September 15, 2021 § 1 Comment
Brevity’s 68th issue launches this morning, with brilliant new essays from Kimiko Hahn, Sven Birkerts, Ryan Van Meter, Richard Robbins, Suzanne Roberts, Kathleen Rooney, Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, Sarah Cedeño, Laurie Easter, Gary Fincke, Charles Jensen, Kathryn Nuernberger, Mary Ann O’Gorman, Katerina Ivanov Prado, and Alyssa Sorresso.
In our Craft Section, Abigail Thomas reminds us that vulnerability is a memoirist’s strength, Kim Pittaway examines what we can learn from visual artists about self-portraiture, Heather Durham discusses changes in how we portray animals, and Tarn Wilson details the power of noticing.
Plus stunning photography by Amy Selwyn.
Please take the time to read our brilliant September issue.
August 27, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Kate Madsen
In his essay collection Delusions of Grandeur, Joey Franklin boldly takes on the problematic, delusional thinking Americans embrace, sometimes consciously, but more often than not, unconsciously. In his introduction, Franklin makes his aims clear:
Certainly I am as inclined as anyone to run away from uncomfortable truths, but for too long, delusional thinking has been killing us softly, one narcissistic fairy tale at a time. As I approach middle age, I find myself less enamored of convenient myths and more willing to accommodate those uncomfortable truths—especially if they carry the promise of a little clarity.
Simultaneously, though, he assures readers of his modesty:
I have no idea how to free us all from the convenient, painful, persistent myths and delusions that dominate American life. . . . I harbor no delusion that any of this is going to change the world, but it has certainly changed me, and if Baldwin is right, then that’s at least a start.
Thus, the essays feel personal and sincere. They read very much as a thoughtful, critical examination of big topics wherein the essayist is determined to encounter and challenge his own thinking.
I first read Franklin’s essays in the middle of the pandemic, much of it while camping on the mountainous, fraught public lands in Utah, the state in which Franklin lives and writes. Orange-clad hunters wielding rifles prowled around outside. Trump and confederate flags flew from trucks and hung in windows. Black Lives Matter activism was forefront in the media. The stakes of the 2020 election loomed. In short, I came to this book both steeped in and fatigued of political and social issues. The political factioning and gridlock extended into everyday, personal life as I feared I’d end up in a screaming match with someone I wanted (or needed) to get along with. I avoided discussions altogether—a coping mechanism. When I picked up Delusions of Grandeur, I was worried how I’d fare and whether I’d feel myself wanting to disengage from it too. Spoiler: I didn’t.
In the collection’s twelve essays, Franklin tackles gun lust, masculinity, war, America’s class system, the unhoused, racism, apocalypse, religion, and other timely subjects. These are big topics, and in less deft hands, they could easily get away from a writer who may end up producing pretentious and didactic essays that might hold themselves in too high a regard. However, Franklin is an essayist firmly grounded in the grand tradition of the essay, which he describes as
a curious, unassuming literary form with a predilection for skeptical self-examination, a firm conviction in the value of personal experience, and an abiding devotion to the interconnectivity of people and things. A genre that, at its best, contains all the necessary ingredients for a clear-headed engagement with the complicated nature of human life.
And he delivers what he promises: curious essays, which aim high and are always grounded in the personal. Structurally, Franklin deftly blends reportage, ideology/philosophy, and personal narrative. He never lingers too long on one thread without reasserting the importance of the other two.
While all of the essays are a mix of the researched, the philosophical, and the personal, the overall arc of the book is one of increasing intimacy and depth. The first third of the book mostly depicts Franklin as a father and a general citizen of the world as he discusses gunplay with his boys and ideas of what it means to be “good.” “The universe has blessed me with children,” he writes, “which is another way of saying the universe isn’t done proving I’m a hypocrite.”
In the second third of the book, Franklin writes about himself as a child and his parents’ influences on him. The essay “White Trash” is particularly memorable. Franklin writes of his father’s frequent joblessness and depression which left his mother, who was pregnant at sixteen and dropped out of high school, with the overwhelming responsibility, financial and otherwise, of their family.
In the last, most vulnerable third of the book, Franklin discusses vulnerability itself in “The Full Montaigne,” which also includes a discussion of Franklin’s father’s chronic depression and his uncle’s death. The final third also contains “Worry Lines,” an essay about Trayvon Martin’s death (racism and white privilege) as told through the lens of a white father raising white sons. He gave himself a difficult task, discussing racism as a straight, white, middle-class, Christian man in America. But Franklin allows himself to be vulnerable.
‘Empathy is tricky,’ writes journalist Sherronda J. Brown. ‘We can only identify with the pain of others through the understanding and profound feeling of our own suffering, but that only exists when we are able to recognize a shared vulnerability’ . . . . The only way that I get closer to understanding something that is otherwise unknowable to me is by trying to relate it as closely as I can to my own experiences and my own life. And that’s imperfect, but it’s the place I have to start.
Franklin invokes Montaigne when he writes: “Confessions [become] a problem only when done for the wrong reasons, when the essayist demands to be seen, instead of helping others see themselves.” Before opening Delusions of Grandeur, I was certain I was fatigued of ruminating on these large ideas. Upon closing it, I understood something new about myself: I didn’t want to step away from these topics. In fact, I craved discussion on them—but I needed a thoughtful, reflective voice to wade with me through my own comfortable delusions. I needed a calm, self-critical, and genuinely funny voice that helped me to see myself.
Kate Madsen holds an MFA from Texas State University. She was born and bred in Utah, where she still lives, now with her husband and daughter. She is currently at work on a collection of essays grappling with mortality upon her exit from Mormonism and her entrance into motherhood.
August 18, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Samuel Autman
I don’t know if my obsession with Laurie Lynn Drummond’s flash essay “Alive,” reflects a fascination with serial killers, or if I feel attached to it because it was published in 2003, the year I began teaching college, shortly after leaving daily journalism. No matter the reason, I can’t go for a semester without teaching this creative writing catnip.
With unforgettable grit, vulnerability and powerful detail, Drummond’s piece never fails to dazzle the students in my classrooms. This scorching little essay demonstrates how to blend personal history, location and reflection in less than 700 words.
Over the years I’ve narrowed Drummond’s work down to seven powers.
An Irresistible Opening
Like the first five minutes of Law & Order: SVU, an effective opening must hook the audience. Americans are obsessed with serial killers. In the first paragraph we learn of a serial killer at work, with a trail of “three murdered women,” “four attempted abductions,” and been off “with a machete.” In Baton Rouge he’s created “a line of women snaked out of the police supply store” buying pepper spray.
Then I ask the class to imagine what kind of an atmosphere would there be if a serial killer was active on our town or campus? Location matters. While people expect larger cities like New York or Chicago to be scary, Baton Rouge doesn’t seem like a place to expect such violent crime.
Relevant Personal Detail
That the serial killer is targeting women makes the narrator’s gender significant. She’s also a former Baton Rouge police officer who knows firsthand “what one human being can do to another.” She has “seen crime scene pictures of the serial killer’s first victim,” details withheld from the press.” As the narrator, Drummond is uniquely positioned to tell this story.
Because the piece is gendered I always ask for a show of hands “How many people in class have ever felt someone was following them?” Without fail most young women raise their hands. In recent years young men are doing so, too, underscoring a collective sense of danger.
People in law enforcement are trained to scan their surroundings and people. One day while picking up a newspaper at a newsstand, Drummond catches a man eyeballing her. He’s a “A nice-looking man–bald, early thirties, dark shirt–in a green Chevy Blazer is backing out of the space across from mine.” This is just enough detail to paint an image in the reader’s mind. The essay was enhanced by an accompanying police sketch.
Unpacking Moments of Transformation
Up until this moment Drummond’s life was going along fine. This stranger is an interruption. “His car stops, and I feel his gaze as I retrieve my wallet, open the car door. Our eyes meet, and he smiles. I keep my face blank and walk briskly into the store.” She recreates this moment skillfully by using bodily details, hers and his.
Drummond pulls the reader into her trembling hands, dry mouth and constricting throat, sensations we all fear in moments of terror. She’s simultaneously writing from her body and pulling us into her head. In the same brief paragraphs she describes the way he moves.
When she leaves the newsstand she’s convinced he’s following her vehicle. During that time we are hearing her inner thoughts. What’s so masterful is there’s no proof that this is the serial killer.
And then his car pulls off onto the freeway. She’s free
While the eyes of the reader’s mind are led to wonder if she has interacted with the Baton Rouge serial killer, most people don’t realize Drummond’s piece has not one word of dialogue.
Drummond voices her thoughts as they unfold creating a heightened tension revealing her inner world. It’s an exquisite dance between the inner and outer worlds. Had it all been her describing the outer world, it could have been void of her emotions. Had it been only inner musing it could have become disembodied text that didn’t connect with anyone else. Because they are seamlessly married, dialogue is not needed.
The Cloud of Unknowing
For the rest of the essay Drummond marinates, ruminates and reflects on the vulnerability that hangs in the Baton Rouge air, hers and the collective. She never tells us if the guy she saw at the newsstand was the serial killer.
Here are the big questions. Does Drummond even know if the guy she has seen is the serial killer at work? Did anything happen other than she saw a guy who smiled at her and followed her a few blocks? Are we convinced he’s the serial killer? Does it even matter? These questions feed a spirited debate for a few minutes. Then an insightful person will say something like, “It’s not about whether or not he was the serial killer. It’s about the writer making us feel the fear she felt.”
Because I came from daily newspapers I was accustomed to writing for a limited space. That’s the beauty of Brevity’s 750-word limit. Students are forced to think like journalists but be more literary. The challenge of any ending is to close the essay in a way that allows the curtain to fall without moralizing or being preachy.
Drummond’s parting epiphany: “And that’s when I finally get, really get, what I have always known. Alertness, tolerance, compassion, suspicion: none of it matters. I am vulnerable simply because I’m alive,” often leaves the class divided. Some argue ending on “ I am vulnerable simply because I’m alive” is a cop out. Others note the universality of aliveness in the human experience. Despite all of our differences, isn’t everybody in the classroom alive?
If someone doesn’t say it, I point out that the essay’s last word happens to be the essay’s title, and manages to do so without being sappy.
Samuel Autman teaches creative writing at DePauw University. His essays have appeared in The Chalk Circle, The Kept Secret, The St. Louis Anthology, Sweeter Voices Still, Ninth Letter, The Common Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Little Patuxent Review, Bonfires, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Memoir Magazine and Brevity.
March 22, 2021 § 3 Comments
In her latest book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, Nicole Walker continues her deep essayistic dive into sustainability, climate change, global food issues, and her own eating obsessions, layering in the overlapping impact of our unsettling pandemic year. Her insights remain refreshingly honest and are, at times, spiced with unexpected humor. Brevity founder and fellow pancetta-enthusiast Dinty W. Moore interviews Walker on her book, on digression in the essay, and on the possibility of hope in desperate times:
Dinty W. Moore: First, a confession. More than a decade ago I was visiting the Arizona city where you live and you invited me to join you for dinner. “How about charcuterie?” you said, pronouncing it as if you knew exactly what you were proposing, and I instinctively blurted, “Yes, I’d really love that,” because I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated. Back then, I had no idea what “charcuterie” really meant, though I do still remember the enticing selection of meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables, and spreads that ensued. So maybe I’m not the best person to speak with you about Processed Meats, or maybe I am the perfect person. In any case, it is too late – we have agreed. So, here’s my question: Do you remember that dinner and I did I fool you at all?
Nicole Walker: This question is the most on-point question you could ask. I just wrote an essay for the NYT and the only real edit was, can you make it clear how you know what charcuterie is and how much privilege comes with making sure your kid eats 9 colors of fruits and vegetables a day? An obsession with food isn’t becoming. Making your guests feel out of place is definitely against the Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. Your graciousness at that dinner covered for you, if not me. I remember us sitting on the deck, eating cheese and prosciutto, and then maybe also having tacos? Max and Zoe adored you. You talked to them like they were the adults they thought they were, even though they were two and six at the time.
This story is making me want to hang out with you. If I could spend the energy to build a teleport machine instead of curing strange meats, I should. But maybe charcuterie is its own kind of teleport machine. I know books are. The main reason to publish books is to be invited to places to read or to be invited to talk with you. It’s a kind of teleport machine. The book came out earlier this month. I made pancetta for the book release, which took four weeks to cure. With book and pancetta, I am bringing myself to book readers and charcuterie eaters, which is all I ever really wanted to do.
DWM: Speaking of charcuterie as its own kind of teleportation device, what I love about your book is how processed meat, your ostensible subject, becomes a vehicle to explore so many deeper themes: pregnancy, plastic waste, parenthood, pandemic, owlets, and anti-bodies. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first expounded the theory of “everything-in-everything,” which is the basis for poetic (and essayistic) metaphor. Look closely at any one thing and all things will be revealed. Did you imagine at the outset of Processed Meats that salami, capicola, bologna, and prime rib would lead you in all these directions, open all these portals into culture and human existence?
NW: I was talking with a friend who is working on this big book project about her father’s time in a concentration camp in the Ukraine and she was trying to figure out a structure to the book because otherwise she just chases after details and the book sprawls. I said to her, well, you can just be like me and see where the words take you, but I get that such an approach is an unconventional one. Maybe even a vilified one. Cohesion. Topic sentences. Stay on target, Luke is told when he’s gunning for the Death Star’s weak spot. Max says of nachos that the triangle ones are better for chasing the cheese. It is nice to have a target and maybe even an angular and pointed kind of targeting device. Circles have a hard time getting the cheese.
But in writing, the target is always moving. Derrida said so in “Structure, Sign, and Play,” obviously riffing off Anaxagoras—you’re more likely to get at the thing if you approximate the thing itself. If you get closer to it. Sidle up. Don’t spook it! And metaphors are the best approximators. I take my cue from poetry so I can leap and play but I also know it can seem unserious—that I’m not making a point and completing an argument in my essays.
But my larger, forever-point is that we can understand things better from supremely local positions. Bologna and prime rib, shrimp and capicola we can know. Meat in particular is a weird way to approximate the center. Our bodies are subject to so many strange manipulations—not so many as the cow’s, of course, but still—from sitting unmovingly in church to forcing it on 100-mile runs, to suffering real hunger to letting the doctor’s take a big chunk out for biopsy, we know through our bodies and our mouths abstractions that are hard to understand otherwise. If I can mete out the steps from mouth to body to soil to tree to big global catastrophe, maybe the everything-in-everything theory that Anaxagoras offers us not only makes sense in a cognitive way but in a visceral one as well. (Puns apologized for, but not regretted. Well, a little regretted.)
DWM: All this talk of Anaxagoras and Derrida may mislead potential readers, overlooking what I find equally compelling about your book: the humor, the silly asides, the basic optimism. Processed Meats doesn’t fail to acknowledge our difficult times—not just our pandemic nightmare but our toxic consumerism and the climate crisis that we’ve been avoiding for too long—but I found the book itself to be a bit of a lift, a buoyant and invigorating read.
So, tell me Nicole. Do you still have hope? Despite it all?
NW: What is wrong with me? Why do I read about the fires and the melting and the storms and the dislocation and still find hope? I am, as flawed as it is to be, an American. I’m full of optimism just as I am full of cheese. Optimism is dangerous. It’s often plain wrong. But when I look at the twenty-year old kid who invented a boat to pull plastic from the ocean and the water protectors from the Hopi and Navajo nations bringing attention to the rapidly declining aquifer and the local farmers and community-supported agriculture, all I can see is promise. It’s brighter than the bad news—not because it’s bigger. In fact, maybe because it’s smaller. I can relate to the person who grows heritage pigs and feeds them acorns from his hand and still manages to slaughter them and sell that pig to his local pork product purveyors because he spent so much time and energy with them. They had a good and industrious life. The acorns did too. The soil researchers who worry that at a certain temperature the forest becomes a bigger producer of carbon than a carbon sink look at layers of sand and at the nearly invisible microorganisms chowing down on the decaying leaves and I think, those microbes, if not those scientists, will figure something out. I’m Generation X. We aren’t supposed to believe in anything or have a lot of hope, but I think underlying all that biting realism, there’s a layer of “fine. We’ll get it done.” I believe we’ll get it together. And by we, again, I might mean the microorganisms more than the people, but still. Getting it together will be got.
Nicole Walker is the author of Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School and other places. She curated, with Rebecca Campbell, “7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone” for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is noted in multiple editions of Best American Essays. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity and author of To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno.
January 22, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Hiram Perez
I am eight years old and lost in my daydreams outside Kmart as I weave in and out between the iron bars used to keep people from stealing shopping carts. Suddenly I become aware of my father’s gaze. I meet his eyes and find myself immobilized by the disgust in his scowl.
He speaks—calmly, matter-of-factly: “Papo, if I ever find out you are a maricón, I will kill you and then kill myself.”
I don’t know what maricón means, though I hear it hurled at me enough times by other boys, along with pato. I think it has something to do with my skin being lighter than my father’s. I think it has something to do with how I cry too easily. I think it has something to do with how all my friends are girls, and I have no interest in playing baseball. I do not know what maricón means, but I know I am found out. I do know being a maricón is the worst betrayal imaginable. But what is it that betrays me? A hand gesture, I wonder, or the way I carry myself. Do I daydream too much for a boy? It is something in my eyes perhaps. Do they betray how much I am afraid all the time?
January 21, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Noah Davis
A sow bear and a cub were hit by a truck on the road outside my neighborhood.
The cub’s torn black fur and cracked claws lay crumpled beside the blown tires. The sow bear, something soft ruptured behind her bones, scrambled up the incline into the green of Pennsylvania June and died in such a hidden place that turkey vultures still haven’t found her heft.
Today, a week later, in light as full as an afternoon, a surviving cub runs paw-heavy through my family’s backyard. She turns up the side yard smelling for some root or ant hill. The apples that dropped from the trees, too hard and sour to tempt her, the blueberries corralled behind a fence. Finding nothing sweet, she crosses the street and tunnels into the neighbor’s bushes.
The neighbor calls my mother, and we leave our tea in the kitchen—my mother, father, brother, wife, and me—and rush out across the street to the last bush where the bear was seen. Pulled by our desire to love something motherless.
Read the rest of Noah Davis’ essay in Brevity‘s latest issue
January 19, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Jesse Lee Kercheval
Outside there is a pandemic and I am in lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay, far from my daughter and son also locked down, but in Kanazawa, in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, and I am inside drawing, drawing, drawing, filling sheets of paper, pages drifting to the floor, as if I were the boy in the Japanese fable who also draws and draws and draws but only cats. Cats, cats, cats until his farmer father gives up and sends him to a monastery where the boy draws the monastery cats until the head priest too gives up and tells him to go home. As he leaves, the old priest warns the boy, saying: “Avoid large places at night. Keep to the small.”
I am keeping to the small, tucked inside my rented apartment, inside my body, the very idea of outside frightening to me now—and the boy too is afraid, but of returning to his father, so instead he travels to another temple in the hopes he can ask the priests to stay there, not realizing they have all fled a giant goblin-rat. The boy arrives, and finding the place deserted, begins to draw cats all across the walls.
Continue reading Jesse Lee Kercheval’s flash essay in Brevity’s Latest Issue.
January 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
Our new issue launches this morning, with wishes for a safer, healthier world and brilliant essays from Jesse Lee Kercheval, Elena Passarello, Hiram Perez, Michael McAllister, Dorian Fox, Tyler Orion, Noah Davis, Ira Sukrungruang, Sonja Livingston, Anne Panning, Kate Hopper, Lizz Huerta, Melissa Stephenson, Francis Walsh, and Laurie Klein. Also, an array of wonderful photos from Kim Adrian.
In our Craft section, Nancy Reddy explores the “community we” and David Perez uses his acting background to show how reading our work aloud can make the written word come alive.
And we have a request as well: Brevity comes to you with no subscription fees, but we do have expenses. We have no institutional funding, and our volunteer staff is unpaid, but we pay for our website, domain name, backup software, website security software, and various other operating expenses. And we are very proud to say that we pay our authors.
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November 23, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
I have always been a doodler — in grade school, high school, hiding in the back row of large college classrooms, eventually in faculty meetings, and often just to pass the time while waiting in a doctor’s office. Having a pencil or pen in hand and some paper, or for that matter a little free space in the margins of a magazine, has always been calming for me, meditative, and amusing, all at the same time. So I was pretty darn excited to hear that Rebecca Fish Ewan had a new book out, Doodling for Writers. How do these little scribbles of ours improve our writing? In more ways than I imagined.
I was especially pleased by the book’s release because Rebecca wrote a stellar craft essay on the graphic form for Brevity and has been featured more than once — see here, and here — on the Brevity Blog .
I was so tickled that I decided to doodle a picture of her to celebrate:
And it was the most horrible doodle ever doodled. Worse even than the drawing I did of my friend Jackson’s Labradoodle:
But Doodling for Writers is nonetheless a clever, lively, funny little book, and the advice is sound. On pacing and voice, for instance:
“Voice and breath are inextricably linked. In poetry, line breaks indicate a breath. In prose, it’s, commas, that, signal, inhalations. When I draw, I become more aware of my breaths. The lines I lay down on the page keep pace with my breathing. If I want calm still lines, I slow my breaths, which in turn slows my heart rate, which then calms my hand so it can give me the line I need.”
Fish Ewan offers up a wonderful chart detailing the links between perspective in drawing and literary Point of View. She has excellent points and pointers as to how exploring our characters in ink can help us learn more about the folks we write about in our memoirs. The prompts throughout the book are brilliant!
I like also that she regularly advises tossing out the rules, like the one about how to draw heads, which never worked for me, unless I was trying to draw the head of a pig:
The real message of Doodling for Writers is that one corner of the creative brain can stimulate another corner, that drawing, or doodling, can happily stimulate the writer’s mind, and that, what the heck, writing can still be fun (like drawing.)
Dinty W. Moore is the editor-in-chief of Brevity and he drewed these pictures all by his self.