It’s Cool to be Strange: On Messiness, Bon Iver, and Blurring the Boundaries

October 24, 2016 § 6 Comments

B.J. Hollars

bon iver.jpg

Bon Iver

Here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin we have a hero: Justin Vernon, the Grammy award-winning musician of Bon Iver fame.  I first heard his name a year or so following the 2007 release of “For Emma, Forever Ago,” a haunting album made all the better by the haunting story attached to it. According to legend, after a rough stint in North Carolina, a down-and-out Vernon left his broken band, his broken heart, and his bout of mononucleosis, and returned north to Wisconsin.  Upon his return, he grabbed his recording equipment, then holed up in his family’s cabin, emerging three months later with what would soon be deemed a critically-acclaimed album.

This oft-fetishized story is of interest to artists and musicians alike due to our shared question: What in the hell happened in that cabin during those three solitary months?  Interviews with Vernon offer a bit of insight (some writing, some strumming, some reruns of Northern Exposure), but I’ve always wanted to know the real story.  What he saw when he looked into the dark of Dunn County as the next layer of snow draped down.  And what he felt as those first notes began to hit their marks, when he discovered that his now famous falsetto enhanced everything.

As Vernon concluded his southern stint and returned north, I headed in the opposite direction, leaving the Midwest to enroll in the graduate writing program at the University of Alabama.  There, I endured no broken bands, no broken hearts, no mononucleosis—which admittedly, left a budding nonfiction writer such as myself with few stories worth putting to the page.

Dreamland-Logo.pngYet in the spring of 2010 things changed.  In my final semester, I took a class from visiting nonfiction writer Dinty W. Moore.  While driving us to a local barbecue joint, Dreamland,  for lunch one day, I began asking him about the limits of nonfiction.  How far can you bend an essay before you break it?  At what point does a fact become a fiction?

That afternoon, over banana pudding and ribs, Blurring the Boundaries was born.  For the next two years, I’d serve as the project’s editor, asking contributors to share work that explored “the borderlands between genre.”  Additionally, I asked writers to provide a behind-the-scenes “mini-essay” on their writing process for their included work.  I wanted readers to know what happened when nobody was looking.

Nearly six years removed from that fateful lunch—and as we approach the four-year anniversary of the book’s publication—it’s clear to me now that my interest in “what-happens-when-nobody’s-looking” was motivated by the same curiosity that has kept me wondering what occurred in that cabin when Justin Vernon found his voice.  Of course, the legend is always more interesting than the truth, but the truth can often prove more helpful. In their “mini-essays,” the Blurring the Boundaries contributors confirmed for me that writing—like all art—is a terribly messy process.  The only part worth seeing is the final product, though an unflinching glimpse in the messy middle is where we artists stand to learn the most

I’d always hoped that Blurring the Boundaries might provide that unflinching glimpse.  I wanted to demystify the notion that great art comes in the form of a lightning bolt.  I wanted to highlight, too, that even the writers we admire most spend a lot of time rolling around in the muck.  I suppose what I was truly after was an honest portrayal of the difficulties of making art.  Sure, it’s nice to imagine Justin Vernon’s silhouette on the midnight snow as his muse whispered all the right notes.  But I imagine it wasn’t as lovely as all that.  Sometimes we create our best work—as I do—while donning a bathrobe in a basement beside a furnace.  It’s not glamorous; no one ever said it would be.

Beyond all this, I also intended for Blurring the Boundaries to showcase the value in the experiment, especially when the experiment has the potential to fail.  I wanted to commend the risk-taking, provide a space where it was okay for writers to try something uncomfortable and untested.  As a result, some of the anthology’s essays feel unfamiliar to readers, and to my mind, this unfamiliarity is proof of their success.  If one goal of the anthology was to provide an “exploration to the fringes of nonfiction” (as the subtitle notes), then the fringe should feel unfamiliar.  That’s what makes it a fringe.


B.J. Hollars

A few weeks back, Justin Vernon released his latest album, “22, A Million.”  It’s nothing like the one that came before.  Pitchfork described it as “strange and experimental” while Rolling Stones added that it sounded “like the work of an artist starting over from scratch.”  Don’t be fooled; these are virtues, and part of the reason the album’s been deemed a “sonic masterpiece” as well.

Last weekend, I ran into Justin Vernon while washing our hands in a bathroom.  I played it cool, tried to act as if I wasn’t washing my hands alongside a musician I deeply admire.  We shared some small talk—I mentioned that my creative writing students would be analyzing his lyrics during our poetry unit—and he thanked me.

He thanked me.

But of course, I wanted to thank him.  Not only for giving us the myth of the man in the cabin who made music, but for subverting that myth as well.  And for releasing a new album fully stripped of the very things that made him famous, for having the courage to reinvent a wheel rather than retread the one that worked so well.   “Some use technology as a tool of correction,” the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Vernon and his collaborators use it as a trigger for forced errors…”

Indeed, it’s an album that revels in its “messiness.”  One that, at least for me, confirms that it’s okay to be “strange and experimental”, that it’s acceptable to start from scratch.  The album reminds me, too, that though it’s always a risk to take a risk, it’s a risk not to take one, too.

My hope is that Blurring the Boundaries might affirm the same message.  To remind readers and writers of a simple truth: that art isn’t always easy or pretty or clean, but that’s what makes it art.

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test  In February, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. Hollars serves as a mentor for Creative Nonfiction and a contributing blogger for Brain, Child.

The Long Way through No, To a Big Short Yes

October 18, 2016 § 13 Comments

lisa-romeo-nov-2013-cBy Lisa Romeo

You know the old saw. Tourist asks a New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Wiseguy answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

So, how did I get published in Brevity Magazine?


For several years, Brevity was on my list of literary venues I vowed to crack. Why?

First of all, I love reading Brevity. That’s reason enough. While I drift most naturally to writing longer essays than Brevity’s 750 word limit, over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by flash nonfiction, and have been writing more of it. To me, Brevity is the mother ship for short nonfiction. Brevity also consistently publishes writers whose work I admire; who doesn’t want to share literary real estate with the cool writing kids? Finally, once I put a publication on that “to be cracked” list (which stares at me from a whiteboard in my office), it’s game on.

Even if the game takes three years and six rejections before a Yes.

Lesson number one: Persistence.

One thing that kept me submitting was my history with Brevity—kept handy in my Excel spreadsheet—included many “nice notes”: Moved by your story…Sorry to say no to this one…Try us again…Writing is impressive, but…” As an editor at a lit journal myself, I know those salvos are only handed out when an editor means it.

Lesson number two: Believe the feedback.

Studying the rejected pieces, I saw they were all based on something pulled out of a longer work-in-progress. It’s not that I didn’t work hard at condensing/rewriting (all eventually found publishing homes). But now I understand that one big reason the accepted piece worked is that I wrote it for Brevity the first time around: it never existed as anything other than a 748 word essay.

Lesson number three: Start from scratch.

When I saw Brevity‘s themed call for works “examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization and the intersections between race and gender, class, dis/ability, and language,” I knew immediately what I’d write about: an incident 15 years in my past, that at times still felt lodged in my throat. I set to work immediately; I didn’t dismiss the idea before even getting started, as we writers so often do.

Lesson number four: Listen to the gut.

I tend to be an over-writer, churning out rough too-long drafts, because I’m that odd duck who loves messy brutal revision. This time, I was conscious from the start that I didn’t want to go more than 100 words over with an early draft. That helped, a lot.

Lesson number five: Shake up the process.

By the third (or was it 23rd?) draft, I experienced a familiar nah-this-stinks-forget-about-it attack. That was compounded by seriously questioning my ability to speak to the topic, which sounded like: who-am-I-kidding-who-am-I-to-write-about-race.

Then a friend asked me to read something he was considering submitting for the same issue, and that reminded me: beyond the guidelines, you can’t know precisely what editors are looking for. If you pre-reject yourself (by not even submitting), you’ve lost twice.

Lesson number six: Punch that inner critic in the teeth and carry on.

When putting the final polish on the piece, I read and re-read 15 different Brevity pieces. Yes, this is out of order; that’s the first thing a writer should do: read the journal. But I had been reading Brevity, every issue, all along. This was a double, final gut check, a slow thoughtful cruise, making sure I’d absorbed the lessons I’d learned along the way.

Lesson number seven: Read, write, repeat. (hat tip: Susan Sontag)

When I finally hit submit, it was with a mixture of familiar dread (here we go again) but also, for the first time, a hopeful sense that maybe I’d done it right this time. But then, who knows?

Lesson number eight: You can’t hit if you don’t swing. (hat tip: Dad)

When the acceptance arrived, I didn’t break into my usual dance-around-the-room jig, maybe because I was practicing a conference presentation, annoyed at myself for incorrectly ordering the slides.

Instead, I read the email on my phone, smiled, and went back to work. Because I’d submitted it exclusively, I didn’t have to navigate the tediousness of withdrawing it from other journals, or second guessing that I’d sent it to the wrong place. There was only calm, a sense of feeling both particularly lucky, and also rewarded for staying the course.

I did however visit my whiteboard list, and put a big check mark next to Brevity.

And wondered what to write next.

Lesson number nine: Rinse, repeat. (hat tip: every writer, every editor, ever)


Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor, and writing professor. Her work is included in the Notables Essays section of Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, The Manifest Station, and of course, Brevity. Lisa serves as creative nonfiction editor for Compose Journal, and as a review editor of scholarly works for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her blog offers interviews, resources, and advice for the writing community. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo.

Two Brevity Authors Win Rona Jaffe Awards

September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment


Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

We are pleased to announce that two recent Brevity contributors, Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas and Danielle Geller, have been awarded 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Awards, given annually to six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers.

Cabeza-Vanegas’ brief nonfiction essay “Pain Pays The Income of Each Precious Thing” appeared in Brevity’s 50th issue. Geller’s piece “Blood; Quantum” appears in our most recent, 53rd issue.


Danielle Geller

Celebrating its 22nd year, the Rona Jaffe Awards have helped many women build successful writing careers by offering encouragement and financial support at a critical time. The awards are $30,000 each and will be presented to the six recipients on September 15th in New York City.

The other recipients this year are Jamey Hatley (fiction), Ladee Hubbard (fiction), Airea D. Matthews (poetry), and Asako Serizawa (fiction).

Celebrated novelist Rona Jaffe (1931-2005) established The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards program in 1995. It is the only national literary awards program of its kind dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively. Since the program began, the Foundation has awarded more than $2 million to emergent women writers, including several who have gone on to critical acclaim, such as Elif Batuman, Eula Biss, Lan Samantha Chang, Rivka Galchen, Rebecca Lee, ZZ Packer, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Tracy K. Smith, Mary Szybist, and Tiphanie Yanique.

A Review of Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick

July 20, 2016 § 2 Comments

51yB4df7wgL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_By e.v. de cleyre

A 352-word essay took me two years to write. It started with a prompt at a low-residency workshop, then expanded into a long essay (per a professor’s suggestion), then written into a nonfiction manuscript, then removed from said manuscript, and finally rewritten at another low-residency workshop with another prompt, two years after the first. Instead of being happy about its publication, I felt like a slug and a fraud—like I was too slow, and couldn’t write anything without the help of a prompt, or without the work of other writers.

Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick makes me feel better about two things: that writing takes time, and that we all suffer from “Independent Redundancy.”

The second-to-last and longest essay of the book, “Independent Redundancy” took seven years to write, clocks in at over thirty thousand words, and explores “the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” Madden mentions controversies and court cases from music history, along with passages of writing about his own writing, quotations from other essayists, musings on why independent redundancies occur, plus images and illustrations. Sublime Physick is a mix of Montaigne and Sebald (as noted by Brian Doyle) with a dash of Chuck Klosterman.

Madden’s essays traverse great depth and breadth. His writings are reflective, pivot to follow the thread of a thought, balance irreverence and grace, and are built on a bedrock of culturally relevant scenes and subjects. Reading Madden’s meta-writings on his own writing is like listening to a magician revealing his tricks, yet he always holds the upper hand: “So the obvious question here is What steganographic secrets does this essay contain? The answer is Yes.”

Still, I am suspicious of writings that seem reveal everything, so willingly, even though that is often the mark of a good essayist (“spend it all,” said Annie Dillard), and I am especially skeptical when Madden says that the universe often conspires to help him write essays: “I am constantly preaching about how when I’m ‘in’ an essay, my life seems to align itself to the essay, offering up quotations and memories, experiences old and knew, in service of the idea I’m exploring.”

Sure, it’s a nice notion, to think that some higher power is looking out for us lowly, solitary writers, but I feel like the universe has other, more important things to attend to. The answer to my unspoken question comes no more than ten minutes after closing the covers of Sublime Physick, when I search the internet for a way into this review, and find a 2015 TriQuarterly piece by Patrick Madden, titled, “Finding a Form Before a Form Finds You.”

Any doubts are slain, and this line from the essay “Miser’s Farthings” is etched further into the brain: “What we know, or think we know, is always surrounded by mystery, which makes an essay both necessary and indeterminate, both essential and futile.”


e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

No Lobsters, No Lighthouses

June 6, 2016 § 4 Comments

Brevity Assistant Editors Alexis Paige and Penny Guisinger talk about short prose, porcupine relocation, Downeast Maine, and Guisinger’s first book Postcards from Here,  a collection of micro-essays that was published by Vine Leaves Press in February.

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Penny Guisinger

Alexis: What were the origins of this book? Did you have the concept in mind before you wrote it, or did the concept emerge as you wrote?

Penny: I started writing these short pieces while I had a handful of much longer pieces in progress. The urge was likely a response to that lost-in-the-woods feeling I had at the time. It’s easy for me to feel underwater or upside-down in longer pieces, and this tiny form gave me a way to feel like I could finish something. I knew pretty quickly that they were a collection and that I was working on a book.

AP: Did you think consciously about form as you wrote? Did you think: here I am writing micro-essays?

PG: What’s hilarious about this question is that I constantly narrate what I’m doing in my head! So, yes, I probably did have that exact thought. Some part of my brain is now thinking, “Here I am, answering questions for Brevity.” I assume that’s a precursor to an eventual authorial meltdown.

But – yes. I was thinking about form. I don’t remember if I identified them as micro-essays, or what terminology I used in those conversations with myself. But I was always watching for some moment that would make a good short piece – some moment that was more than what it looked like on the surface.

AP: Tell me about the conference you started. Is it part of a larger campaign to dominate the world with short prose forms?

lobster.jpgPG: It’s not a bad goal, is it? I started Iota: Short Prose Conference because I found my MFA experience to be so transformative to me as a writer and as a person that I wanted to create something like that – on a smaller scale – for other writers. I also wanted it for myself: a multi-day event that brought writers together to talk about the things we all care about. I focused it on short prose because it’s something I’m passionate about and there was not another conference with that theme. So the focus was part art and part marketing. This summer will be Iota’s fourth year. It’s held on gorgeous Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, which is right over the bridge from Lubec, Maine. I’m literally dizzy with happiness to welcome Dinty W. Moore and Mark Doty as 2016 faculty. Thanks to this powerhouse faculty, and Iota’s beautiful location, the conference is sold out this year. I’m also thrilled that Stonecoast MFA generously provided this year’s full scholarship to a rural Maine writer, as I’m very committed to providing access to local people as much as possible. I’m also committed to serving lobster to all seafood-eating participants – so everyone should book early for 2017.

AP: I love how your book title and collection invert expectations of the postcard, which one usually associates with a dispatch from an exotic location—or if not exotic, at least from away—away from one’s daily grind. But these are postcards from home to away that dwell so deeply in that which so many of us want to escape: chores, work, parenting, weather, local politics, even porcupine relocation. The essays locate beauty, irony, humor, absurdity, and even the sublime in ordinary moments. So I wonder if as a writer, or as a human being, you actively pursue such transcendence as you watch and record these moments. In other words, is it the quality of your looking, is it some habit of mind (optimism?), is it writing craft or aesthetic that imbues these pieces with such lift? I guess I’m asking (for a friend) how you consistently find such beauty and love and grace and quiet grandeur in such discrete, ordinary moments?

postcards.jpgPG: (Laughs) Well, it’s not because I’m an optimist! I think of myself as pretty cynical and critical of the world. But because I was very actively writing this book, I was always watching for moments around me that held more than they appeared to. I’m very goal-oriented, and once I committed to this project as a book I wanted to finish it. To finish it, I had to write the pieces in it. And to write the pieces in it, I had to find things to write them about. So I did look at the world differently. I scanned my days for moments that divided themselves quickly into multiple layers. I don’t want to sound too academic, but this project involved a certain amount of deconstruction of my own world. For example, the piece about my wife catching a porcupine: it’s a funny story, but it’s also a statement about the dynamic in my marriage. And once it’s a statement about my marriage, it’s also a statement about yours because all marriages have that give and take quality. I think I can say that I didn’t always know, when I sat down to write these pieces, what the layers would turn out to be, but I recognized the potential in the subject at hand. My work as a writer was to take the screws out, open the thing up, and see how it worked and what it had to say.

I also learned a lot about titles during this project, how I could slide the idea of the piece across the table to the reader in the title, which allowed me to leave it out of the piece almost entirely. The porcupine piece is called “Marriage,” and there’s one right after it called “Marriage Two.” Their stories are not immediately related, but through the titles I could thematically link them and say a bigger thing about my relationship. And yours. And everyone’s. It was a revelation.

AP: I am interested not only in how, but also why you pursue such transcendence in the work. As I read Postcards From Here, I found myself looking at my own ordinary moments differently. I, too, live in a beautiful, rural place, but I’ve always had a kind of wanderlust that verges on pathology; I’m always talking myself into being present, into staying, into being less dissatisfied. This book, by virtue of its singular commitment to observation, showed me how to look at my days in a way that might bring more grounding. (Did you know you were writing a self-help book?) I realize I could be imposing this reading (projecting as it were), but I read your essays as postcards to yourself as much as to the outside world. Are you writing them to yourself? And if so, why?

PG: Oh, geeez, that’s such a deep reading. I guess so? Maybe? (Shifts uncomfortably.) I think all of us who write creative nonfiction are, to some extent, engaged in a conversation with ourselves. (And what I do NOT mean by that is that we’re “naval gazing.” Gag.) We’re engaged in an act of self-discovery that we share with the reader. Why would we sit down to write about things we already completely understand? The most interesting experiences I have as a writer are when the material reveals something new to me, or uncovers a memory I didn’t know I had, or allows me to make connections between things I hadn’t thought of before. One of my mentors, Barbara Hurd, talks about looking for that “mind at work on the page.” That’s what I’m always trying to let the reader see – what am I working out on paper here? What’s the concern? Readers find it more engaging if they’re invited into an ongoing conversation rather than being talked at.

As for the “why” part of your question: I write for the same reason all writers write. For the fame and money. (Why are you laughing?)

To Be Continued Tomorrow


Our Happy Brush With the Pulitzer Glitter

April 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

Diane Seuss

Diane Seuss

Lavish congratulations and turquoise sequins glued onto sea-colored cotton to Diane Seuss, frequent Brevity contributor, and one of two finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, for her book Four-Legged Girl.

This might be a good time to reprise some of Diane’s stunning prose work over the past few years, including “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” “Gyre,” “Candy,” “I can’t stop thinking of that New York skirt, turquoise sequins glued onto sea-colored cotton,” and “You Like It Don’t You, You Like It Hard and Cold.”

Hard to beat those titles.

Less Me, More We: How Memoir Is Written

April 12, 2016 § 7 Comments

Julie Riddle

Brevity craft editor Julie Riddle’s newly-released memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness, has been praised by Mary Clearman Blew as “heartbreaking, courageous, and written with rare beauty.”

Here is an excerpt of Julie’s post on the University of Nebraska Press blog discussing how she went from writing “anguished entries in a private journal” to finally writing her powerful book:

The first time I wrote about being sexually abused as a child, I was in my mid-thirties and had enrolled in an undergraduate creative-writing class. Until then I had written professionally—articles for newspapers, and press releases and feature stories for a communications office. But the only writing I had done about the abuse was fragmented and often anguished entries in a private journal I kept in my twenties, as I coped with the fallout from the childhood trauma.

By my mid-thirties I had emerged from that difficult stretch of years, and a budding desire to pursue creative writing spurred me to audit a class at a local university. I had not intended to write about the abuse, but one day the professor gave the class an assignment: write a three-paragraph fairy tale about a difficult personal experience. Then, the professor gave us another assignment: write a second fairy tale about this same experience, but change the outcome to what we wished had happened. A sort of fairy tale within a fairy tale.

The elements of a fairy tale—a distancing, third-person perspective; broad, glossy details; a superficial plot—allowed me to begin to translate my experience into story. The second version—what I wished had happened—helped absorb my first narrative’s emotional punch and provided a sense of control: I could enter into my story and direct the action rather than remain a helpless, powerless pawn. I could not have written either assignment if the professor hadn’t first said that she wouldn’t share them with the group.

You can read more on how Julie’s memoir went from private to public here at the Nebraska Press Blog.

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