Solving for X: The Humble Essayist

July 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

humbleWe are quite pleased that Steven Harvey has chosen Pam Durban’s “Solving for X” from the most recent issue of Brevity for his “Paragraph of the Week.” You can read his thoughts on this intriguing, complex essay and Durban’s featured sentence at the Humble Essayist site.

Beth Ann Fennelly: On Heating, Cooling, and Safety Scissors

June 4, 2018 § 3 Comments

22282109_359766681112308_5299649755912659950_n(1)Author Penny Guisinger interviews Beth Ann Fennelly about flash nonfiction, micro-memoir, prose poems, the engine of the sentence, and the upcoming Iota Short Prose Conference:

Guisinger: Your new book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, consists of tidbits that you call micro-memoirs. I feel a kinship to this book because it shares some qualities with my own work, particularly the way it pushes at definitions of words we use to describe different forms of writing. You’re a  poet laureate writing short prose pieces that aren’t prose poems; instead they are memoirs which are usually a book-length thing, but there’s this hyphenated modifier “micro” involved. I’d love for you to talk about this line between pieces like these and prose poetry. Does it exist?

Fennelly: I love prose poems and have written a bunch.  I like how they look like a paragraph but still move the way a poem moves, which is to say a prose poem is often image-based, and it is held together by syntactical repetition and motif and sonic ligature. In the micro-memoirs, I was more interested in connecting the way fiction connects, through the engine of the sentence, building tension through plot, creating a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end.  Perhaps I might simply say poetry has always felt vertical to me, and prose, horizontal. These pieces are heading toward the horizon.

Guisinger: You said in another interview that once you thought of the idea of the micro-memoir, it felt like permission to create these pieces. I’m curious about what came right before that. Was the book already in progress, and you were searching for a form? Or was the idea of the form what allowed you to even get started?

Fennelly: Yes, the book was already in progress, but I didn’t know it, because I was writing these weirdo little things and I didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t look like poems or essays or a novel, they didn’t look like anything I’d written before. Discovering a name for them helped me recognize them and then articulate my project to myself.

Guisinger: I love the boldness of the pieces that are just one sentence. What made you think you could get away with that? You totally do get away with that, but did it make you nervous to try it?

Fennelly: It wasn’t scary, it was fun. One-sentence pieces are so low stakes—if it doesn’t work, so what?  Throw it away and start another! My goal was to see how much I could take away and still have a story. Also, the one-sentence pieces could sometimes make use of humor because, like a joke, they’re stripped of exposition and the bones become visible. So that’s another way they were fun to write.

guisingerGuisinger: I’d love to hear about the process of revising this book. Was there an urge to keep making all the pieces shorter: to keep tightening the bolts? The title piece is over four pages, and others are much shorter. What drove the decisions to keep the longer pieces long? Was it a conscious decision to have a variety of lengths in the collection or was each piece given the authority to spread out if it wanted to?

Fennelly: I’m attracted to books that have a pleasing uniformity. For example, British author Dan Rhodes has a book called Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories, which has this symmetry not only of form but subject matter, as every one of the 101 stories has 101 words, and every one is a love story about a different girlfriend.

Rhodes’ tidiness is very appealing. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted my book to have a lot of range and tonal variety, and I wanted the pieces to move at various speeds and densities, and to have different physical shapes on the page. I wanted them to be a short as possible, but not shorter, and in one case that means eleven words, and in another case that means four pages.

Guisinger: Was it a challenge to organize the collection?

Fennelly: Yes, very much so, in the way a book of poems requires a careful construction because it has lots of moving parts. The micro-memoirs span my life from birth to adulthood, but I didn’t want to order them chronologically  They vary in length, but I didn’t want to group the one-sentence pieces, then the one-paragraph pieces, then the longer ones. And they vary in subject, but I didn’t want to group them according to subject matter, to have, say, pieces about grief in one section, love in one section, motherhood in another. And they vary in tone, but I didn’t want the funny ones separated from the bitchy ones from the wistful ones, etc. So organization was an ongoing challenge—if I ever removed one for some reason, I had to rethink the whole thing.

Guisinger: You brought multiple approaches to using titles in the book. One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes is part of the first sentence of the piece, while I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers is the set-up line for a one-sentence piece. Talk about how you approached titling these pieces and how you were able to put titles to work for you.

Fennelly: The shorter a piece is, the more heavy lifting the title has to do. Some of the one-sentence pieces wouldn’t even qualify as “literature” without the title.

Guisinger: Writers often sit down with a thing to say and we either don’t know how to say it or we actually end up saying something completely different. A small kernel of an idea often blows the door open to something enormous, or an enormous idea has to be honed down to a manageable, concrete image. The piece Safety Scissors opens with specific childhood memories and ends with this breath-stealing emotional punch. I just have to ask: which idea came to you first? The haircut memory? The loss? Which opened the door to the other?

Fennelly: The story of my sister cutting off my hair and eyelashes in my infancy is an oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote, one I also told myself, for laughs. But I felt unease when I told this story for a laugh because there was something about the anecdote that was darker, something that got simplified, in quest of a laugh. Revisiting the material in micro-memoir form helped me linger in the moment, and identify how that moment in our childhood explains something about our relationship now.

Guisinger: This book is receiving a lot of attention. It was excerpted on Oprah.com. You were interviewed on PBS. It feels unusual (and heartening!) for a collection of small, literary pieces to hit the big time. (Yay!) So, first of all, congrats! And secondly, since you are clearly a publicity Jedi, when will your seminar “How to Promote your Book” be scheduled? (I’d like to sign up.) Can you share your hottest tip for getting the word out?

Fennelly: Penny, I am astonished at your characterization of me as a “publicity Jedi,” and everyone who knows me would share my astonishment, because I’m kind of a publicist’s worst nightmare. Like, I just got on Facebook last year  I met with my editor to discuss the launch of Heating & Cooling, and I said, “What can I do to help the book get out into the world?  I don’t do social media, but I love to give readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” And she was like, “You have to do social media.” And I was all, “No, you misheard me, I don’t do social media, but I like to do readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” and she was like, “Oh, I heard you, but you have to do social media.” So, for her, I finally on got on Facebook. But when people talk about their “platforms” and their “product,” I kind of break out in hives. So I’d be the last person to give a book promotion seminar. That being said, I have had a lot of fun in introducing the micro-memoir form to various groups. It’s a teachable form; it’s low pressure. I know a lot of folks who’d like to write their life story, say, but don’t know where to begin, and they feel daunted. But to write a true story in a single paragraph? That seems manageable. My friend, the novelist Joshilyn Jackson, went to a micro-memoir craft class I gave and now teaches the form in a women’s prison in Georgia where she volunteers, because it’s possible to introduce the form and get great results in a one-hour class, even with students who aren’t allow access to computers. I love that.

Guisinger: This August, I get to welcome you as faculty at Iota: Short Prose Conference on the coast of Maine along with Sven Birkerts. It’s a generative, four-day conference on short forms. What does that mean and what can people expect from the experience of studying with you?

Fennelly: Oh yes I’m SUPER excited about the conference.  Truly bucolic location.  And I admire Sven Birkerts’ work a lot.  I teach his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, AgainIt’s so smart.  I’m excited to give prompts and share examples of short forms that really inspire me—including short form nonfiction pieces that I first read here at Brevity. Three cheers for Brevity! And for Iota!

___

Want to study with Beth Ann Fennelly and Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.

___

Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Her newest prose book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, published in October 2017 with W.W. Norton, and she published Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, a collection of essays with Norton in 2006. Beth Ann is the author of three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1996, 2005, and 2006. A contributing editor to The Oxford American, she also writes freelance on travel, culture, and design for many magazines. Recent nonfiction awards include the Orlando Award in Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own, the Lamar York Prize from The Chattachoochee Review and the Porter Fleming Award for Excellence in the Essay. She’s the first woman honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Distinguished Alumni in the Arts Award.

Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives with her wife and kids, two dogs, and a constantly changing number of tropical fish. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.

 

 

 

On Essaying the Violence Against “Women These Days”

May 21, 2018 § 2 Comments

authorphoto-4Amy Butcher’s essayWomen These Days,” in the Brevity issue launched last week, was constructed from a series of Google news story searches using the keyword “women” combined with various common verbs ( “dating,” “walking,” “running,” “shopping,” “cooking”) We asked the author to reveal more about the origins of the powerful, difficult essay that resulted:

For years, I’ve taught Torrey Peters’ heartbreaking found essay, “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay,” which first appeared in Brevity‘s May 2015 issue, and recently I’ve begun to teach it alongside her “On ‘Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay’” which appeared in Wave-Form: Twenty-First-Century Essays By Women. That initial essay is so profound and deeply moving and unflinching in its approach, but I understand, too, the hesitation and uncertainty she felt which led to the addendum.

As an essayist, I believe very deeply in the value of complication, and in essays that are provocative in their approach. I think, in many ways, this is the most effective way we have as essayists to shake readers into being perhaps a little less accepting of any number of current situations—the state of violence against women in this country being only one of them. I understand Peters’ conflict intimately, as my first book is one for which I often feel very conflicting truths. I think of Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender,” a rumination on writing his memoir Firebird, and how he ends the essay with a moving back-and-forth interior monologue about whether or not he’d make the same artistic decisions if he could make them all over again. The best essays I’ve ever read occupy this space.

For me, writing “Women These Days” was deeply cathartic, and unlike Peters’ essay, which is uncomfortably (and brilliantly) objective, I allowed myself to become present in the piece because so much of what these deaths represent—beyond their abhorrent and inherent horror—is an ongoing and daily threat against my person and half the people around me. Why do we not care more? I’m working now on a book about women and fear and danger, and one of the hardest parts of writing it is grappling with the fact that male intimate partners—husbands, boyfriends, fiancés, lovers—take the lives of three American women on average daily. That’s more than death by car accident, death by suicide, death by cancer. We think of war and imagine combat in desert places, suicide vests, IEDS. But while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saw the deaths of 6,488 American troops between 2001 and 2012, those same eleven years yielded the death of 11,766 American women, murdered by current or former male partners in their backyards and their bedrooms, their living rooms and cars. The risks are greater if you’re a woman of color, greater if you are gay, greater still if you’re transgender. Why does it not unsettle us more? These deaths exceed the causalities of 9/11 every three years, and yet no one dares declare war on this uniquely particular, domestic terror, not foreign or distant at all but in the very same spaces where we throw birthday parties, flip pancakes, string Christmas lights, grill ballpark franks. I’m grateful this essay has had the reception it has, and I’m grateful to Brevity for publishing it.

__
Amy Butcher is an essayist with recent work in Granta Magazine, Harper’s, The New York Times, Lit Hub, and others. Her first book, Visiting Hours, earned starred reviews and praise from The New York Times Sunday Review of Books, NPR, The Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and others. She teaches writing at Ohio Wesleyan University and annually for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Aphorisms for a Lonely Planet

May 17, 2018 § 3 Comments

butcher_slidFrom Lance Larsen’s “Aphorisms for a Lonely Planet,” one of 15 fearless flash essays featured in the freakingly fantastic new issue of Brevity.

5

When his son fell into a well, San Isidro didn’t pray the deed undone, but asked for the water to rise—and the infant floated up into his arms.

6

Walking down a narrow Cuzco alley, my teenage daughter leans into me, which means she’s cold or tired or a little scared. Maybe all three. And yet, what father doesn’t hoodwink himself into calling this love and snuggling closer?

 

Have you visited yet?

 

 

An Open Letter to Brian Arundel

April 4, 2018 § 8 Comments

arundelDear Brian,

In lieu of a Thank You note, I should be sending you a royalty check for all the times I have printed your essay The Things I’ve Lost published in Brevity 22. Perhaps writers should team up with musicians to claim monetary compensation for their intellectual property.

Brevity will also want a piece of the take, as will state and federal entities. I don’t know about you but, I am not feeling very generous toward the government these days. As I watch your imaginary check dwindle in size, it occurs to me that cutting a check is as antiquated as placing a stamp on a letter. I feel, however, that I should publicly give credit where credit is due and since I cannot find you elsewhere this is as good a place as any to connect with you.

I work as a nurse who works with patients receiving chemotherapy, and, thanks to a generous donation, I have access to a healthy supply of notebooks and journals. Some are jeweled and bedazzled, while others have faux leather covers. I delight in selecting just the right one for my patients. I imagine I am kin to Ollivander who selects the perfect wand for fledgling wizards.

There is time to talk in the space between lab work, pre-hydration fluids, and administering the poison that may be their salvation. Shelly was interested in alternative medicine options and I discussed a body of research demonstrating improved health outcomes for people who write about their illness. Shelly said she wanted to journal during her first cancer treatment, but the chemotherapy made it difficult to clear her mind enough to write a coherent sentence. Now, on her second time around, I suggested she make a list of the things she lost. Start with: I lost my hair. I lost my fear of hospitals, I lost my virginity…. Shelly and I talked about how writing helps take you out of the moment and allows the writer to look at the totality of their experiences. It is not illness that defines us but all the other things that make up the lost and found of a life.

Illness is the door most apparent when I write with my patients, but the illness is not who they are. It is a place to start. Shelly embraced the idea and held tight to the journal I gave her — a striped journal, reminiscent of Fruit Stripe chewing gum.

As I talked with Shelly, her mother-in-law sat quietly on the sofa. She later came out to the nurse’s station and asked if we could talk. The HIPPA alarm was raging in my head since there was nothing I could discuss with her about Shelly’s care. My brain said “No” but my lips said, “Of course.” As we stepped into an empty hallway she explained that she had been listening to the conversation.  She is a high school teacher and she wondered if I had heard about the shooting at her school. She said she hated going back to the school until today. She said, “For the first time, I can see a path forward. I can write with my students about what we have lost. I can help them through their grief” She thanked me and gave a sincere and tender hug.

Both the hug and thanks are yours to claim and do not belong to me.

I cannot begin to send you a royalty check to cover this exchange. Please know you are rich in good karma credits even if your 401(k) is feeling rather depleted.

With your permission, I will continue to use your essay for inspiration because even teenage boys show enthusiasm for a writing project that begins, “I lost a lot of blood.”

Your appreciative fan,

joey
___
Joey Elizabeth is a mom, MFA student, and registered nurse who tries to insert biblio-therapy between rounds of chemo-therapy because healing is not the same as curing. A fellow nurse calls her an anecdotal artist. Her work can be found on the back of envelopes, via Blackboard posts, and in notebooks in the bottom desk drawer. You can find her in the kitchen making dinner or at joeyelizabeth@hotmail.com.

A Review of Lee Martin’s Telling Stories

March 19, 2018 § 4 Comments

9781496202024-Perfect.inddBy Debbie Hagan

Popular Mechanics was the only magazine my father ever read. In it were clever plans, such as turning a metal lunchbox into a radio, a VW Beetle into a travel trailer, and a coffee can into an electric doghouse heater. Actually, Dad made the latter, complete with a switch for turning the heater on and off from the house.

Like Dad, I was pretty good at following directions. I could bake just about anything in a cookbook, which gave me the idea that I could do anything—even write great short stories—if I just had the right directions. I was young and naïve when I began searching for good writing craft books. Most were disappointing, giving general advice, such as put your butt in the chair, write every day, read books, make the dictionary your friend, and so on. I really wanted specific directions.

I gave up searching for the writing cookbook, until I found Lee Martin’s Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life. It’s not really a writing cookbook. Actually, it’s better. In it are eighty brief chapters of solid advice for telling good stories—and some—not all—have step-by-step directions.

Martin begins with advice on how to create a great opener. He uses, as an example, the opening to Raymond Carver’s famous short story “Cathedral.” The narrator anxiously awaits the arrival of his wife’s former colleague who is blind. The narrator has never known anyone blind—only characters in movies. As his anxiety mounts, so does the reader’s, who’s worrying what will happen to this poor blind man when he finally arrives.

To create such a tension-filled beginning, Martin advises, “Write a line that’s already moving forward, that contains the story’s premise. Then establish the perspective of the main character so we know his or her position, as in: A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.” It’s simple, but powerful and strategic, as are the other lessons in this book.

While Martin gives some rather detailed step-by-step prompts, they don’t necessarily lead to a complete story soufflé. Mostly they’re short tricks and tips for building character, scene, detail, dialogue, and more. These exercises feel fresh and original, stemming, I assume, from Martin’s deep well of writing experience and literary knowledge. He is, of course, a premiere storyteller (Such a Life, Bright Forever), teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State University, and has been teaching writing for thirty-six years.

In this book, I’ve dog-eared several sections that I will revisit. One is “Using Photos in Memoir.” In my own writing classes, I ask students to bring in personal photographs to examine closely for details and deeper meaning. As Martin says, a photograph “not only immerses you in the time period; it also provides an emotional connection between you and the people about whom you’re writing.” He gives a five-step guide for not only looking deeper into the photo, but analyzing it for scene, emotion, and metaphor. His way of guiding writers through this exercise is far better than mine, and I hope to borrow some of his ideas the next time I lead students through this exercise.

Another section I’ve referred back to is “Connecting the Particulars.” I love lyric essays, but struggle to write them. Martin more or less pulls back the curtain, giving us a glimpse at the foundation beneath the poetry. He leads readers through a step-by-step exercise, guiding writers to pull together dissimilar objects and people and mix them with abstract ideas. Initially I found this exercise a bit daunting and didn’t expect anything would come of it. However, once I brought my object, person, and idea together, there was a palpable resonance on the page. I had something—just a start—but often that’s all a writer needs to get going. That’s why this is better than a cookbook.

Martin combines writing tips with examples from literature and his own life and teachings. It’s a clever, warm-hearted book for writers of fiction or creative nonfiction. It could be used in creative writing classes or kept on the desk for those days one needs a little shot of inspiration.

I’ve learned from Martin’s website, he’s a fan of this quote from Isak Dinesen: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” Throughout this handy, inspirational book, Martin gently urges writers forward and not to give up.
____

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and many other publications. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

What a Way to Start an Essay

January 19, 2018 § 7 Comments

categories22Some first lines from our brand new issue, to entice and intrigue you:

I awoke to my mother’s weeping and walked over the jail bars’ shadow the Venetian blinds made on the kitchen floor.  Beverly Donofrio

Our friend Shana… her… father… well, she wasn’t born yet. But her father won a live monkey at a drive-in movie. Jack Pendarvis

In the country of my mother’s birth, miracles and sloths keep to themselves. Traci Brimhall

Imperceptibly, the white pine has grown so tall no one can see what’s happening up there. Fleda Brown

Because I used to stare at Mendy Frankl’s Adonis curls in statistics, because I had a pair of silver boots from Baker’s I got on clearance for $14.99 and Sharpied them to near-extinction, because I dreamed of being the kind of girl who had a red high heel on the end of a keychain, as if that were really even a kind of girl, I sometimes felt sad. Temim Fruchter

When I tell you that my mother’s father was born in a Siberian prison, I’ll remind you that was because his parents were perhaps exiled as retribution for political acts. Or simply because they were Jews.  Jessica Handler

You know how you find yourself in the kitchen and you can’t remember what you’re doing there so maybe you put your hands on the cold sink and look out the window but it doesn’t help? Abigail Thomas

 

 

 

 

 

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