A Fan Letter to Brian Doyle

May 27, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Jason Poole

If I had written a fan letter to Brian Doyle before he died, I’d have told him how he (almost singlehandedly) changed my life, starting with the time I read one of his pieces in Creative Nonfiction magazine, in an issue about bringing joy back to writing, because, at the time, there was so little joy in my writing life, and I wondered who this man was who wrote such long-and-winding sentences, and then it dawned on me: this man was writing with joyful abandon and his words were like kids rolling in the grass, like that moment when Carrie, from Little House on the Prairie, goes running down the hill in the show’s opening credits, and then she wipes out, but nothing terrible happens; instead her head pops up above the greenery, and even though the moment is grossly overscored by the show’s theme music, you can almost hear her laughing, and that’s how Doyle wrote (but never saccharine or sappy), and I know that to be true because after I read his piece in the magazine, I immediately went online and searched the database at The Strand and found out they had several of his books, his collections of “proems,” and the next day I went there and climbed up one of those dangerous ladders which resemble staircases (the ones which look innocent but if you make a false move, they’ll send you sprawling and crashing into those impossible shelves on the main floor, maybe knocking down and an old person, or two, who’d only come inside to get out of the rain or the sun, who might’ve been enjoying a temperature-controlled moment in the quiet of the stacks and o! thank! god! that didn’t happen), and I bought all the Doyles without even opening them to read a page or two, because I trusted that anyone who could write like that—like rolling down a grassy hill—would be my new favorite writer, and then I walked across the street to Au Bon Pain and stood at the counter in the window (because they never have an open table), and I read the first book and got all misty-eyed, and then—afraid people would see me as a simp—I poured myself into a cab and went home to read them all, cover to glorious cover, while lying on the couch and crying into a cup of lukewarm coffee in the safety of my own home, and my world shifted, I think (picture pulling on an ingrown hair, which on the surface may look like just a little black speck, but when teased with the tip of tweezer, reveals itself to be as long as an arm and wildly twisted like the root of a tree), all those words and images, those grainy images, growing clearer and sharper and smarter as I read them, making me want to push myself to be a better writer, and I wish now I’d written to him, dear Brian Doyle, and thanked him and told him I loved him before he died.

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Jason Craig Poole is a word nerd who plays in all the literary sandboxes. His work has appeared in riksha, Paterson Literary Review and his songs and story are featured in the documentary, Sons of Hālawa. He’s currently working on his first novel for middle grade readers. He lives with his family in South Orange, New Jersey.

Brevity 70 Springs Forward

May 24, 2022 § 2 Comments

Our newest issue, live this morning, features exceptional flash essays from Debra Gwartney, Jessica Handler, Cherri Randall, Anne Panning, Todd Davis, Aliki Barnstone, Amy Miller, Lori White, Wendy Wallace, Mariah Rigg, Tyler Whichard, and Bhante Sumano.

In our Craft Section, Lori Tucker-Sullivan discusses revising her one hundred-word Tiny Love Story for The New York Times, Degan Davis uses the words of Dante, Mark Doty, Rebecca Solnit and others to explore “how to keep our eyes open in the darkness of our writing process,” and Randon Billings Noble examines the “daringness” of the lyric essay, how it relies on intuition more than exposition, image more than narration, and question more than answer.  

Plus exquisite photography by Laura Oliverio.

What Am I Doing? A Writer at Eighty

March 30, 2022 § 53 Comments

By Abigail Thomas

I’ve always been curious about why one chooses fiction for one story and nonfiction for another. For me it’s pretty simple—some stories need to be served straight up. That’s nonfiction. Others need more architecture, that’s fiction. It’s a decision best left to the gut.

It has been a long time since I wrote fiction, it felt like flying when it went well, but then so does everything; it was thrilling to go chasing some bright scrap of cloth, or a pregnant Dalmatian, or a wild goose, but sooner or later, once I’d had my fun, I’d have to put a roof over its head, give it a place to live and a reason for existing. 

Nonfiction comes easily. When something catches my eye, or keeps cropping up, I write. I’ve been at this long enough to know the next interesting thing often shows up in disguise, a bug, say, or a certain shade of blue, or a joke someone told that wasn’t funny. These bits and pieces don’t have to get dressed up for the occasion. I am distilling, not decorating. All I have to do is get it down and get it right. Get in and get out. It’s when I’m not quite hitting the bullseye that I am flummoxed. There are any number of fragments I have brooded over for days, trying to find that elusive missing bit, needing to get rid of the unsatisfied feeling when I read it aloud to myself. I’m better at cutting. My friend Chuck used to call me the samurai editor.

I love the word, “fragment.” It has a jagged quality. I looked it up in my “Dictionary of Indo-European Roots” and found it’s a straight shot back to the beginning, because its ancestor, bhreg, meant “to break.” I’m not sure writing is our way of fixing what’s broken, although that’s often a by-product of writing. Sometimes the word fragment could be more accurately defined as shrapnel, and the trick is to determine where the pain originates, remove the foreign object with surgical precision, and see what it is. Painful, but it’s part of the deal. 

I never know if what I’m writing will add up to anything but I’m always curious to see where my mind goes when it’s off-leash. What does it stop to inspect, what does it return to? What the hell am I doing? What are all these memories doing in here? Then there’s a physical rush, like falling in love, when what I’m doing begins to reveal itself. I had my 80th birthday in 2021. What am I up to? I’m an old woman picking up the pieces of her day, wondering where they might lead, loving the journey.
__

Abigail Thomas is eighty years old. A new book of her essays will be published by The Golden Notebook later this year.

The Unspoken in Writing Family Histories

February 11, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Premarital sex. Abandonment. Divorce. A love child. Mental illness. Domestic abuse. Betrayal. Alcoholism. Suicide and other tragic deaths.

Many of these subjects lurk, often unspoken, in our family histories. Yet those of us who want to write our family histories need to decide how to handle these skeletons. I dealt with all of these situations in my family history, If We Can Winter This: Essays and Genealogies, The Gordon Family of County Leitrim, Ireland, and The Norris Family of County Tyrone, (now) Northern Ireland.

I’ve written a dozen family histories in my career as a professional genealogist, both for clients and on my own families. In every person’s family tree, there are bones rattling in closets. But I write only about dead people, never the living. The living have rights to privacy; the dead do not.

If you have solid documentation or reliable sources, you do not need anyone’s permission to write about the dead (public figures are a different story). Consequently, you may have some disgruntled relatives once your book comes out. If you feel you need to ask permission, be prepared to hit delete if someone has a problem with what you’ve written. I had a client who made me cut material. I had written that the average, everyday woman in the eighteenth century, one like her ancestor, was not particularly focused on housework for cleanliness. While historically correct and documented, she felt this cast her long-dead, many-times-great-grandmother in a bad light, so she wanted that taken out. You never know what will upset the living.

If you’re writing your own family history, you decide what to include and what not. I don’t believe in sugar-coating ancestral life stories or asking anyone’s permission to write about dead relatives. My feeling is our ancestors were human, and we need to be honest about their lives. They struggled. And with those struggles comes inspiration and hope for the living.

What makes their stories more compelling and less shocking, though, is putting a person’s conditions into historical perspective. Times may change, but people do not. For example, I have several relatives who suffered from mental illnesses. Not only did I research mental illness for the given time period and circumstances, but I also consulted with a psychotherapist to understand how these people likely suffered. After all, until fairly recently, mental health diagnoses and treatments were considered shocking and rarely discussed.

Thankfully, my health insurance covered mental health visits with a $10 co-pay, so I made an appointment. When I arrived, and he asked me why I was there. I said, “Oh, it’s not for me. I’d like you to help me diagnose my ancestors’ mental illnesses.” Once his surprise wore off, he was most accommodating.

I explained that my great-aunt, forty-nine-year-old Mary (Gordon) Clark, a widow, was afraid to live in her house in Greenwich, Connecticut, which I learned from a newspaper article. In 1908, she told her sister, Annie, someone had tried to break in. Annie, living in neighboring Port Chester, New York, took Mary and her young son in while renovations were done on the house to make her feel safer.

Mary wasn’t always fearful, though. Before moving in with Annie, Mary managed her sewing business well, and she made a comfortable living for herself and her son. But an incident a few months prior triggered her instability. Mary had boarded a trolley car in Greenwich, and finding no seat available, she stood. As she reached to grab the leather ceiling strap, the car lurched forward. Witnesses said she “fell heavily”—she being a “large woman”—and struck the back of her head.

After a few weeks, all the renovations had been completed. Mary and her twelve-year-old son would return to the house in Greenwich. But that afternoon, Annie found Mary in the kitchen, blood seeping onto her shirtwaist.

Mary had a deep wound in her abdomen. A knife on the table had no blood on it, but a can opener did. But the knife had to be the weapon. Had Mary wiped the knife clean? Mary made no attempt to deny or affirm her action.

Annie called Dr. Quinlan, who came to the apartment. He did what he could to dress Mary’s wound, but decided it was best to call for an ambulance to take Mary to Ladies Hospital.

Mary died five days after she stabbed herself. Her death certificate records that her self-inflicted wound became infected. But her chief cause of death was “Burns of scalp, neck and shoulders. Laceration of abdomen.” Contributing was “peritonitis (septic), self inflicted stab in abdomen. Set fire to her hair.”

I showed the death certificate to the therapist. Although ruled a suicide at the time, that isn’t exactly what happened to Mary. Historically, women tended to swallow pills or overdose on laudanum, or they slit their wrists. They didn’t stab themselves in the abdomen.

The therapist also said that a person attempting suicide wouldn’t have wiped clean the knife everyone believed was the weapon. Yet, there was blood on the vintage can opener.

The therapist suspected Mary heard voices. She was already paranoid before hitting her head on the trolley, and we don’t know if that caused brain swelling or bleeding. The injury could have exacerbated her symptoms. Perhaps more likely, Mary tried to cut out of her body her perceived intruders with the can opener. And to silence the voices in her bedeviled mind, she set her head on fire. She wasn’t trying to end her life, but her fear.

By putting Mary’s condition into modern-day light, I was able to remove the stigma of suicide about the aunt no one ever talked about. I was also able to give her illness a probable diagnosis, something that wasn’t likely to happen in 1908.

While we don’t want to take ancestors out of their historical context, we do want to portray them with sensitivity and without judgment as human and sympathetic individuals. So no matter what the unspoken skeleton is in your family history—and I have many in mine—in most situations, you can handle it with care and empathy by researching the context of the times and shedding new light on their circumstances.
____

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a thirty-plus-year veteran Certified Genealogist® with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is Brevity’s copy editor, and the author of twenty-five books in addition to If We Can Winter This, including You Can Write Your Family History, Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief, the biography In Search of Maria B. Hayden: The American Medium Who Brought Spiritualism to the U.K., and her forthcoming memoir, Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead (Koehler Books, June 2022). Visit her websites, www.TheGenealogyMedium.com or www.SharonCarmack.com.

Brevity’s January 2022 Issue Available Now

January 18, 2022 § 3 Comments

We had to chip away at the ice to make it happen, but our newest issue is live, featuring exceptional flash essays from Beth Kephart, Kerry Neville, Aracelis González Asendorf, B.J. Hollars, Grace Bauer, Sarah M. Wells, Keema Waterfield, Caitlin Scarano, Deb Werrlein, Troy Pancake, Hannah Grieco, and Nels P. Highberg.

Also, three useful and brilliant craft essays: Sonja Livingston reflects on trauma and the writing of actress Meg Tilly, Emilio Williams offers “Queering the Fragment,” and Lesh Karan reviews the importance of form in writing lyric essay.

Thanks to our writers, and to those who have generously donated to make it possible

BREVITY 69 / January 2022

Puerto Rico and Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls

November 22, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Ashley Espinoza

I grapple with my identity as a Puerto Rican. My mother is Puerto Rican, but she was born in America. When my grandfather was eight he moved to New York and when he turned eighteen he joined the United States Army and spent his years as a father moving his family all over America and various countries. Though my mom has been to Puerto Rico more times than I have, she has never lived there. My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico but was mostly raised in the United States, in New York and Chicago. I have the Puerto Rican blood, but my culture has been mostly lost.

So when I picked up the book Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz and read that it was a book about her life in Puerto Rico and Miami as well as Puerto Rico’s history with colonization I knew it was the book for me. Díaz is Puerto Rican, like me, my mother, and both of her parents. Though, unlike Díaz, I have only been to Puerto Rico twice in my life. Once when I was two-years-old and have no memory of it, but plenty of photos to prove I was there; a photo of my mother and I jumping into a lake, me at a payphone, and more photos of me visiting a family-owned grocery store. I visited again at twenty-two when my grandpa invited me to Puerto Rico over Christmas break. I had the chance to visit a family orchard, to eat oranges picked right from the tree. I took shots of pitorro, a moonshine rum, at each home I visited.

Jaquira Díaz grew up in Puerto Rico until she was eight years old, then she moved to Miami. She writes about Puerto Rico in details and memories like those of my mother’s, like hearing the coquis, small frogs, sing at night. Díaz gives a description of Puerto Rico that makes me feel at home, although Puerto Rico has never been my home.

The year after I got my bachelor’s degree I visited the island I heard about my whole life. I went to the famous-in-my-family ice cream shop in Poncè and ordered the most delicious peanut ice cream. I still dream of going back just to eat that ice cream one last time. My grandfather showed me downtown Poncè, and when we saw a church he told me that maybe someday I could get married there, or somewhere like it. I couldn’t say out loud that I didn’t plan on getting married. I could not break his heart right there in his hometown. He dreamed of my wedding day, I did not.

While I was visiting Puerto Rico we stopped at Wal-Mart and checking out a lady made a remark to me in Spanish. I smiled as you would to a stranger seemingly telling a joke. I had no idea what she said but at that moment I was proud, I was Puerto Rican. She couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was from Colorado and that I didn’t know Spanish. To her I was just like any other Puerto Rican on the island. I never felt more Puerto Rican in my life. Except for the fact that I had no idea what she said and I couldn’t respond back.

I often wonder what my family in Puerto Rico thinks of me. Not many of my family members spoke English and I don’t speak Spanish. My great-uncle didn’t speak to me most of the trip. He only talked to his brother, my grandfather, in Spanish. The day before I was to leave he started talking to me in English. I did not know he spoke English at all. I wonder if he thought of me as a spoiled American girl who knew nothing of her culture.

Throughout her memoir, Díaz gives her readers the past and the history of Puerto Rico. In 1937, citizens of Poncè, Puerto Rico wanted independence from the United States. Cops surrounded protestors and shot them in the streets. In Poncè, Puerto Rico in 1950, a date that resonates with me as both of my grandparents were born in Poncè in 1950, citizens were not allowed to speak out against the US government or fly their Puerto Rican Flags.

Towards the end of her memoir Díaz visited San Juan and stopped at the prison that was called La Princesa, but instead of a prison when she visits, it’s a tourist location. D́iaz writes about a moment when she is standing in a prison cell and someone asks her to take their photo, without thinking she asks for her photo to be taken as well. Then she writes “How strong our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget.” Those words ring true in a thousand ways. I too have stood in that same tourist location. I have photos of me in those prison cells. I too fell into the trap of contributing to the erasure of history. Is this what my great uncle thinks of me? Some tourist coming into his home and forgetting Puerto Rico’s history?

My great aunt only spoke one English sentence right before I left Puerto Rico. She grabbed both of my hands and said, “Come back, and when you do you will know Spanish.”

“Yes.” I said.

“Promise?” She asked as she held my face in between her hands.

“I promise.”

I think of that promise often. Sometimes I study Spanish really hard to keep that promise. Other times I forget. I have one problem; I have no one to talk to in Spanish to practice. My family prefers to speak in English and only a few Spanish words come out every now and then. Not enough for full conversations.

I want to keep that promise for my great-aunt and for myself. But most importantly for my daughter. I don’t want her to grow up with dark hair and big brown eyes and for her to feel insecure that her mom never taught her Spanish. I don’t want her to visit Puerto Rico and feel insecure with each family member that she meets. I want her to feel her Puerto Rican culture. I want to feel it too. I hold Ordinary Girls in my heart. For its history of Puerto Rico, for reminding me what the island feels like, and for giving ordinary girls like me a chance to see themselves in a book.
___

Ashley Espinoza is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work has been published in Hobart, Assay, The Forge Literary Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic. She is a nonfiction editor for The Good Life Review and is currently writing a memoir.

A Review of Ira Sukrungruang’s This Jade World

November 1, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

Several years ago, at a writer’s conference, I stood next to Ira Sukrungruang at a makeshift bar in the conference director’s kitchen, engaging in loose chitchat. For reasons that escape me now, Sukrungruang told me, he’d gotten divorced because he wanted a child. After this, our host shooed us outside to roast marshmallows, and, thus, I didn’t hear the rest of this story.   

The next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about this yearn for a child, but not being able to have one…for whatever reason. Then, I saw Sukrungruang and his young son, Bodhi, running across the college lawn. He grabbed the boy, wrestled him to the ground, their faces glowed, their laughter ricocheted off the campus buildings, and I thought what a lucky boy to have such a father.

When Sukrungruang’s essay collection, This Jade World, arrived in my mailbox, I was thrilled, hoping to hear the rest of the story, still locked in my memory.

This Jade World is a collection of forty-five short essays (two of which have appeared in Brevity). Sukrungruang (who sometimes refers to himself as Thai Boy) describes growing up in Chicago, born to Thailand immigrants, struggling with body image and self-confidence.

At twenty-one, a college student, Sukrungruang meets poet Katie Riegel. “To friends, she was known as Teacher, a poet who was nine years older and taught at the university Thai Boy was a student at,” he writes in his essay “In 1997.” “He idolized her. Saw her as his guide in life. Someone who would lead him on the right path.”

Riegel invites him to her poetry reading, and Thai Boy falls into a “swoon that saturated him in a blushing warmth.” The relationship grows quickly. Riegel sees this and warns Sukrungruang on their fourth or fifth day: “You don’t have to be married to be in love. It’s just a paper, a fuckin’ paper. And then what happens? Domestication.” Riegel not only seems adverse to marriage, but seemingly rejects the traditional roles of wife and mother. Yet, young and naïve, Sukrungruang nods along…wanting whatever Riegel wants.  

“When you meet someone at twenty-one, someone nine years older and wiser, you learn the world through her eyes,” he writes. “You are a blank slate, a boy who hasn’t lost enough. You adopt what she wants and her views on life.”

Sukrungruang wants to show Riegel how much he loves her and stages a romantic outing, which he writes about in heartbreaking detail in “Mount Crested Butte.” On a chairlift, climbing up the mountain, he pulls a ring from his pocket, but doesn’t place it on Riegel’s finger. He’s afraid he might drop it. So, he hands it to her.

“She opened and closed her fist,” he writes. “Then she slipped it onto her index finger,” but says nothing.  

Back in town, Sukrungruang stops at the library. He pauses before entering, turns around and sees Riegel in the car, staring at the diamond, prisms flashing across the ceiling. He believes this is the happiest day of his life: “This woman loves me. Loves the ring. Wants to be my wife.”

Older and wiser, he looks back and sees these scenes differently. On the chairlift, after Riegel slides the ring on her finger, her “face is windburned, cheeks and forehead red. She wears a baseball hat that sits awkwardly in the tangles of her hair. Her face wears no expression. Not a smile. Not a frown. The boy doesn’t see the nothingness on her face.”

Maybe it’s like the snowball rolling downhill, going faster and faster. There’s no way to stop this marriage. They exchange vows in Thailand, in front of Sukrungruang’s family with “a white string—mong kol—twined around their heads joining them.” Guests “pour holy water over the couple’s hands, wishing them the best in their future together.”  

Riegel undergoes a hysterectomy, and the string that supposedly tethers them begins to unravel. In “After the Hysterectomy,” Sukrungruang writes in second person as if his wiser self needs to have a talk with young Thai boy: “Because of her you don’t want children, complain of their noise and ruckus on planes, the way they can’t control the yarn of drool dripping from their toothless mouths.” By the end of this essay, he realizes, “This would be the end, though you did not know it then. The end. The end.”

On the couple’s twelfth anniversary, Riegel sends Sukrungruang a note. She wants a divorce. Sukrungruang is shocked, heartbroken, and sees only a bleak future. He’s so distraught, he considers suicide.  

The book opens with a dark, slightly surreal piece, “The First.” In it, Sukrungruang leaves his warm, loving, and happy relationship to have robotic sex with an online stranger in a cheap motel.  

All of the essays are thematically connected, each one self-contained. They do jump back and forth in time, which might disorient a few readers. For me, though, it was like watching an artist paint a picture. First come the random brushstrokes, then bits of color, then shape. Eventually the complete image emerges and what a thrill to have been there to see it evolve.  While these essays circle around the topics of love and divorce, they’re also about renewal, finding love again, and, of course, the joy of fatherhood. 
___

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

Fifteen Fabulous Flash Essays

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.

A Review of Joey Franklin’s Delusions of Grandeur

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.

The Seven Powers of Laurie Lynn Drummond’s ‘Alive’

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.

Succinct Description

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

No Dialogue

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.”

Ending Well

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.
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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.

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