Writer as Sculptor

November 22, 2017 § 8 Comments

Jennifer Lang small head shotBy Jennifer Lang

After “So,” my 100-word story about a spontaneous moment when I hugged a stranger in a department store, appeared on Thread literary journal, I emailed the editor to thank her, explaining that I’d written it years ago, in a much longer version, but always found the story flat and uninspiring. For months, I’d worked on it with my writing group, seven CNF’ers who urged me to dig deeper, to reflect, to describe what had motivated me to open my arms to an inconnu. I edited, revised, tweaked: two pages turned into three then four and finally five. Initially, I titled it “Nothing to Lose,” reminiscent of my mother’s motto encouraging me to take chances. Eventually, I rewrote it in second person and called it “How to Hug a Stranger.” Regardless of how many times I described the scene or strengthened verbs, the heart of the story remained the same: lost.

Recently, a fellow writer shared her 100-word story, “Eighty,” on Thread. Her sparse prose sizzled with words like sweaty torso, toenails, lovemaking. I had a rare writerly epiphany, opened my stranger story, copied it into a new document, and went to work.

Like a stone carver, I began to chisel at my words using new and unfamiliar tools. With a point in hand, I removed the primary bulk material, the excess about my mother’s maxim, about the steamy summer weather, about another woman who had addressed the stranger and me during our embrace. I removed all the forced reflection, the blah blah blah behind my boldness. Next, I aimed the rake—a flat, straight chisel with slightly beveled teeth—at the setting to scrape away unnecessary words, leaving the basics: the base of a Macy’s denim display. I repeated the same raking movement with the stranger, describing her minimally: head bowed, sunglasses shielding her eyes, crouched, dark circles, disheveled hair, hospital visitor sticker, rumpled t-shirt. Then, I wielded the flat straight chisel, the finishing tool with a slight bevel, to rasp and sand the action: I open my arms. She steps into my embrace, and we are like awkward teenagers, slow dancing. I scraped and scraped at dialogue, deleting what I said as I approached her—that she looked like she needed a hug that I couldn’t leave the store without knowing if she was okay that she could squeeze me harder that I wouldn’t break. I scraped more, deleting what she said repeatedly: “You’re so sweet.” By the end, I was left with the six words the stranger said in my arms: “My mom’s dying. I’m so sad.”

After each phase, I counted words and watched them dwindle from 1236 to 484 to 255 to 139. I started anew—carve, chisel, scrape, finish, rasp, sand—until I reached my word-count goal. Each one depended on the next. Each one carried its own weight. Each one mattered. Together, they surprised me in a way most of my longer prose doesn’t.

This month, while aspiring novelists participate in NaNoWriMo, I’m participating in a unique flash forum: an exercise in accountability with a small group of English-speaking writers of all genres around Israel. I didn’t initiate it; I don’t even know the other writers. Every day, we email with the date and under 1000 words. There is no obligation to read or respond, simply to show up and share. For thirty days, I will put forth my best flash with no expectation except of myself: to sculpt my prose once, twice, probably a few more times until the heart story sparkles.

Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com and follow her @JenLangWrites as she writes her first memoir.

Stop Making Sense

November 21, 2017 § 22 Comments

Have we got an offer for you!

Black and white picture of David Byrne dancing in a boxy oversized suit from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense

How did I get here?

Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?

This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.

Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.

Within the same sentence.

Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:

He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.

Tell it once:

His hands were gnarled.

Better yet, show it in an action:

He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.

He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.

Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:

Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”

Show it once:

Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”

(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)

Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:

I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.

 Pare it down:

I texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

I thought it was very clear.

Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”

As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?

But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

This also applies to “filtering”:

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.

If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”

It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her bimonthly travel and writing newsletter here.

Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)

Something Folded; Something Gained

November 20, 2017 § 14 Comments

IMG_0281By Lea Page

It is the day after the final soccer game for the Division III State Championship, and my son and I are sitting on the rug in his room doing a laundry-folding blitz. Throughout this hectic season, during which he played two sports (varsity soccer and split-midgets hockey) and generated a steady supply of sweaty work-out clothes, he managed to wash his clothes but couldn’t quite keep up with the folding and putting-away. So today, we are tackling together the red and white mountain of jerseys, socks and Under Armor.

After winning nineteen straight games, most of them shut-outs, Thomas’s soccer team lost their first and only game of the season, 1-0. Although they were the number one seed this year, they came to the final game as underdogs, playing the team that has won the championship for the last three years. Thomas’ high school has never won a championship game and has only sent a team to the finals once before. The stakes and the hopes couldn’t be higher. I prayed to the soccer gods for a win for these boys, partly because they were a skilled team that worked together in a unified and fluid way that is rare to see, and partly because these boys, who had grown up and played together since the beginning, had folded Thomas, a homeschooler, into the team so seamlessly that no one would ever guess that he hadn’t been there forever.

2012 september soccerIt was not to be. Not this time. The bus, decked out with the boys’ names and numbers, was escorted back into town by two police cruisers with full lights and sirens. After some goodies in the school cafeteria and a speech by the coach, the boys had mostly regained their composure, goofing around and posing for photographs. They were the same boys after the loss as they were before it, just with a temporary burden of disappointment. Life goes on, high school hockey practice would start in two days, and the pile of laundry waited.

So here we are, folding and matching.

“Some of the guys were more upset than they showed,” my son says to me. I turn out another basket and pull out a sweatshirt. “And some, who I didn’t expect, were really upset. The defenders: I think they felt that we…. well, left them hanging.”

“A loss is always hardest on the defense,” I say as I smooth a pair of wrinkly jeans. “And everybody has their own way of dealing with it.”

“The police escort was the hardest part,” Thomas admits, and he is quiet for a while. “I tried to keep it together. I really tried,” he says, stacking underwear. “But I guess I can be glad that, as a sophomore, I got the chance to play a big role on a team that made it to the finals. And there is always next year. And hockey.” Then he holds his hands to his head, falls back and groans. It still hurts.

The last of the piles is tucked away into drawers. He gives me a hug as we head back downstairs. Hockey is less laundry-intensive, since most of the gear is pads, which don’t get washed much (ew!). I am grateful today for the opportunity the pile of laundry has given us.

Thomas heads out to get the mail and comes back in, handing me a manila envelope with my name and address written in my own hand. It is my essay about bullying that I had submitted to a magazine, returned to me with very kind rejection letter. This, too, is not to be. Not this time. “Oh, well,” I say. I am more disappointed, maybe, than I show.

With sympathy in his eyes, Thomas says, “I’m sorry, Mom.”

I am the same person now, with this next rejection, that I was before, right? I sigh and smile at him. It still hurts. At least I can count on laundry.


Lea Page‘s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Boiler, Krista Tippet’s On Being Blog, Tiferet Journal, Soundings Review, and Hippocampus, among others. She is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now (Floris Books, 2015).

SLAG GLASS CITY Announces 2018 Call for Submissions

November 17, 2017 § 3 Comments

slagChicago, IL—Slag Glass City, a nonfiction literary journal of the urban essay arts, announces a special call for submissions: Dear City: The Urban Epistolary. Nonfiction prose, photography, and hybrid works submitted for this call are accepted from November 15, 2017—February 15, 2018.

Epistolary essays selected for publication by the 2018 editorial board will be published in the online journal and promoted broadly, as well as considered for publication in the annual miniature print edition.

We seek: creative nonfiction essay-letters addressed to-or-from your city, and/or letters of exchange between cities. Although all essays should inhabit the form and/or intention of an actual letter, Slag Glass City welcomes fresh takes and variations including: mosaic, montage, photographs, soundscape, drawing, image + text, video, audio, and/or hybridity. We have no length requirements and will consider prose from short-short/flash to longform.

Submit all work to our special submission portal: https://tinyurl.com/SlagGlassCity-DearCity. (Visual artists should submit low resolution samples, or contact us to share work too large for the Submittable portal.)

We are open to any perspective on cities, for better-or-worse, from praise-to-critique, from love-to-protest, from application-to-cease-and-desist, and anything in-between. We seek:

Essay-Letters FROM YOUR CITY. For instance: Dear America, This is how it feels to be underwater. Love, Houston. OR Dear President, Would you drink this water? Love, Flint.

Essay-Letters TO YOUR CITY. For instance:  Dear Orlando, We are still grieving. OR Dear Dubrovnik, Here is how you heal me. 

Epistolary Exchanges BETWEEN CITIES or between people in cities. Collaborative essays are welcome.

Regular submissions are still open October-June. Slag Glass City considers nonfiction prose, graphic narrative, video, audio, soundscape, photography, mixed media, or any other form of essay arts. The prose cannot be previously published, including on author blogs, but visual art may appear on artist’s sites. We are unable to pay contributors, but artists retain all rights, we promote widely, and all work published stays “in-print” online.

Slag Glass Citywww.SlagGlassCity.orgis a magazine of essay arts, textual burlesque, and post-industrial forms, edited by Barrie Jean Borich. Published at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, we are an international creative nonfiction and multidisciplinary media journal engaged with sustainability, identity, and art in urban environments. The living city is broken and blooming. How will our roof gardens grow?


HippoCamp 18 Call for Speakers

November 17, 2017 § 4 Comments

hippocamp17 tee shirt - SIZEDWe’ve posted before about how much we enjoy the HippoCamp experience.  Well folks, they just posted their call for speakers for the upcoming 2018 event. (BTW: When HippoCamp says “Speakers,” they don’t mean famous people.  They mean working, sometimes struggling, writers.)  See here:

HippoCamp’s programming is mostly for-attendees, by attendees! With the exception of keynotes and a few panels, our conference is built from the proposals YOU submit!

We’re enthusiastically inviting attendees who also are interested in being part of our speaker line-up to submit a session proposal for HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers (Aug. 24-26) in one of our three traditional tracks, our new addition of a special topics track, or our flash sessions:

  • Breakout Sessions in four tracks: 
    We’re looking for dynamic speakers and engaging, informative, practical 60-minute sessions that will give our attendees actionable takeaways. Breakout session presenters will receive a special discounted attendee rate (about 60% off conference registration).

    • CREATE – craft topics related to CNF
    • SHARE – sessions related to publishing and promotion – getting your work out there
    • LIVE – sessions dedicated to living the writer’s life: how to balance writing with family and/or a job, how to make ends meet, etc.
    • SPECIAL TOPICS – sessions devoted to either a niche writing area, or bigger-picture topics related to writers today. (In 2017, these included writing across intersections, recovery memoirs, science of memory, and travel writing.)
  • Lightning-Round (Flash!) presentation: HippoCamp will hold a general session featuring five 7-minute presentations (PechaKucha Style) by select attendees. Flash session presenters will receive a special discounted attendee rate (about 50% off conference registration).


  • Submission period is between Sept. 30 and Dec. 15, 2017
  • Sessions are reviewed and selected by the conference programming committee.
  • We’ll announce the line-up in late December/early January before tickets go on sale in late January/early February.

Interested?  More Details Here.

A Review of Alice Anderson’s Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away

November 17, 2017 § 2 Comments

zz fly334_BO1,204,203,200_By Melissa Cronin

Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, by Alice Anderson, is not only a telling of a battered woman’s storm-ravaged life, it’s also a story of redemption, resilience, survival, and a reclamation of one’s true self in face of one trauma after another. The cascade of events begins with her father, whose sexual abuse of his four-year-old daughter continues through her school age years. Just as she finds her “soul-deep” place while in college, Anderson is thrown airborne from her scooter by a rogue car. She sustains critical injuries, her long recovery whiplashed by endless setbacks, convincing her to drop out of college. At her mother’s urging, Anderson attempts to re-fashion herself into a model in Paris. But six months later she’s had enough, and returns to school. Her life is blown sideways once again when Hurricane Katrina blasts through Mississippi, where she lives in an upscale neighborhood with her physician husband, Liam, and their “sweet three,” as she so tenderly refers to her children. Their home was the only one remaining intact, missed by what Anderson describes as “the wrath of the twister.”

But the most epic flood of all is just beginning. In the wake of Katrina, Liam’s OCD and alcoholism spirals out of control, reaching its high-water mark when he attacks Anderson at knifepoint. To protect her life, and the lives of her children, she finds refuge in a FEMA trailer far from Liam’s fury. For her children’s welfare, for self-preservation, she walks straight into the ensuing wind-whipping legal battles, holds her own in face of a misguided social service system, and powers ahead despite her fearmongering husband, who has threatened to take their children from her and to have her locked up in a psychiatric ward. Scariest of all, is Liam’s Plan B threat: “I’ll kill you. Without a second thought.”

Anderson’s moment-by-moment detailing of her husband’s violence, the kind seen in psychological thrillers, drove me to question why I couldn’t, wouldn’t, seek shelter from the book, why I continued reading, page after page, late into the night and, yes, even while out for a walk.

I was committed to the book because I have a personal interest in traumatic memoirs of this nature. In the memoir I’m currently completing, I write about the personal trauma I experienced when an older driver confused the gas pedal for the brake and mowed down dozens of us at a farmers’ market fourteen years ago. The book, which is about how I take back my life after sustaining severe physical and emotional injuries, is not always uplifting. And there are stories of how the crash affected others: survivors, the dead, the driver himself. Brighter moments do lend meaning to the narrative: finding consummate love for instance. But it took me a long time to figure how to paint the page with such levity. As perverse as it is, people have a morbid curiosity for the tragic; I assumed my readers would possess the same macabre inclination. But I quickly learned, after reading lots of memoirs, and receiving feedback from editors and writing mentors, that levity is essential to traumatic narratives. Buoyancy gives us space to breath, to re-align ourselves, offering us enough emotional reserve to keep reading.

So how does Anderson do it, deliver disaster relief among all wreckage? A stellar, award-winning poet, she sings from the page with intoxicating beauty. When referring to her children, she writes, “Sweet three attached like sequins.” Later, she notes how they “smell like starlight and sugar cookies and sing like birds filling blue skies.” And while in court, her friends and family on her side, we are on her side, afraid with her as she describes her interior world, “I was moving through fog akin to shifted night sugar.”

More than her poetic finesse, Anderson’s humor is priceless, the way she rouses laughter with her Mississippi dialect: “Doesn’t that seem a little … down the bayou of batshit crazy?” she asks when another model tells Anderson the owner of the agency for which they work is a big-wig oil trader.

There’s no arguing that Anderson endures untold devastation equal in destruction to Hurricane Katrina. Yet, from deep within the wreckage, she digs up the remaining scraps of her broken life and, piece-by-splintered-piece, recycles them into “dazzling scaffolding”—a  gift really, one she leaves for us to unwrap in the very first sentence of the prologue: “We make chapels of our scars.”


Melissa Cronin is a freelance journalist and author. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Washington PostThe Jerusalem PostNarratively Magazine, Saranac Review, River Teeth Journal, Under the Gum Tree, and Intima. She is currently completing a memoir. Melissa holds a BS in Nursing from Boston University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Brevity Podcast Episode #7 Kristen Arnett and Hippocamp

November 16, 2017 § 4 Comments

I told you we should have stayed home and listened to the Brevity Podcast

When you’re wandering the aisles of the local megastore, already tired of Christmas carols you’ve been hearing since Halloween…it’s time to pop in those earbuds and enjoy the latest Brevity Podcast.

Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Episode #7 features an interview with Kristen Arnett, author of Felt In The Jaw, on debut authorship, the value of literary social media, and how she got her beloved agent. We also continue our mini-series on conferences with on-the-spot chats from speakers and participants at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking all things submissions with JoBeth McDaniels, Geeta Kothari, Erika Dreifus, Irene Landsman and a few more Hippocampers.

Show Notes: Episode #7 People and Books

Find out more about Kristen Arnett at her website and on Twitter. Read her essays, The Problem With Writing About Florida at Lithub, and Hand-Operated Shearing Instruments at the Rumpus.

Find out more about recording your own work

Submit your One-Minute Memoir to Brevity

Roxane Gay

Kenyon Review Writers Workshop

PEN/Bellwether Prize

Lisa Ko’s The Leavers

Tin House


Randon Billings Noble’s The Heart Is a Torn Muscle at Brevity, and her chapbook Devotional

Moving Forewords

Lancaster Story Slam

Terry Heyman’s The Kushner Family Passover Haggadah in McSweeney’s and A Letter to the Woman In Whose Body I’ve Lived For 38 Years, From Her Period at The Higgs Weldon

Rebecca Fish Ewan’s By the Forces of Gravity

Hippocampus magazine, with links to Hippocampus Books and the Hippocamp conference. You can also follow the conference hashtag on Twitter, and many of the sessions will be live-tweeted.

Memoirists Anonymous: Turning Trauma Into Narrative was led by Laurie Jean Cannady

I Remember: Unlocking Memories to Lay the Foundation of Your Memoir was led by Jamie Brickhouse

Manual typewriter thanks to theshaggyfreak and Fanfare thanks to cafeface via freesound.org

Additional music, Later Fruits, thanks to Axletree via freemusicarchive.org


Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast. Join her monthly writing adventure mailing list at TinyLetter.

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