July 21, 2021 § 31 Comments
By Crystal Byers
It was a day like any other school day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.
“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said, handing students their work.
Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Student faces reveal disappointment, and I do my darnedest to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Just be aware of the number and try to reduce them,” I said. I looked my students in the eyes along the way.
“Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific.” I took a breath and allowed my words a chance to be heard. “I want you to listen carefully,” I said with another dramatic pause. “We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said?” I stopped in the middle of my classroom to verify I had their attention. “I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again.” I inhaled, then exhaled. “We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing for effect and smiling a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down as I continued passing out papers.
“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best.” I spoke of the next part of the assignment—revisions. How the word revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’
I kept walking, talking, and returning the graded assignment. “Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time,” I said. I spoke of showing versus telling, cutting superfluous details and exploding the particulars of one moment.”
Speaking of a single moment, just then my left foot stepped onto a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. My weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I made an unsuccessful attempt to catch myself and heard the soft thud of my right knee bumping the hard tile. I sat on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I felt thankful for wearing pants instead of a skirt that day and wondered how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.
My class very politely stifled their laughter, and I gathered my composure and arose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.
Another student made eye contact and said, “Are you okay?” His concern was real.
“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”
Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.
A day or two passed before I finally told my husband the story. As suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.
And I admit it. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, someone else will be happy to do that for us.
Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University and continues finetuning her memoir Help in the Time of Schizophrenia. Her essays appear at The Houston Flood Museum and The Porch Magazine. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.
July 12, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
I recently completed a months-long writing course in which participants were required to design a hat to wear during the final gathering. The hat was to be decorated artfully to reflect one’s favorite lessons and mantras about writing. I’m not good at visual arts, and my first reaction was to dismiss the hat: How in hell is this related to writing? Nevertheless, I remained silent about my misgivings, and soon received in the mail from the instructor a half-circle of cardboard with folding and tabbing instructions to form a small cone, like a child’s birthday hat.
The template for this hat exactly matched one presented to me in first grade — my third first grade, to be precise. I began at a parochial school in Indiana attended by various cousins, who showed up at my house on the first day to walk me there. After two months, my parents moved us temporarily to a treeless townhouse complex in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The townhouses, arranged in semicircles, were so identical that after I exited the school bus, I had to count the semicircles and then the houses within it in order determine where I lived, or risk appearing at a stranger’s door (third horseshoe on the right, fifth house from the road).
A few months passed, and my parents bought a house in northwest D.C, enrolling me in the local public school in early April. I was a sensitive kid, overwhelmed by yet another school change. My first day began during Mrs. Mackie’s art class, but I’d missed the hat-making instructions. I sat at a desk with the template, scissors, construction paper, and no idea what to do. I tried to copy everyone else, too shy to ask, but my little green headpiece was a failure. The evil Mrs. Mackie berated me in front of my new classmates.
After this hat episode, I developed a paralyzing anxiety. It didn’t help that schools in the nation’s capital conducted nuclear attack drills every month, using the school basement as a fallout shelter. My anxiety diminished somewhat in second grade, when an older teacher with horrid breath advised my parents that I worried too much and they should ease up at home regarding whatever pressures I was under. She was a hugger, kind and encouraging, and gradually I lightened up — though I suffered a small relapse during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But while my generalized anxiety slowly evaporated, I retained a specific dread of crafts, especially group crafts requiring a uniform look to the finished product. That anxiety extended to assembling textbook covers, which involved a surprising number of tab A-slot B instructions. When a teacher handed out virgin book cover sheets at the beginning of the school year, I would ask to go the toilet, cowering there until someone searched for me, then take the book covers home for my dad to affix to my textbooks.
Now I confronted another hat, a dunce’s cap for feelings and mantras. The shapes were to be uniform, but unlike the first-grade hat, the decorating was to be unique. Still, the same panic gripped me. I texted others in the writing group: “What are you doing about the hat?”
“I’m having a blast decorating!” someone said.
“I have too many ideas,” another said.
No one shared their ideas, and unlike in grade school, I couldn’t hide in the bathroom or look around to copy. Copying wasn’t the idea, anyway. Without any artful decorating tendencies, much less assembly skills, how could I represent my creativity?
I’d just bought a print to hang in my office, artwork by a painter who also writes; in other words, someone extremely not me. The picture features a grove of deciduous trees with bold trunks, and in the center of the grove, a deep green fir tree. Gray shadows of other trees back the grove, except for a vivid patch of blue sky behind the fir. The trees float, suspended on the page; their roots extend to the bottom of the picture like gnarled fingers. Black birds dart among the roots, burying seeds– just as crows do in nature– that with time and luck, can become a forest.
I didn’t know the artist’s intention, but her work spoke to me as a metaphor for writing. The birds’ insistent, instinctive, unintentional seeding mimics my work on the page, some of which, given time and luck, develops into the sturdy trunks of good writing; some of which does not; and a piece of which might someday be that glorious fir.
It occurred to me as I studied my new print that my hat, like my writing, didn’t need to be transcendently visionary and original. Because I created it, it would be distinctively mine. I could borrow this artist’s pictorial vision and imbue it with my own words and meaning, in the way we writers steal other writers’ structures, metaphors, and sometimes even plots to plant them in a new context. (Which writer among you has not borrowed from another author?)
I printed a color copy of my new art. I used my hat template to cut the print into a cover for the cardboard hat form, thinking that this was, at long last, like making a book cover. Near the bird part of the picture, I wrote in fine pencil, “Plant stories like birds plant seeds.” But I glued the art to the hat, and rejected sticking tab A into slot B in favor of stapling it into a cone shape. Mrs. Mackie isn’t around anymore.
Mary Hannah Terzino resides in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and won first prize in Fiction Factory’s 2021 flash fiction competition.
July 6, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Laraine Herring
The Velveteen Rabbit undid me. A stuffed Rabbit, a friendship with a living Boy, and the tale of how love and believing in what could not yet be seen turned fabric, stitches, and button eyes into fur, muscle, and whiskers.
Embracing my imagined worlds helped me become Real, too.
And as someone who is now Real, I am qualified to help define the terms of my arena. Here’s one:
Speculative memoir is an umbrella genre in which the questions of the memoirist’s book are addressed through speculative elements, which may include ghosts, metaphors, what-ifs, imaginative scenarios, and fantasies. It is memoir focused more on the possibilities of the internal world than the facts of the external world.
But it took me a long time to be able to claim that definition. To be able to stand in all of my skin. Vulnerability has never come easy. I teach for a reason. I’m a therapist for a reason. Let other people expose their hearts while I stay hidden, safe behind boundaries of steel.
Embrace your weird.
You’re too strange.
You have a unique perspective.
You’ve lost your direction.
These contradictions followed me from school to school, job to job, until colon cancer pushed me into a story that obliterated them, revealing the myth behind the message.
When I was a girl, I read The Velveteen Rabbit over and over. I loved the gentle bunny, the way he loved his Boy, and the way that love, over time, made him Real. But to me, he was Real before. From the minute Rabbit appeared on the page, he was Alive. This was true with my own stuffed animals—Zebra and Monkey and Dragon. As I got older, Carl the Coffee pot began to speak, as did Zoya, my red Toyota and faithful companion, and of course Eva, the air conditioner. Imaginings, sure. But also Real. Also impactful.
Walls in particular spoke to me, the imprints of the people and animals they’d held still shimmering on the faded paint. I saw my first ghost in my great-aunt Lena Mae’s house in North Carolina. I was walking up the stairs and she was coming down. I remember the pink feathered hat she wore. I remember the warmth of her when I had expected a chill.
Could I have made her up?
Who can prove a ghost?
But that’s the wrong question. We don’t have to prove that our imaginings are Real. We don’t have to quantify them for others. The better question—the question that connects to writing our stories—is How have these imaginings shaped our lives?
I never spoke of these relationships. I didn’t want to explain them, but I also didn’t want to share them. They were private. In the 5th grade, a particularly-bullied year, I made tiny yarn creatures and brought them to school in a baggie so I could talk to them when I had no one else to talk to. The Alpha Boy found them—they always do, the Alpha Boys—and began to toss my baggie of friends back and forth over the desks when the teacher left the room. I knew better than to try to catch them—my physical awkwardness already legendary. I could only wait until he grew tired of the game, or the teacher returned, and we all went back to our desks pretending that we were sweet and innocent, pretending that we didn’t already know how precious and sacred our personal visions were, pretending that we hadn’t already learned how to hide them away to keep them safe.
After cancer, all the reasons for pretending to be someone other than who I was vanished. All the fears about being seen, being made fun of, being hurt were overpowered by the awareness of death. The always-lurking question of what would I regret not doing should I die tomorrow reared up, and all the voices of all the ghosts and walls and stuffed animals returned, and there was no way to contain them anymore—no way to pretend they didn’t impact my life.
When I decided I wanted to share my story, I froze up again with the memory of those yarn creatures flung carelessly in the air.
People will not understand.
People will make me feel small.
I chose to write a speculative memoir because my inner life impacts my outer life. Because my imaginings have been my friends, my mentors, my hauntings, and my companions. Because to leave out the richness of that world would be to shift me back to 2-dimensional—back to the flat shape that they tried to force me into in middle school. Back to invisibility and conformity. Back to malleable and agreeable and utterly unremarkable, a word you want to see on your CT scans, but not a word you want to guide your life.
When the voice of Raven appeared, the magical form helped me explore my own story of complicated grief, I had found my guide and my friend again. I hadn’t turned my back so far that my imaginings couldn’t reach me. I hadn’t betrayed them, like I had betrayed my yarn creatures by not fighting for them when the outside world tried to take them away.
I was busy doing other things when cancer came, and my father, thirty years dead, returned to me as a Raven.
This is my story. I am Real. My imagined world has helped me make choices, resolve old wounds, forgive others and myself. My imaginings are worthy of a voice and audience, and this time around, I will not let the Alpha Boy take them. I will not let their vulnerability become a liability.
I will stand in power with them, all of us Alive.
Laraine Herring’s speculative memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, will be released in October. She’s also the author of The Grief Forest: a book about what we don’t talk about, and a trilogy of writing books with Shambhala. She’s a professor of psychology and a book coach for women over 40. She’s also the founder of the online ‘zine Hags on Fire, a place for women’s stories about menopause and aging. Find out more at http://laraineherring.com/
June 28, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
There is, perhaps, no current genre of writing as misunderstood as the personal essay. The personal (or literary) essay nowadays is often dismissed as some variation on a “Freshman English” paper, dull at best, and at worst a cliché-ridden five-paragraphs weighed down by unnecessary thesis sentences. Alternately, the personal essay is confused with archaic, meandering pontifications from old dead white guys, British and effete. Or at times the essay form just gets lost in the name game confusion of creative nonfiction. What, for instance, do we call a work of scene-based memoir that runs six manuscript pages? Is it an essay, or a memoir, or a, essay-length memoir? And if it is indeed an essay, then what do we call an essay that isn’t primarily memoir?
I’m confusing even myself.
The downside of all this uncertainty is that too often we fail to recognize that the personal essay is a wonderfully flexible and creative form, as alive and inventive as the writer at the desk wishes it to be.
In its purest and most dynamic state, the essay takes flight when a writer engages a topic – any topic under the big yellow sun – and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. In the hands of contemporary practitioners such as Rebecca Solnit, Brian Doyle, Patrick Madden, or Roxane Gay, the personal essay is an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection.
I’d like the personal essay to generate less confusion, and I’d like more nonfiction writers to see how this flexible form creates opportunities to expand on our “usual” subjects, to find new life and fresh writing pathways emanating from our personal stories.
On Wednesday, I’ll explore all of this in a 75-minute webinar – The Pleasures of the Personal Essay – sponsored by Jane Friedman, examining the myriad forms that an essay can take. The 90-minute course will discuss how the essay fits into contemporary literary publishing, how understanding the flexibility of the essay form can help with “stuckness,” The role of research (and how it can be fun not work), and how to find the best markets (literary magazines and beyond). Participants will leave with useful prompts to help them determine their own essayistic opportunities.
Here are the details. Hope to see you there:
When: Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time
Do I have to attend the live class?
No. Everyone who registers will get access to the recording.
June 23, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
After Brenda Miller’s “Pantoum for 1979”—and, really, after Brenda in so many ways
At the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets1
Narrative, even in creative nonfiction, leaps forward, circles back, success in circuit. But ‘90s Utah, desert no dessert—as at other creative writing programs, the choice an or: fiction or poetry, narrative or lyric. A limited menu, prix fixe, the occasional à lá carte visiting writer, or nonfiction workshop taught by a dabbling faculty, and always, always, as a square meal of narrative. When offered, though, those classrooms stuffed, writers starved for it, nonfiction the neutral field on which we fed.
At the University of Utah, as elsewhere, students fed into fiction or—like me—to poetry. Then Brenda Miller was afforded, forded, foraged the first dissertation in creative nonfiction—a foretaste—though her degree notes none of this. At her defense, I recall the classroom stuffed, us writers starved for it. We hungered to see what she’d do next.
After Brenda broke the seal, things blurred a bit. Dawn Marano cultivating a taste for nonfiction at the University of Utah Press2; in course, Utah adding nonfiction to the spread, hiring Robin Hemley as a dedicated position. We hungered for what came next, couldn’t know how Robin and Nicole Walker (there then studying poetry) would nurture NonfictioNOW3. But that was then, and even then, lyric essays slow curing in Nicole’s head/cranium.
And not just Utah—other programs (Ohio, Nebraska, Eastern Washington, though not Iowa) added nonfiction to the spread. Phillip Lopate spread from teaching fiction to nonfiction, edited The Art of the Personal Essay4; Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre a pop-up of publishing. Deborah Tall coined the fusion cuisine “lyric essay.”5 Dinty W. Moore begat Brevity.6
Still, River Teeth’s subtitle is “A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative,” wouldn’t break Beautiful Things tiny milkteeth for fifteen years7; the selections in Lopate’s anthology firmly in narrative’s maw. At best, they ruminated through meditations, assayed and essayed a bit less logical. Even Dinty, in The Best of Brevity, claims his nascent mag considered only the compressed narrative.8 Soon, however, his concept of flash omnivorated.
But writers ruminated through meditation toward less logic, more lyric. Work labeled flash fiction, prose poems—at Quarterly West, when we didn’t know what to do with them, we published these delicacies as whatever the author preferred; the anthology In Short (Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones)9 proferred them in all their chimerical glory. By Y2K it was clear the possibilities were omnivorating. While Tell It Slant (Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola)10 presented a craft table of memoir and journalism, it also offered a taste of lyric essay.
Despite being labeled poets, writers—Elissa Gabbert, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine—were crafting delicacies no one knew what to do with. We devoured them like gathering breadcrumbs to trace a path, gorging on those leaping, circular forms. After Tell It Slant, Rose Metal Press (Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney)11 added a leaf to the craft table, made a groaning board of those lyric essays and braids and hermit crabs. If it seems like women nourished much of this work—they did, they do—I don’t know what it means but it sustains me.
Devouring those early poets-turned-essayists, I could trace a path for my own work, as I gorged on Doyle’s Leaping12, on Lee Ann Roripaugh’s haibun and zuihitsu13. I browsed poetic genres and conventions, bending them to prose. I read for sustenance, this stuff by women, to realize, astounded, spun around, that my favorite Annie Dillard book, Holy the Firm, is a book-length lyric essay, an evolutionary leap forward in 1977.14 But, like anything, the writing aged ahead of the critical work explaining how.
Bending Genres (edited by Nicole Walker and Margot Singer and featuring a lot of Utah expats)15 tried, and succeeded, at feeding us some answers. Even Lopate argued “The Lyric Essay” in his update To Show and to Tell16 (spoiler: he’s agin’ it). All that writing, finally nibbling at how. In 2015, NonfictioNOW had a couple panels on hybrids; in 2018, a smorgasbord.17
And yet, in 2020, my grad students at the University of Minnesota argued the lyric essay (spoiler: they’re agin’ it), not for inability to digest, but fed up, glutted on it. Utah now offers a feast of “fiction, nonfiction, poetry, digital writing, hybrid and other experimental forms, [and] book arts.”18 In 2018 at NonfictioNOW, invited to the table, I presented on a hybrid panel19 (mostly women) on poetic forms imported into nonfiction and cited Brenda, present in the audience, got to thank her for setting that table. This is not to say all is sweetness: recently, Ander Monson addressed other judges’ distaste for lyric essay in NEA grant decisions20 (spoiler: they’re agin’ it).
Creative writing programs and syllabus cellars at Assay21 and elsewhere now offer a feast for teaching and studying, an entire palette of genres for every palate. Far from the food desert of the ‘90s, us gone undernourished, the limited menu prix fixe poetry and fiction; the only sips of nonfiction, narrative. Despite this, narrative nonfiction still gets the grants, the agents and advances, the main entrée on the buffet (I prefer to make a meal of hors d’oeuvres, am always eyeing what’s being circulated on the platters). But as we see, even narrative circles back, awaits the great leap forward.
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com
1. Eliot, T.S., “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Print.
4. Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Anchor Books, 1995
5. Tall, Deborah and John D’Agata, Foreword to Seneca Review (Fall 1997). Print. Archived online at https://www.hws.edu/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx
8. Moore, Dinty W. “On Voice, Concision, and 20 Years of Flash Nonfiction.” The Best of Brevity, ed. Zöe Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2020. Print.
9. Jones, Mary Paumier and Judith Kitchen, eds., In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. Norton: 1996. Print.
10. Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola, eds., Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Print.
12. Doyle, Brian. Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003. Print.
13. Roripaugh, Lee Ann. Running Brush. Website. https://runningbrush.wordpress.com/
14. Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.
15. Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
16. Lopate, Phillip, “The Lyric Essay.” To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonficton. New York: Free Press, 2013.
20. Monson, Ander, “Dear Essayists Applying for an NEA.” Essay Daily (16 Feb 2021)
June 21, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Helen Collins Sitler
Two summers ago chimney swifts nested in my chimney. I didn’t know a thing about swifts, except that they were there, and that I was intrigued enough to write about them.
As I sat surrounded by field guides to birds, I didn’t know what I needed to know so I took a lot of notes. Gradually, I noticed that field guides all use similar categories: description, voice, habitat, migration …. Those categories provided ideas for organizing and for section headings when I began to draft.
All the notetaking served to narrow/winnow relevant information. How exactly does the swift, with its stuttering flight pattern (description), manage to zoom into my chimney without conking itself unconscious or crash-landing on the damper? The answer to that question was useful. I was learning about swifts’ capacity for distance. Did you know they can sleep while they fly? Which is good, since their migration takes them thousands of miles from North America to Central and South America. Some information, like swifts’ chittering utterances (voice) turned out not to be relevant for the piece that emerged. Still, notes I never used cemented a deeper expertise, which gave me confidence in the writing.
I did a happy dance when a local ornithologist fact-checked a draft and reported back, “You have the biology correct.” For one reader, at least, I had successfully woven in uncited research as I linked the nestlings’ development with my own recovery from a hip replacement. Now, with that essay out for review, I’m hoping an editor somewhere concurs.
For a retired academic like me, writing creative nonfiction feels like coloring outside the lines. I taught Research Writing to hundreds of high school and college students. We slogged through MLA and APA documentation and sometimes other formats, depending on students’ majors. Documentation is ingrained in my psyche.
Now, retired and shifting from academic writing to creative nonfiction, I no longer want (Ballenger 174-76) or (Ballenger, 2009, pp. 174-76) to intrude on my prose. But making the research slide into sentences invisibly, or at least not intrusively, is a challenge. So I’ve returned to my teaching roots for help. I cannot write well without doing exactly the same things I asked my students to do.
When I taught Research Writing, I required students to take notes from their sources. Whether on the screen or printed out, from an interview or an observation, they had to write notes. Why? Because writing notes by hand increases the likelihood that you’ll remember that material better. And because interacting with those notes by injecting your own commentary will offer new insights. Highlighting, underlining, and margin notes on a printout are nice, but hand-written notes and personal commentary make the magic. Students hated doing this. It was labor-intensive and time-consuming. I remained adamant. “Turn in notes from at least three sources,” I would tell them. “I want to see the information you’ve gathered and also your personal responses/questions/confusions about that information.”
Guess what. When students had to write out notes and add personal insights, they began to gain control of the material. After some notetaking days, we would do what compositionist Bruce Ballenger calls a bookless draft, i.e., an information dump. I instructed, “Ten minutes to skim through the notes you’ve taken. Now put them inside your backpacks. Do NOT pull them out. Now empty your brain of everything you know. Write about why you chose your topic and what you’ve found. Create a scene about a person, a place. Invent a dialogue. Just write.” To their surprise, students could write about their topics in their own words. Suddenly, they realized they KNEW this stuff. They had been working the words and their own thinking together all along, in their notetaking. Now they could begin to claim expertise in their own voices. This drafting was often awkward and full of gaps, but even that was instructive. What do you still need to find out?
My own journals are full of research notes (carefully documented), random thoughts derived from those notes, and awkward attempts to merge the two into something coherent, graceful, and mostly quotation-free. Often this drafting surprises me and leads me to links that might surprise a reader. Who would expect that measures of the whiteness of LED lightbulbs—the differences between 5000K and 2700K–held the key to why I so desperately changed out lightbulbs in my home after my husband died? “Light Therapy,” published in Hippocampus, explains how the light spectrum connected to my grief.
Some academic safety nets, like keeping careful track of sources, still apply. For all researched writing, I’ve learned to keep two copies. One, with the research made as invisible as possible, becomes the submission copy. The other is identical, but filled with footnotes and links to electronic sources. It stays in a computer file so I can provide fact-verification if an editor asks.
Re-immersion in eloquent, fact-filled writing is helpful, too. In classes that weren’t Research Writing and where students had more freedom to color outside the lines, we often read Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyas Volodoras.” To my class I would say, “Highlight anyplace where Doyle uses information he had to have looked up. The things a person doesn’t walk around already knowing.” It didn’t take long for students to highlight so heavily that their page and a half of text started to curl from wetness. Students would look up from their papers puzzled. How can this be packed full of research, yet read like a poem? How can it be so emotional but at the same time so fact-y?
If you haven’t read “Joyas,” you need to. I re-read it periodically, to remind myself that research can be presented with beauty, elegance, and even humor. Then I return to taking notes and writing information dumps and know that the outcome will be worth the labor.
Helen Collins Sitler’s creative nonfiction—all with a bit or a lot of research—has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Harmony, The Sunlight Press, and Post Road. She is currently intrigued by such things as high school graduation rates in the 1920s and baseball player Roberto Clemente’s many accomplishments.
June 17, 2021 § 9 Comments
Last night, in a webinar for Creative Nonfiction, we talked about sentences. What makes them soar lyrically across the page; what makes them stumble awkwardly into your editor’s inbox. Two great questions came in afterward (Thank you Maria-Veronica and Catherine!). First:
What are the most important or key elements that make a long sentence great? In what way can it have as great an impact as a short one?
I love long sentences. The bane of my MFA existence was classmates who “corrected” what they saw as run-on sentences in my work. Thanks for the effort, fellow writers, but 90% of the time I wanted the sentence that long! Maria-Veronica’s question made me think deeply about why. What makes a long, complex, multi-claused sentence not a run-on?
1) Rhythm: the sentence pulls the reader in with flow or beats, often including deliberate repetition.
2) Direction: the sentence spirals deeper into a moment, or the sentence zooms out to show context as part of the immediate moment. If the direction changes, the reader is clearly brought along.
3) Unity: the sentence has one time and one location, unless there’s a specific reason to go elsewhere; or the sentence uses one metaphor and explores it fully. We’re expanding one moment, not compressing a whole bunch of moments into one.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
– Jack Kerouac, On The Road
Note how the deliberate repetition of “mad”-syllable-syllable establishes rhythmic beats. “To be saved” breaks the pattern and slows us a little as the clauses get longer. Then, repeating “burn” accelerates the sentence through the final, un-punctuated image.
On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.
– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
The sentence starts in a close, intimate moment, then zooms out to the feeling of sexual release and otherworldly expansion. Halfway through, “sliding down a rainbow” navigates the reader from the universe back down toward earth; the things on earth; the people; and the sentence circles back to where we started.
He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.
– Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Forty-five words showing and exploring how one man says, “I love you.”
For fun, try rearranging the words in one of the sentences above and seeing how their power diminishes in another order. (These and many other beautiful sentences at https://thejohnfox.com/beautiful-sentences/)
I’m also a fan of the sentence fragment, judiciously deployed. Catherine asked about one of the samples on my slides, a fragment from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and here’s the whole gorgeous passage:
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
The ten fragments (and two grammatically complete sentences) are showing death, from the point of view of the person experiencing it, as a series of physical experiences flashing into consciousness and then unconsciousness.
Use whatever sentence structures make your story sing on the page. If that’s fragments, great! If that’s run-ons, make ’em work! The important part is knowing what you’re doing—it’s not a fragment because you messed up, it’s a fragment chosen to best deliver that moment of the story. There is no prize for “best grammar” in the publishing world, no golden star for subject-verb agreement, no blue ribbon for adjective order or time served for use of adverbs, but plenty of writers bend language to their will.
Be one of them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Pre-order Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, or join her June 28 for a free keynote or paid masterclass on writing YA Memoir with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators of Western Washington.
June 8, 2021 § 9 Comments
Everyone hates on adverbs.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.William Zinsser, On Writing Well
But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.
When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?
Replace redundant adverbs.
She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.
But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.
She thumped her coffee on the counter.
Skip the “duh” adverbs.
If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.
Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:
Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)
Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.
Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:
“Tell me right now!” she said
Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.
As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:
RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?
SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.
Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)
Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.
“That’s him,” she said accusingly.
“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.
“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.
“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”
With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:
He turned angrily and raised his fist.
He whipped around, his fist raised.
He spun, his fist raised.
Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.
He smiled bitterly.
They ran haltingly.
She danced jerkily.
Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”
In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:
Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.
The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.
Plumb the adverbs in your own work:
1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?
2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.
3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.
Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.
May 27, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Amie Souza Reilly
Brian Doyle’s essay “Imagining Foxes” remembers the afternoon he and his siblings spent playing in a tiny patch of cedar forest. However, the importance of that day does not come from what they witness in the woods, but from what they don’t actually see at all. His is an essay about finding meaning in absence.
In the beginning, Doyle lists all they observed, and readers, like the Doyle children, forget that the “forest” is only twelve blocks long. This is the way he leads us into imagination, by showing us how to forget while also remembering.
And interspersed in descriptions of the birds they saw, Doyle mentions the deer they didn’t see:
although we did see mats of grass, which sure looked like places deer would nap, like uncles after big meals, sprawled on their sides with their vests unbuttoned, snoring like heroes.
Like a balancing act, he continues to write of the real and imagined—holes where mammals live, the undeniable scratch marks of bears—though of course we know there are most likely no bears in this stretch of trees hemmed in by highways.
But after these teetering lists, in the third paragraph of the essay, there is a switch. Here, Doyle steps away from recollection and addresses his readers: “…but my point here is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.” The nostalgia-laden description, the nap of remembering, is broken.
The thing the Doyle kids did not see, not really, was a fox. He says they smelled him, heard him, saw the little dabs in the dirt were his feet surely trotted. But they never actually saw the fox. And the fact that it was never actually seen is precisely what Doyle wants to talk about. This essay is a lesson in writing as much as a lesson in life.
“Imaging Foxes” reminds me of what Vivian Gornick writes about imagination and memoir in The Situation and the Story. “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”
Doyle’s essay is about imagination, about experience and wonder. The forest is the place that held the event, the experience inside it is the memory. There’s a tug at nostalgia in his words. How magical, the memory of childhood afternoons spent lost.
When teaching this essay to a class full of students, most barely out of childhood themselves, I ask them to write down that Doyle sentence, and to think of it as a key that turns in a lock, opening something special. Write it down, I say, in the middle of your paper:
But my point is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.
And then I ask them to think of a childhood space, perhaps somewhere that felt wonderous then, though they may experience it differently now. After, I have them imagine what they see, smell, and feel inside that place, and write it all above the Doyle sentence. Below it, I ask them to describe what is not there. In this act of separating the memory, of turning, briefly, outside of themselves, I hope that they find the meaning of that absence.
“If you stop imagining them then they are all dead,” Doyle writes at the end of this essay, “and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?”
It is not about absence at all, but about the fullness of wonder.
Amie Souza Reilly is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University and is the Assistant Managing Editor at Brevity Magazine. Her work can be found in trampset, Catapult, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.
May 21, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
In 1857 Henry David Thoreau wrote in a letter to a friend: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” As a travel writer, I’m often asked to write about five ghost towns or six roadside attractions in 500 words. It feels impossible every time. I sit down and write 1,500 or 2,000 words. Then I kill 75% of my darlings.
Because I know this is what editors often ask for—challenging word counts—I assign the very short essay to my students. I ask for a 1,000-word essay, saying every word has to count. When they return to class, I tell them that every word must count double—in a revision of no more than 500 words. My students complain, and I send them home to do the work. Their next revision—you guessed it—can be no longer then 250 words. They tell me cutting that much will “ruin” their work, so I share with them an essay that does its work in a mere 230 words.
Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing” captures the ways girls navigate a patriarchal world where the “girl thing to do” is to take care of babies and then suffer advances from the children’s lecherous fathers. The title “Girl/Thing” echoes the first line about babysitting being a “girl thing” but also, at the end of the essay, a girl that is a thing: “(Y)ou don’t know anymore if you are a girl and if that noun means you are a person, place, or thing.” Not only does the word “thing” accumulate meaning from the first line to the last, but as the essay moves along, the point of view shifts from the first person “I” to the plural “us” and finally to “you,” implicating the reader. In the end, it’s the reader who “can’t do anything” about the world she inhabits, that is not until the girl grows into a woman who writes her—and our—story.
Writers from Aristotle to Poe have told us to begin in medias res, or in the middle of things. Vodicka does this by beginning the essay with the word because. This puts the reader into the situation, in the middle of things, in that car with the creepy father, creating immediate conflict. When we begin a sentence with the word because, it usually follows a question, an interrogation. But the teenaged girl, who might answer a question with only the word because doesn’t get to speak in this essay at all. The only person whose voice we hear in direct dialogue is that of the father, the Patriarchy, who says, “You’re growing up so fast.” This sole line of dialogue could seem innocuous, for it’s something we often say to children. But because the father’s hand is on the narrator’s “innocuous upper thigh,” we see how menacing this line is. The use of the adjective “innocuous” signals the reader that while the thigh and the voiceless girl may be innocuous, the man’s hand and his words transform her very body to a thing, a place of danger.
“Girl/Thing” creates meaning sentence by sentence but also makes use of sound, word by word. We hear the father is “slurry” and the sentences that follows is heavy on s sounds—slides, space, seconds, says, sitting. As the danger of the “roving hand” slides across the divide, the alliteration reminds the reader of a hissing serpent, that original scourge of innocence. In the penultimate lines, Vodicka juxtaposes her newly earned certificate in “the art of child-rearing” with the next sentence: “A certified screw.” Female as mother, as object of desire, as girl/thing.
In teaching this essay, I don’t point out the ways that craft creates meaning but ask questions that lead students there: Why does the essay begin with the word because? What does the title mean? How is the language similar in the first and last lines? What is the point of view? Where does it change and why? Who gets to speak aloud in the essay and why? What sounds do you hear when we read this aloud? What details might have been left out of this essay?
Then I ask students to look critically at their own essays, with the questions we have discussed in mind. What details in their work can be left out or condensed into one word, action, or line of dialogue?Can titles contain double meanings? Is it possible to begin their essay with the word because? Can the direct dialogue be condensed to one line that will do the work of all the dialogue?
I often tell students I can’t teach them how to write, but I can assign literature that will, if they study the architecture of the work. Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing” shows students how much meaning can be made in the space of 230 words.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir in travel essays, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (NATJA Bronze Medal Winner and Finalist for the Gilda Award and Foreword Reviews Best Book of the Year in Travel) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Her collection of lyrical essays, Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, & Other Difficulties is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2022. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included twice in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
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