Listen Up

October 19, 2017 § 8 Comments

Yes, I should pause there…

When I teach a workshop, I like to audiotape it. Partly so I can send the recording to the class, which takes some of the stress off taking notes and lets everyone participate a little bit more. But also because ItalkamillionmilesanhourifIdon’tstopmyself.

The same thing applies to readings–when I head up for the podium, I leave my phone voice recorder running at my seat. After, I can listen–did I pause in the right places? Was there audience laughter I didn’t make room for? Often, just glancing back at my chair, seeing the phone there, reminds me slow down. Take a breath.

It’s valuable to listen to our own voices. Find out how long that piece really is with audience reactions in it. See if we really sound like a dork (spoiler: usually no). If the recorder is in the audience, it often picks up the kind of supportive murmurs and agreement breaths listeners make when we’re enjoying a story. Those noises aren’t always easy to hear in the moment, when we’re stressed about getting through a piece. And it’s always awesome to re-listen to applause.

As well as being a great tool to improve our own reading, there are places to submit audio stories. The Drum is a fantastic audio literary magazine, and Story Club specializes in nonfiction performance, with the author setting the text after a live show. The Brevity Podcast will be calling for One-Minute Memoirs next week. For all of these, you don’t have to be an audio whiz, but a few simple tricks will help you sound your best.

Check your phone. Phones usually record better than computers if you’re not using a separate microphone, and you probably have a native Voice Memos or Voice Recorder app. On most phones from the last three years, the built-in mic is good enough to get decent live-audience audio, and decent-to-good private taping. Look up where the mic is physically located on your phone, and point that end toward the reader. Try a couple of test recordings to see how close you want to hold it to your face–usually 4-6 inches away is good.

Check your app. On my iPhone, the Voice Memos app keeps going even when the screen locks or if I open another app. But when I’m doing more sophisticated recording with a plug-in microphone and an app called Motiv, the recording stops if the screen goes dark. I found that out the hard, embarrassing, can-I-please-interview-you-again way. Now I turn screen lock to “never” and put the phone in airplane mode. Some phones also stop recording if someone calls or texts. Find out for sure–or just put it in airplane every time.

Pad your space. Recordings are better with less echo. In a public reading, this is out of our control. Setting the phone on a wooden or plastic surface is better than a metal folding chair (they give a slight echo), but it’s not going to make a huge difference for personal recordings. If you’re taping for submission–like, say, the upcoming Brevity call for One-Minute Memoir–test the first paragraph in a couple of spaces to see what sounds best. Rooms with carpet, lower ceilings, and soft furniture work best. Walk-in closets are great. In a pinch, I record in my car (parked and turned off, until it gets so hot I have to take a break) or with a blanket or towel over my head. (Table fort, anyone?)

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I always bobble on a few words the first time I read an essay aloud. Plus, speaking into the recorder affects my pace. I try to tape a reading at least three times. Even if I can’t edit, I can at least pick the best take.

Whether you post or submit your work, or just listen for your own edification, taping is a great way to see how you sound. Often, extra lines or awkward phrases jump right out from the audio, or we instinctively smooth out a sentence as we speak it. Why not give it a test run? We’re hoping to hear from you soon, and we’ll tell you how and what next week!

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Allison K Williams hosts the Brevity Podcast. Her most recently available audio class is Write Better with Social Media.

Omit Needless Words: How I Learned to Write with Brevity

October 12, 2017 § 26 Comments

By Ryder S. Ziebarth

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., edited by E. B. White.

In 1974, my Journalism 101 professor gave only two pieces of required reading: the local city newspaper, and The Elements of Style.

One book. One daily.

What could be easier?

Turned out, a lot of things. Concise writing takes diligence, skill, and patience. Three things I lacked as a college sophomore. But I pecked away on my typewriter, practicing every day, until I finally scored a coveted reporter’s job, the first of many.

Thirty years later, resurrecting my writing career, I faced a no-nonsense adjunct teaching The Art of Flash Nonfiction. She required we start small—only 250 words written to prompts she provided the first week, 500 words the next week, then 750, until we reached a polished 1000-word essay by the end of the semester. Plus we would read a series of essays from a website called Brevity. We could email her brief questions only if absolutely necessary.

A thousand words. On-line reading.

What could be easier?

She passed out a Brevity essay, Debra Marquart’s Hochzeit.  “Read the essay to yourselves,” she said, “then tell me what’s different about it.”

The story swirled in front of my eyes in a whirlwind of colors, sounds, flavors and scents, as the author remembers a family wedding from her childhood. Thirty-nine sentences in seven meager paragraphs transported me to a Polka hall in the Midwest, the beat and bellow of pumping accordions, “whoops and yips” from spinning dancers in their flared skirts and beribboned finery, and the burning sweetness of “gold pools of wedding whiskey.”

Marquart’s writing was different from anything I’d read. It wasn’t your standard nonfiction piece, it wasn’t journalism—even if you could measure it in column inches, and it wasn’t the New Journalism the old me left behind decades ago. I needed to know why the piece left such a visceral impact on me.

When the instructor asked what we thought, my hand crept up. “The writer omitted needless words?”

“Yes. That’s one thing. Thank you, E.B. White. Anyone else?” The class tittered.

“The who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, are clearly up front,” I added, reaching back to the first rules I learned about newspaper reporting.

“Yes,” she said, “but what else. Anyone besides Ryder?”

I sunk back down in my hard plastic chair. What exactly was it about Marquart’s essay that had awakened me?

Our assignment for the week was to write two 250-word essays. If they were one word over, they would not be read or graded. We were given more essays from Brevity—Anne Panning’s Candy Cigarettes; Sarah Lin’s Devotion; Erika Dreifus’ Before Sunrise—to study for style, voice, metaphor, lyricism. Carefully. If we did not understand the terminology we were to email her—briefly—before the next class.

For seven long days, I slaved over my two pieces, editing and re-editing. I dissected the reading assignments like a frog in freshman biology, peeling back each story’s tiny skin layer by layer. First the story line, then the structure, finally the writer’s word choices. I searched for every metaphor, each simile, every omitted word. What was it about these little essays that left me with a feeling of such grandiosity in so few words?

It came to me on the seventh day—driving the twenty miles to campus alone, windows rolled down to bright September. My eyes took in the reds, golds and oranges of the maple leaves flickering across my windshield, backlit by a sky the color of the bluest sea. The sun shone on my arm resting on the open window, the last of summer falling onto my Shetland sweater. Finally, I understood. It was the smaller details that made the larger story.

After we handed in our assignments, the instructor asked what we’d learned reading and writing short prose. I shot up my hand.

“Yes?” she said, sighing a little.

“The words seemed hand-chosen, cherry-picked, then boiled down to extract only the most essential details. The writer shows the reader a dreamlike memory, crystal clear in the telling.”

“Bingo!” she said and smiled broadly.

Two semesters later, I entered a Brevity Blog contest and won second place. The first person I emailed was my instructor. Writing, I realized, is not just about following style books and memorizing classroom notes. When you omit the needless, you choose the necessary– and sometimes, that is one perfect ray of sun falling on the back of your hand.

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Ryder S. Ziebarth runs the Cedar Ridge Writers Series and blogs for Proximity. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals.

My Affair with the Sentence

October 11, 2017 § 8 Comments

22282109_359766681112308_5299649755912659950_n(1)By Beth Ann Fennelly 

After many years of a fairly monogamous relationship with poetry, I began a flirtation with prose. Now it’s a full-blown affair. My newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is a collection of little bite-sized stories about my life. Some of them are a sentence, some a paragraph, or a few. At times, when I was trying to publish them, my husband (also a writer) would call my attention to a prose poem contest, asking, “Why not send in your new pieces?”  My refusal was knee-jerk: my pieces weren’t poetry. “Does it matter?” he’d ask, genuinely curious.  It mattered, curiously. Memoir had allowed me access to material previously unavailable through poetry, and I wanted to credit the genre. Why, though, did writing in sentences as opposed to lines make a difference?

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The line versus the sentence: this distinction would seem twee to those who aren’t obsessed with words, who assume lines are chopped-up sentences. But those of us who are obsessed with words know the distinction changes not only how but what we write. After all, if lines were merely chopped-up sentences, and line breaks merely visual, we could delete them with no change to the material. But when losing the line break, we lose the white space that shapes the way we process meaning. Line breaks provide a rest, so the words on either side of the rest can require more effort in the processing of lyricism, tropes, syntax, and sound. These resting places—like stair landings in a walk-up—interrupt the exertion with a breather (literally), and so give us the strength to keep climbing. Without them, too much is demanded of us, so our absorption is hindered.

The poetic line also affects the reader because it highlights the artfulness and artifice of the experience of reading, as opposed to the sentence, which distracts us from it. The line, followed by its white space, metes out comprehension, followed by its disruption. The power play of the line break is that of withholding. We’re never unaware that our experience is being modulated by another as we follow the choreographer’s orders to leap and rest, leap and rest. This is fundamentally different than how prose pours itself into the vase of the page. Here, says the line, Now we are here. Now we are here. But everywhere, says the sentence. You are everywhere and nowhere. The sentence is always pointing outside of itself. This is what Cole Swenson means, I believe, when she writes “Prose exists somewhere other than the page.”

And, lastly, the line’s tension is different from the sentence’s tension. Tension in the line occurs as the unfurling sentence is interrupted by caesura and line breaks. These two forces, the force that pushes and the one that retards, become the warp and weft on which the skilled poet manipulates rhythm. Let’s compare this to how the engine of the sentence moves us. With prose, the rhythms are steadier, the goal accumulation. Chris Forhan, another poet-turned-memoirist, says on LitHub that “When writing prose, I can often afford to work at a lower idle.”  Indeed, the locomotive and the long distance car trip are frequent comparisons for prose, which feels horizontal, not vertical.

And all this influences the “what” we write. Without the push-and-pull of line breaks, the act of reading becomes less conscious. The physicality of reading–the eyes yanking back to the left margin, while the ear and brain rush toward comprehension–is lessened. As a result we’re less bolted to the moment, which is to say, the lyric impulse. The tension of prose takes place on a wider tapestry, the warp and weft tightening not over the course of a single line but as momentum builds toward and is delayed from its destination. Prose is more interested with the future, and sometimes the past, connected to the present, which is to say, plot. Prose is less about relating shifting parts of a sentence into a coherent now, and more about relating the shifting now to a coherent then, and then, and then, which better accommodates the narrative impulse.
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So, how did the rhythm of the sentence allow me access to experiences I hadn’t accessed with poetry?  I made that long-distance road trip into the past and stayed there longer than I would have with the line’s leaping insistence. By idling there, the past revealed its intricacies, fleshed out in a way that let me see how rich and detailed those memories were. The unfolding energy of the “and then” construction demanded these moments link up with a future, thus providing prospective. The person who lived those past moments, the “I of the then,” as Sven Birkerts terms it in The Art of Time in Memoir, intersected with “the I of the now.”  For example, my whole life I’ve heard how, when I was two, my four-year-old sister cut off my curls and eyelashes with safety scissors. This oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote was not one I ever explored in poetry. But the fishing line of the sentence, cast back into the pool of 1973, lingering there, allowed me to sound the depths of that memory. As it turned out, there was something troubling about how that experience links up to our current relationship. There was a genuine question I needed to answer that the anecdote elided and the poetic line might have yanked me out of. The sentence got me there, inviting me to linger until I’d made the connection.

So I’m grateful to the sentence and all I’ve learned from it, all I continue to learn. Don’t tell poetry, but, at least for now, my love affair with the sentence shows no signs of fizzling.

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Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi.  Her book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is out this month from W.W. Norton.

Attaining Brevity

October 10, 2017 § 29 Comments

I’m all about brevity, and not just for Brevity. I’m ruthless with my editing clients’ work. In the big picture, asking if a scene is needed or a subplot is serving the story as a whole. Line by line, chopping words and phrases:

Driving in a car

That night I fell asleep in my bed and dreamed

He got out of his car, walked across the lot, and through the front door of the apartment building, where he pressed the elevator button for the tenth floor.

Not all editors have this near-ridiculous focus on using the fewest possible words to tell the story. And I have to be careful to curb this instinct when working with a writer whose natural style is wordier, or who’s writing in a more-descriptive cultural tradition. But usually, cutting every possible extraneous word benefits an essay or a book. Sharpens the focus. Keeps the reader on what matters instead of losing them in a thicket of less-important language.

The subject of vigorous trimming came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching. I advised a group of memoirists to print their current draft, edit it on paper as much as possible, including scissoring pages apart and moving scenes or paragraphs if needed. Then retype the entire draft into a new document, “Not cutting and pasting, and not adding the edits into the previous document. Retyping.”

I hadn’t realized this was, shall we say, unusual until I caught the looks of horror. Retype an entire manuscript? Every word? When there’s a perfectly good Save As New File option?

But retyping lights up a new part of the brain. Reading words on a paper page and copying them is different than agonizing in one’s head and putting the results on screen. Physically snipping a manuscript into scenes points out repetition in a way that encountering the same scenes while scrolling doesn’t. Retype the entire thing and you’ll know what words to leave out because you won’t want to type them. If you feel resistance at the keyboard to a paragraph or a moment, ask if the book really needs it. Retyping instead of copy-pasting also re-immerses the writer in the flow of the story–sometimes new memories or scenes show up as you go. And it doesn’t take nearly as long as writing the story the first time. For me, the wordcount-per-hour is about four times faster, and a solid two hours of retyping feels like an honest day’s work.

A student asked, “When did you start doing that?”

At first, I didn’t understand the question. Wasn’t vicious trimming part of everyone’s process? (Nope.) I thought back to seventh grade. When I first started exploring the themes of being misunderstood by parents and peers and the loneliness of the true artist writing terrible middle-school poetry. My grandmother gave me a pretty hardback journal, dark blue with a unicorn–of course it was a unicorn!–stamped in silver. I didn’t want to waste a page. Only final drafts belonged in this book, because only finished pieces deserved a hard cover, thought tween-me. Every poem was first written on looseleaf paper, kept in a manila folder in my Trapper Keeper, because manila felt more grown-up than snapping them into the three-ring section. Every poem was rewritten five, six, ten times, each time removing any word that could be left out. I don’t know why I thought stripping away the excess made better poems, but I was sure it did.

Seventh-grade me was right. Strip away the excess to reveal the heart of the work. Yes, there are voices and styles that require more words–make sure that’s the strongest choice, and even then ask of every word, do you belong here? Are you doing a job no other word can do? Are you earning your place in this line?

Physically rewriting is just enough effort to truly question every line. To find the brevity in your natural voice. When you’re ready, print your draft. Mark it up. Cut it apart. And then retype–your fingers will tell you what belongs.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her latest webinar, Write Better With Social Media, is available through her website.

Finding Poetry in Narrative Nonfiction

October 9, 2017 § 5 Comments

zz Amanda Profile PicBy Amanda Avutu

I was 21 and the worst kind of poet. By which I mean, I wore black dresses and had silver cat eye glasses. So, when a poet came to speak to my undergraduate poetry class about her novel, you can well imagine the twist my black knit stockings were in.

“How do you move back and forth between poetry and fiction??” I inquired during the Q & A session. It was not so much a question as an indictment.

Baseball players don’t play football! Ballerinas don’t dance tap! Hip Hop artists don’t sing Country! Poets don’t write fiction! So went my absolutist 20-something Poet logic.

Poets made each word justify not only its existence, but its placement, musicality, and visual appeal.

Poets were Allison from my fifth-grade class, nibbling tiny bites out of a bologna and cheese sandwich.

Other writers were competitive eaters, swallowing bologna and cheese sandwiches whole, not caring about the white bread stuck to the roofs of their mouths.

After the seminar, the visiting writer graciously signed copies of her book. In mine, she thoughtfully inscribed, “To Amanda, Wishing you luck navigating seamlessly between fiction and poetry.” I remember thinking—rather uncharitably— that I would never need her “luck,” because the only thing I wrote and the only thing I would write was poetry.

I’m 40, and while I still wear black dresses and glasses, I no longer consider myself a Poet or even a poet. I’ve written plays and short stories, novels and essays. I’ve also had brief—dark moments—where I was completely wordless. My god, those were terrifying. Generally, though I’ve become, quite simply, omnivorous where words are concerned. I consume them and produce them with vigor, regardless of their classification. What I’ve learned is that each form allows me to explore, and to expose, different pieces of myself. When I was writing poetry, my truth bobbed just below the surface of abstractions; bits of cereal swimming in the plausible deniability of milk. In my fiction, I anchored my tiny truth and then launched my readers and myself into an alternate reality. These days, I primarily write narrative nonfiction and I tell my truth as my truth. Nothing, however opaque, protects me from my reader’s gaping maw. And as much as my younger self might scoff at the idea, I’ve learned that my truth is my truth is my truth, which becomes my art, regardless of how I tell it.

There was a sense, over these last two decades, of betrayal. My husband fell in love with the poet, my degree proclaimed my proficiencies as poetry centric, since junior high—when I began writing awful rhyming verse—poetry was my identity. Now, though, I realize my poet self is there, making sure there is room for catharsis and that there is the strength to be a conduit. Making sure each word in each sentence justifies its existence. She buries tiny, delicious, moments for my readers to happen upon and savor. She has always been there and will always be there to make sure that whatever I write, it sings.

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Amanda Avutu’s nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, O, the Oprah Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, Bitter Southerner, and the New York Times’ Family Ties column.

A Poem, A Keyhole

October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments

By Nicole Piasecki

I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.

I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.

My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.

I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.

A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.

During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.

I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.

I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.

As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”

Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:

I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.

Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.

Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.

When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.

But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
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Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.

Teaching Brevity: Nicole Walker’s “Fish”

October 2, 2017 § 5 Comments

hcBy Heidi Czerwiec

Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop.  In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, and a Brevity essay as well, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.

“Fish” is a nonfiction piece that complicates students’ ideas of what an essay is and how it should behave.  A triptych, each part is only ¾–1 page long.  The first part resembles nature or environmental writing and describes, in a zoomed-in empathetic third-person point of view, a salmon fighting to climb a man-made fish ladder: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete.  Swimming up the Columbia teachers her a lesson about progress.” The second section, written in first person (but with an awareness that shifts between a child’s and an adult’s perspective), is a vivid memory of deep-sea fishing with her father and his friends, and struggling to reel in a huge barracuda: “I am eleven years old and holding onto a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast.  I must have been beautiful then.” The third part, written in second person, reads like food writing – in this case, how to prepare fish: “Cooking filets of fish is not complicated….  It’s the sauce that’s difficult.”

“Fish” represents three different kinds of nonfiction writing – nature documentary, memoir, and food writing – with which students are already familiar.  But how do they work (or not work) together as a triptych of styles seemingly linked only by topic?  Each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish – only the recipe-like third section offers us much closure, and none gives that satisfying moral or meaning that students long for.  Their reaction to “Fish” is complicated further by unexpected lyric elements: “This isn’t an essay; it’s a poem,” they complain.  While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois.  Strain through cheese cloth.  Strain one more time for good measure.”  Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning.  And Walker breaks her prose into short paragraphs sometimes only a line long, which visually resembles poetry and affects the pacing of how we read her essay.  How can all of these elements co-exist in the same piece of writing?

As all of you are well aware, the verb “essay” or “assay” means to attempt.  Walker’s “Fish” makes explicit the many approaches we may take to our topics.  What is interesting is the way she tries to do several at once – create three distinct styles and voices and points of view, and yet tie them together not only through topic, but more subtly through recurrent words and images.  As a result, “Fish” offers much for discussion about the choices she’s made and the effects they have on readers, both in the individual sections and across the whole piece.

After discussing “Fish,” I like to lead students through a guided free-write imitation: I have them start by writing about a vivid memory involving a single-ingredient food item – an animal, a fruit or vegetable, a spice, etc.  Then, I have them try to write a brief scene from the sensory perspective of that food item.  Finally, they write directions for their favorite recipe for that item.  For their assignment, they can develop these sections, but I encourage them to explore other ways of considering that food item (its history, its cultural associations, etc.), so long as they end up with at least a three-part essay.  As they refine their piece, they should also experiment with creating distinct voices, styles, and points of view for each section, as well as finding ways to tie the sections together via language, imagery, or other elements.  This piece often is one of the strongest my students produce, and encourages them to play with a number of writing techniques in a short piece.

reprinted with permission, previously published in Assay

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, the forthcoming collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works with various literary organizations, including Motionpoems, ROAR: Literature and Revolution from Feminist People, and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

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