Embracing the Unknown: Writing as Discovery

January 24, 2020 § 1 Comment

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.



On Writing With Substance and Compassion

January 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

IMG-2476In her new craft essay, Mary Ann McSweeny illustrates why compassion should be one of the underlying components of all stories, and she explains how it is only when the writer remains a “detached witness” that compassion can flourish. McSweeny provides a list of questions and a brainstorming exercise for writers to immerse their characters and narrators in substance and compassion:

When I read my own work and that of others, I ask myself: Does the writer have compassion for the character on the page? Does the writer know the character’s life history, background, biography? Does the writer understand how the character has arrived at the point where the story begins? Has the writer somehow entered into the character’s struggle? With the personal “I” narrator: Does the writer portray the narrator’s struggle with an understanding of the narrator’s weaknesses, fears, or defects without trying to control the outcome of what’s happening?

Substance is not writing about compassion; it is writing with compassion so that the reader feels the writer’s authenticity.

Read the rest of this exceptional craft essay in our latest issue.

The Essayist as Detective: Nancy Drewing with Sonya Livingston

January 21, 2020 § 1 Comment

drew coverThere’s always that one time in our writing attempts when we convince ourselves a topic is too impenetrable to fit into essay form. For Sonja Livingston, it was her childhood church in Rochester, New York. But like all good writers, she searched for a method that would allow her to tackle the topic, eventually relying on the guiding force of the fictional character Nancy Drew. With the help of the teenage detective, Livingston transformed her essays into the book The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. Here is an excerpt from her intriguing and engaging craft essay:

An orderly world might be heaven in your child’s bedroom or at the dried fruit section of Trader Joe’s, but tidiness is the essay’s kryptonite. The essay thrives on chaos. Curiosity is its basic fuel. Confusion is its sweet spot.

Like Nancy, who undertakes multiple mysteries in one book, an essay often tempts us with seemingly disparate threads. “You’ve really lost it this time,” I said as I moved from statue-hunting to researching relics and holy water. Even when I began to write my essays, dark clouds of doubt hung overhead.

Read this craft essay in Brevity’s latest issue.

In Need of Release: Finding The End of an Essay

January 7, 2020 § 19 Comments

sandra_millerby Sandra A. Miller

Half dozing on the train from New York to Boston with a snowstorm raging outside the window, I grabbed the Amtrak magazine from my seat pocket and mindlessly flipped to an interview with Patti Smith. I read along, engaged but not fully moved, until I came to this line in which Smith talks about performance:

You have to stay with the night, because some nights are a bit rocky. And some nights are explosive. But whatever the night is, you have to stay with it until you feel that people have a release.

I gasped and sat up so fast that my seatmate actually pulled her coat tighter, as if to shield herself from my sudden effusion. Yes! I thought. Yes!

Over the years, dozens of writing students have asked me, how do you know when an essay is finished, but I never quite had the language for it. I once tried to describe it as a click you feel inside, but it’s more than that. Yes, the writer, after years of practice, likely has an intuitive sense of an ending and knows when the piece locks into place, but I never accept that an essay is done until I’ve seen a reader get what I now know to call—thank you Patti Smith—“release.”

This is what release in an essay means to me: Did the reader not only connect with my words, but was he or she also a little loosened by them?

I grabbed my journal and started scribbling as the Acela zoomed me toward home, now going far too fast for all that I wanted to write. I began by brainstorming a list of essays that made me sit back and say “holy shit” because over the course of reading them, something changed in me. The kind of work that my friend Gary and I say we want to “throw across the room,” as in we are so moved/jealous/awestruck that we can’t bear to hold onto it for another second.

I thought about “Chimera,” an essay in which Gerald Callahan examines the workings of memories and immune systems to explain why his children’s mother, who committed suicide ten years earlier, still regularly appears in his physical world. Every time I read it the piece weakens me a little. Is that release? I think so.

Ditto for some of Joan Didion’s more personal essays—“In Bed” comes to mind—where her complex syntax and content hold me in thrall. Sometimes, after being so profoundly tugged along by Didion’s intellect, so yoked by her language, I find myself almost adrift when the piece ends. Release? Yes, a version of it.

I keep scribbling: Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” Andre Aciman’s “Lavender.” Essays that when you look up from the page, you are in a different place than when you began. And with so much to read and so little time, I don’t want to settle for anything that doesn’t, if only in some small way, move me.

My husband, Mark, a clinical psychologist who helps people with their feelings, is always my first reader. I will hand him an essay and watch—his face infuriatingly placid—as he pores over each line, making faint gray marks with his pencil. Pretending not to be looking, I’ll glimpse over as he nears the end, and I’ll watch, hoping, for that catch in his eyes. A tightening. Not necessarily a tear, but sometimes. Or maybe just a pause, an outbreath. When he hands me back my pages, I know, even before he says anything, if it worked or not.

When I arrived back home in Boston, I couldn’t stop thinking about release and wanted to hole up in my office and start reading essays. But my husband had done several rounds of shoveling while I was galivanting around New York, so I went out for one final scrape.

Just then, my friend Amara walked by with her hyper miniature poodle, Oscar, and stopped to say hello. Amara’s husband died suddenly two years ago, leaving her to raise their two young children alone. She adopted the dog to help with the healing, but he had turned out to be far too much. “We need to re-home him” she said. I can’t do it anymore.”

I nodded as Oscar, fluffy and strong-willed, tried to yank Amara away from our conversation.

“Maybe you needed him when he appeared,” I suggested. “Maybe he brought something into your life in that moment of crisis and transition that you could not have gotten in another way.”

“That’s it,” she said. “He was my release.”


“He released me from the idea that I could do this parenting thing perfectly. I thought I could power through anything, but I had to let that go.” Her eyes glistened with tears, and I wanted to hug her, but a high snowbank loomed between us. So I held her gaze and nodded, briefly, feeling that click of connection. When Oscar started dragging her down the street, we wiped our cold tears and shouted out good-byes.

I kept shoveling, thinking about the way we share our stories. Some are passed, friend to friend, in the hush of a December night. Others are crafted carefully, with the hope that they might affect people we will never meet.

Once I had finally removed the light, top layer, I struck ice, intractable with the freezing temperature. But I knew in the morning the sun, warm and persistent, would reach the pavement, eventually releasing what, in that moment, wouldn’t move.

Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, is available through Indiebound, Amazon, and Brown Paper Press. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is a regular correspondent for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. 

Author Photo by Holloway McCandless

They’re All Dead

December 5, 2019 § 13 Comments

By Anthony J. Mohr

The woman at the gym combined a theatrical streak with a fun-filled manner, which matched what I wanted in a girlfriend. It was early 2004, and until recently, Jan had been married to one of the Dodgers. Finally, she agreed to have dinner with me. Until the entree arrived, we’d been talking about movies. Then, without warning, she asked, “Was your father an actor?”

“He was.”

“My aunt knew him,” Jan said.

“Who’s your aunt?” I asked.

When Jan told me, I dropped my fork. I’d met her aunt many times during the early 1960s, when I was in high school and her aunt and my father were having an affair. Eventually my father’s second wife learned about it, and once she did, Jan’s aunt and my father went to ground, still quietly seeing each other until my father died in 1968.

For years friends had urged me to write about my father, a character actor who’d played Philip Marlowe on the radio, appeared in dozens of TV Westerns, four Perry Masons, and movies ranging from Gilda to Guns, Girls, and Gangsters. But I balked. Following his death, I’d said almost nothing. That changed around 2000, when, slowly, I began to feature my father in essays. As I did, I wanted to connect with people in his life. A reunion with Jan’s aunt might have sorted out a lot. But that wouldn’t happen.

“My aunt died three months ago,” Jan said.

The aunt’s son agreed to sit down with me. I met him for a few minutes, but before we could arrange a long talk, he too died. I found myself chasing lives that, if not extinct, were fading fast, often just ahead of my phone call. I reached out to several of the leading ladies in my father’s campy movies. Peggy Castle, from Invasion USA (1952). Cathy O’Donnell from Terror in the Haunted House (1958). Both had died in the 1970s. Naura Hayden, my father’s love interest in The Angry Red Planet, had been single when she and my father made that 1959 sci-fi flick. Knowing my dad, I was sure they had coupled a few times. But she’d died, too.

I tried to get in touch with children of my father’s friends. One died just weeks before I tracked her down. An elementary school classmate whose dad had worked with mine met with me for an hour. We planned another get-together, but three months later, she was dead. I cried the day I learned, then cursed myself for being a slow writer. That’s also the moment I realized what happens if you wait until age seventy before starting a memoir. The people who can feed your recollections—they’re all dead.

I reached out to James Garner, star of Maverick. He was too sick to talk with me, and a couple of weeks after my phone call, he died. At least in his memoir The Garner Files, he praised my father as “the one I had the most fun working with on Maverick…He could tell a joke better than anyone, and he had a bunch of them. Never repeated himself. And he was a pro.”

Without people who can help me remember, I’ve turned to archives, press clips, school yearbooks, old newspapers, and, fortunately, the few contacts still alive. I’ve worked my memory like a bodybuilder bulking up. Anything that nurtures it, I’ve tried. Thinking in the dark. Staring at photos. Playing forgotten songs. Driving by a house. Plunging deep into Google. Eating children’s foods (Remember the Sugar Daddy? — “Lasts an hour or more…only costs a nickel”). Occasionally I’ve speculated about what a departed person would say, careful not to present my imagination as truth. Sometimes I’ve had to refocus an essay, narrowing it to what I know is factual.

At least I was lucky with Jan. Thanks to her aunt and my dad, we now call each other “cousin.” I just wish her aunt had lived to share some of her remembrances.

At a recent writing conference, an eighty-year-old started reminiscing about, of all things, the mules on her family’s farm—their names, colorings, and other details. I was losing interest until she snapped me back to attention by boasting that now, with everyone who knew her gone, “I’m free to say anything.” I hoped she was joking. The absence of guides on the road to the past hasn’t emboldened me. It’s made me nervous, because I crave recollections and corrections to strengthen my work.

At that same writers’ conference, a speaker advised memoirists, “hold off on interviewing until you’re ready.”

Not a good idea.

I recommend doing instead what they taught me when I practiced law: find witnesses as fast as possible and preserve their testimony. Witnesses have a habit of forgetting things, leaving the country, or dropping dead.

In other words, hurry up, or you’ll be too late.

To younger would-be memoirists: save your school newspapers, your homework assignments, your report cards. Save your parents’ letters, save your social media photos, save everything. Your parents, roommates, and spouses may label you eccentric thanks to all that stuff in your closet. Ignore them. Eventually you’ll be rewarded with striking details on the page.


Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, Superstition Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State (2017), and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

S-E-X, Private Body Parts, and Other Perils Braved by Prudish Writers

November 27, 2019 § 24 Comments

Kim HinsonBy Kim Hinson

When I belly up to my computer to write about certain spicy procreation events it becomes an all out, downright puritanical pickle.

I blame it on my mom. Of course I do. And you would, too.

My Victorian sensibilities started at our live-in gas station, in my childhood (of course), with my mother’s straitlaced, spur-of-the-moment description of childbirth. A feisty, lipsticky customer named Tina stopped by the station a few days after she’d given birth to her eighth child and couldn’t for the life of her remember what she’d named that new baby. Later that day, Mama, my five-year-old little sister Dawn, and I sat in the car waiting for Daddy to join us so we could drive Hansen’s Truck Stop for supper. Into the silence, Mama said, “That Tina. She just had her eighth baby and she can’t even remember what she named it.”

Little Dawn immediately piped up, “Where do babies come from anyway?”

I barely breathed for listening. Seven years old and happily ignorant, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the answer. There was a tiny, pregnant silence while Mama’s librarian brain zipped through the card catalog in her mind.  She gazed through the windshield at the night sky darkening over our backyard junkyard and said breezily, “Oh, they come from down there.”

My face froze in horror, and Dawn said, “Wait. What!? Like where exactly down there?”

Mama gave a little cough. “There’s a little hole near where you pee,” she said, getting as close as she’d ever come to saying an actual private body part word. Without waiting for more questions, she leaned forward and flicked the car radio on to the only station we knew—KFIL True Country Radio—and cranked the volume way, way up. Little Jimmy Dickens cut loose with May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose and I sang along as loud as I could.

To my shame (but also a great deal of relief), I never talked to any of my three daughters about s-e-x.  I don’t say that word, and I don’t put that word down in Scrabble, even if the x lands on triple letter and the whole dang word scores quadruple points.  Raised in Minnesota, land of Lutherans, soybean farmers, and conversations that consist entirely of beating around the bush, I just don’t.

Flash forward forty years, to the day my nineteen-year-old daughter, Megan, wanted to start a horse breeding business. A horse breeding business that involved something called “in-hand breeding.”

Swept up in Megan’s enthusiasm, and deeply content with my innocent mindset, it never even occurred to me to say, “Wait. What is in hand!?” My Internet research on in-hand breeding turned up more mentions of private body-part words than I’d seen in my whole life. Well, I thought. This could be awkward. I don’t say private body-part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself.  Like a silent but powerful family tradition, my people keep private things private. I’d certainly never asked Megan if she knew anything about it. Because that would involve talking about…“it.”

Then again, this was about horses.  Surely this was different.  A few months earlier we’d had a baby miniature horse born on our Texas farm just by-golly out of the blue.  Nothing to it.  We saw nothing.  We knew nothing. Like immaculate and invisible conception. Just the way I liked it.

And then I became a writer.  I knew the in-hand breeding escapade made for a hilarious story, and I knew I wanted to write about it. But, the instant my fingers hovered above the keyboard, I faced the most priggish of predicaments: How could I write about an activity that involved several private body parts and all the various private activities involving those body parts in a modest, respectable, yet comical way?

So, like a good writer, I turned to books for guidance and genteel examples.

Frank McCourt, in Angela’s Ashes, chose a couple of vaguely descriptive terms which, when read in context, clearly represented the particular body part in question. McCourt’s first word choice, “boyo,” is short, informal, and almost amiable.  The expressions “my excitement” and “the excitement,” came next, representing not just a particular body part, but also the proceedings involving said body part. Sadly, none of these cheery terms quite fit my own writing voice, so I moved on to the next book.

Anne Lamott, in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, had obviously faced a similar dilemma when writing about her son’s circumcision.  She resolved the issue brilliantly by writing, “I was scared…that I had, after all, made the wrong decision and now…he would need emergency surgery on his wienie” (24). Now this I liked! Thank you Anne Lamott for such an absolutely cute, yet meaningful and even accurate word choice! It also turns out that we have a choice of spellings: wienie or weenie.

Giddy with relief, I pulled myself together to write the in-hand breeding story, cheerfully adopting the word “weenie” to reference our stallion’s…weenie. My writing group, upon hearing me read my piece, snorted, guffawed, clutched their stomachs and all but fell off their chairs laughing. They wheezed and gasped things like, “Just…NO!” and “Don’t!” and “You can’t!” They couldn’t stop laughing, which, for me, is the exact reaction I’m shooting for every time. Still, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t think I should use the word “weenie.”

Thankfully, Lamott chose a couple of other words that filled the bill modesty-wise and also felt right to me voice-wise: Unit and missile. I used them both as follows:

“…wedging Mercury [our stallion] next to the pipe fence with her shoulder, she reached down and took ahold of his hyper-enthusiastic unit. Well, that certainly brought Mercury around.”


“Mercury reared up, feet planted firmly in the gravel, towering over us. But the mission was darn near impossible. There was the missile. And there was the target. But there was way too much water, and all the vital body parts were far too slippery.”

Anyway, like I said, it’s my mom’s fault. All I could do as a mature, grownup writer was to develop coping mechanisms to, well, to cope with the brunt of the backlash of this puritanical skeleton in my family’s underwear drawer.

To prudish writers everywhere: My therapist says it’s not our fault. You’re welcome.


Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. Find out more about Kim at http://kimhinson.com and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/KimHinsonAuthor


Ten Things I Learned While Reading a Memoir I Will Not Review for Brevity

November 12, 2019 § 18 Comments

By Stacy E. Holden

1) Don’t hide the point of your work. Let your reader know what you want to do, think you are doing. Indicate in some fashion why you want these readers along for the ride.[1]

2) Don’t vent. A memoir should not be viewed as an opportunity to list everything you do not like, past and present. Anchor your writing to insights, not irritations.[2]

3) Don’t write like a curmudgeon. Invite people to spend time with you through a self-effacing attitude toward the subject of your book or its audience. In general, no one really likes to sit down with a know-it-all killjoy.

4) Don’t adopt an aerial view of life. Be humble, and acknowledge that you are not an expert on everything.[4]

5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s[5] story. If someone in it annoys you, you should see it as an opportunity to deepen your tale by excavating why.

6) Don’t neglect Beta Readers. Ask a variety of people to read it, especially those who are not “the same” in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.[6]

7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke.[7] Be clever, by all means, but only if you are clear and contextualize. You do not want to separate readers from your life story.

8) Don’t reject growth. You write to view the world with fresh eyes. Think deeply, and know you will be a different person at the end of the writing process than at its start.[8]

9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).[9]

10) Don’t assume your reviewer—in this case, a cisgender female Gen-Xer—will be any less curmudgeonly and judgmental than you. So, for better or worse, be prepared for some readers not to embrace the writing you worked so hard to produce, edit, publish…to offer to the literary world.[10]




Passengers don’t get on a plane just because it is going somewhere east that may be kinda nice. I need to remember to let my own readers know they are heading to Morocco to join me on a journey of midlife transition in the first few pages. I don’t want them to wonder what is the point of this work, as if lost in the labyrinth of the Old City’s winding streets. I am tracing Edith Wharton’s 1917 journey to discover who I am as a midlife woman now past bearing children or rocking boob-shirts in bars.(go back)

The surprises of writing and writing and writing til you get it! I could rag on academia, where I work, suggesting the distance I always felt and blaming “them,” but my writing has led me instead to see how my comfort living in working-class places of Morocco stems from my own insecurities and a desire to find community among workers somewhere, since I educated myself out of conversations with family and some friends in the USA.

(go back)

Show don’t tell…excavate that day in Moulay Idriss when everyone annoyed you, even when they just offered you cookies. What led you to be fragile and sensitive and judgmental that particular day?

(go back)

Expats…I need to rethink how I describe those rich expats in Marrakesh and other Moroccan places who set up homes in poor neighborhoods of the medina.

(go back)

Aomar, an anthropologist whose Moroccan identity is wrapped up in sub-Saharan African and Tamazight culture, not Arab. Mina, a professor of history in Rabat. And Sara…the educated daughter of Aicha, friend, illiterate, who appears regularly in the ms.

(go back)

Moroccan time…do not mention “Moroccan time.”

(go back)

I thought I would write a love letter to Morocco by returning there to find the recipe for past happiness, but it turns out I am composing a Dear John letter to this country. You cannot repeat today what worked for you yesterday. Sometimes it is time to move on.

(go back)

Do I sound like a judg-y white American when I talk about Morocco? Is there a sense of using the culture of the US as a marker for how stuff—bathrooms, government administration, luncheon interactions—should work in a perfect world? If so, rethink…

(go back)

Remember, some will still condemn a white woman writing on her travels in an African country. But look deeply at your work and the images in it. Be confident in your descriptions of your engagement with the people and places in a country long considered a second home. Let the work go, and be damned with the reviewers who will or will not write about my book.


Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor at Purdue and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and Coldnoon. She is working on a travel memoir that reflects on her myriad experiences living in Morocco, while tracing Edith Wharton’s journey to the same country 100 years ago.

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