVox, Next Avenue/PBS, and more. She is the chair for the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2017 New York City conference. Her website is EstelleSErasmus.com and her twitter handle is @EstelleSErasmus

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist and author of The Q&A Dating Book, Love Lessons From Bad Breakups, and The Complete Marriage Counselor. She has written for Hemispheres, Brides, MarieClaire, vox.com, qz.com and DAME.com. Her website is howdoesthatmakeyoufeelbook.com  and her twitter handle is @sherapynyc 



Who Do You Think You Are?

September 27, 2016 § 5 Comments

woman-looking-in-mirror-vintageIt’s residency application season. Again. So many cool places to go: A modernist treehouse in Switzerland! A quaint Arkansas village! Cabins for women in the Pacific Northwest!

Residency applications are usually pretty easy to start. Name, rank and serial number, give the CV a once-over to make sure my most current publications are listed, fret for an hour over what to include in the writing sample. Summarize a project I might have started/finished/still be working on nine months from now, figure out who to bother for references–again.

And then I get to the Artist Statement. What issues and ideas inform your working process? How will the residency positively impact you and your work?

Ummmm…I wanna hang out in the woods with other writers while someone else does the dishes?

Sadly, that’s probably not going to get me in, even if I could expand it to 500 words. Writing the Artist Statement feels huge. It feels opaque and pretentious. It feels like walking a tightrope between “Huh, kind of a boring artist…” and “Gosh, she brags a lot, doesn’t she?”

If you are experiencing the same pain, the Artist Statement Guidelines at Getting Your Sh*t Together may help. While aimed at visual artists, the basic principles definitely transfer. As a writer, I’d paraphrase their most important elements as:

  1. Write it in the first person, and in your own voice. This is another chance to introduce the community to who you are, and bring your resume and project alive in their minds.
  2. Ask yourself “What am I trying to say when I write, beyond the message of a single piece?” “What writers/genres/cultural movements/politics/periods in history influence my work?” “How do my methods of working (form, voice, deliberate creative decisions) support the content?” “What are specific examples of these elements in my work?”

GYST suggests this format for a general introduction to your work, a body of work, or a specific project:

  1. Open with the work’s basic ideas in an overview of two or three sentences or a short paragraph.
  2. The second paragraph should go into detail about how these issues or ideas are presented in the work.
  3. If writing a full-page statement, you can include some of the following points:
    • Why you have created the work and its history.
    • Your overall vision.
    • What you expect from your audience and how they will react.
    • How your current work relates to your previous work.
    • Where your work fits in with current contemporary art [for us, literature].
    • Sources and inspiration.
    • [Writers] you have been influenced by or how your work relates to other [writers’] work, other influences.
    • How this work fits into a series or longer body of work.
    • How a certain technique [form or presentation] is important to the work.
    • Your philosophy of art making or of the work’s origin [how did you come to be working on this, and how it fits your overall mission].
  4. The final paragraph should recapitulate the most important points in the statement.

GYST also suggests two technical elements we’d be well-advised to use in all our writing, whether applications, fiction or nonfiction:

  • Vary sentence structure and length. The length of a sentence should relate to the complexity of the idea.
  • Organization of detail is important. Significant ideas should be at the end of each sentence for emphasis.

Even if you aren’t applying for anything right now, writing an Artist Statement can be an exercise to help you consider your body of work, what you’ve accomplished so far, and where your ambitions lie. If you’re wavering between two projects, knowing your mission as an artist will help you pick. If you’re feeling stuck in your career, your artist statement could help you choose a new track, or recommit to the important elements of what you’re already doing.

Check out the GYST Artist Statement Guidelines, and get started–really, it’s not that bad.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines, now available on Amazon.

Superman on the Roof: Michael Martone with Lex Williford

September 26, 2016 § 1 Comment

zz-superman200Here on the Brevity blog, we limit ourselves to the world of nonfiction, except when we don’t. One of the times that we don’t is when we discuss the art of flash, and here one of the masters of that flash prose genre, Michael Martone, discusses the form (as well as tricksterism, academic idiocy, and the Texas state legislature) with his friend Lex Williford, author of the new Rose Metal Press novella-in-flash, Superman on the Roof.

Michael MartoneAre you a follower of Hermes, the thief, as are your flash fictions?  That is to say: Do you regard flash fiction now as a genre or an anti-genre, a genre that resists, by design, generic description?  Hermes could not play the lyre he invented.  What he could do is see the category of dead animal parts—tortoise shell, sheep gut, horns of cattle—and transform them into a category of musical instruments, the lyre.  Is it important that flash fiction have a fixed form or is flash fluid?

Lex Williford: I suppose I’ve been a follower of Hermes at least since 2005, when I met Lewis Hyde at MacDowell Colony.

I’d taught Hyde’s The Gift in several graduate workshops, a book that raised questions I’ve puzzled over for years about gift cultures (like the Trobrian Islanders’) and the place of art in a commodity culture (like ours). So, when I met Hyde at MacDowell, I also bought his new book, Trickster Makes This World, at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, and read it cover to cover.[1]

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Lex Williford

The book—about the flip side of gift cultures (givers vs. takers)—is a fascinating treatise on tricksters, who cleverly steal back the power they probably should have never been denied in the first place.[2]

In the chapter “Hermes Slips the Trap,” Hyde writes,

I read the Homeric Hymn as the story of how an outsider penetrates a group, or how marginalized insiders might alter a hierarchy that confines them.  Hermes has a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action.  He knows how to slip the trap of culture. (204). . . . [With] his stealing . . . and other cunning wiles [Hermes] unravels a particular cultural artifice and weaves a new one in its stead. (205)

When I read this quotation about Hermes, the Prince of Thieves, I also think about another quotation—variously attributed to other trickster-thieves like T. S. Elliot, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, et al—which goes something like this:

“Good [or mediocre] [or immature] writers borrow, and great writers steal.”

When students hear this quotation[3], they tend to hear a moral judgment, not the kind of thing Hyde writes about.  Hyde’s concern with gift cultures—the notion that art comes from an impulse to give (or to keep the gift moving) rather than to take or hold on to or grasp or make a profit—runs into serious problems in societies like ours, when a huge chasm exists between those who have power and wealth and those who don’t.

To win, to get one’s power back, the loser must somehow trick the winner (rarely a giver), and in art that trick often involves stealing a form, “a particular cultural artifice,” as Hyde puts it, then unraveling it and weaving a new one to replace it.

In many ways, tricksters are born losers.  When I talk about the history of the short story to my students, I sometimes say that modern and contemporary short stories—and many ancient ones—are about losers who lose big time, characters living on the fringes, the borders, las fronteras, of society; and telling their stories is a kind of corrective to history (always written by the winners) that allows those who have lost their humanity and dignity to have a voice about their losses and in some way take back their power.

Hermes, illegitimate son of that serial philanderer Zeus, is a loser big time, but not for long.  A bastard child, a black sheep, an enfant terrible, he lives in a cave with dear old Mom, Maia, and his prospects aren’t good, but miraculously he turns his theft of Apollo’s (the “good” legitimate half-brother’s) cattle into an advantage that humiliates Zeus in front of all Olympus; then he plays the lyre he created to seduce Apollo.  (Actually, Hermes could play the instrument he’d made. In the Homeric Hymn, he plays beautifully—a liar with a lyre; more important, he plays Apollo with his lies and his lyre, then turns the tables on him, offering the lyre to him in a kind of gift exchange for the cattle he’s already stolen.)

Elsewhere, I’ve compared flash fiction to cherries or cherry bombs,[4] to safety pins or snakes swallowing their tails (tales)[5], to wound-up strings that lead us out of labyrinths, etc., but the metaphors, mythical or otherwise, always fizzle. The form is much more fluid than that, than any other contemporary form that I know of, at least in part because so many tricksters—like Hermes, like you, Michael Martone—use the form to thumb their noses at the “rules” or constraints of traditional fiction.

Flash fiction, at least for me, is an exploration of surprise, reversals in character, power, reader expectations, etc., but anyone who tries to codify the form misses the point.  The creators of the form and the form itself are tricksters, chameleons, shapeshifters, working in a vast valley between the lyric and narrative impulse, and the form has no secret set of rules except those that each writer must invent for each new piece of flash she writes.

If there’s a trick to flash, I suppose, it’s to become a trickster, to outwit the reader, to write about powerlessness, thereby taking one’s power back and giving it to others, but it’s also based upon the writer’s ability to pose impossible questions, worrying something one has stolen and obsessed over, often for years, until the stolen thing finally becomes one’s own, a gift to pass along.

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Michael Martone

Michael MartoneAll very interesting but so studious, Lex.  It is curious, isn’t it, that we live and work in this historical moment where many of us who are plying the trickster trade do so in the hyper-critical, genre obsessed, super-sorting machine that is the university or college—in a program within a department within a college within a school within a university.  How does the institution “count” the making of a flash fiction or a prose poem on its annual reports?  I am lucky enough to have an option of “other” on my pull down menu.  But can the work even be “seen” by the critics?  And is it fun to hang out at the crossroads being invisible in plain sight?

Lex Williford: Yeah, give me a tough question and I’ll get studious on you every time.

If we’re required to quantify everything—as the recent obsession with “metrics” at underfunded state universities like UTEP suggests—then I suppose flash writers could argue that we have a slight advantage, at least with the bean counters: We can write a lot of really short stories and count more of them in the vita.  (At UTEP, no kidding, we upload our pubs to something called Digital Measures; I just uploaded my fall semester syllabus there today.  It’s state law!)  When you have legislators who believe god put fossils in the ground to test our faith or think that burning fossil fuels in our cars has nothing to do with global climate change—a hoax!—it’s a bit hard to have a reasonable discussion about something as immeasurable and subjective as quality.  Better to focus on quantity, counting things—at least until the bean counters start counting pages.

Being invisible to state legislators and university administrators is something to aspire to, I think.  I’m a teaching writer and a writing teacher—both gigs equally important to me. As universities have become just one more “beast” of government to starve, pushing us toward the brink of the so-called for-profit university—increasing the price of books and tuition and student loan debt—all we can hope for is to teach something useful, and there’s no more practical skill than writing a clear, readable sentence.

As long as we feed our students with a rich and nourishing fare of words and craft and give them the time to write what burns most brightly in their bellies, we’re not just doing our jobs; as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing our small part to save the world.  Albert Camus writes, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”  That works for me. I can only remain such an idealist because of my students, who, year after year, decade after decade, continue to reveal their miraculous, original gifts.

As for critics: There’s not a stronger argument for the burgeoning and slippery flash fiction form than the hybrid writing being published by Rose Metal Press or Tara Masih’s wonderful new annual, The Best Small Fictions, 2016. I got my copy of the second edition, guest edited by Stuart Dybek, yesterday, and I’ve not been able to put it down.[6]

Michael Martone:: Here is something else to chew on.  I have never liked the category of “experimental” writing.  I like it even less when hooked up with the binary of “traditional” writing.  Often the experimental gets applied to my flash fiction work, another kind of other, I guess.  I am more comfortable with the notion of being a formalist, any form in a storm.  I saw John Barth in a reading once respond to the question, “What are you reading now?” That standard question really is asking what “good” things are you reading now so I can get a shortcut to “good”.  Barth responded by pulling out a cereal box, saying, “I read this this morning.” And then went on to produce letters and postcards; newspapers and magazines; student papers and stories; bills and adverts; freshman compositions; phonebooks; galleys and articles sent to him by his former students; ending with his own finished and published work as well as the writing he had written the day before.  He was saying, of course, that all manner of writing might be ripe for one’s writing.  Would you think about (now that we have destroyed the notion of ‘genre” when applied to flash fiction) the subspecies of the form and its application of all kinds of writing to the pliant template of the form, flash? Or to say it another way—flash fiction might be a corrosive form but is it also a formal chameleon, a voracious form that eats other forms for breakfast cereal?

Lex Williford: The category of “experimental” fiction mostly seems redundant to me. All writing is experimental—thought experiments with words—even “traditional” or “realist” fiction, which can be as innovative and as “experimental” as something more “post-modern.” I mostly ignore any impulse to quantify or categorize, but I do think that flash seems particularly amenable (amoeba-ble?) to “blended” or “hybrid” forms.  I teach a graduate course called the The Prose Poem and Short-Short Story, and when we study the varying, and sometimes contradictory, definitions and examples of both forms, we soon come to consider them as almost interchangeable, prose poems mostly written by poets, flash by fiction writers, even when poets sometimes write the most dramatic stories, and fiction writers the most lyrical.

I had two influential teachers in grad school, James Whitehead (a poet and a novelist) and William Harrison (a novelist, short story and scriptwriter).  They’re both gone now, but back in the mid-eighties, they were the Scylla and Charybdis of the writing program I went to.  Bill—Uncle Bill, we called him—said, “I don’t give a damn about language; just give me story.”  And Jim—we called him Big Jim—said, “I don’t give a damn about story; just give me language.”  Such prescriptions were common in the boot-camp workshops we had in those days, and though I tend toward a descriptive kind of critique in my own workshops, thanks to you, Michael Martone, I do think that trying to make both Jim and Bill happy on some level—they were both on my thesis committee—was an interesting experiment in finding a balance between the lyric and dramatic sensibilities.

To put it another way, some flash writers see the form as an intellectual experiment—like trying to solve a new kind of Rubik’s Cube of their own invention—while others see the form as experiments in earning emotion.  I’ve tried both, but for me writing is mostly about the latter: feeling along the edges of an intangible obsession in the dark until I can see its shape more clearly, then working hard to earn similar emotions for readers, who each may see a shape different from the one I saw, bringing the contents of their own inner lives to a completely different reading of the same story.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to write flash, only the way each of us can write it, some of it amoebic, swallowing and absorbing other forms, some of it corrosive, breaking the forms down into their component parts, then reconstructing something altogether new, a pastiche or a collage, like a story by Donald Barthelme. The point is, after all, to ring a bell in the reader’s head, right?

I’ll never forget the night you and I had dinner with John Barth at the Cypress Inn in Tuscaloosa, or the reading he gave later, bringing out a hotel clerk’s bell and ringing it whenever he’d reached a footnote in his fiction (some footnotes longer on the page than the actual story).  Who’d ever think of putting a footnote into a short story?  Dude, our students would say, can you even do that?  Of course!  Why the hell not?  David Foster Wallace certainly did in Infinite Jest; so did Junot Díaz in the Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, and it wouldn’t surprise me if reading Barth had given each of them—and you, Michael, since you were his student—all the permission they needed to do exactly what they wanted to do in the first place.

What was it Barth said that night, looking out over the Black Warrior River, just as it was reaching flood stage?  “Digress aggressively”?  Or was that you, Michael?

Tricksters, all of us, stealing each other’s stuff, always causing trouble.

[1] Hyde was as generous as his books: He gave me a signed British edition of The Gift and bought me a double-dip ice cream cone at our favorite nearby dessert spot in Keene, New Hampshire, the Piazza Ice Cream Parlor—two-hundred flavors of ice cream!  An August afternoon, eating ice cream and talking about tricksters.

[2] As he discusses Hermes’ thievery and cunning, Hyde also uses excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to illustrate Douglass’s “thievery” of literacy—and literature—from those who had enslaved him, using it as a gift to free himself and others.

[3] Clearly a plagiarized—or stolen—quotation since so many have claimed to say it first.

[4] https://medium.com/the-coil/cherries-or-cherry-bombs-balancing-risk-and-understatement-in-flash-fiction-lex-williford-9c26f4071a79#.4v7as3hxq

[5] “For the Tale to End . . .” Writers Ask, Glimmer Train Stories, Issue 73, 2016: 19.

[6] For readers: There’s a Michael Martone story in the anthology.  Read it.


Lex Williford, winner of the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Flash Fiction Chapbook Award for Superman on the Roof, has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University, the University of Alabama and the University of Missouri, St. Louis. His book, Macauley’s Thumb, was co-winner of the 1993 Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Literary Review, Fiction, Glimmer Train Stories, Hayen’s Ferry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Laurel Review, Natural Bridge, The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market 2002, Poets & Writers, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Smokelong Quarterly, Southern Review, Sou’wester, StoryQuarterly, Tameme, Virginia Quarterly Review and have been widely anthologized. Coeditor, with Michael Martone, of the popular Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, now in its second edition, and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction, he is the founding director of the online MFA program and the current chair of the on-campus bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Michael Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Little else is known of his life.

No, No, A Hundred Times No

September 23, 2016 § 12 Comments


Kristine Langley Mahler

By Kristine Langley Mahler

I recently hit a milestone in my literary career: 100 rejections. 100 times my inbox buzzed on my phone and I saw those brackets around a journal’s name in the subject line and I excitedly opened my email, happy to get that response AT LAST, and stared at some iteration of “Not today, sucker!”

(Most were more polite than that; most were also those low-tier, generic-rejection-text messages, but NOT ALL)

I’ve been submitting my work to literary journals since April 2012, which, coincidentally, was immediately after I finished writing my first essay in almost a decade. I wasn’t enrolled in a writing program—hadn’t been for nine years—but I was working my way back towards the memoir-ish essays I loved to write and had abandoned in the post-undergrad years.

Without anyone to give me feedback on my writing other than my long-suffering husband, I figured: let the populace decide! Send those puppies out to lit journals!

I hadn’t had any formal training in publishing, but I remembered one rule imparted from my undergrad writing instructors, which was AIM HIGH. So (gulp) I aimed high, submitting that first essay to AGNI and Crazyhorse and the Cincinnati Review. Rejected. But I kept writing and revising, and I kept submitting. Some rejections hurt more than others; some made me wrinkle my eyebrows. What’s that, The Dying Goose, you don’t like my piece? YOU’RE NOT AROUND ANYMORE SO WHO WINS NOW? Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, did you literally reject my piece within 24 hours? (Yes they did and that is what they do)

I submitted to high-profile journals and I submitted to fledglings. I didn’t discriminate, because I trusted in the old adage that what one rejects, another may accept. And by the end of 2012, I had my first publication under my belt! Yes!

I spent the next two years continuing to write, getting feedback from a small handful of (non-writer) friends, revising, and submitting the pieces to journals. 2013 netted one more publication. 2014: three (!) By 2015, I had decided it was time to return to school so I could get feedback from people who were also studying/perfecting their craft, so I began a graduate program. I had one piece accepted for publication in 2015, but in 2016, I’ve had five pieces accepted (so far). That’s eleven pieces getting the THUMBS UP while a hundred times I was told NO THANKS.

Being a left-brained woman working in a right-brained field, I crunched some numbers, because analytics help me understand. I had an 8% acceptance rate before grad school; it’s jumped to 11.5% since. I submitted more times than ever in 2016 (35), and had more pieces accepted (5). Funny how that works.

Eleven out of 111. With four of those eleven acceptances, I hit the nose on the head, matching content and form to journal preferences/editor preferences, and the pieces never saw a single rejection. On the other hand, I’ve got one piece that’s been rejected sixteen times and I keep hauling it back out because GOSH DARNIT I BELIEVE IN IT. I’ve sent out twenty-three separate essays and had eleven of them accepted everywhere from basically-just-a-blog journals to (pardon me while I clear my throat) being awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction by Crab Orchard Review. Now there are some odds I can work with: 48% of my submitted work has been published. Almost half!

Of those twenty-three essays, I’ve dropped seven from my submissions roster because, well, they’re not publishable. It’s embarrassing to think I ever sent them out. (Y’all feel me?) Twenty-three pieces, eleven published, seven self-rejected. So that means I’ve only got five old pieces battered by rejection but still raising their heads in the ring. No TKOs.

Like most writers/artists/creative-types, I have a sensitive ego. Brashness does not befit me. I’ll talk trash on the screen but in person, I’m just another wallflower waiting for someone to approach me. I don’t try out for things where I haven’t pre-calculated the risk assessment and decided that the odds are more likely I will succeed than not. I cannot explain why I have accepted the life of rejection that partners with the life of a writer other than that I finally accept myself as a writer. This is what it takes? I will bear my yellowing bruises with pride.

I’ve got three new essays I’ve added to the roster, and I’ve been sending them out, awaiting their first rejection, or acceptance. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. I hope it doesn’t take 10,000 rejections, but if it does, I’m proud of the effort it took to stand back up 9,999 times.


Kristine Langley Mahler writes from the suburban prairie, where she is a master’s student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Kristine works the other side of the submissions queue as a nonfiction reader for Pithead Chapel, and she has essays forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Rock & Sling, and Crab Orchard Review, where she received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award.

On Choosing How to Read

September 21, 2016 § 6 Comments

Brevity‘s editorial intern, Hannah Koerner, reflects on her summer in Brooklyn working for an indie publisher and other ways that ‘reading for work’ influences how she reads:


Hannah Koerner

A month ago I grabbed bagels with a friend somewhere just outside Central Park. He’d been working as a copy editor on a Buzzfeed-like website for about a year and writing on the side, rereading Moby Dick for something like the tenth time and finishing off the oeuvres of authors like Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante.

I assumed he was still trying to break into publishing, which was the initial vague goal he entered the city with and which I vaguely planned to follow.

By then I’d spent two months wading through fiction manuscripts and nonfiction proposals, crafting rejection letters and entering author corrections; I was in the middle of a summer internship with an indie press in Brooklyn. Having moved to the city with my own formidable pile of to-be-read Ferrantes and Junot Diazs and Maggie Nelsons, I found myself instead balancing printed manuscripts on my morning commute, making progress through the press’s thicket of submissions and acquainting myself with its back catalogue.

A lot of times it’s a matter of tone, not just quality, one of the editors had told me. So I read that press’s books and figured out what I needed to look for: a political slant, a surrealist twist, nonfiction just the exact degree of unexpected enough.

“Nah, I’m staying out of publishing. I figure I only have time to read so many books. And I want them to be the best things the English language has done,” my friend said over bagels.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, that working with literature means choosing what you want to read. But that often gets overlooked. It also means choosing how and why you want to read.

Moving from a university press to a literary magazine to an indie publisher has meant playing something like a prolonged game of dress up with my reading. To give it a professorial jacket and glasses for fact-checking detail, then stripping it down and tossing over a pared-down dress for grabbing rhythm in poetry: both of these different from the deep sea diving required for writing papers on Joyce, or the cozy lounge attire of cracking open a new young adult title.

Working at a book publisher meant reading with an eye to contemporary trends and questions and needs. To read for a readership, which is not the same as reading for beauty. Which only rarely means reading to discover the next great canonical name of my time.

I like to relax into my reading. I like to take it out on a low commitment date and see what happens, to play with whatever catches my eye about it. I think this lends itself to publishing; I am, after all, a contemporary reader. Being interested in why books interest me is useful.

But this is something I never thought to think of when I began college as an English undergraduate looking towards the publishing industry as a vague monolith on which to pin twin hopes of working with books and being able to pay rent. In weighing an MFA, or buckling down into Woolf for a PhD, or publishing, I never quite realized until that conversation with my friend that if I chose one and stuck with it, the act of reading—the activity that shaped my imagination and my free time since I first walked out of a kindergarten classroom knowing this letter meant this sound—will take a more definite, less malleable, shape. And that might be the most important thing to consider if you think you might want to read for a living: to decide with intention why and how you would like to do that reading.

Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!

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