Shame, Shame, Shame: On Brené Brown, Diamond Formation, and the Writing Life

October 21, 2019 § 27 Comments

livingstonblueBy Sonja Livingston

I’ve recently fallen into a YouTube rabbit hole.

This is partly because I cancelled Netflix and am hard up for video content, but also because I have a book just out and no one tells you how tender that space is. The last three videos I watched were: Alain de Botton’s “On Love,” Patty Griffin and Robert Plant singing “Ohio,” and an extended clip of bestselling author and inspirational speaker, Brené Brown. I admire Brené Brown and trust her. She has the kind of haircut I’m always after and a Texas accent which she uses to say hot and wise things.

You either walk inside your story and own it, Brené says. Or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.

Brown is famous for her talks on vulnerability and shame.

In fact, she’s a shame researcher, which makes her one of my people. Shame is my first language. I grew up on its fumes. If shame were a small island nation, I’d be given a cardboard crown and made its chronically self-conscious queen. Shame arises in two basic forms, according to Brown: 1.) You’re not good enough, and 2.) Who do you think you are?

Growing up poor and female in America means proficiency in both. But, no matter our gender or social class, most of us suffer some degree of shame. Long before YouTube or Brené Brown, Carl Jung was clear about its toll, calling shame a soul-eating emotion.

Shame distances us from our own skin, and clearly, limits our growth as a culture and as human beings. But while it’s toxic in our actual lives, shame can be a guidepost in our writing lives.

Because I did not begin to write seriously until I was nearly thirty, I had a storehouse of shameful memories to tap into: Our electricity being cut off for nonpayment; the stack of unopened bills on our kitchen table; the sound of a social worker interviewing my mother about the loss of her factory job and our missing fathers while I listened from the bedroom, noticing how young my mother suddenly sounded, how small. I carried all of this with me. The bad clothes, the bill collectors, the food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. When I began to write, it leapt right onto the page.

Whew, I said when I finished my first book, I’m glad I got that out of my system.

Think again, I learned. There’s always more.

Next I wrote about the female body, especially fertility and infertility and what those things can mean. Again, I thought I was finished with shame. I mean, I’d gone and put my ovaries on the page, so certainly I was done. But when it comes to shame and vulnerability, the supply line is unending.

Now it’s religion. Which is the trickiest topic of all, because unlike the scarce resources or lackluster ovaries I was born with, returning to my old Catholic church is something that, as an educated progressive woman, I actually chose. Which is why my Catholic essays caused me more grief than any other subject. Embracing Catholicism, especially in this present cultural moment, makes no obvious sense. My shame flared. What would people think? Why risk misunderstanding? Especially when I wasn’t even sure why I’d gone back to Mass?

It’s as tempting in writing as in life to avoid what makes us feel exposed.

But whatever you believe makes you wrong in the eyes of the world is what makes you right on the page. Shame is an arrow pointing toward the ripest fruit. Fruit. Unlike embarrassment, which may also provide good stories but is situational and fleeting, shame is seeing ourselves as unworthy in some essential way. Its doggedness is precisely what makes it so rich.

This makes me think of how diamonds are made. They begin as bits of carbon-based grit deep within the Earth. Caught there for ages, they stew under a hundred miles of rock and rubble. Eventually, the combination of intense pressure and heat from the Earth’s core spurs crystal formation and turns them ever-so-slowly into gems.

Shame can work similarly for writers. Grit makes its way inside you. Your mother calls you clumsy or your father shushes you in public one too many times. Your pants are too plaid or some kid in kindergarten points out your cowlick, laughing over the way your hair sprays like a geyser from the rear quadrant of your head. You push down those perceived deficiencies and guard them so tenaciously, they harden over the years and become the core of who you are. Until, one day, you suffer some sort of beautiful rupture (such as taking up writing) and it rises to the surface. This is not always comfortable, but, if we allow it into the work, can be a source of unexpected treasure.

Shame derives its power from being unspeakable, Brené Brown says.

Writing derives its power by noticing the unspeakable and going there.

I don’t suggest mining your most troubling secrets or tapping into crippling sources of shame. Instead, notice what you hope no one sees, the little things you hide from even your best friend. Maybe it’s the line of candy corn you did after the faculty meeting, how you haven’t spoken to your mother in a proper decade, or how you still worry about cutlery—which fork and when? Maybe it’s the dimpled skin of your upper arms or the fact that even your midlife crisis is massively uncool—that instead of submitting to a red rose vining along your collarbone or developing a decent yoga habit, you’ve returned to a fading Catholic church. All the stuff you’re convinced makes you goofy and wrong and weird. Write this.

Sonja Livingston is the author of four books of literary nonfiction, including the most recent, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotionand the award-winning memoir, GhostbreadRecent essays appear in LitHub, Kenyon Review, and Salon. Sonja teaches creative nonfiction writing at Virginia Commonwealth University where she serves as the Faculty Editor for Blackbird.

Find her here on social media: Twitter@sonjalivingston / instagram: sonjalivvy / FB: sonjalivingston

Natalie Lima: Snowbound and Longing

September 19, 2019 § Leave a comment

natalie_limaIn Brevity’s September 2019 issue, Natalie Lima ventures from Florida to Chicago for college, where she struggles to fit in and longs for the first sight of snow. Here’s an excerpt from Lima’s flash essay:

You don’t cry because you’ve earned this. Because you’re poor, and you’re Latin, and your dad ran off with the neighbor, yet you still killed it on the SAT—you are clearly destined for greatness. You don’t cry because you are dying to leave your barrio, dying to leave that couch you sleep on. Because even though it’s scary, you know this fancy school is where you were always meant to be.

Read the rest of Lima’s stunning essay in our September 2019 issue.

Brevity’s September Issue: On Going (Back)

September 17, 2019 § Leave a comment


Have you had a chance to visit Brevity’s September 2019 issue, posted yesterday morning?

Among the brilliant essays featured in our newest issue is Jill Talbot’s poignant rumination on how her history of going away and coming back tangles up her past and present. Here is an excerpt from Talbot’s essay:

Night after night, I sit on the end of a faded futon while he sleeps in the next room. I drink until the wine takes me down the back roads of bad choices, where I retrace missed exits, check my rearview for deleted messages and unanswered knocks on the door of my last apartment in Lubbock. In the dark, I stare at the snow-burdened trees outside our windows. Glass after glass after glass.

You can, of course, read the entire essay in our new issue.

The Brief Essay: Brevity’s September 2019 Issue

September 16, 2019 § 1 Comment

aa talbot

Our September 2019 Issue launches this morning, featuring Erica Trabold, Mark Cox, Natalie Lima, Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Reginald Gibbons, Jill Talbot, Joanne Nelson, David Wade, Madhushree Gosh, Steven Harvey, Kat Moore, Leslie Jill Patterson, Sarah Hanner, Greg Bottoms, and Patricia Henley, all brilliant practitioners of the flash essay.

In our Craft Section, Haley Swanson, Kent Meyers, Ana Maria Spagna, and Dinah Lenney explore the universal, the eternal, the environmental, and the “addictive (compulsive, obsessive)” pain of revision.

With photography by Paul Bilger.

Please have a look.

Between Lost and Found: A Second Correspondence to Brian Arundel

August 23, 2019 § 5 Comments

arundelDear Brian,

When your essay “The Things I’ve Lost” was published in Brevity’s Fall 2006 issue, you could not have imagined a virus was forming. Your words rested in dormancy until a Google search triggered another viral outbreak with the tingle of their presence erupting in full force at unpredictable intervals. A virus can only survive in a living organism, so I hope you will accept this as a compliment. At first, I wanted to be clever and equate the essay to a stash of bitcoin hidden in a long-abandoned desktop computer. I know nothing about virtual currency, so I returned to a metaphor I’m more comfortable with.

It has been a year since our last correspondence,  and I wanted to give you an update on the continuing adventures of how I use your essay with my patients recovering from chemotherapy. I still have a supply of journals to work with available from the Child Life office. Occasionally, I help myself to the sticker collection in the storeroom closet to personalize the journal if it otherwise lacks the spark of joy that is so important. I believe in using my resources.

I start the creative writing process by introducing  patients to your essay. Readers of your original work recognize that as you lose certain items and concepts, you are finding a sense of yourself, and what you value. The concept of lost things is a great conversation starter in the hospital setting since the list opens naturally with: I lost a lot of blood, I lost my hair, my fear of needles . . .

I’ve been schooled by an assertive teen who remarked  “I did not lose my kidney. The surgeon took it from me in my sleep.”

I encourage my patients to start on one side of the journal with the things they lost, and then flip the journal to list the things they found. I know that this prompt is more concrete than your original design, but a virus will mutate to adapt to a new environment. Maybe it isn’t pure science, but I am certain that alchemy exists because I’ve seen what can happen when a Fortnite sticker is used to cover the UPC code on the back of a journal so it can be oriented in either direction.

Often, the list of found items begins with: I found a lump, or I found out the cancer is back. As patient’s progress through their list, they often move away from the tangible and into something with more nuance, such as: I found I am stronger than I thought.

I have noticed as people flip back and forth between Lost and Found,  themes come to the surface and it is harder to put concepts into a neat category of good and bad, positive and negative. The yin-yang is stirred with a stick.

Writing gives my patients power and agency.  This is more important than anything I document in the electronic medical record and yet, there is no check box for it at all.

In my last letter I mentioned my patient Shelly. Shelly’s mother-in-law overheard our discussion about your essay and was inspired to write with high school students about what they had lost after a school shooting. We expect adults to understand loss in its many incarnations, but for children to know it too is another matter. I’m glad when adults can give children a tool  for coping.

I am sad to report an email from the clinic social worker was sent to me with a link to Shelly’s obituary. The memorial service announcement reported she died peacefully at home with her family by her side. That is what people want to hear. It is what we can bear to imagine.

This e-mail was sent out to members of the oncology team, and the list included nurses, physicians, therapists, and support staff. The disparate list inspired an idea, and I wondered what would happen if each of us on the list contributed one phrase for a collective essay about the things we’ve lost. In my imagination, lines formed from comments I’ve heard over the years: I lost the blue stethoscope my grandmother gave me when I graduated from med school. I lost my desire to be a surgeon after seeing my first c-section. The baby was more interesting. I lost the chemotherapy pill when it bounced off my shoe and landed somewhere under the bed.

Then, like a virus spread by a single sneeze, or a handshake, I wondered what this collective essay would look like if written by patients and staff members in the Veteran’s Administration wing of the hospital. Or the Orthopedic Unit? Or Mother-Baby Unit?

In the flurry of an unbridled imagination, I identified other groups who could contribute to this imaginary group creative writing project: Food Service staff, material management, maintenance, physical plant. A virus is not selective. Anyone can catch it. And like a virus, it is self-limiting. Participants only need to contribute one thought, one sentence, a single contribution to a collective endeavor.

What if this virus spread beyond the hospital campus to the entire university and the chemistry department published an essay alongside the philosophy department? Can you just imagine the juxtaposition, the similarity, and beauty in a list?

The virus could become an outbreak so significant that the larger community would be affected: the yoga studio, the credit union, and the food pantry down the street. We would need one great big repository for all the groups who would say, “Yes, we want to participate!”

Maybe your people know people who can make things happen with words and ideas. Let’s begin at the beginning and introduce your essay to a new crop of readers and writers – and readers who never dreamed they could be writers too. I think it has viral potential, and since a vaccine is not required, or desired, we can forgo all the vaccination controversy.

Your true fan,

Joey Elizabeth


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

Flash Prose and the Virtues of Distillation

June 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

apostolBy Jenny Apostol

An editor friend and I were recently chatting about a short essay I’d sent her for feedback. She thought it wasn’t finished yet, pointed out places the story could go further. “It’s meant to be flash,” I replied, explaining that I’d submitted it to a couple of journals that publish short-form nonfiction up to 1,000 words in length. Yes, of course she understood, but wondered if readers really understand what is meant by the term “flash” in prose writing.

Perhaps not; but readers may come to a shorter piece of writing for all sorts or reasons, not least of which we peruse so much on our phones. The essay in question may need to expand beyond its current 923 word-count, but the conversation helped me to realize, this writer/editor aside, that most of my friends have very little idea of what the term creative nonfiction means, and the flash form, even less so. I am two years into a three-year low-residency MFA program; creative nonfiction is the genre I work in, but I don’t share or talk about my writing very often.

For many in my community, an essay recently published in Brevity was their first taste of anything personal I’ve written. Feedback poured in. “Muscular” “spare” “succinct” “poignant” “elegant” “beautiful” “authentic” “spacious” and “poetic” were the words my friends and family used to describe their reactions to the essay. One friend from college texted “that took me to some unexpected places, and yet captures how thoughts connect and jump around.” A filmmaker I’ve known for thirty years emailed: “Writers have to write whole novels to achieve what you achieved in a page.” Never underestimate the positive context that publication brings! But if I were to Venn diagram these responses, all of the accolades would flow from the word “spare.”

My readers were responding to the containment of narrative that feels complete in under 750 words. They focused on language that is “muscular” and “poetic” because each word reflects the weight of every other and can leap a great distance in emotion and time. They were honing in not just on the story and its characters, what and who the essay is about, but on how it is written; they had found the form. In some ways, this was the most gratifying feedback of all.

A few British friends referred to my “article,” which I associate with journalism that explores a specific subject. My essay is memoir, a series of moments and events experienced by members of my family, some of which I had only heard about. When these three episodes came together into three paragraphs, they created an alternative narrative that touches on aging and memory and the ways we experience grief. A kind of reportage, in fact. I knew the theme of suicide to be inherently shocking. But it wasn’t shock I was after; it is to feel our proximity to one another as living and dying beings who breath the same air, whether we’re related to one another or not.

Peggy Shumaker says “the elasticity and the complexity of the brief form intrigue me,” where “history, research, metaphor, immersion, imagination, sensuality, spontaneity, reflection, voice, expansion and compression of time all play a role.” This paradox intrigues me, too. Writing is an intuitive process, and for me works best when technique bubbles up with deliberation, yet from somewhere unconscious.

The comments were encouraging, precisely because they reinforce the virtues of distillation, its essential clarity, as well as its spaciousness, and the generative, even collaborative power of “concise literary nonfiction.” My friends finally understand what I’ve been up to, what I strive to create in my writing every day. Best of all, the brevity of my essay has left them hungry to read more. Now I just have to apply all those qualities to the other hundred plus pages of prose that make up the draft of my thesis. And all those articles I need to write.

Jenny Apostol is a writer, translator, and Emmy award-winning nonfiction television producer. Her work has appeared in Brevity, and in River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things.” Jenny is pursuing an MFA at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.


In Defense of Themelessness in an Essay Collection

May 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble, in our May 2019 issue, explores the claim that essay collections must always be “themed,” and suggests that maybe the better question to ask is is not, Is the book saleable? but Is it sailable?

Here’s an excerpt:

During our proverbial New York lunch, right before she signed me, my once-upon-a-time agent asked what I wanted from my writing career—fame? fortune? —as well as what I wanted from this book in particular. I remember saying—so unguardedly, “I want to write a good book that people can read.”

In the years that followed—when this agent and I broke up, when my book was rejected by many more agents, and contests, and presses—I returned to this answer again and again. I return to it now when I wonder why The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it, why that literary festival rejected it, why that award didn’t choose it. I wrote a good book, and people can read it. That’s the main thing.

So if you are putting together an essay collection, I ask you to consider what your motive is in writing this particular book. If you already have a theme that drives your writing, that’s wonderful—follow it where it takes you. But if you don’t have a particular theme—and if you don’t really want to have one—take heart. Write the book you want to write, and then think about how it might be described, pitched, published and sold.

Randon Billings Noble’s full essay can be read right here. Do it.

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