What Lucky Looks Like

March 27, 2015 § 18 Comments

Tawni Waters, in a less cranky mood

Tawni Waters, in a less cranky mood

Writer, actor, and rock-n-roll gypsy Tawni Waters unleashes her inner crankiness on one of those boorish men who explain things to “the ladies”:

A few weeks ago, a man approached me at a social event, congratulated me on my recent book sales, then proceeded to tell me how “lucky” I am. He pointed out that there are thousands of talented writers out there, but most of them aren’t as “lucky” as me. His tone was condescending and judgmental, as if I’d won the lottery and was being flippant about poverty.

He was about the zillionth person to say something like this since I got my first book deal. For the record, I’d like to explain what “lucky” looks like if you’re Tawni. I sold my first story when I was 18. I sold my first novel when I was 42. Between the ages of 18 and 42, I wrote constantly. The book I sold was one of five I’d completed. I got rejected literally thousands of times. I went to classes and conferences and retreats regularly to hone my craft. I got a BA in English with and emphasis on creative writing and graduated with an almost perfect GPA. I then got an MFA in fiction writing. I graduated with a 4.0 and distinction. I lived below the poverty line for much of this time because I loved my art form so much, I wasn’t willing to give it up even though it looked like I was a failure. I was embarrassed most of the time when people asked me what I did for a living, because if you are a writer who hasn’t sold books, many people think you’re a slacker no matter how hard you work. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I fought off utter despair and found the courage to keep trying in the face of nearly impossible odds. I met the agent who sold my book at a conference at which I was teaching, which means I’d sold enough short work and won enough awards to get hired to teach at a conference. In short, I sacrificed for many years and worked my ass off so I could get “lucky.” Every other writer I know who has managed to make a career of it has the same story. Very, very few of us are just talented and lucky.

One out of every ten-thousand books written sells to a mainstream publisher, so walking up to a writer who has done this and lecturing her on how “lucky” she is is kinda like walking up to a surgeon and telling him how lucky he is because lots of other people have an interest in science but were never lucky enough to become surgeons. He wasn’t lucky. He worked his ass off. So did I.

The moral of this rant: Next person who gives me a condescending lecture on how lucky I am gets punched in the junk.

Tawni Waters is an writer, actor, teacher, and gypsy.Her first YA novel, Beauty of the Broken, was published by Simon Pulse in 2014 and was named an Exceptional Book of 2015 by the Children’s Book Council. Her first poetry book, Siren Song, was published by Burlesque Press in the same year.  Her work has been seen in myriad magazines, journals, newspapers, and anthologies, including Best Travel Writing 2010 and Bridal Guide Magazine.  She teaches creative writing in Phoenix, Arizona. In her spare time, she talks to angels, humanely evicts spiders from her floorboards, and plays Magdalene to a minor rock god.



Iota: Short Prose Conference

March 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

DSC_5904A note on the upcoming Iota Conference from Penny Guisinger and a reflection on the event from Sven Birkerts:

Iota: Short Prose Conference is a place that celebrates the small in a world often ruled by heft. Participants gather at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, near Maine’s easternmost tip, for a long weekend of writing, relaxing, and learning. We also do a lot of talking, mostly about books. This year’s conference is July 23 – 26. Applications are due by June 23, but apply by April 15 for an early-bird discount!

 The focus is on short works: essays, flash, fiction, micro-everythings, prose poetry. And the definition of “short” is up for grabs. If you can write it, or even get it started, in a morning, you can workshop it that very afternoon. This year’s faculty will be Brevity Special Projects Editor Sarah Einstein and Richard Hoffman, and every participant will workshop with both of them. We’re thrilled to welcome them both!

This will be Iota’s third summer. The following is a reflection on the experience of teaching at Iota by Sven Birkerts, a faculty member from the conference’s first year:

I was invited to be an instructor at the very first staging of Iota, Short Prose Conference, which was held late in the summer of 2013 on Campobello Island off the northern coast of Maine. For once it was easy to tell people where I was headed: to the easternmost point of the continental United States. That struck an original note. As did the conference, start to finish.


Sven Birkerts at Iota

I love the early days of things, the premieres, trial outings—love that improvisatory freedom of action before things crystallize, as they invariably do, into ‘this is how we do things.’ Small by design, it had the energy of first formations. Here were seventeen students and three faculty, gathering for the first time in a grand lodge. The first night we dispersed ourselves about the big room, the windows giving onto a prospect of tall pines and distant ocean. There were introductions, instructions, the usual business of first nights everywhere. But I also felt the almost immediate emergence of a distinct group spirit, which I can assure you is not the usual business. This had much to do with Conference Director Penny Guisinger and her associates at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, who between them had found exactly the right note. How to describe it? Expectant yet relaxed, exuding an improvisatory confidence. Which proved to be justified. Penny had brought together a diverse group of students and instructors who wanted nothing more than to talk about books and writing.

This came clear the next day as we dispersed to our various workshop locations, none without some view of pointed firs or distant water. The sizes were right, and—certainly in my case—the interactions were right away both lively and exploratory. Getting down to business, exchanging manuscripts, we knew that we were inventing much of the business as we went along. How like writing! The balance of activities was also smartly considered. Workshop time, writing time, down time, and in the evenings after dinner a wonderfully varied set of offerings: readings by instructors one night, students another, with musical guests bringing something original and briny into the mix.

Another of the day’s activities, one of the best,  was a late-morning to-and-fro in the big room—instructors informally conversing about various craft-related topics and then students joining in with their own thoughts, questions and war-stories. Again, that sense of converging intensities.

I know enough about these kinds of events to know that success is not guaranteed, that it depends on the coming together of innumerable factors—from personalities to organization to leadership. Planning takes you only so far and then the inner life of the thing asserts itself. Or–where things are too programmed, too this or too that– doesn’t. Here it did with great energy, humor and grace, and for this I thank the enthusiasm and fresh directorial instincts of Penny, who knew when to say “let’s try that again,” and “that was amazing!” and when to just break it all up and start laughing. Serious or antic, underneath it all we felt her literary devotion; we knew that this undertaking was the product of literary passion, not some market calculation. She was right there with us, arguing her views, reading her work, and making us feel like we were taking part in something really good. Which we were. The conference was engaged and purposeful, offering a craft-savvy jump-start to those who needed it and an invigorating tune-up for those whose engines were already running.

 If you want a long weekend to work on your short forms, join us!

(Oh, and there’s always lobster. And Peruvian chocolates. Just sayin’.)

For more information, contact Penny at: iota@cclc.me .


Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book ReviewThe New RepublicEsquireThe Washington PostThe Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.

Brevity Announces Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization

March 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

A Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization guest-edited by Ira Sukrungruang and featuring new work by Claudia Rankine 

nbcccitizenrankineYou continue to astound us with your generosity! We can’t believe we have already made it through our first Kickstarter stretch goal, and everyone at Brevity is grateful and moved and more than a little overwhelmed. Thank you! Our next stretch goal is, we think, a really amazing one: our next special issue, featuring new work by award-winning poet and playwright Claudia Rankine and guest-edited by one of our favorite (not that we have favorites) Brevity authors, the also-award-winning Ira Sukrungruang.

Claudia Rankine (as if you didn’t know) is the author of five collections of poetry, including most recently Citizen: An American Lyric, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. She has coedited American Women Poets in the 21st Century; Where Lyric Meets Language (2002), American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (2007), and The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2014). Her poems have been included in the anthologies Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present(2003), Best American Poetry (2001), and The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry (1996). Her play Detour/South Bronx premiered in 2009 at New York’s Foundry Theater.

We’ve been reading, and teaching, and gushing over Rankine’s work quite a lot recently, and are more than a little beside ourselves that she’s said yes to being next year’s anchor author. We can’t wait to bring you a new piece of her powerful writing!

Guest editor Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity:What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthologyand Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.buddhistboy.com.

We hope you’re as excited about this announcement as we are, although unless you’ve just gotten giddy and a little teary-eyed, done a happy dance and called your mother to tell her that you’ve finally made something of yourself, you probably aren’t. We are deeply honored by the amazing writers who are willing to work with us, and the amazing readers who make our work possible. Thank you.

Help us Fund the New Special Issue, and so much more.

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Because I’ve Never Been Accepted Into One

March 24, 2015 § 16 Comments

Tim Hillegonds

Tim Hillegonds

By Tim Hillegonds

In May of 2009, I was contemplating making a career move that would take me from my current employer to a competitor, all but guaranteeing a complicated transition wrought with conflict. I was in my early thirties at the time, and while the lawsuit risks and overall ugliness of what the scenario could morph into were substantial, the change seemed to make sense for me—new opportunities, big salary, a chance to go back to school and finish my undergrad on the new company’s dime. I was also at a point in life where the fulfillment meter inside my chest was hovering on empty, every corporate meeting I sat in ending with me asking myself if this was really all I was supposed to do in life, if vanilla walls and manila envelopes and “low-hanging fruit” clichés were all that awaited me when I finally closed in on forty.

Ultimately, I took the job and suffered through a long and arduous and emotional lawsuit, and was accepted into DePaul University to finish my undergrad. I’d had limited success in academics in the past—dropping out of high school at 17, getting my GED at 22, taking a few community college courses right after that, and then realizing I really just wanted to drink my way through my twenties. But this time was different. I’d gotten sober four years earlier, and being in college suddenly felt like this amazing second chance had been given to me. My entire worldview had shifted by then, and I felt this pull towards something that was hard to articulate at the time. Something I now think can most accurately be defined as “creativity.” I felt compelled to create.

Which I suppose makes sense, because I’d always considered myself a writer. I wrote all through my teens and intermittently through my early twenties, and then I wrote like a madman through the first two years of sobriety. But three years after enrolling at DePaul, when I’d finished my undergrad and had a cranium full of college-inspired conversations and reflections keeping me up at night, I knew that I wanted to take writing more seriously. I’d heard the term “craft,” and I wanted to focus on that—the craft of writing. It sounded so elegant. I wanted to be a serious writer. A sophisticated writer. A real writer.

But the world I came from, a world where I’d never heard of writing workshops or literary fiction or even creative nonfiction, a world where Grisham and Crichton, both of whom I’d been introduced to while in jail, kept my reading appetite satiated, had left me ill prepared for what steps to take next.

So of course I Googled writing programs, learned about MFAs, and found four MFA programs in my hometown of Chicago—Northwestern University, Roosevelt University, Columbia College, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I put together a writing sample and applied to Roosevelt and Northwestern. I attended a couple of open houses. Got my hopes up. And was then rejected, and forced to face the truth of the times: my writing simply wasn’t that good.

However, during my research, I’d also become aware that DePaul, the same place I’d received my undergrad from, offered a Master of Arts in Writing in Publishing (MAWP) Degree. As a precaution, while I was applying to MFA programs, I’d applied there too. I’d sent the same writing sample, and I awaited their decision with the same nervousness, the same trepidation. And then I was accepted.

But I wasn’t accepted because of the strength of my writing sample; rather, as I was later told by the program director, it was because my writing showed promise. I did a lot of things wrong and I had a lot to learn, but I did a few things right, too. And they saw that. They wanted to help fertilize that. As with all their students, they wanted to push me and see how I responded. To see if I could take the criticism and the challenge to do hard work and turn into the whetstone used to sharpen my skills.

During the two years that I spent earning the MAWP, I took seven workshops. Most of them were nonfiction, because that’s where my interest is, but I took both a fiction and poetry workshop, too. I monopolized my professors’ office hours and read voraciously and completed 150 pages of a memoir for my thesis. I also graduated with distinction, had a piece accepted for publication in Brevity, and left the program in June of last year with the deep sense of fulfillment I’d been searching for since 2009.

Which brings me to this point: degrees don’t matter—writing does. Sure, my degrees hang on the wall in my office and I glance at them from time to time, the physical manifestation of the hard work I put in a good reminder to keep putting in hard work. But the validation isn’t in the degree; it’s in the experience. The entire experience. The complete journey I took—the journeys we all take—to becoming the writers we are, the writers we want to be.

Writing is an art, and as such, it’s open to your own interpretation of what that art means to you. Maybe that means you take the path to an MFA or a PhD. Maybe you get an MA. Maybe you apply for an artist colony, get accepted, and write in woods for a month while artsy folks deliver lunch to your doorstep in quaint little picnic baskets. Or maybe it’s none of that.

Whatever your path to writing is, to being a writer, it’s just that—your path. So don’t worry about what Ryan Boudinot says. Or what even what I say. Just worry about what the art of writing, the craft of writing, means to you. Read. Write. Repeat. And do it all with the steadfast knowledge that wherever writing takes you is exactly where you’re supposed to be.


Tim Hillegonds is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in BrevityRHINOMidway Journal, Bluestem and r.k.v.r.y. quarterly. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University, and was recently nominated for an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. He’s currently working on a memoir about his time in Colorado.









Brevity Kickstarter Launches Today

March 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

gender_issueFrom Sarah Einstein:

This blog post is, really, a confession of love, though I suspect it’s not much of a confession… that you all already know that I love Brevity. I love it as a reader, because it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers, many of whom are just beginning their writing careers. I love it as a teacher of writing, because it allows me to build and rebuild my syllabi every semester around new and compelling works that lead my students toward a better understanding of both the art and the craft of creative nonfiction. And I love it as a person who cares about literature, because it fosters a community of readers and writers alike who are passionate about and dedicated to the transformative power of good writing.

I’m writing this to ask you to join me in supporting this thing that I—that we—love. We’re launching Brevity’s first fundraiser today; a Kickstarter campaign to fund our special issue on gender and some of the journal’s operating costs. (Which, for the most part, have throughout its history been funded from Dinty’s pocket. I think it’s time to say both “thank you” and “hey, why don’t you let us pitch in?” I’m betting that you think so, too, and that’s why I talked him into this Kickstarter.)

Many, many of Brevity’s authors have contributed exciting rewards: signed copies of books, essay critiques. We are also offering the usual postcards, bumper stickers, and mugs, because Brevity is nothing if not aware of genre conventions, and this IS a Kickstarter, after all. Heck, you can even join us at #AWP16 in LA for “Brunch with Brevity,” where we promise you can order both the bacon AND the sausage while talking shop with Dinty and the editors. We think our swag is the best swag, and we’re proud to bring it to you.

But, mostly—like Brevity itself—this Kickstarter is about the love of good writing, and about supporting the things we love and find important. I hope you’ll agree with me that Brevity is worth supporting, and contribute. The campaign runs through April 23rd, but don’t wait. We have some great rewards, but not many of most of them.

View the Kickstarter Here, and Thank You,.

Sarah Einstein, Special Gender Issue Co-Editor and Huge Brevity Fangirl

Homeless in New York

March 21, 2015 § 5 Comments

bedAlan Emmins offers a reflection on living homeless in New York, the subject of his recently released nonfiction book, Don’t Let the Bench Bugs Bite:

As is often the case, my most beautiful moment while living homeless in New York was born out of an ugly moment. I hadn’t seen it coming, and in some respects was unprepared for it. So far, nearly every homeless person I had met on the streets had been happy for me to spend time with them and document their lives. But in Preston, a black man in his early 60s who spent his days collecting cans, I found a lot of anger that, by all accounts, had no outlet.

I became that outlet.

We were standing in a subway car at the time. I had followed Preston as he worked his way down from the entrance to the 5 train at Union square, with four industrial bags as tall as him that were full with cans for recycling. The bags were so big and heavy he could only take two at a time. He went back and forth, continually trying to catch up with himself.

Preston began shouting at me pretty much from my introduction. He was angry about many things, poverty, the distribution of wealth, a system designed to keep the poor poor, and the racism he witnessed and experienced every day.

“The black man is good enough to die face down in the mud for his country. But he ain’t good enough that he can get a decent job, a yellow cab, a safe place to sleep after he gave his youth to this here USA!”

Preston shouted at me all the way to the 149th street, where he exited the train with two of the bags.

“Well, what are you doing now?’ he demanded when I followed him with the other two bags.

Preston was a small, but strong man. Collecting cans in Manhattan was something he did with the seriousness and discipline of a small business owner trying to get to the next level. Only Preston wasn’t aiming for any next level. There was no promotion or better working conditions. Just him, his trolley, his bags and whatever weather was thrown at him.

I followed Preston, with the surprisingly really heavy bags, to the recycling station. I think the expression of shock and sadness on my face when we arrived was in part what softened Preston.

After the recycling Preston showed me where he lived. Due to an accident with a bungee cord that hospitalized him, Preston had been given one-room digs with a shared bathroom. He showed me quickly around, and then started showing me pictures of his granddaughter. He was alive now, animated and smiling as he told of how she always tried to get a dollar out of him.

To see that transition, from the angriest man I had ever met to the smiling, wonderful grandfather remains one of the most special things I have ever witnessed. Preston went from being closed, suspicious and aggressive to open, warm and giving. It gave me a sense of hope, knowing that something as simple as a conversation could turn back the clocks until a former, happier self emerged. He was not lost. He was still in there.

Alan Emmins is an English writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. His books have been published in the UK, US and Japan, and his articles have appeared in Time Out, Dazed & Confused, GQ, Playboy, The New York Post, The New York Daily News and many others.

Review of Ariel Gore’s The End of Eve

March 20, 2015 § 1 Comment

By Rebecca Fish Ewan

End_of_Eve_247_400_80When I heard Ariel Gore had published a new memoir, I bought it instantly. Then I set the thin book beside my bed and avoided it for months. The cover flap read, “Ariel doesn’t want to take care of her crazy dying mother, but she knows she will.” I couldn’t bring myself to read what I knew would be an honest, funny, authentic account of how she did it. Brilliantly, of course.

I read memoirs, because I like to see how other people negotiate the hard realities of life, including death. They help me believe that perhaps I can manage my way through similar circumstances, if and when they arise. I knew Ariel Gore wouldn’t disappoint, and I wanted to read her book, but I wasn’t ready to consider how I might behave if I were in her place, because I knew I’d fuck it up.

Reading about caring for a mother who had never been particularly caring felt too close to what I’d spent years avoiding. So the book sat, until I had read through my bedside stack. Then one night with my husband out of town and the kids asleep, I lay in my bed unable to turn my mind off. So I picked up The End of Eve and began to read. Trained as a poet, I read slowly and finished the book in a few days (a normal reader could have finished it in hours).

What I love about Ariel Gore’s The End of Eve is that it always sets a bull’s-eye on Leon Battista Alberti’s concinnitas, the idea of beauty he describes as a “reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added or taken away, or altered, but for the worse.” Gore has such well-honed storytelling skills that she pares away the unnecessary until all that remains is a spare, exposed and beautiful story. Nothing need be added, nor taken away or altered.

Also, her writing has a musicality to it with recognizable beats of single sentence or one-word paragraphs that bring readers to attention, like a quick snap of her fingers: “The sound of morning rain.” Snap, I’m awake. “Santa Fe. I lived here now.” Snap. “Fluorescent light and the smell of disinfectant.” Snap. “The hiss of the oxygen tank.” Snap. “I tore cilantro, cut limes.” Snap. These beats grab me and keep me close, so I can taste, feel and see the story as it unfolds, all the way to the last line: “And now I was free.”

While reading The End of Eve, I was transported beyond the quiet sphere of light from my bedside lamp. I went to Portland, met Eve, and became annoyed by the rain and Eve’s selfishness. I sat in the quiet as Ariel wrote Behave in a way you’re going to be proud of on her wrist with a Sharpie while nursing her son, Maxito. I packed up and drove to New Mexico with her partner, Sol, and sweet Maxito, who became as the story developed a Yoda for me, always popping in with deep child wisdom. Like when tagging along as Ariel ships Eve’s remains to California and he declares, “That’s not Nonna…It’s just the ashes left over.” And I felt the scraping puncture of each tattoo Ariel added to her body. After her stars have healed, she wants more and plans a tattoo date with a woman known only as the chef. Gore writes, “What was a tattoo anyway, but a visual reminder of pain and memory. The memoir inked into our skin.”

Even though the content of The End of Eve scared me away at first, what drew me in, besides the phenomenal writing, was the humor. Gore delivers this story so I can both laugh at the absurd (a girlfriend sneaking about with a mime) and feel my heart quake at her sad isolation like when her mother tosses all Ariel’s belongings out of the house, changes the locks and then gets an attorney to investigate Ariel’s so-called abuse/neglect of Maxito for having nowhere sufficient to live).

In truth, after reading the book, I didn’t have any better idea how to reconcile my own mother/daughter relationship, or lack thereof, but I knew it could be done and done with love, humor, and wisdom. And that gives me hope. What more does one need?


Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of A Land Between, has an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University where she teaches landscape history and design. She lives in Tempe with her family and is finishing the drawings for her narrative verse cartoon memoir of a childhood friendship cut short by murder. For more of her writing and sketches, see www.rebeccafishewan.com.


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