The Architecture of Nonfiction

September 2, 2015 § 3 Comments

Sometimes it does feel like bricklaying.

Sometimes it does feel like bricklaying.

When journalists become narrative-non-fiction writers, when essayists delve into memoir, the transition can be a challenge. How do we move from short and punchy (or mid-length and devastating) to a book-length work that holds the reader’s attention and leaves them satisfied?

At Nieman Storyboard, Bloomsbury Press Publisher and Editorial Director Peter Ginna discusses some key tools and techniques for successful book-length creative nonfiction. He points out why thematic and episodic structures often fail, how to figure out how much background to include (hint: “If you find yourself writing what the British call a “potted history” of World War II, your protagonist’s adolescence, or the development of the personal computer, there’s a good chance you are burdening the story with an excess of background”), and why sourcing matters.

As memoirists and essayists, we’ve heard this before, but Ginna’s phrasing bears repeating:

The most critical difference between a book and a magazine or newspaper article is that the publisher has to convince someone to part with 25 dollars or more for this story and this story alone, and perhaps more important, to invest several hours of his or her life in reading it. That’s a pretty high threshold. To get across it, you need a topic that is more than merely interesting and a narrative that’s more than well-wrought. You need a story that has a significance beyond itself, and you need to convey that significance to the reader.

[Ginna’s emphasis, and we emphatically concur.]

Check out the whole article at Nieman Storyboard.

Oh Canada! More on the Origins of CNF

September 1, 2015 § 3 Comments

canadaBrevity editor Dinty W. Moore thought he was pretty clever when he traced the origins of the term “creative nonfiction” all the way back to 1969, but William Bradley and Christian Exoo are not only equally clever, they also (Exoo is a librarian, Bradley is just real smart) are better researchers, so they’ve traced the term all the way back to 1944 and wait for it: Canada.

You can and should read the nitty-gritty details over at the Creative Nonfiction site, but stay tuned.  We suspect someone is going to come along any day now and trace the term back to Ancient Greece.



Hallelujah! Brevity Site 95% Restored.

August 31, 2015 § 1 Comment


Brevity Main Site is Down

August 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Brevity site was hacked over the weekend, and then a backup process failed. We are experiencing serious difficulty. It may take a few days to recover (we hope not longer.)

The blog, however, remains fine.

And the archives (pre 2010) are intact and not infected:



A Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays

August 24, 2015 § 5 Comments

By e.v. de cleyre

empThe only seat left on the bus was half-occupied by a guy who was man-spreading. One thin thigh spilled over two seats, and I squeezed myself onto the last bit of real estate, cursing him.

He said, “Watch out” and pointed to his elbow, where the skin was scraped to expose red road rash. He sat stiff, uncomfortable, trying not to touch me or the seat.

I mumbled, “No worries,” and opened the book I brought for the evening commute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays.

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make; to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”

My seatmate cringed each time the bus swerved or bounced over potholes. It seemed I had a choice: engage this human being, pay attention, extend myself, empathize, or stick to reading about and intellectualizing empathy.

“Did you fall off a bike or something?” I asked.

He explained, the bicycle shop where he worked faced the train tracks, and when he left, his tires snagged on iron and steel. He pointed to where it hurt: left elbow, bandaged right hand, knees.            

All I could say was, “That sucks.” Two hundred pages of essays on empathy, pain, sentimentality, human suffering, and all I could conjure were two measly words.

The bus stopped. People left. “I’ll give you space,” I said, and switched seats.

To expect The Empathy Exams to equip me with a deeper sense of humanity is to expect a lot from a book—maybe too much. Still, I found myself staring at the words but not understanding them—instead, wracking my brain for something of solace to offer this man. The Empathy Exams is not a practical guide on how to live an empathetic life, but an intellectual exploration of the subject from a range of angles. My wanting to act with compassion and empathy was a byproduct of excellent writing.

The book, I thought. I could give him the book. But is that what he wanted? To read about pain while he was in pain? And would it only increase his suffering to subject him to my marginalia, my underlined passages? I’m not sure solace would be the result of reading a piece about a conference for a phantom disease or a mugging in Nicaragua—two of a rich tapestry of essays that blend research, reporting, and personal experience. The best books are the ones that alter your habitual patterns—that break you out of your routine (in my case, my evening commute), cause you to question how you participate in the world, and urge you to take action. Was what I defined as an empathetic gesture the kind of sentimental or saccharine (or worse, romantic) thing Jamison writes about? “When we hear saccharine, we think of language that has shamed us, netted our hearts in trite articulations: words repeated too many times for cheap effect, recycled ad nauseam.”

What get-well-soon-sentiments could I write that wouldn’t be cheapened by overuse? I scribbled be well on the inside of the cover. The bus reached my stop—his stop too, and he hobbled off the bus in front of me, onto the sidewalk.

“Hey,” I said.

He turned.

“Here,” I said, and shoved the paperback into his hands. He took it. I turned and walked away, feeling not proud but quite trite. I allowed myself to look back only once. He limped up the street with the book in his right hand.


e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

A Review of Joni Tevis’ The World is On Fire

August 21, 2015 § 1 Comment

A book review from Nina Boutsikaris:

tevisMaybe it’s coincidence that apocalypse keeps surfacing in so much of the recent work I’ve read as a grad student, begging me to reconsider how the word might apply to much more than typical end-of-days visions. Several of the books stacked around my apartment tap into apocalypses far more real and immediate, something more like crisis or unease, creeping decay and paranoia, a special nihilism suited, perhaps, for a post-9/11 world that is increasingly uncanny, confused and technology-dependent. After I read Lucy Corin’s surreal fiction collection One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, for instance, I had a name for the elusive and pervasive feeling I got from the empty storefronts in my hometown, young couples’ dinner parties, Tinder exchanges, missing dogs, the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue three days before Christmas, the latest Taco Bell creation. I was haunted ruin or the promise of ruin. Which is to say, by everything.

It’s comforting knowing essayist Joni Tevis, must also be haunted—indeed, each of the “Acts,” in her latest collection, The World is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse, explore the tension between birth and death—and that her thoughtful probing has generated such a sweeping, rich, and compelling book. On a tour of an antiquated roadside attraction, Tevis questions why a miniature, seemingly innocent “Fairyland” makes her think of Trinity, the code name for the first nuclear detonation. “The truth is,” she writes, “you find what you look for. Maybe not the exact specimen, but once the scales fall from your eyes you must see the world, strange and dark. A red moon floated above a stadium on a noisy Friday night. I could have read there a sign of doom, or atmospheric dust, or both. Just the same, once I saw Trinity I would see it always, everywhere.”

And in “Ten Years You Own It,” she wanders the toxic ex-resort coastline of the Salton Sea asking herself what it was she had hoped to find: “aftermath or prophecy?” She writes, “We stopped to see the disaster, but which one… if you go looking for a portent everything you find will seem like one.”

The true origin of “apocalypse,” as Tevis reminds us, comes from the Greek word meaning “unveiling,” and the book itself acts as such, peeling back mysteries of our spiritual and earthly world. The journey here is both lush and wandering, glittering and sobering—from the gaudy home of a secretly dying Liberace, to the endlessly shifting mansion of tortured widow Sarah Winchester; from the soybean fields where Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, to Tevis’ own fickle womb; from abandoned Boomtowns, to footage of literal “Doom Town” test grounds of 1,021 A-bombs in Nevada. Like a magician, Tevis collects scraps from each of her excavations and carefully weaves them into threads, dusting the fallout of each detonation over the next.

Warnings exist in the disappearance of our birds, in our destruction of the planet and each other—in the way we mimic nature scenes for museum dioramas but can’t wrap our heads around curbing pollution; in the cancer we’ve spit into the air in the name of weaponry; in those we lose to AIDS; in the temporality of life and our futile attempts to hold on to ghosts or recreate our humanness in inanimate things. But Tevis is not one to despair. Apocalypses, as she so beautifully translates them, can truly be songs of celebration.

“There is a crease for grief in any day, but usually we turn away from it,” Tevis writes. Perhaps it is this very act of not turning away, of staying curious and vulnerable, that saves her and in turn us. The World is On Fire masterfully questions, rummages, and connects the obscure with the universal, uncovering truths about faith and resurrection we had been waiting for, whether we knew it or not.


Nina Boutsikaris teaches and learns at the University of Arizona. Recent writing appears in The Offing, Los Angeles Review, Hobart and elsewhere. She’s currently at work on a collection of intimacies, real and imagined.

Iowa’s New Annual Prize for Literary Nonfiction

August 19, 2015 § 4 Comments

header-UI-PressThe University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and the University of Iowa Press are pleased to announce a new annual prize for literary nonfiction. Submissions will be accepted from October 15, 2015 through December 10, 2015. The announcement of the winner will be made in spring of 2016. Submissions must be book length (at least 40,000 words but no longer than 90,000) and can be either a collection or a long-form manuscript. Both published and previously unpublished authors will be considered, with the winner being awarded a publishing contract with the University of Iowa Press.

The contest will be screened and initially judged by the Iowa Nonfiction Program and its director, John D’Agata, as part of a publishing class taught in conjunction with the University of Iowa Press. Distinguished visiting professor Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, will be the final judge.

UI Press director, Jim McCoy, noted, “This is an exciting opportunity. We’ve long been committed to the publication of quality literary nonfiction through our Sightline Books series. Literary nonfiction, no matter how you try to define it, is one of the most exciting genres currently being explored by writers. It pushes new boundaries. It reinterprets how we look at a number of issues in the humanities and sciences. We can’t wait to see the variety and quality of the submissions. The fact that we also get to exchange information and engage with students during the publishing process is a bonus.”

“The exciting thing about this class and contest is that it’s going to encourage students to clarify for themselves and their peers how they interpret nonfiction, and what their criteria are for great nonfiction books,” D’Agata offered. “It’ll require them to explain clearly why they feel this manuscript is better than that manuscript. And so at a pedagogical level this will be a priceless experience, because what we’ll ultimately learn is that we’re all very different—both as readers and people—and we therefore have different criteria for what makes something good.”

The Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa is one of the most prestigious MFA programs in existence. In addition to its degree program, it hosts a highly regarded visiting author series, the Overseas Writing Workshop, and the Bedell Nonfiction Now Conference.

The University of Iowa Press publishes more than 40 books a year, including award-winning literary nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. The press already hosts the annual Iowa Poetry Prize and the Iowa Short Fiction Awards. More information about the press and the submission guidelines can be found at


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