Embracing the Unknown: Writing as Discovery

January 24, 2020 § 2 Comments

Jennifer McGaha PhotoFor Jennifer McGaha, writing a book is like hiking. The journey will envelop you in foggy haziness, unexpected visitors will creep up along the way, and hopefully others will be there to push you when you’re floundering. She finds joy in not knowing what will happen on a walk or where an essay or book will lead her. After all, we all want to get to the end of the trail and finish writing a story in the same way: tired but satisfied with the process of exploration. Here’s an excerpt from McGaha’s craft essay:

You can write without discovery, of course. You can write to a scripted conclusion, and it will be easier. Maybe no one will even notice. But why on earth would you? Why, with as hard as it is to write anything, with all the time and love and grit you put into the creation of your art, would you settle for anything less than two stunning bighorn rams rising out of the mist?


Read this craft essay and more in Brevity’s January 2020 issue.



This is How a Robin Drinks: An Essay

January 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

SnapseedHow did we become so desensitized? What was the turning point? Is it now too late? These might be some of the questions that Joanna Brichetto’s profound essay will evoke. She uses a moment watching nature unravel from her porch to contextualize how a facet of our nation’s social fabric has become both extraordinary and commonplace. An excerpt from Brichetto’s essay follows:

The robin dipped, raised, dipped, raised, again and again. When his beak was in the water, ripples radiated to the edge of the plastic. When his beak was in the air, the surface of the saucer had already stilled. It was as if there was room only for one set of ripples at a time: either the water or the throat. I kept watching both—the taking of turns, the shimmers of wet, the shivers of feather—when would the pattern break? I was afraid to move or blink. I was afraid he would stop drinking, and I was afraid he would never stop drinking. And when at last he fluttered up to the hackberry tree in his own good time, I found that I was crying.

Read the full essay in our January 2020 issue.


160 Frightening Things: A Collaborative Essay

January 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

IMG-4712After you read this piece, write down a list of things that scare you. Toss the paper into a fire, maybe cut it into tiny pieces and bury it, or leave it as a note in a book at your library. Like Professor Jill Kolongowski’s Spring 2019 creative writing class did with this compelling collaborative essay, set the things that scare you free. Here is an excerpt:

Being yelled at. Being yelled at. Being yelled at. People who can’t won’t be reasoned with. Initiating confrontation. People who are overly aggressive. Conflict. Conflict. Confrontation. Confrontation. Getting into a fight unwillingly. My anger. Guns. School shootings. Not being able to fight back. Seeing a crime happen in front of my eyes. War.

Global warming killing me before my time. Natural disasters.

Driving. Drunk drivers. Car accident. Car accident. Car accident. Car accident.

Read the full essay in Brevity’s new issue.

Maggie Smith’s Ghost Story

January 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

maggie-smithIt’s a formidable challenge to convey the loss born from divorce in a flash piece, but this is precisely what Maggie Smith does in Ghost Story. She describes how divorce disjoints, how it defines life by a before and after, and how it forever haunts all involved. Smith assures us that divorce is unlike death, but it still leaves ghosts and grief in its wake. Here is an excerpt from her searing essay in Brevity’s January 2020 issue:

When people ask how the children are doing, I tell them fine. It’s mostly true. I tell them I’m grateful at least that the children didn’t lose anyone. They still have their parents, and they have each other.

What I don’t say is when I lost my family, I lost someone, too. The person I’d called my person. In this way, my house is haunted.

Read the entire piece in our latest issue.


Brevity’s January 2020 Issue Launched Today

January 20, 2020 § 2 Comments

IMG-2476Our newest issue, Issue 63, is out this morning, featuring crisp, provocative essays from Maggie Smith, Lara Lillibridge, Joanna Brichetto, Natalie Rose, B.J. Hollars, Kelly Shire, Marcia Aldrich, Robert Julius, Natalia Rachel Singer, Amie Whittemore, Margo Steines, Matt Donovan, Mary Zelinka, Doug Lawson, and Jill Kolongowski and her Spring 2019 creative writing class. All of these, along with stunning photos by Mike McKniff.

Also new today, in our Craft Section, Jen Corrigan, Jennifer McGaha, Mary Ann McSweeny, and Sonja Livingston discuss impatience and restlessness in writing, the art of discovery, the role of compassion in nonfiction, and how to bring Nancy Drew into your essaying.

Meanwhile, we are still accepting submissions for Brevity’s upcoming special issue, “Experiences of Disability,” to be published in September 2020. We are also still actively seeking some financial support to make this issue possible, and even small amounts go a long way.  Thanks to those of you who have already contributed, and to anyone who can help as we go forward.

Happy reading!




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 joeyelizabeth@hotmail.com.

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