Teaching Brevity: A Little Bit of Brevity by My Side
September 22, 2017 § 16 Comments
by Lisa Romeo
Do I teach creative nonfiction by incorporating Brevity? You may as well ask if I teach writing that involves using words.
I teach across a range of models and levels – undergraduates (on-campus CNF elective); MFA students (all-online program); CNF writers of all skill levels (In-person regional workshops and classes); private writing clients (in person and/or online). Brevity is included in all of those scenarios.
Often, as soon as I mention Brevity, I see heads nodding, or get Yes! Yes! on-screen messages. But just as often, I encounter blank stares or “Never read it” notes. Either way, I’m pleased. Those who already know Brevity will, I hope, be exposed to different pieces and other craft essays than they might have found on their own. And for those who have not yet explored Brevity, I get to play enthusiastic tour guide, pointing out not major current highlights and treasures from the archives.
I have my stand-bys of course, pieces I’ve loved since I first read them, those that to me are excellent, specific examples of craft, form, voice, tone, or structure. Every few months, however, I challenge myself to dig deeper into the archives and read more pieces I probably didn’t have time for the first time they appeared. Or, a student will ask me a question or be struggling with a draft, and I’ll dimly recall a Brevity piece that may perfectly illustrate a way forward.
When that happens, and I’m off in search of a piece, it may take me a few minutes or it may take me an hour or more, because I get lost, distracted by so many shiny things I haven’t yet read. I kind of like the latter better. What’s not to like about reading—again or for the first time—such good work? Finding gems I didn’t even know were there?
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of sending off a Brevity link to the student with a few notes about why I suggest the reading. But not too many notes; I want the student writer to read without too much expectation, and just see what happens.Often, I copy and paste a full piece (and link) over into WORD, make a pdf for future teaching use, sometimes as a reading assignment followed by discussion. Always, I add the new piece’s title and link into a running list I keep of pieces that illustrate great writing—and I include notes so I can easily remember why I tagged it: one basic major reason, and additional notes maybe on content, take-away, author, or any backstory I might know.
For example, the notes on Erika Dreifus’s “Before Sunrise” read: Superb example of second person. Raises race/privilege issues from white POV. City life/crime. Trauma, injury, assault. She’s pubbed other second-person & a first-person piece on the further events connected to this experience at (links). The “Before Sunrise” narrator is not a young adult, yet the piece always resonates with undergraduates who want to write about difficult life experiences, but are challenged by the exposure of an *I* narrator. Soon after we read and analyze this piece together in class, coupled with a craft lesson on second person, I begin to see second person pieces in which the students not only confront their difficult stories, but have stretched and developed their voices.
For Brenda Miller’s “Ordinary Shoes”—introduced to me by a writer friend (a great benefit of Brevity’s reach)—my note says: Strong example of moving back and forth in time. Object as memory trigger. Nicely done speculative/imaginary scenes between narrator and parent. Nostalgia without sentimentality. Recently, I’ve paired a close reading of this piece with an assignment to sort through old objects for one that elicits strong emotional memories tied to a friend or relative, and then write a reflective story the object spurs.
For “Devotion” by Sarah Lin, my notes say Sensitive writing about someone else w/a disability. Developing secondary character with good details. Narrator grappling w/past behavior—knowing & not wanting to know. An essay that tries to understand something from childhood/teen years. When I teach this, it opens a discussion on what stories we have the right to tell, considerations of how others appear in our nonfiction, and how to convey emotions not by explaining them, but via scene, dialogue, and description.
When possible I encourage students to print out, so that they can do the close reading on paper (though the undergraduates will fight this). I want writers to use highlighters, sticky notes, colored pens, and margin notes as we discuss issues of craft, structure, organization, pacing, rhythm, characters; I want them to put their mark on the page in ways that tie the piece to their own thinking and writerly understanding.
For online students, I will sometimes paste the piece directly into our private discussion forum, and use highlighting, underlining, bold, and my own notes (in a vivid color) to draw attention to what the author has done—and spur discussion about those choices.
One of my goals for CNF writing students is to have them not just read one or two things I’ve directed them to read at Brevity, but to establish their own relationship with the site, to start to think of it as something personal that offers them insight and endless lessons for developing their own craft. I want them to learn to follow their nose, to crawl through the Craft Essays section as well as the featured pieces archive, not just when we’re working together, but going forward, so they can look there to find guidance at various points in their future writing life.
Sometimes, I assign students to browse and locate any two or three craft essays that seem of interest; read them, and then explain: how they might use this newly acquired advice their own in-progress piece(s); what the craft essay brought up for them; whether they either agree or disagree with the craft essay’s points. Sometimes the “disagree” reasons provoke the best class discussions on the topic.
While Brevity is itself a deep, wide, and rich resource, I also want to show writers more of the literary world, using Brevity as a launching pad. So I will often recommend that writers read one particular featured piece at Brevity, then assign them to move from that piece away from Brevity to learn more and read more. How? Begin with the writer’s bio at their Brevity piece. See where it leads. Visit the writer’s website or blog. Look up the writer’s books, find their other published short works. Then, read. Very often, when writers do this, they begin to talk about and perhaps begin to understand how a singular piece fits into—or breaks out from—a writer’s larger body of work, typical style, tone, or voice.
I don’t encourage undergraduates to submit to Brevity, though I do hold it up as a future goal for those who seem interested (I give them a list of undergraduate-focused journals instead.) For MFA students and private editing/coaching writers, Brevity often turns up on their own lists of dream-to-be-published-in venues, as it should, and we talk about ways to get there. I encourage them to follow the Brevity blog, to get a glimpse of how CNF writers navigate projects, productivity, writing lives—and then to get more curious about those writers, and go find them in other places around the web or bookstore.
Since I was fortunate to be published in Brevity (“On the Near Side of the Tracks,“ in the September 2016 special issue on race), on occasion, I’ve taught from this piece, coupling it with the Brevity blog post I wrote which details my writing and submitting process. I do this as a way to break down for others any mystery surrounding how one might get published in a bucket list venue. (Key takeaway: write your brief piece for Brevity, rather than yanking a short section from a longer piece.)
I use my own work not because I think it’s fabulous (though of course I like it!), but because I can answer questions—about narrowing my idea, writing early drafts, revisions, submitting, working with an editor. I also use it to draw them to the other pieces in that special issue on race, as a timely and robust way to explore writing about difficult issues. Many students want to tackle personal experiences around explosive topics and need as many examples as possible of ways to approach them.
I’d need way more words—it wouldn’t be brief!—to talk about how Brevity infiltrates my own creative writing life. But one thing I will mention here—because I like to share it with my students, as an example of the value of a developing one’s own writing community—is that when time permits, I like to let a Brevity writer know when I’ve read, admired, learned from (and/or taught from) their work. Reaching out this way (via email, Facebook, or Twitter) has led to a few lovely conversations with writers I might not have ordinarily “met,” and further demonstrates the power of a strong online journal like Brevity, to foster connection not only through the original writer’s words, but in ways beyond.
‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6.
Lisa Romeo teaches creative nonfiction in the Bay Path University MFA program, at Montclair State University, with The Writers Circle, and privately. Her nonfiction is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016, has been nominated for a Pushcart, and appeared in Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Sweet, Word Riot, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Harpur Palate, and many other places. Her memoir, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, will be published by University of Nevada Press in 2018.