The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

June 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

Gentle Readers, you may have noticed our Brevity Editor-in-Chief’s new book, The Story Cure. Perhaps you’ve even been moved to hop over to Amazon or pop in to your favorite indie bookstore to pick it up. Or maybe you’re still wondering, what the heck is this book all about?

Over at HuffPo, “certified writing geek” Stephanie M. Vanderslice has the dish.

What I appreciated most was Moore’s personal take on the most essential elements of the major prose project: the primal story or the problem of the heart, and the invisible magnetic river. The problem of the heart is the primal element of the story, the human current that runs deep within its core that pulls the reader in and makes them care about it, makes them unwilling to put it down. The invisible magic river is, likewise, the current that carries this story and that every single element of the work—”word, element, scenes, snippets of dialogue, reflection,” should be drawn toward.

Vanderslice and Moore talk about keeping the focus on the reader, and the advice Dinty W. Moore now would give his younger writer self. Her interview is a fast, thoughtful read–check out the whole conversation here.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast.

The Congenitally Wonder-Addled Brian Doyle

June 5, 2017 § 6 Comments

By Susan RoweSusan Bruns Rowe

The first time I met Brian Doyle I was at a writers’ conference pretending to be a writer. I chose his workshop because he had a kind smile, a well-groomed beard. Describe your first kiss! he shouted from the top of the class. He walked the aisles. He urged us to add details—saliva, braces, that awkward matter of the tongue. I sat paralyzed, eeked out three vomitable sentences. Time’s up, he said with glee. Then he asked us to share our work. Out loud. I kept my eyes glued to my paper, covering it like a grade-school spelling test. “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t shared yet,” he said standing inches away. Blood thrummed in my ears. My pulse was a fast staccato. Hands shot up. Not mine. There was no way.

The next time he gave a reading in my hometown. I sat with twenty other people in the basement of a musty Civilian Conservation Corps cabin reserved for “smaller” literary events. He took us on a quest for the perfect Pinot in a picturesque vineyard. You could see the sun in his eyes, how he savored each word in his mouth like wine. I was a college magazine editor by then, too, and he spent a morning with me, spouting ideas, advice, experience, while I scribbled. Six months later I sent him the issue to which I had given laborious birth. “Better,” he said. “Now concentrate on the writing . . . make it literary, make it leap off the page, make it tell a story on which a thousand others can stand.”

Every one of his emails was its own literary delight. He thought verbs should be “funky colorful unusual engines. Twist a noun into a verb.” Nouning he called it. He made no apologies for his self-described Herculean sentences (“I say happily go and read some Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Gibbon and Plutarch and see how the masters play with the pacing of a long passage.”) But his real art was to write from the heart. During my editor days, he ended every email by conferring blessings on my babies. I decided to send him a short piece I’d written about my youngest child. “Oh my gawd,” he emailed back. “That’s superb. That is honest with a capital H and O. Seems to me the pieces that are most tumultuously honest about the way joy and pain are identical twins are the pieces that come closest to catching the truth of the mysterious awful gift of it all, you know?”

I gave up editing to write. Things went downhill. I worked for six months on an essay I thought would be perfect for his magazine. I spent six days on the cover letter. He emailed back within an hour of receiving it. “Thanks,” he said. ” I don’t think it’s quite for us.” A year later, I sent him another piece, which he also rejected—this time with a hand-written note. I was making progress. About this time, I couldn’t open a magazine without Brian Doyle staring back at me. I borrowed a friend’s copies of The Christian Century. There was Brian Doyle. I ordered a single copy of Orion. There he was. He appeared in every other issue of The Sun. I used his proems, essays, and books in my writing classes, apologizing to students for yet one more example of writing from Brian Doyle. All of us longed to craft a single melodic sentence like Doyle did.

Last spring I interviewed him for an article about writers who approach writing like play. I’d had Brian in mind when I pitched it because he was always experimenting with form and language. He once wrote that the essay “is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement . . .” I asked him if he brought those qualities to his writing. “Hmm—I do think it’s true,” he said, “and immediately think of my sister saying I am congenitally wonder-addled because I got spectacles at age 7 and have never recovered from that wash of wonder. I suppose I am also sort of addicted to the salt and swing and song of the American language, which is a bruised dusty lewd brave vibrant language, and trammeling it carefully seems disrespectful to me, as long as I am clear. I never know where a story or an essay or a proem is going to end up, or even go, quite—I just start, and I have in mind that I want to write like people talk and think, in loose-limbed free piercing entertaining ways, and things go from there, sometimes utterly to the dogs.”

When the article came out, I’d heard about Brian’s illness. I sent him an email. I didn’t hear back. I wrote him a card telling him he was my writer hero, that he inspired me to write beyond my ability, that something happened in that workshop two decades ago that made me want to be a writer for real. I choked up, made mistakes, had to cross out words. “You can’t send him a card with cross-outs,” my husband chided. So I rewrote it. Without cross-outs. And it was much shorter. I left out all the stuff about heroes. I didn’t want to sound like a stalker or like maybe there wouldn’t be more rejection notes or articles in which I plumbed his writing genius. I’m not sure Brian remembered me from the hundreds, maybe thousands of other writers he helped over the years, but I don’t care about that. I wish, though, I’d sent him that card with the cross-outs and the mushy stuff about writer heroes. I wish I had.
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Susan Bruns Rowe teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at The Cabin and The Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning in Boise, Idaho, and recently joined the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Penny,  and The American Oxonian. She has an MFA in creative writing from Boise State University.

** For more on the salt and swing and song of Brian Doyle, see his seven dusty lewd brave vibrant Brevity essays and our recent Podcast episode.

Painting the Snake: Ambient Accuracy in Creative Nonfiction

May 29, 2017 § 20 Comments

snakeBy Jan Priddy

The sound crew working on a film is careful to record ambient sound—the faint traces of traffic and wind and birds or elevators and footsteps and air conditioners—the barely audible noises in the background of any location. Even a very quiet place is not silent. Later, if a line of dialogue must be rerecorded or the interruption of a plane roaring overhead corrected, layering in ambient sound is necessary to ensure continuity for the filmgoer. Ambient sound is the kind of stuff we notice only when it is missing.

Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.

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More than forty years ago, a friend at the University of Washington was taking a class on scientific illustration. Her first homework assignment was to illustrate a bird. Pamela, who already had a Biology degree, chose her model from a display in the Burke Museum on the NW corner of campus. The taxidermy grebe in a diorama of coastal waterfowl had the great advantage of holding perfectly still while she made preliminary sketches and recorded colors and feathers.

Her completed illustration was a beautiful and detailed but otherwise incorrect representation of the Western Grebe. As it turned out, no living grebe ever positioned itself in the upright manner she depicted. Her portrait was of taxidermy, not life. She thus perpetuated another’s error.

Getting things right often requires that the writer know much more than what fits on the page. Ask any great writer. Novelist Molly Gloss, known for her science fiction and historical novels, noted recently that she researches a thousand facts in order to locate the one telling detail that lends authenticity to a scene. Writers of nonfiction and poetry might do well to follow her example.

Too often details in poetry and nonfiction can be traced directly to Wikipedia, and the writing is both limited and flawed because the writer has failed to pursue the richness of fact beyond the abbreviated online version.

My father, a research librarian for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, taught me a lesson about research. My elementary teacher encouraged me to use the various encyclopedias in the local library to research a report. He insisted that encyclopedias were useful only as overviews leading to more reliable sources. He took me to the card catalogue of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. He taught me to use an index, to draw reasonable conclusions from diagrams and illustrations, even those with captions in Norwegian. I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and that I must never under any circumstances rely on the accuracy of those writing outside their specialty. Find the facts, he said, and like a good scientist (or journalist), confirm my sources with more research.

Today such research is far easier. We have access to images and texts from all over the world, libraries and journalism, film and even people. The writer seeks truth, and superficial research leads to missteps. A recently published poem perpetuates several common misunderstandings concerning a nineteenth century event. The author’s only source was likely Wikipedia, and while the Wikipedia entry is mostly correct, the poet did not have enough ambient knowledge to avoid misrepresenting what is found on that page.

It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious. Our understanding must be encyclopedic, not limited to scanning a few inches of an encyclopedia.

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For her next illustration, my friend Pamela went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle where the live Emerald Tree Boa was a gorgeous green and neatly draped in a series of concentric loops across a branch. Its head rested precisely in the center like a goddess wearing a broad and elegant collar of its own body. Pamela drew sketches from various angles and went home to work on her illustration. Then she panicked: What if the position of that snake was a fluke? What if, as with the taxidermy grebe, she wasted days creating a flawed representation? Back to the zoo she went. On her second visit, both Emerald Tree Boas in the exhibit had arranged themselves across branches in that same symmetrical manner. Zoo personnel confirmed the pose was characteristic of the species.

It is tempting is to make our task easy, to trust immediate impressions, but there is no excuse for errors resulting from a failure to look past the first link on Google. We need to know more than what shows at first glance. We need knowledge of what is just behind and beside our subject and the faint trace of footstep and birdsong carried through the air. We need to earn our authority not only with well-chosen words but with truth.
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Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffinCALYXWork MagazineRaven ChroniclesThe HumanistNorth American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon.

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Illustration:

Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) at San Diego Zoo (side view) photo by Reino Baptista, free use available through Wiki Commons, 2015

In Their Shoes

May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments

No seriously, get in or we’ll be late for the next scene. (Photo: Nick Brocklebank/PhotoAcacia Ltd)

In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”

That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.

Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.

I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”

That was my dad talking.

That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.

Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.

That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.

There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?

Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

Revision: Here’s the Chance to Get It Right

May 3, 2017 § 7 Comments

9780399578809Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore is featured this week on Signature-Reads.com, insisting that revision is the most joyful part of writing. His craft piece is excerpted from his new book, The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir, which came out just yesterday.

Here’s an excerpt:

The blank page is a frightening void. An early draft, however, filled with words – all pointing in the right direction, but in need of some tender loving care – can be exhilarating. Words are like clay: you can push them around and make all manner of shapes with them. And clay reminds us of childhood. And childhood reminds us of the time when we were the most playful, most creative, and least haunted by voices telling us we can’t do things well enough.

In other words, you can approach revision with your head low and your shoulders tensed, thinking, “Boy my sentences are so sloppy and wordy, and everything seems slow. All in all, I’m a pathetic failure.”

Or you can approach revision thinking, “Hey, here’s my chance to get it right. Let’s play around.”

Too many areas of life don’t afford you a second chance, but writing does, and you should see that as a good thing.

And here’s a link to the full Signature piece, though Dinty would like everyone to know that he had nothing to do with choosing the accompanying illustration.

 

My Thesis was Not a Book: This is Not the End

April 6, 2017 § 8 Comments

2bwby Colin Hosten

I graduated from my MFA program with an incomplete thesis. There was still a lot more of my story to be written, and yet I deliberately chose not to finish writing it. The idea of ending the program with only a partial story had seemed anathema to my goals upon entering the program. Yet I was pleased, even proud of the incomplete work that I submitted for my thesis—in part because of its incompleteness.

The thesis, you see, was technically “complete.” It fulfilled all the requirements—of length, formatting, and quality—specified by the program. I even numbered the front matter correctly and added extra space in the margin for binding. My thesis did everything it needed to do in order for me to earn an MFA.

But my thesis was not a book. I was almost halfway through the program before I learned to appreciate the difference.

Like too many MFA students, I entered my program with grand visions of exiting with the next American masterpiece. Yes, I read extensively and cranked out what seemed like hundreds of craft essays, but I stayed fixated on the goal of finishing the program with a finished book—and not just any finished book, but a brilliant, MFA-polished, finished book, ready to be snatched up in a lucrative bidding war by all the major New York publishers.

My first semester advisor listened and nodded as I spelled out the milestones and checkpoints I had planned for the two-year program, before gently telling me that writing a book in addition to a thesis was a difficult proposition—that, in fact, focusing on a book could potentially be counter-productive to my thesis.

“What’s the difference?” I wanted to know. Wasn’t it just a matter of reformatting the thesis for publication?

She preferred to show rather than tell me the difference, and she had to look no further than my first creative submission packet for the perfect example.

The difference between a book and a thesis was the difference between glossing the psychological trauma of my sexual confusion as a teenager in one paragraph, versus creating a fleshed-out scene about a boy who tortured me daily, highlighting his face, his clothes, his mannerisms, his breath.

It was the difference between using the setting of Trinidad as a mere backdrop, versus bringing the island to sensory life for the reader, almost as if it were a character in its own right, the way Antigua is portrayed by Jamaica Kincaid in her book-length essay, A Small Place.

It was the difference between submitting work with clunky and overwritten dialogue, versus taking the time to reread, revise, edit, and polish a manuscript thoroughly.

And so on.

Developing the perspective, precision, and—overall—patience to distinguish between a book and a thesis became one of the biggest and most important lessons of my MFA experience. I appreciate now that completing a book worth reading necessarily demands endurance. It is an exercise in persistence, not just in setting realistic expectations and then making realistic plans to achieve them, but in the very way I conceptualize the writing process.

The story of my childhood in Trinidad is not a story to be rushed. It must be carefully crafted and finessed with the almost-obsessive attentiveness of an artist. It involves digging deep to make sure I have not left any important nuggets buried. It requires as much emphasis on the storytelling as on the story. I’ve come to see writing as a process, more than a means to an end. And I’ve learned that the more I take time to enjoy and savor that process, the more my eventual readers will, too.

The essays that became my thesis constitute just over half of the outline I’ve projected for my book. I haven’t gotten to the part where the sweet, little island boy leaves his homeland yet. But I think I know how to write it when I do. And I will, in time. There is no rush, you see; the patience is part of the process.

My incomplete thesis represented the end of my tenure as an MFA student. But it’s not the end of my story by any means. In many ways, it feels as though my work as a writer is just beginning.

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Colin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay ReviewEssay DailyOUT Magazine, and Spry Literary. A former Assistant Editor at Hyperion Books for Children, he continues to work as a freelance writer and editor, while teaching in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

Seeing an Essay and My Father Anew

April 4, 2017 § 3 Comments

Victor Domino1x

Gilbert’s father bought a great-great-great grandson of this legendary bull, shown in 1935

By Richard Gilbert

Almost three years ago, I began writing about accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. What provoked reliving the trip was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery. I remembered a stockman’s cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, 58 years later. Why?

Trying to answer just that, the essay explores reflexive story-making and the complex relationship among memory, imagination, and inner narratives. I found out late last week that “The Founder Effect” made the 2017 long list for the Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British biennial competition. It pays £20,000 to the winner, and they also publish five runners up. Two writer friends made the long list too: Jill Christman, who teaches for Ball State University, and Pat Madden, who teaches for Brigham Young University.

Competition is steep, so I’m counting the long list as my award. The 2015 winner was David Bradley’s provocative essay “A Eulogy for Nigger.” For some further great reading, go to the 2015 long list and pick an author and title and google it—those essays were first published or have since appeared in an array of journals. They are diverse in length and approach. Starting with the current competition, Notting Hill entries cannot have been previously published.

After a year of working on “The Founder Effect,” I tried to get it published. When it didn’t get anywhere, I sent it to a thoughtful friend who hadn’t seen it. He said he couldn’t understand its point. I suspected that, in my effort to make the most of the essay, I’d screwed it up. Two other friends had fretted that I was overworking it. Finally I hired a developmental editor, the talented novelist Joan Dempsey, up in Maine, to read it and advise me.

Joan pointed out that I started telling the story by alternating between my trip and related aspects, but then went into apparently unrelated stories about my father. After that, I let it sit a long time. Then I cut a ton. The trick was, I wanted to keep some of the memoir stuff. I write about the bull breeder’s life going on after we moved to Florida, so some of my father’s and my post-ranching life seemed relevant too.

And I restored something neither my friend nor Joan had seen. This was an initial foreground thread about my wife Kathy’s recovery from foot surgery. That thread grounds the essay in the here and now. It echoes the essay’s notion that in life, as in stories, the little things can be the big things. For example, the lone step at our house’s side door and a low tile lip on our shower loomed like Everest to someone with only one useable foot. And a friend bringing us a casserole dish? Huge. These lively segments make the essay kind of amusing, too, because while Kathy was recovering, and I was tending her, I was also lost down the internet rabbit hole, learning about Herfords and our bull’s breeder.

I learned a couple of things in this essay’s long writing and revision process. Per writing, I saw that the bullheaded drafting mind, the mind trying really hard to do something, isn’t the mind that can see immediately when a strategy doesn’t work. You need time, probably help from a writing posse, and maybe a professional’s eye. Of course ultimately the writer must decide alone.

Per life, the essay’s illumination of how I form narratives, often from mere scraps, helped me see my mind’s operating system. And pondering such reflexive story-making—amid my existing inner stew of memory, imagination, and previous stories—I finally saw my father’s narrative arc apart from its effect on me. That shift felt, and feels, big.

All this from exploring, for almost three years now, the memory of going with Dad to buy a bull in remote southwestern Georgia over half a century ago. I worked for 15 years in journalism, which teaches you to make the most of what you’ve got and to move on. To apply to essaying, those maxims must address a different dimension. “Literature,” Cyril Connolly said, “is the art of writing something that will be read twice.”

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Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood. His essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named by Longreads as one of its “Best of 2016.” He is working on a collection of essays about animals and landscapes.

 

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