A Review of Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King

August 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

zzkingBy Cara Siera

A thousand fractured monuments litter Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Still they speak, despite abuses from tomb robbers, image-erasing successive kings, and ravages of time. Kara Cooney uses the mortar of experience and imagination to repair the fragmented story of one of ancient Egypt’s few female monarchs in The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt.

Hatshepsut was no ordinary monarch. A princess of sorts, she was the daughter of her father, the king, the sister and wife of her brother, the king. She later became the king herself—yes, the king, not queen, as the ancient Egyptian tongue contained no word for a female monarch. No one expected her to be king; there was no precedent for her actions. Still, hoping to preserve her father’s dynasty, she took on regency alongside the infant son of a rival wife.

While Cooney’s writing is backed by twenty years as a professional Egyptologist, emotion drives her narrative. In each chapter, she first recreates events according to her interpretation of the evidence, at times presenting multiple, equally possible scenarios. She carefully cites a library’s worth of sources and follows each narrative with a discussion of what is actually known from stone fragments and statuary. In this way Cooney affords us an intimate look at the lives of Egyptian nobility. She fleshes out the cold stone hieroglyphics, from which she draws her information, endowing Hatshepsut with all the fears and passions that befit an ambitious maiden of sixteen, and later the sorrows and reflections of an aging ruler contemplating her own ephemerality.

While The Woman Who Would Be King is listed as nonfiction, there is no escaping the speculative nature of the work. The truth is, archeology provides bits and pieces of the story; the ancient Egyptians recorded the what and when of events, but seldom the why or how. Cooney had to conjure the latter by mating her study of the subject to her own flights of fancy. Cooney admits this, saying, “Historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right.” Such honesty—perhaps even humility—is the real hallmark of this work.

Cooney’s tone at times becomes almost poetic—a refreshing break from her meticulous scientific observations of ancient stele—such as in her description of Egyptian timekeeping: “Hours of the day were measured as the sun god rose and set, and years were marked with the coming and passing of the chief ritualist—the king.”

In addition to its story, science, and poetry, The Woman Who Would Become King harbors a touch of feminism. Cooney argues vehemently against earlier archeologists who painted Hatshepsut as a scheming, self-serving seductress, grappling for power and station that should have belonged to another, a male king. She criticizes those historians who “[cherish] the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men—that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy.”

Like a million other little girls growing up in the 1990s, I was raised on the notion that strong women, royal or not, could surpass historically gendered roles and even become heroes. Just such women were presented as role models in entertainment—Ariel, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Princess Leia come readily to mind. Like so many other children, I wanted to be like them and even be them. I recall one summer evening in particular—I must have been around eight years old—when I marched around my backyard singing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Disney’s Mulan. I found a stick and practiced karate-style jumps as I’d seen in film, and then I made my best attempt at climbing a security-light pole, to no avail. Hatshepsut may be no Disney princess, and she enjoyed no fairy tale ending. Still, Cooney gives us the visage of a woman who, viewed through the lens of thousands of years of bygone history, represents the same archetype. “Perhaps she believed that she could change the system,” Cooney concludes.  “And maybe we still believe the same thing.”

Cara Siera is a freelance writer and photographer. She holds a bachelor of science in psychology and sociology. Her work has been featured in the Red Mud Review, and she curates several blogs, covering topics from wedding planning to world travel.

Today’s Lesson: Writing Is Art

August 24, 2016 § 7 Comments

zz iowaBy Debbie Hagan

In part two of this two-part blog post on teaching creative nonfiction using newly released essay anthologies, Debbie Hagan discusses I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2016) and how it motivated her to create a show-and-tell lesson on revision and encourage students to think of writing as art.

Last semester I tried something new and a bit risky with my students. Actually it was an old idea, but I’d never summoned up the courage to actually try it. Then I read a new creative nonfiction anthology, I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. In a roundabout way, this book supported ideas I’d wrestled with for years about revising and rewriting. Even more it pushed me to actually try this idea.

For eight years, I’ve been teaching basic writing to budding artists at a small art school in New Hampshire. Because they are reluctant writers, I tailored my classes around their interests. We read about art, looked at art, used art as writing prompts, and compared art making to writing. While they enjoyed free writing exercises, they hated rewriting. They considered it a waste of time.

My aha moment came while reading I’ll Tell You Mine. I figured this would be just “the best of” NWP essays, but it was far better. Hope Edelman and Robin Hemley curated this volume of innovative writing by tracking down eighteen essays that began at NWP, but were reworked and rewritten years later. Most helpful to me were the writers’ candid “after” comments. They traced the essay’s many steps, from the initial idea, to technique decisions (form, voice, tone, and point of view), to feedback, and then, ultimately, to revision. I found the writers’ comments insightful, because as thrilling as writing can be, truth is, it can also be a slog.

“One Blue Note,” by Marilyn Abildskov, is sort of a love letter to a Japanese salaryman who discovers the meaning of life by opening his own jazz club. The writer reveals that the early drafts left her discouraged. “I was trying to write about the place in a journalistic way, rather than the way I experienced it: impressionistically,” she says.  Around this same time, she discovered a new fact: jazz is built around three notes. These two new thoughts helped her re-envision the essay: how to start, what to say, and where to focus. All this reworking resulted in a hypnotic essay built around the evocative nuances of jazz and language. About the process, Abildskov concludes, “Timing is everything, isn’t it? And readiness.”

Debbie Hagan

Debbie Hagan

Readiness…yes! Essays must be unraveled. It can take a week, a month, a year, or six years in the case of Michelle Morano, who wrote “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood.” Her essay began in a bar discussing difficulties she’d had with the French subjective tense. The first draft came in a rush. Phillip Lopate read it, liked it, but admitted it didn’t hold up well in “re-reading.” The reader didn’t gain anything new the second time around, he said, and pushed Morano to dig deeper, build stronger resonances, create more meaning. After six years, she did it. Her essay appeared in the Best American Essays 2006.

It’s a slightly different story with Ryan Van Meter, who says, “I know I want to write an essay when I find a contradiction within myself, usually within a personal experience I want to figure out—an event with a beginning, middle, and an end.” In “Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date But Won’t,” he struggled with form.  Van Meter wanted to write about the contradiction between his desire to date (being single after eight years), but not wanting to spend the first date reliving the past.

Van Meter tried various forms—first a monologue, then an open letter. Susan Lohafer, NWP workshop leader, suggested that if he wanted to borrow a form, he should use it “to its fullest potential.” That’s when he settled upon a list.

By the time I’d finished this book, I couldn’t wait to dig out my languishing essays. Also, I imagined tooling these ideas into a lesson about revising/rewriting. That’s when I decided to try this idea I’d been mulling over. I would share with students a first draft of one of my essays.

Immediately a legion of demons descended upon me. I never show first drafts to anyone. I’d just as soon parade in front of my class in my underwear than show my unfinished work. My students are killer critics: There’s nothing special about John Updike; Annie Dillard is such a bore; Susan Sontag does nothing but talk in circles. I could hear what they’d say about me: She’s not much of a writer if she has to rewrite this seven or eight times.

This is what had stopped me from doing this exercise before. This time, I pressed on. I knew writers far better than I had rewritten the same essay—sometimes for years. I realized, there’s no shame in digging deeper, adding new thoughts, revising ideas until they’d reached their full potential.

By my own example, I wanted students to see that writing in drafts is a lot like sketching. A mark is laid, then another. The artist tries one angle, then another. The artist plays with shadows and light. A sketch may evolve into painting or may forever stay in the sketchbook. It’s like journaling, capturing thoughts to see where they might go.

In class, I passed around both the first and finished drafts of my essay, while my heart pounded wildly in my chest. One of my students read the first draft and stumbled over some of the rougher spots. I pointed this out: “When you read your work aloud, you can hear the spots that need more polish.”

I read the final draft. For the first time all semester, no one talked or sneezed or played with their cell phones. All eyes were on me. When I finished, there was long, gaping silence, which sort of scared me. I waited for one of them to make the first move. The girl who had read the first essay spoke slowly: “It’s as if each word was chosen for a purpose.” Yes!

Another student added, “This is way beyond anything most of us were taught in high school.” Yes! We’re creating art.

Artist John Berger, in his 1953 essay, “Drawing Is Discovery,” described art making in this way:

For the artist, drawing is discovery. And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literary true. It is the act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it with his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he’s drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.

Substitute writing for drawing. The writer must look, think, draw connections, and go back over the work again and again. That’s how we discover what’s true. That’s how we understand what it means to live and survive on this crazy planet. This is exactly what I wanted students to understand.

Right now I’m in the throes of working on my fall syllabus. This year I’ll be teaching a similar class, Thinking, Making, Writing, also aimed at art students, but this time at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I’m going to try the same exercise this semester, but I’ll ask students to bring in their sketchbooks. Together we’ll share what it means to create art.


Read Part One: Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and former editor-in-chief of Art New England. Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic, Brain, Child, Boston Globe, Dime Story, and elsewhere. She looks forward to teaching this fall at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.



Hippocamp 2016 Round-Up

August 23, 2016 § 3 Comments

I did not eat six pieces. I may have eaten four.

I did not eat six pieces. I may have eaten four.

Gentle Readers, I come to you from Amsterdam Schipol, my second-favorite airport, where I can get a haircut and some tulip bulbs and eat hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) on toast.

It’s the little things.

At Hippocamp 2016, it was also the little moments that made the conference so worthwhile. The creative nonfiction conference is in its second year, and attendance was up to just over 200 writers. Large enough to meet a lot of new people, small enough to meet them more than once. Big enough to have memoir rock stars and small enough to personally interact with rising stars.

I always think I’ll write at a conference, and I mostly don’t. That’s not really the point. While there were a few generative sessions, and the opening day workshops involved creating or editing, conferences are mostly about information sharing–connecting with other writers, sharing tips and tricks and hopes and fears. Being around other people who, when I whine about having great ideas and not sitting down to write them, know exactly what I mean.

There were some amazing sessions–Joanne Lazar Glenn talked about setting up and running a writing retreat, and I promptly thought, “I’ve been meaning to take some women writers to India.” Agent Veronica Park used the “In a World” structure I love to use, in her talk about the difference between a great concept and a great plot, and how to make sure the first one leads to the second. Amy Fish and Christoph Paul talked about using humor in nonfiction, to a standing-room-only crowd. And Andrew M. Seaman traced the code of ethics of narrative journalism from their first conception to the most recent made-up-story scandals.

But it was also the little things. Worrying my editing workshop would be “mean” and running across to the farmers’ market to buy some flowers for the projector, somehow thinking this would “soften” the room. Getting swept up in a group of writers going to dinner and hauling along whoever I was in conversation with at the time. Long walks from my Airbnb to the convention center and back (it was hot; I packed wipes). Seeing the happiness on conference organizer and Hippocampus editor Donna Talarico-Beeman’s face as she unveiled their newest baby, an upcoming anthology of work featured in the magazine’s first five years. I sold some books–but more fun still was being asked to sign them.

After Mary Karr’s Saturday night keynote address, a writer prefaced their question with “this is going to be very personal…” and Mary responded, “I’m not gonna show you my titties.”

We all got personal. It was nowhere near as terrifying as showing our titties. We shared work in readings and in snippets in workshops. We commiserated. We wished each other luck on the way into agent pitches. We felt–or convincingly faked–true happiness when someone burst back out of the agent room, glowing with the pride of a requested full.

There’s an official conference recap page, with links to blog posts attendees wrote about the conference; the twitter feed for #hippocamp16 is also pretty great. Great quotes, great advice, and a great many little things.

Next year’s Hippocamp will be in September, and again held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s a gentle conference, perfect for first-time conference attendees and writers who want to be remembered by the agents and editors they meet. Big enough that you’ll find something that moves you; small enough not to get lost. I hope to find you there.




Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing

August 22, 2016 § 8 Comments

Two recently released creative nonfiction anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (Excelsior Editions, 2016) and I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2015) offer a stunning array of  contemporary creative nonfiction writing, and coincidentally both offer candid interviews with the writers about inspirations, challenges faced, and decisions to fully realize these works. Such frank conversations can lead to teachable moments in the classroom. In this two-part blog post, Jeanette Luise Eberhardy and Debbie Hagan not only examine these anthologies, but also lessons to be learned.

z cnPart One By Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

When I teach creative nonfiction writing to art students, they are most interested in two skills: omission and perhapsing. The skill of omission, examined by John McPhee in an essay in the New Yorker (2015), asks the writer to carefully consider what details are excluded. Art students relate omission to their understanding of negative space—that space on the page that remains after a mark is made. They recognize that marks or thoughts that are omitted may reveal more about the messy business of living. The skill perhapsing also considers what is missing. Perhapsing, introduced by Lisa Knopp in a craft essay in Brevity (2009), gives the writer a way to wonder about circumstances in a nonfiction narrative without making up facts. The word perhaps (or other phrases such as could have been or may have been), signals to readers that the writer has left the realm of direct observation or documented research. Omission and perhapsing allow the writer and reader to explore the space between the known and the unknown in the context of the ever-evolving self. A new book of essays considers the mysterious nature of the vast territory between the known and the unknown: Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, edited by Jen Hirt and Erin Murphy. In this anthology, the layers of experience are represented in a wide variety of forms including segmented and lyric essays, blog posts and personal narratives, graphic essays, as well as the definition essay. Here I will focus on essays that experiment with using omission and perhapsing to open up writing and to enlist readers’ participation in this conversation on celebrating life.

The complicated work of examining the impact of omission is addressed by writer Faith Adiele in her definition essay, “How to Make Sense of the Postcolonial Nation-State: A Definition Essay Using Material Lifted Almost Entirely from the Internet as Annotated by the Author, Herself a Nigerian American.” Adiele uses material from the internet to examine instances of “cultural appropriation and stolen narratives” on Nigeria. Adiele, born to a Nigerian father and a Nordic-American mother, assesses what is omitted from the definitions of Nigeria by striking a line through the original internet text (and leaving it in her essay). By making explicit the implicit biases, she invites the reader to actively participate in a conversation on the extent of inaccurate information about Nigeria. She creates a more truthful story about Nigeria to preserve diversity with respect for the generations that came before her as well the generations that will follow her.

In the essay “Kestrel Avenue,” writer Cheryl Strayed also explores the relationship between the skill of omission and the on-going nature of shifting perceptions. Strayed compares a newspaper article on a bank robbery she wrote at age eighteen with this essay written twenty-eight years later. The earlier newspaper report left out the fact that her family knew the bank robber. Her eighteen–year­–­old self did not want to admit this knowledge. In the interview following her essay, Strayed identifies the tension between knowing and refusing to know. We know that at the heart of any “refusing to know” is the fear of loss. A few years before the incident, Strayed’s family provided shelter to the bank robber when he was passing through town. What was the loss Strayed did not want to face? Readers may wonder and consider their own peculiar fears around loss and withholding knowledge.  The students that I teach are most interested in Strayed’s last question in the interview: “What role does omission play in truth-telling?”

zz Eberhardy Photo B&W

Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

The skill of perhapsing also plays an important role in transforming truth into art. In “The Third Step,” Sheryl St. Germain begins her essay on doubt by perhapsing what sort of day it was when her friend’s son was killed on his motorcycle. “A sunny day? Blue skies? Trees budding? First fragile flowers in bloom?” This particular use of perhapsing introduces the humble feeling of not knowing while the writer participates in a funeral service in a church where she no longer believes its creed.  Perhapsing helps to make visible her struggle with conflicting needs: wanting to believe in something, showing compassion for the dead son, respecting the grieving family, and acting with integrity with herself. Perhapsing opens the space to reflect on these conflicting needs. This may be why students acknowledge the impact of perhapsing more than any other skill they learn during my creative nonfiction writing courses.

More subtle forms of perhapsing are shown in the space between word and images in Kristen Radtke’s graphic essay “The City of the Century” where a young woman reflects on photos she and her friends stole from an abandoned cathedral. Through  research on the internet, the main character discovers the photos are from a memorial service for a twenty-four-year-old urban explorer who was run over while trying to take pictures of an oncoming train. Drawn images of ruins of the church, railroad tracks, and the young woman who discovered the photos accompany this text: “I stare at the pictures for a long time to draw conclusions that are not mine to draw.” The space between the panels may prolong the opening of readers’ perceptions and suspend simplistic notions they might entertain about what it means to feel vulnerable in this moment. Together images, words, and the space between panels create an artistic bridge that helps the reader imagine the many layers of this experience. In the interview after the essay, Radtke explains that image, word, and space play off each other and express the feeling that “we don’t always get things right,” which can lead to a “much richer dialogue.” Perhapsing in all its forms offers the opportunity to deepen this dialogue in a more authentic way. And isn’t this what the writer hopes for—a genuine conversation with the reader?

The use of space is also important in the segmented essays in this collection. For example, in Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Tooth and Claw,” compassion is explored in many forms: a neighbor who tenaciously controls the growth of dandelions in her grass (using a sewing scissors) while she cares for her husband who had a massive stroke a few years earlier; the writer’s interest in growing Italian dandelions; the rugged nature of this plant with its important healing properties. The space between each segment in Moore’s essay leaves room for reflection and permits readers to make their own meaning.

While I teach a variety of skills in creative nonfiction writing—using evocative objects for central images, creating mind maps to exercise the skill of conceptual blending, experimenting with sequencing information, and building scenes with dialogue—students have taught me that omission and perhapsing help them to realize and remember this truth: we see more than we understand.  At the end of one semester, a student said, “Now I can look for the skills and techniques in other writing. I especially look for perhapsing to see what it brings to a piece. I like seeing what was added and imagining what was left out.” Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with Writers offers new opportunities to consider the way we hold conversations with our experiences and with our readers.


Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, designs educational experiences for students, artists, and professionals on crafting stories for meaningful work. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin (2014), Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. Eberhardy serves as program director, 1st Year Writing, and assistant professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

The Self-Made Amtrak Residency

August 18, 2016 § 22 Comments

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classical domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classically domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

Last weekend I spoke at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference (round-up post coming!) in Lancaster, PA. It was a fantastic experience full of ideas and inspiration, and I knew I’d want a couple of days to decompress. My next destination was Louisiana, and I took the train.

There is a formal “Amtrak Residency,” where writers are chosen from a pool of applicants to receive a free train trip. I’d considered applying, but the first year there was some dubious language about Amtrak owning copyright in submitted work samples, and last year it seemed like a lot of hoops to jump through for a short residency period. And most of the winners looked either more famous or more social-media-gifted than me. Instead I bought my own trip.

It didn’t start well. I gave up my seat so an older couple could sit together, and went to work in the café car, where I got trainsick while typing and had to stop. The café car closed, and I wandered the length of the train looking for another open seat. Downtown Pittsburgh is no doubt charming before 10PM, but finding a restaurant on a four-hour night layover was tough. The guy next to me in the charmless waiting room spent an hour explaining smart phones to an Amish family, who patiently smiled and nodded while clearly understanding modern technology they were choosing not to use. I felt my bedtime ticking away.

But once on the train to Chicago, tucked up in my “roomette”–basically a bunkbed with just enough room to put on shoes before staggering to the WC in the night–all was forgiven. The rocking of the train really was soothing. The next morning hit the observation car, enjoying huge windows and morning light while working away. Turns out I need to face backward on the train, contrary to all my instincts.

A morning layover in Chicago let me scoot to Walgreens for snacks, and the afternoon-overnight-morning to Texas was gorgeous. There was technically wifi on the train, though I barely used it, and just sitting and thinking was peaceful–I felt meditative watching the world go by. The showers were as clean as a gym’s, and the bedding was comfy. Seating at meals is communal, and I met people who gave me their emails to let them know when my book came out, a lady who’d lived in Istanbul, and a man who was riding every train line across the country as his bucket list. (He recommends the Southwest Chief as the most beautiful route.)

Now, I’m a freelancer with no kids, I live in a country where I don’t have a work permit so I don’t have to hustle back for a job, and my husband is deeply supportive and understanding, so it’s possible for me to say, sure, I’ll randomly take a few more days for myself! which is not everyone’s experience. But if you have a couple of days, consider a self-made mini-residency. You don’t have to pass an application process or bother your references or agonize over which pieces to put in a work sample or guess which dates you’ll be available 18 months from applying. Doing your own can cost less than flying to an established residency.

  • Airbnb makes renting an apartment doable just about anywhere. Pick a place that’s unpopular or small and reasonably cheap. I’m planning on Baku, Azerbaijan because for me it’s a short flight; you might try a landlocked town in a state known for beaches, or a college town during spring break, or a farm community, or the “boring” suburbs of an exciting city.
  • State parks often have cabins to rent at a reasonable price, and during shoulder season can be easier to get a reservation.
  • Bring your own Lysol and rent in one of those seen-better-days mom-and-pop motels along the highway that used to be the main highway before they built the interstate. Bonus points if it’s walking distance from a truck stop. You’ll almost certainly encounter people you can refer to as “denizens” in your essay.
  • Ask your friend who has a vacation house if you can use it. Start with “No is a totally OK answer, but I’m looking for a place to do a three-day mini-retreat to write. Would you ever consider…” Leave the place sparkling and drop off a couple of nice bottles of wine or a restaurant gift card.
  • Off-seasons in general are usually quiet–a ski resort in September, the less-popular part of Cape Cod after Labor Day (try a ramshackle cottage within walking distance of great chowder in Onset, MA).
  • If you have children, see if you can team up with another writer with kids: rent a place for a week. You take the kids for three days, they take them the other three, and in the middle you spend one family day doing something fun all together.
  • Stock up on snacks and don’t be shy about eating out–it’s worth it to open up the mental space that would be spent choosing, cooking and cleaning.

I didn’t actually write very many words on the train. But I found some open spaces in my brain that I needed to write when I got home, and it was wonderful to think over what I learned at the conference. 4/5 stars–recommend.

Have you done a self-made residency? Tell us what worked (or didn’t) in the comments!



Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better, is now available on Amazon.

Learning to Care (About Writing and Dogs)

August 17, 2016 § 16 Comments

zz Crisis


A word from Brevity‘s new Managing Editor, Jacob Little:

I recently had a health scare that’s resulted in numerous trips to various doctors. In trying to help me with “nutritional rehabilitation,” one of the doctors suggested I get a dog.

“Why would I do that?” I asked him. “The only reason I’m here is because I can’t even take care of myself. What makes you think I can keep another living creature alive?”

“That’s just it,” he said. “If you can get used to caring for something else, you can transfer those skills over to yourself.”

I couldn’t help thinking, Good god. Is everything a metaphor these days?

“It’s a little bit different,” I said, “keeping a dog alive versus myself. I can’t just eat kibble and shit in the backyard.”

“Yes, it’s different,” he said. “But not for the reasons you think. The difference is you’d care whether the dog lived or died, but you don’t care about yourself.”

Jesus, I thought.

So I got a dog. His name is Crisis, both because he has arrived in the midst of my own, and also because he always seems to be having one. He hides and shakes when he sees a spider. He gets scared when the mailman comes. He follows me around like a shivering shadow. He loses his mind with enthusiasm every time he thinks I might charge around the house with him. He senses when I’m lonely and puts his head on my knee. All this and I still can’t decide if my most prominent feeling for him is gratefulness for his companionship or resentment for the amount of time and care he requires. I resent him for making me care.

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Jacob Little

I don’t think this is a character fault of mine. I hope not. There are so many others.

To me, when I am able to acknowledge and consider the frustrations of a person, I’m all the more appreciative of when they are actually able or generous enough to give something back to me. It’s amazing to consider that such faulty, messy creatures can do such beautiful things in our lives. So here’s another metaphor: I feel the same way about writing.

I don’t like writing. Not even close. It’s almost always a fight; a tedious and absurd chore to complete. Most days, it feels to me like a colossal waste of time, an obscene luxury. It seems almost wholly unethical to indulge in such an egocentric pastime. Even the good moments seem to be ones of self-congratulation and self-release. Perhaps these aren’t truly bad things, but neither are they noble.

Like Didion, I too am grateful for all the stories I tell myself in order to live. I just don’t want to pretend that the “stories” in that sentence means something other than “lies”—or perhaps more optimistically: “partial truths.” Still, even a partial truth is dangerous without remembering to scan carefully for the falsehood. After all, the most effective and dangerous lies are the ones that hide themselves amongst otherwise unassailable truths.

I find myself agreeing more and more with Maggie Nelson when she wrote in The Red Parts that “stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it. This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration. As soon as a writer starts talking about the ‘human need for narrative’ or the ‘archaic power of storytelling,’ I usually find myself wanting to bolt out of the auditorium” (155).

Me too.

But I remain personally grateful for stories all the same. I’m grateful for any and all slivers of truth I can find in them, hollow as they might seem when compared with real experience and human connection. I’m grateful for the ability to communicate something to others in a way that I otherwise could not. I’m grateful for the way writing helps me to process how I feel about ideas, other people, and myself in relation to them.

To play on Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, I think that stories are our absolute worst form of truth-telling, aside—perhaps—from all the other ones.

Here is what I think I’m trying to say. I don’t think acknowledging my deep resentment and suspicion of something harms the love I have for the thing itself; I think it deepens it. I care about writing precisely because I understand its limitations and dangers, what it can accomplish in spite of those faults.

—Keep writing out there.


Jacob Little steps into the role of Brevity’s Managing Editor later this month (and will still serve simultaneously as managing editor of Profane.) He is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and his recent nonfiction is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Yemassee, where he won the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Award. You can find him at jacoblittle.net and on Twitter @little_jaycup.

The Ugly Truth: An Advice Column for Nonfiction Writers

August 15, 2016 § 11 Comments

Some pointed advice channeled through guest blogger Anita Gill:

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Anita Gill (aka Ugly Truth)

Dear Ugly Truth,

I want to write a memoir about my childhood, but I can’t seem to do it. Every time I sit down to start writing about it, I freeze up. I can’t put down a single word.

I’m so scared that my family will read my memoir and we will have a falling out. I’ve heard of this happening to many memoirists, and I don’t want to do any damage to my family.

How do I get over this fear and write?


Writer’s Block

*          *          *

Dear Writer’s Block,

Ah, the fear before the plunge! There’s so much at stake! You have a story you want to share with the world, and by “world” I’m referring to the 15 sentient beings who still read books. You have a narrator looking back on her past and trying to make sense of everything that happened, and coming to some illuminating reasons.

But what if Aunt Gayle gets upset you mentioned her seventh toe? Or how will your mother feel when you include that one time she forgot to pick you up from school and the Wattersons had to take you to their house and feed you stale crackers from their pantry?

Your paralyzing trepidation is merited. Every nonfiction writer who turns inward must face this. That’s why I’ve made a foolproof plan to help you with the process.

Don’t write the memoir. Ever!

Think about it: no one can get mad at something you never wrote!

Okay, I know my argument might seem extreme, but hear me out. I’m sure you’ve heard Anne Lamott’s quote, “You own everything that happened to you.” A lot of writers like to tote that around as a way to encourage you to write your memoir. The quote might be true, but your parents owned you, too. Cause they made you. Ergo, owning what happened to you means they have to own what happened too. Are you ready to draw out that contract with them? It’s almost as bad as being 30 and signing up with your parents for a Verizon family plan! And you don’t want to get their phone calls at 8 p.m. on a Friday night, complaining that you used up all of their data with photos of dogs in a BabyBjörn. That metaphor might seem drawn out, but I think I made myself clear. Don’t. Write.

You have so much to gain from thwarting your creative faculties. First off, you won’t be thinking about those horrible memories anymore. No sir! Put those away and bury them deep inside. Hold them in like a fart at a business meeting. There will be a time to express those feelings when you’re drunk next Thanksgiving or Kwanzaa. Don’t put your thoughts on paper where the public can read it and relate to the trials you endured.

The second advantage is you will have a lot more free time, so put it to good, productive use. Join a spin class. Learn to bake your own bread. Master a foreign language like Mandarin or Gaelic. Whatever you do, it will be much more rewarding than sitting at home alone all day, eating nothing but dry cereal, staring at a computer screen and writing terrible sentences for a mediocre book that you doubt will ever see the light of day. Why put yourself through all of that torture when Richard Simmons offers aerobics classes at his studio for only 15 dollars. Let me say that again. Fifteen. Dollars. Richard Simmons. Now you have something to talk to your parents about instead of drudging up those harmful memories you’re trying to make sense of.

So don’t write it in the first place! Do what normal people do. Avoid the issue. Binge Netflix. Dress up your cat as historic Civil War generals. That’s so much better than reaching deep down, finding a kernel of truth in this existence and putting it out there. There can’t be any good to come from that.


The Ugly Truth

Anita Gill was given this name when she was born so that her grandparents could pronounce it, but they called her “Annie” instead. She teaches English and writing in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyApeiron ReviewHippocampus MagazineDefenestration, and Eastlit.


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