Stacking Wood and Sentences

June 10, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Kelsey Francis

As a writer living in a 100-year-old house with too many windows and not enough insulation, I’ve gotten used to wrapping myself in fleece and wearing a wool hat at my writing desk.  In the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, the temperatures frequently plummet to below zero for months, and you learn to drive on snow packed roads for half the year. As such, we talk a lot about the weather with neighbors and friends and those conversations often lead to an important question: what kind of heat do you use?

We began heating our house with a woodstove in 2006. I was newly pregnant and we worried about the rising cost of heating oil. So, we ordered a truckload of firewood and watched it dumped on our front yard during a steady October rain. So began my relationship with stacking wood.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the various species of wood and the best way to build a fire in the woodstove on a cold January morning. But the most important lesson of firewood is that the drier the wood the more efficient the fire. And the way to ensure dry wood is to stack it in the spring, so it has plenty of time to “season” before you need to start burning it in the fall.

In my now 15 years of wood stacking, I’ve discovered an unlikely connection between the logs and my writing. I began to find the repetitive nature of lifting each piece of wood from the wheelbarrow and figuring out how to position it on the pile required a physical focus, but also allowed my mind to wander. I could think about a new idea for an essay or work out a conclusion in a short story that had been giving me trouble. I could occupy a writing space in my head, while my body moved. It was different from going for a walk or run or my commute to work. Using my arms to lift pieces of wood and then using my hands to position those pieces, so that they “fit” became an exercise in prewriting. Whole stories were taking shape in my head. Dialogue. Motivations. Background. The smell of a hospital room. The itch from the neck of a wool sweater.

And it wasn’t just the ideas that seemed to come while stacking. I began to see that the stacking itself had a lot in common with the actual writing. Building piles of maple, birch, ash, and poplar was like building sentences and paragraphs in a story. Different species of wood had different textures and weight, just as the weight and texture of a sentence can vary–in length, in structure, in word choice, in function.

I knew this sounded strange to my friends and family: You actually like stacking wood? they would ask.

Yes, I do. I get to write while I stack! I would reply.

Stacking wood has become a form of writing meditation for me. Better than any other activity I’ve tried to release writer’s block. It’s both calming and productive. Yes, it leaves me tired and with an achy back, but no more so than sitting at my desk pounding away at a keyboard only to abandon a new piece in frustration. Stacking firewood has become my annual personalized DIY craft of writing pep talk.

I now eagerly look forward to our springtime firewood deliveries because firewood means stacking and stacking means both a break from the long, dark Adirondack winter and a breakthrough in my long, dark winter writing slump.
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Kelsey Francis’s work has appeared in Porcupine Literary, HAD, Twin Pies Literary, The Washington Post, Adirondack Life Magazine, and the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, among others. She lives, teaches high school English, and writes in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. She can be found on Twitter @ADK_Kelsey

The Case for Single-Sentence Prose in the Age of Insecurity

July 23, 2020 § 19 Comments

JasonThayerAuthorPicBy Jason Thayer

I was having trouble focusing. Every story idea, every essay concept seemed unwieldy, unmanageable in the hellscape of Spring 2020. My mind flitted from anxiety to new anxiety as I obsessively checked the infection rates, monitored the new restrictions, raged against the maskless. I sat down at my computer every afternoon and tried to write something new and failed. I tried to revise my memoir manuscript, but couldn’t keep track of the arc, couldn’t assess whether the pacing in the first chapter was too fast or whether my hook was punchy enough to attract an agent.

The doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, a woman with short gray hair who wore pedal pushers like my mother. She was hugging a cardboard box.

“We have this food I won’t eat,” she said, then took a breath. Exhaled. “I don’t know if you know yet, but my husband died last week.”

I did not know this. I stood on the front porch with her for a few moments, fumbling for condolences, finally taking the box of food.

I told my partner about the interaction, the way our neighbor had used the plural, we, and then the singular, I. We unpacked the saltines, the canned chicken breast, the diet 7-Up. Trips to the grocery store were daunting and so, even though these items didn’t top our shopping list, we made our way through the gifted food.

In the morning while I washed dishes, I’d see our neighbor walk past the window and my mind would swim toward her sadness. Grief is its own isolation, and knowing that she was bearing hers alone, in lockdown, seemed an unprecedented cruelty. My father died when I was a child, and with a loss like this, comes a special communion with the bereaved; I could not stop thinking about my neighbor. Wondering what she made for dinner, and how long the leftovers lasted. Whether she was eating much at all. Whether there were days she didn’t speak to anyone except the cat that skulked across her lawn chasing squirrels. At night, I would look across our yards, the ill-defined property line, and see her reading in her living room, a single light on in the big dark house. In the morning, I would see her walk past my window as I washed dishes, and if I let my mind linger too long on her sadness, my eyes would well.

I sat down to write about this, but again, the task of molding this small interaction into a traditional essay seemed daunting. I did not have the attention span to research the impact of grief on bereaved spouses, or cull my memory for a poignant anecdote that would characterize our deceased neighbor, bringing to light what was lost. Even a flash piece was more than I could commit to, as the daily news grew more and more grim, the world around us more chaotic and unstable.

2020-07-21_15-11-48But what about a single sentence? Could I write a single sentence about my neighbor’s private grief and its vicarious impact? Yes, I could. I could work within these parameters. I could commit to this.

The single-sentence format is well-suited for this new world where our attentions stray, where our brains must keep tabs on virus rates, on which family members aren’t wearing masks, on systemic racism, on cops murdering unarmed Black and brown people.

This isn’t to suggest the single-sentence form is any easier to write. For example, I had wanted to write this blog entry in a single sentence, but couldn’t manage to fit everything I wanted to say. The limitations of a single sentence challenge the writer to twist syntax, bend structure to their will, or else winnow narrative down to the bones.

But with these restrictions also comes the opportunity for innovation. Experiments that might not be sustainable in longer work are manageable, even revelatory in brief formats. Could I read a whole novel where the protagonist was a slice of pizza? No. But a single sentence? Definitely.

Single-sentence stories can be told in a single breath, like Hemingway’s famous, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But they can also take the form of Diane Seuss’ tour d’force, “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” published in Brevity. Here, content dictates form. The long-winded, tangent-laden single sentence mimics the breathless adrenaline of the speaker in that moment, trying to make sense of what she has just done, excising the two drug dealers from her son’s apartment. This form wouldn’t work for a plodding story without that charged immediacy.

For my purposes, a modest single sentence was ideal for distilling a small interaction that lingered with me:

I did not know our neighbor died until his wife knocked to offer a box of food she wouldn’t eat: pancake mix, diet 7-up, Pepperidge Farm white bread her husband had stomached during a 3-month-long losing-battle to cancer, a box I took gratefully, offering condolences—no hugs, because the virus was already spreading, and because I didn’t know these neighbors well enough to provide this comfort, in fact, had no idea that the jolly guy I’d bantered with under the black walnut tree we shared, had cancer—and now I try not to watch her, absorb her loneliness, take it as my own, the widow social distancing in that big house, leaving briefly for daily walks past our kitchen window as I wash dishes, griddle my partner a breakfast of pancakes.

I had seen single sentences published in lit mags before, but I’d never heard of a journal that dealt exclusively in single-sentence content. Well, I thought. That’s an idea. That’s a magazine for this new age of insecurity.

This July, I launched Complete Sentence, an online magazine of single-sentence prose. Weekly, we publish single-sentence essays, stories, reviews, and hot takes. If you are having trouble focusing, consider this challenge: write a single sentence. Just one. And then send it our way.

For submission guidelines to Complete Sentence, click here.

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Jason Thayer is the Editor-in-Chief of Complete Sentence. His work has been published in The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Hobart, and Essay Daily among others. Find more info at jasonthayer.com and on twitter @thejasonthayer.

My Affair with the Sentence

October 11, 2017 § 10 Comments

22282109_359766681112308_5299649755912659950_n(1)By Beth Ann Fennelly 

After many years of a fairly monogamous relationship with poetry, I began a flirtation with prose. Now it’s a full-blown affair. My newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is a collection of little bite-sized stories about my life. Some of them are a sentence, some a paragraph, or a few. At times, when I was trying to publish them, my husband (also a writer) would call my attention to a prose poem contest, asking, “Why not send in your new pieces?”  My refusal was knee-jerk: my pieces weren’t poetry. “Does it matter?” he’d ask, genuinely curious.  It mattered, curiously. Memoir had allowed me access to material previously unavailable through poetry, and I wanted to credit the genre. Why, though, did writing in sentences as opposed to lines make a difference?

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The line versus the sentence: this distinction would seem twee to those who aren’t obsessed with words, who assume lines are chopped-up sentences. But those of us who are obsessed with words know the distinction changes not only how but what we write. After all, if lines were merely chopped-up sentences, and line breaks merely visual, we could delete them with no change to the material. But when losing the line break, we lose the white space that shapes the way we process meaning. Line breaks provide a rest, so the words on either side of the rest can require more effort in the processing of lyricism, tropes, syntax, and sound. These resting places—like stair landings in a walk-up—interrupt the exertion with a breather (literally), and so give us the strength to keep climbing. Without them, too much is demanded of us, so our absorption is hindered.

The poetic line also affects the reader because it highlights the artfulness and artifice of the experience of reading, as opposed to the sentence, which distracts us from it. The line, followed by its white space, metes out comprehension, followed by its disruption. The power play of the line break is that of withholding. We’re never unaware that our experience is being modulated by another as we follow the choreographer’s orders to leap and rest, leap and rest. This is fundamentally different than how prose pours itself into the vase of the page. Here, says the line, Now we are here. Now we are here. But everywhere, says the sentence. You are everywhere and nowhere. The sentence is always pointing outside of itself. This is what Cole Swenson means, I believe, when she writes “Prose exists somewhere other than the page.”

And, lastly, the line’s tension is different from the sentence’s tension. Tension in the line occurs as the unfurling sentence is interrupted by caesura and line breaks. These two forces, the force that pushes and the one that retards, become the warp and weft on which the skilled poet manipulates rhythm. Let’s compare this to how the engine of the sentence moves us. With prose, the rhythms are steadier, the goal accumulation. Chris Forhan, another poet-turned-memoirist, says on LitHub that “When writing prose, I can often afford to work at a lower idle.”  Indeed, the locomotive and the long distance car trip are frequent comparisons for prose, which feels horizontal, not vertical.

And all this influences the “what” we write. Without the push-and-pull of line breaks, the act of reading becomes less conscious. The physicality of reading–the eyes yanking back to the left margin, while the ear and brain rush toward comprehension–is lessened. As a result we’re less bolted to the moment, which is to say, the lyric impulse. The tension of prose takes place on a wider tapestry, the warp and weft tightening not over the course of a single line but as momentum builds toward and is delayed from its destination. Prose is more interested with the future, and sometimes the past, connected to the present, which is to say, plot. Prose is less about relating shifting parts of a sentence into a coherent now, and more about relating the shifting now to a coherent then, and then, and then, which better accommodates the narrative impulse.
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So, how did the rhythm of the sentence allow me access to experiences I hadn’t accessed with poetry?  I made that long-distance road trip into the past and stayed there longer than I would have with the line’s leaping insistence. By idling there, the past revealed its intricacies, fleshed out in a way that let me see how rich and detailed those memories were. The unfolding energy of the “and then” construction demanded these moments link up with a future, thus providing prospective. The person who lived those past moments, the “I of the then,” as Sven Birkerts terms it in The Art of Time in Memoir, intersected with “the I of the now.”  For example, my whole life I’ve heard how, when I was two, my four-year-old sister cut off my curls and eyelashes with safety scissors. This oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote was not one I ever explored in poetry. But the fishing line of the sentence, cast back into the pool of 1973, lingering there, allowed me to sound the depths of that memory. As it turned out, there was something troubling about how that experience links up to our current relationship. There was a genuine question I needed to answer that the anecdote elided and the poetic line might have yanked me out of. The sentence got me there, inviting me to linger until I’d made the connection.

So I’m grateful to the sentence and all I’ve learned from it, all I continue to learn. Don’t tell poetry, but, at least for now, my love affair with the sentence shows no signs of fizzling.

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Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi.  Her book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is out this month from W.W. Norton.

Thoughts On the Road Not Taken

September 21, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Sandra Hager Eliason

“Two roads diverged,” I thought, recalling Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken. He describes his decision to take the road less traveled by, and the difference it made. I see the poem as a metaphor for my life. 

Reading and writing consumed my high school years, and I was confident my poetry, short stories, and essays would be published someday. In college, ideas blossomed and flowed easily onto the paper, the sticky keys of my manual typewriter preventing my fingers from keeping up with my brain. 

Yet, as Frost says, “way leads on to way,” and writing left me when, through a circuitous route, the road led to medical school. I saw no future in writing when everyone else was getting MBAs. I trusted hard work and diligent efforts on the medical path to lead to success. I have often asked myself what would have happened had I taken the other road. 

In my medical practice, I was drawn to patient stories. I captured them in the chart, first in cursive on paper, later typed into the computer, striving to record more than “just the facts,” to make my patients real on paper. Instead of “Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man with dementia,” followed by exam and assessment, I wanted anyone reading the chart to know that Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man who lives alone, and his children are scattered across the world, unable to help him. I strove to make each patient more than the sore throat seen on March 15th, or the appendicitis that went to the hospital. It turned out I was still writing, although in a limited fashion, prescribed by the format of the medical chart.

As retirement approached, I anticipated the void of leaving these stories behind, and wondered who I would become without them. I enrolled in a writing class. Maybe I could return to where I started. Then I came upon a writing contest in a medical magazine, tidied up a piece I had written years ago, and sent it at the last minute. Lo and behold, I won. Maybe I could write creatively for a wider audience, break out of the stilted format that patient charts required, leaving myself and my reflections out, recording colorless facts. 

In a chart, you must back everything you say with data, facts not necessary in a story or essay. When you have practiced leaving out feelings or description (it doesn’t matter in the chart the look on their face, how their hair was styled, the way their blue shirt contrasted with the pale green walls), you become accustomed to writing that neither creates scene nor conjures emotion. Relearning to write creatively, to take the stories stored in my brain and convert them from medical writing to another form, was like trying to re-find the overgrown path. 

Who could teach me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be? I knew plenty of medical people, but found myself in a writerless wasteland. As I groped to decide where to spend my time (and money!), my husband rightly observed, “You couldn’t just hang up a shingle and be a doctor, you had to take classes and learn. This is the same.” 

Bless him! I had to approach this writer thing with the same single-minded determination I used to study medicine. Instead of learning about muscles and cells, I was learning about sentences and paragraphs. Instead of diseases, I was learning themes.

I chose classes, went to conferences, and found places to meet other writers, who generously included me in local writing associations and gave me access to online groups. They provided workshopping and beta readers, things I previously had no idea existed. Each was a tool I needed to hone my brain into a different instrument: no longer a scalpel to cut straight to the facts, rather a scanning electron microscope getting close to the surface of the theme, then penetrating it. 

The sentence is more complicated than a scalpel slice, more nuanced than a surgical knot. Its mastery requires a more subtle training, with no diploma to announce when I’d arrived. But I keep at it. Because it turns out that writing, like medicine, is a practice, one you show up to routinely, striving for continual improvement. 

I will need persistence and determination to keep showing up on the page and to keep submitting—hoping to increase my skill and to find readers, but also reveling in the joy of ideas and words. 

At the start, I tried to look down both roads as far as I could, but as way led onto way, the road took me to places I never expected, and I dealt with the life in front of me. As Frost says, “I kept the first for another day,” and here I am, back at the beginning.

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Sandra Eliason is a retired physician who is now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine Arts Edition writing contest in 2016 for her piece “The Vacation,” which began her transition to full-time writing. She has had essays published in Bluestem magazine, West Trade Review, the Brevity Blog, and upcoming in The Linden Review. Her work has been anthologized in the e-book Tales from Six Feet Apart, and in Pure Slush: Cow Volume 23. She is a book reviewer for Hippocampus Magazine and is currently querying publishers for her memoir Heal Me: Becoming a Doctor for all the Wrong Reasons (and Finding Myself Anyway). Eliason has had reviews published in the Brevity Blog and pending at Rain Taxi. To find her reviews of books that you won’t likely find on the New York Times best sellers list, but should, check out dreliasonwriter.com. Eliason resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, where she tends a garden in the summer and creates a lap for her cat to warm in the winter.

Writing Prompts for Getting Lost

September 15, 2022 § 2 Comments

In a Craft Essay featured in our in our newest issue, Jill McCabe Johnson traces the literary roots of lost and found narratives — reaching “at least as far back as the French poetic form, the Chanson d’Aventure, when medieval poets ‘lost’ themselves in the countryside until they encountered or ‘found’ something inspiring and transformative” — and offers useful prompts, based on the work of Roxane Gay, Victoria Chang, and Joanne Nelson.

Here is a sample prompt:

Prompt:

Draft a letter to someone from your past whose journey entailed loss. This could be to a loved one who journeyed from life to death, or a relative sentenced to prison, or a friend who left home. Ask about what they saw, heard, smelled, ate, or carried.

Read Jill’s full essay in the new issue for the full discussion and numerous additional prompts: Getting Lost—and Found—in Personal Narrative

Brevity by the Numbers Part 3: Hard Math and Harder Math

September 9, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 3 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. For the genesis of this research project, read Part 1: “How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” To discover Brevity’s most overused words and best-favored subjects, read Part 2: “Word clouds and other squishy results.” This final installment is where a non-analyst tries her hand at hard math.

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Before narrative, before voice, before tense and point of view, before even paragraph and sentence, there was a word. The word that birthed every other word, brought them all forth stacked and tumbling. Hieroglyphs slick with meaning that, when we’re lucky, conjure a universe in a few scratches of ink.

Flash essays are made of very few and specific words. But it’s difficult to conjure worlds in less than 750: fewer than half the essays I read achieve a sub-650 count, and only 11% contain less than 400 words. A grand total two essays limbo under the 150 threshold. It’s hard to write small. More than a third of Brevity’s accepted submissions from 2017 to 2021 clock in at 700-749 words.

Zooming outward to the rooms the words built: sentences and paragraphs. There appear to be three categories of flash essay: the nearly-if-not-exactly-single-sentence, the balanced essay, and the choppy essay. But to prove this theory, I’ll have to analyze sentences and paragraphs simultaneously, and I need to work myself up to that level of math.

Instead let’s examine the building’s aesthetic: essay type, point of view and tense. 58% of the pieces are best understood as personal essays: personal experiences told using literary techniques. Essays like Megan Pillow Davis’ “Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling,” which cleverly lulls me into forgetting the title by the end of her 708 words, such that I read her bared teeth as a snarl. Like Donna Steiner’s gleeful “Lick”—though that anecdote begins with a short list. Speaking of, more than half of the hermit crabs (themselves 13% of Brevity’s essays) are lists. The rest tend toward the lyric, the fragmented, the braided—all arguably subsets of the personal essay. Only 8 of the 228 essays analyzed could be considered literary journalism. The gravitational tug of the personal helps writers to create a strong connection in such a brief space. 

This logic also explains why 85% of the essays are in the first person singular. I. Me. Point of view perspective from my eyes, staring at my chapped fingers tapping these words onto my MacBook keyboard. Distant second of second person, you netting only 9% of the essays in my data set. You that can invite a reader in, you that can put difficult events at a distance, you that sometimes requires acrobatics for exposition that you should already know since you are, well, you. First person plural and third person the remaining 6%, handfuls of essays managing these tricky points of view.

Tense, too, tends personal: 64% using present—the immediacy of running, jumping, climbing trees. 35% went reflective, those that ran, jumped, and climbed in some sepia-tone past. Only 1% thought forward: one day, when my back doesn’t ache from slouching in front of this computer, I will run and jump and climb.

Narrative time period is a different beast. In The Best of Brevity, Dinty W. Moore commended the “inventive writers” who quickly disproved his preliminary hypothesis that successful flash must focus on “the smallest period of time possible” (x). My graph verifies Moore’s realization: there are no narrative limitations to a flash essay.

Which brings me to scary big “M” Math.

Removing Jill Kolongowski’s “160 Things That Scare Me”—a true outlier with 199 sentences across 97 paragraphs—I pivot my table, nest sentences beneath paragraphs, and command Excel to create a scatterplot. Setting the background to black, I sit and stare. I like to see the flash this way, a swarm of lighting bugs, a constellation of stars.

I am happy to disprove my tidy theory of three essay types: in place of distinct groupings, a continuum. Most essays fall within a rough parallelogram below 20 paragraphs and 55 sentences. As paraphs increase, so do sentences—it would be difficult to read an essay that broke sentences across the backs of paragraphs (though successful in Irina Dumitrescu’s “Line,” and Kristine Langley Mahler’s “A Knot on the Finger,” among others). The bands of yellow dots seem to slope upward at the same rate, hinting at a golden ratio. When I limit the data to the concentrated area of light and insert a trendline (I impress even myself with this bit of Excel wizardry), I get the following Math:

y = 0.9497x + 22.595

R² = 0.2122

It doesn’t feel all that actionable, and a quick Google search confirms my coefficient of determination (R²) is probably weak. I talk up my coefficient, try to give it the determination to succeed, but it replies that I should brew another mug of peppermint tea and look elsewhere for answers.

I’m drawn to the graph’s brightness in the low paragraph counts. It signals those single sentence essays I expected to see—true one sentencers like Elena Passarello’s “Death Sentence” and close-enough-ers like David L. Ulin’s “Rite of Passage”—but also a second category: the stream-of-consciousness essay. These essays are one paragraph because it evokes the rush of a breath, words punctuated by sentences mostly for flair. Francis Walsh’s “I Can Shrink to Perfection” (22 sentences), Joe Plicka’s “But Whyyy?” (32 sentences), and even Allegra Hyde’s “Misinformation” (45 sentences) could be categorized stream-of-consciousness.

Digging further, I diagram the words per sentence of three stream-of-consciousness essays: “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” “Twenty Minutes,” and “Anniversary Disease.” Here we see the melody, pitch, and rhythm of the flash.

“If You Find a Mouse…” and “Anniversary Disease” meander along gentle turns. In contrast, “Twenty Minutes” is a high-speed chase—all peaks and valleys, especially the build and drop between Sabrina Hick’s first four sentences.

Performing the same work on five more essays, chosen because they reside in the average band of the scatterplot and because I like them:

The turn from short to lyrical sentences halfway through “WANTED: Biological Father” is obvious. The rapid fire of “Known Killers” unceasing. The lyricism of “Conduction,” the devastating finale of “Women These Days,” the evenhandedness of “When a 17-Year-Old Checkout Clerk in Small Town Michigan Hits on Me, I Think about the Girl I Loved at 17,” all appear in the graph.

Viewing flash as sentences per paragraph simplifies the drama into soft, undulating waves, the same way ocean breaking over coral turns to rumpled velvet when viewed from an airplane.

Is this a useful way to think about writing flash? Or writing generally? Perhaps a tool for revision, to ensure musicality matches content and voice. To bend and crack sentences until they shine like glowsticks. Will this data land you a Brevity byline? Against the odds, it got me one, so who knows!

Please comment with your insights. Perhaps together we can feed our addiction and tame the beast of flash.
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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 2: Word Clouds and Other Squishy Results

September 8, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. If you want to learn why I began this research, how I built my data set, and what qualifies me to write about it (spoiler alert, not much beyond chutzpah!), go back and read Part 1: How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” In this installment, I make pretty word clouds and sad discoveries.

Piling up five years of Brevity essays and titles into one long document, I find a total of 138,991 words, of which 23,678 are distinct, according to FreeWordCloudGenerator.com. 210 writers published between 2017 and 2021 agree on this top five: “the” (7,907 instances), “and” (3,811 instances), “to” (3,271 instances), “of” (2,839 instances), and “in” (2,390 instances). “My,” “on,” “you,” “that,” and “is” round out the top ten. Onward down the list: it, he, with, for, her, was, his, she, we, as, at, but, when, from, your, like, not, me—all solid, functional words. Utilitarian. Common words that till the fields to present bushels of barley to their liege terms, those canorous locutions.

But I do not seek royalty, the kind of words I must gossip about with a dictionary to get the inside scoop. I seek, instead, middle-class words, words you see on a Sunday, wearing a yellow hat on the way to the flower market. Removing special characters and stopwords, FreeWordCloudGenerator drops the distinct count across every essay in this census to 15,375.

One. Back. Know. Time. Say. Day. Just. Even. Says. Man with 162 mentions, body 158, want 156, home tying think with 153. Freud may have been right—our Oedipal complexes apparent in mother besting father by 119 uses. We’re obsessed with love, and something, and everything. We have eyes and faces and red hair and old skin. We want. Feel. Need. A hand to hold. A dog at the door. A little something. Maybe nothing. Words that make a world.

Former The New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris would be appalled by this analysis. In a 2011 article for Neiman Lab titled “Word clouds considered harmful,” he cautions that word clouds “can be wildly misleading,” warning amateur researchers like myself not to “confuse signifiers with what they signify.” He then gets needlessly hurtful, writing, “Every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.”

I wouldn’t want to kill your insides, Mr. Harris formerly of The New York Times. I’ll try to do better. After segmenting the essays into 55 categories (from “illness – COVID” to “nature”), I find the most popular subjects are parent-child and romantic relationships (22 and 19 essays respectively). Slotting the 55 categories into overarching themes, 20% of the essays cover illness; 20% relationships; 14% death; 6% racism; 6% crime, rape or abuse; 6% gender or sexuality; 4% mental health; 4% infidelity, divorce, or contraception; 1% disability; and the remaining 19% a hodgepodge of self, religion, language, travel, news, food and the like.

Does the subject need to be universal to work in a space so small? Most of the Brevity essays are about entirely human experiences. The minds in flash do not float in antiseptic tanks, waxing philosophical on whether thinking is being. These minds are muddy, messy with bodily fluids, and suffering a panic attack, or Alzheimer’s, or dysmorphia. So few of the bodies in Brevity are joyful that I found myself celebrating each one in Excel marginalia, jotting “happy! how lovely” by Scott Loring Sanders’ “Bee Man,” “a celebration!” beside Amie Whittemore’s “This Abortion is an Act of Love,” and “more joy! now at the end” next to Brenda Miller’s “Typos.”

I wonder at Jack Pendarvis’ “Shana’s Father Wins a Monkey.” Who is the speaker? Who are they speaking to? I turn this essay over like a stone in the mouth, loamy on the tongue. Though I am exactly half the narrator’s 70 years in “Solving for X,” I see myself in her questions. How many more words will I write? How many chances will I get? How do I make them count?

The last lines of Jeff Newberry’s “Butchering,” echo in my head: “Like Michelangelo before a stone, I sometimes think the story exists buried in language. I forget that before I take up my knife, I have to invent the creature who roams the woods alone.” Have I invented that solitary animal here, or am I carving up nothing into smaller pieces of nothingness?

Data is the opposite of nothingness. I still believe the data can save me. I pivot my unwieldy table once, twice, three times, and ask the numbers to talk dirty to me. 

Data about titles

86% of titles contain fewer than five words. Though in theory it is possible to have a title longer than the flash it crowns, I have yet to see one. Single word titles are nouns (or rather, 79% of them are). A trinket to clutch to your chest. Hold close. Real. Though the strategy is growing in poetry, only five of the 228 essay titles stand in for the start of the first sentence. Beware of trends, for they may not get you published.

Data about contrast

42% of essays sport a 26 to 75-word difference between their longest and shortest sentences. Only 7% stretch that difference to more than 300 words. Short is quick. Long takes a whole lungful of air. Every single essay breathing thin atmosphere at this altitude achieved such heights by containing a sentence less than four words in length.

Data about dialogue and scene

If you have scene, you have dialogue exchange. If you have not scene, you have not dialogue exchange. This rule, like all rules, is not exact enough to be tattooed onto one’s body.

Data about you

You need not be a creative nonfiction writer (though it probably helps). 46% of Brevity’s writers are poets and fictioneers. You need not be traditionally published. 39% of Brevity’s writers had not a single book to their byline at the time of publication. You will probably get one shot. 92% of Brevity’s writers were featured only once in the journal during this five-year sample.

But this is all just foreplay. Stay tuned for part 3 of “Brevity by the numbers,” where I try my hand at the kind of hard math that could unlock the true form of the flash essay. 
___

Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 1: How I Cheated My Way into a Brevity Byline

September 7, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

It was a simple enough idea: Read five years of Brevity, log each piece in an Excel database, then tickle the data until it tells me something useful about the common features of flash nonfiction essays. As a writer new to flash, I wanted to understand the rules of the genre, so I could be deliberate about breaking them. When I couldn’t find much literature to guide me, I decided to make my own. A secret, shameful part of me wondered if graphs and statistics could help me crack the code to getting my own Brevity byline.

Apparently, the real cheat code to a Brevity byline (see it? right there? below the title?) is spelunking wildly beyond my depth and soliciting an interview with editor Dinty W. Moore, who then invited me to transform my research into a series of craft essays for the Brevity Blog.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a professor, or especially well published. Though I supervise (and am supervised by) people who know Python, I cannot speak the language of the snakes, don’t know how to programmatically scrape the web, can’t write to an Azure instance, or arrange SELECTs and semicolons into a SQL statement. I have carved a niche for myself, professionally, wherein I transform research done by others into compelling stories. None of the very smart people I work with were involved in this project.

What I am is curious. Like many creative nonfiction writers, I style myself a scientist, poking at the world and myself to test hypotheses, as eager to be proven wrong as right. So I set this curiosity to work, reading flash after flash in the precious hours after the baby happily curled into his sleep sack and the toddler unhappily lay down in her big-kid bed (but only after I completed the correct number of kisses to specific body parts, both of which varied nightly).

My process was simple, studious, and a skosh error prone. As I read every Brevity essay published between 2017-2021, I logged the numbers associated with each in an Excel database with the help of WordCounter.net. I arbitrarily decided upon the site after a search for free word counting tools, but over time gained great affection for its soothing blue color scheme, its motto “Every Word Counts,” and its bold exhortation to “Bookmark this page now.” With WordCounter.net’s aid, every Brevity essay transformed, alchemy-like, into an Excel row of numbers: longest and shortest sentences, word and paragraph counts, essay type, point of view—34 columns in all.

From there, the steps were simple, and therefore confounding:

  1. Find and correct errors. Worry about the errors that remain unfound.
  2. Pivot the table. Pivot my thinking. Pivot 360 degrees in a circle.
  3. Make graphs. Tell the graphs how pretty they look. Find the graphs uncaring.
  4. Worry the reason this has never been done before is that it is a colossal waste of time.

Brevity should come with a warning label—flash is an addictive substance. The magazine is brimming with tiny worlds, or as managing editor Zoë Bossiere calls them in her introduction to The Best of Brevity (published in honor of the magazine’s 20th anniversary) “beacon[s] of small truths” (xvii). The essays went down easy—like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Milk & Cookies—but were similarly heavier in the belly than they were on the tongue.

Nightly, I made myself sick. Long after I closed my laptop, I wondered about the non-pandemic version of Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Me vs. Slugs: Pandemic Edition.” Wrote “breathtaking” next to Carrie Jade Williams’ “When I Speak Why Do I Become More Invisible?” Tried to recall where I’d read Laurie Easter’s “Kindness and Sorrow” before. Spun out for hours on 333 words, 68.8% of them unique, all of them bitterly laughing at the cancer risk underlying Anne Panning’s hermit crab “Intro to BRCA1+ Quiz.

Like the not-quite scientist I am, I started formulating a theory long before the data set was complete. Flash essays seemed not quite a big thing shrunk small, but rather, a fun house mirror reflection of a larger essay. Short sentences just as short. Long just as long. But also, just as much emotion, reflection, action, scene, dialogue, all of it stuffed into a wee package. The tone tended sadder. Brighter. Sharper.

Early conclusion: subtlety is not for the small. Economy leaves no room for buildup, no mild arc to a restrained-yet-satisfying conclusion. In his introduction to The Best of Brevity, Moore writes, “In such a small allotment of words, there is no time to clear one’s throat, to gently introduce the story before moving leisurely along to the point of tension, the moment the reader’s curiosity is piqued” (x). In a flash essay you best immediately punch me in the eye, offer me a raw steak to sooth the hurt, then tell a joke so I’ll laugh through the pain.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? A life, contained in a thimble, built with a stranger’s words.

After inhaling five years of flash, I became convinced that I will never write as well as all of you. That I will never bend the creativity to the metrics, or the metrics to the creativity, to unlock the spell of this particular magic. That there is some spark Brevity authors have, something I see in myself only occasionally, such that I read your work and wonder how some squishy gray matter could have pulled these words, an average of 4.5 characters in length, from the dictionary and placed them just so.

With my Brevity database complete, I gazed across a sea of numbers, unable to quiet my internal critic. After all this time, had I discovered anything at all? I’d rather read another five years of Brevity than figure out what to say about it.

So I’m not going to. At least, not in this craft essay.

See, I really shouldn’t be here—I’m cheating even now, splitting my findings across three essays (at Dinty’s suggestion no less), thereby neatly avoiding the recommended word limit. Stay tuned for part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers”: Word clouds and other squishy results.

__

Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

What’s the Big Idea?

September 6, 2022 § 12 Comments

How arguing with yourself can sell your book.

By Allison K Williams

One key way to sell a memoir? From a “hot essay”:

  • a well-argued, passionate, strongly written essay or OpEd
  • published in a major media outlet
  • that garners attention online and off.

Simple, right? Just write your piece and go viral! But first, let me tell you what the Powerball numbers will be this week…

Nobody can guarantee virality (not even people with millions of fans already!) Fortunately, your work doesn’t have to go viral for your hot essay to increase your audience and help sell your book. This contest has two first prizes: either hundreds of thousands of people engage with your work, or the right person does—the agent or publisher who loves your idea, or their friend/cousin/intern who brings your work to their attention. And the process of writing the essay itself will make your book-to-be even better.

What’s the difference between an OpEd and an essay?

“OpEd” comes from “opposite the editorial page,” and it’s how newspapers traditionally distinguished guest opinions from in-house, often unattributed pieces that represented the official position of the paper. Essays, in this context, are usually straightforward, first-person accounts of a significant happening or the evolution of a life around one main theme.

Essays ask questions. OpEds pose answers.

Essay titles are evocative. OpEd titles summarize the problem or the hook.

Essays start in scene. OpEds start with a lede—a single sentence that sums up the problem and your position on it.

Essays show your personal experience. OpEds show you’re an expert or have deep knowledge about your topic.

Essays use literary techniques to create emotional resonance and ask the reader to reflect. Opeds use rhetoric, supporting information & thesis/antithesis to make clear, logical arguments and call the reader to action.

Publishing a wave-making OpEd or a highly visible essay usually happens in intelligent-but-commercial media with a strong online presence rather than a strictly literary outlet. Places like Vox, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post or the New York Times.

Find your ideal essay or OpEd topic by looking at the themes in your memoir.

Rather than encapsulating your plot, think about how you explain your book. There’s the plot, and then there’s the part where you tell your fellow writer, “But what it’s really about is…” Mother-daughter relationships. Overcoming addiction. Loneliness. Whatever the larger element of your book is, the thing that will make a reader say to a friend, “Reading this will help with your problem, even though your story is different.” You might have overarching themes, and themes within scenes or chapters or subplots. They’re all fair game.

Pick one of your themes. Then articulate both the most extreme position you could take on that theme and its opposite. Something like, Alcoholics shouldn’t have children/Alcoholics should have children. Center your nuanced essay or powerful OpEd on the conflict between those two ideas.

Maids aren’t people/Maids are people.

Joining the Army is a secular choice/Joining the Army is joining a cult.

Falling in love is an unpredictable, organic process/You can fall in love using a formula.

Each of these essays sold a memoir that expanded on the essay’s theme. The process of writing the short piece also helped the author solidify and define the central conflict of their book. By thoroughly examining the view opposing their own and showing their fight against it, their struggle or journey gains more tension and uncertainty for the reader.

OpEds are more likely to build your audience and platform than nail an immediate book deal—but publishing an OpEd helps answer “why me?” in your memoir proposal. Why should your book be published? Because you’re the expert in this topic. How do we know you’re an expert? The New York Times thought so, so we’ll take their word for it. Getting your opinion into the world on a smaller scale paves the way for your full-length opinion to be taken seriously, as well as helping establish the importance of what you have to say.

Whether or not you write an essay or OpEd, and whether or not it goes viral, it’s worth examining your themes and your central premise, identifying their opposites, and exploring those opposites as fully as possible. As a memoirist, you already know what happened, and there’s a tendency to support our own view (and our eventual destination) from the beginning of the book. Your work as a whole will be stronger if you reflect the constant conflict between two opposing and strongly held (not necessarily equally valid, just strongly held) ideas. Every scene will be more immediate, more visceral. Because practicing arguing both sides brings you back to when you were in conflict with yourself—when the future genuinely was in doubt.

___________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. As a freelance editor, her clients’ work has appeared in The Sun, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The Ethel, and many more. She’ll be teaching how to pitch and publish essays and OpEds, from idea to publication, in Pitch, Publish and Get Paid Sept. 14th (yes, there’s a replay!) Find out more and register here.

Get Thee to a Writers’ Conference… and S T R E T C H

August 26, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Michèle Dawson Haber

Three weeks away from the terrifying milestone of putting my draft memoir in the hands of a developmental editor, I started to question the wisdom of registering for Hippocamp, the annual conference for creative nonfiction writers sponsored by Hippocampus magazine. I was in the final stretch of getting the manuscript in as good a shape as possible and attending the conference would mean five days off task at a time when I could least afford to get sidetracked. 

But I was stuck in a self-hating rut, weary of chapters and sentences that led nowhere, scenes dark and serious, and reflections so shallow not even a snorkel was required. The few remaining “[xxx]”s where more research was needed only paralyzed me further. I needed a break—I needed to stand on my tippy toes, reach my hands to the sky, wriggle my fingers, and lift my face to the warmth of the sun. 

To draw up (one’s body) from a cramped or stooping position

And so, I left the house, boarded a plane, and took myself to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once at the hotel, I wandered the maze of halls, weaving between wedding parties, bodybuilders, and young parents attempting to lift the spirits of travel-weary children. Revolving glass doors, four fluffy white pillows, endless escalators, mac and cheese with pepper jam, phantom elevator bells, herb and flower market scents, and giving in-person hugs for the first time to all my zoom writer friends—how good it was to get away from my keyboard!

But changing scenery by itself wasn’t going to alleviate the guilt I felt about not working on my revisions. Would the content of the conference sessions help me overcome my inertia?

To reach out (extend)

Opening the conference menu of deliverances, I scanned the options, my subconscious looking for comfort and safety—sessions that would affirm I was on the right path. What was I thinking? This was a writers’ conference, hadn’t I come to challenge myself? The session choices were all a stretch, each representing an alternative approach to my well-worn perspective: Second person POV, writing about religion, writing like a musician, the art of the interview, writing about trauma, recognizing implicit bias, adding humor to your writing, choosing your voice, or structuring your memoir like a novel. They all excited me, I wanted to attend all these and more. The offerings promised to extend my writerly comfort zone and that was exactly what I needed. 

Over the next two days I knocked off as many sessions as my attention and energy allowed. The presenters of these sessions gave me fact-checking and research tips to help me fill in knowledge gaps, awareness of implicit biases that may worm themselves into my writing, strategies to lighten up my more serious chapters, and ideas on employing different voices to heighten the realism of my narrative. Other sessions provided me tips on querying, networking, editing, and getting my essays into literary magazines. There was such a variety in the presentations that no emerging writer’s questions went unanswered. 

To go as far as or past the usual limit of something

Attending a writing conference involves a kind of stretching—I reached beyond my comfort zone and opened myself up to new ways of thinking, learning, and doing. Supported by the friendliness and generosity of the presenters and my fellow attendees, I was reminded that progress and growth are possible. Nothing underscored that conclusion better than the keynote address by Carmen Maria Machado. I didn’t expect that hearing this brilliant writer’s experience of writing her memoir, In the Dream House might increase my confidence, but when she talked about her struggles with processing, structuring, and revising, I felt I could make peace with my own floundering. All writers wrestle with similar things—struggle does not equal failure. As she said to a rapt audience, “Writing a memoir isn’t simply recording what happened—that’s called a diary—writing a memoir is fundamentally an act of shaping real life into a meaningful, beautiful, interesting story. And that is fucking hard.” In the moment I needed it most, Carmen Maria Machado validated my effort and my art.

I could have stayed home and had five days more with my manuscript (well, maybe a bit more if you add the time it took to write this essay), but I’m certain it wouldn’t have had the same impact as attending the Hippocamp conference. It wasn’t just the acquisition of knowledge that I gained—being and learning in a community of writers gave me the clarity and inspiration to come back home and attack my work-in-progress with fresh vigor. I have new strategies to call upon now and clearer insight into what needs fixing. Will I finish revising by my deadline? Who knows—but I’m more ready than ever to work hard and lean into that stretch called writing. 

__

Michèle Dawson Haber is a writer, potter, and proud Canadian who currently resides in Toronto. She is working on a memoir about step-adoption, family secrets, and identity. Her writing has appeared in Salon.com and The New York Times. More at www.micheledhaber.com.

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