On Structure and the Lyric Essay

January 21, 2022 § 1 Comment

In our new issue’s Craft Essay section, Australian poet Lesh Karan discusses how she had “pretty much given up on prose,” until she met the lyric essay.

It was as if I found myself a new lover. I was on a cloud-nine high: I didn’t have to write a tightly knitted argument required of a critical essay. I could loosely stitch fragments—even seemingly unrelated ones. I could leave gaps. Lean on poetic devices such as lyricism and metaphor. Let juxtaposition do the talking. I did not need to know the answer, nor did I need to offer one. It was up to the reader to intuit meaning. Whew!

Read her Full Essay here.

Queering the Fragment

January 20, 2022 § 2 Comments

In the Craft Section of our newest issue, Emilio Williams offers his uniquely-constructed essay “Inside the Box: On Queering the Fragment,” using Barthes, Sontag, and writers such as Wilde, Stein, Proust, Kazim Ali, Maggie Nelson, and Carmen Maria Machado to explore the “mysterious craft [and] magical physics” of queer texts.

From Sappho’s fragments to the graffiti of male-staffed brothels in
Pompeii, the earliest queer texts have reached us in snippets. For centuries, the only
possible first-person narratives for gender dissidents were diaries and letters, always
expected to remain in the private sphere, destroyed posthumously, and often “prehumously.” Perhaps historical impediments may have inspired the virtue of fragments to a
more liberated generation of writers. Call it a lyric essay or not. But if we consider
fragmented text, those are intrinsic to the queer experience.

Read his full essay here.

Memoirists: Worried Your Story “Isn’t Interesting Enough”?

January 17, 2022 § 5 Comments

You have a memoir idea, maybe even a first draft, have poured your heart and soul into the project yet the insecure voice that asks “Who will even care?” refuses to quiet itself. When you read what you have on the page, the emotions swell up in your own heart, but you wonder if the words will come alive this same way for a reader.

These are basic concerns facing all writers of memoir. Though our stories – the truth of our pain, our struggles, our progress, our redemption – reverberate on a personal level, we don’t write for ourselves, we write for others. So, how do our personal stories become universal, resonating with readers who don’t know us?

How, as Jeannine Ouellette asks, can we write “the kind of truth that makes somebody else’s heart beat faster with recognition?”

I’ll be offering a 75-minute Webinar in conjunction with Jane Friedman later this month exploring the difference between a Personal Story and a Public Story, and highlighting specific craft choices that help stories resound deeply with potential readers.

Remember this: though writing remains a solitary pursuit, we aren’t alone. Our potential readers are an audience of living, breathing, curious people on the other side of the page. Only by focusing on these readers, by acknowledging that we are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence, will we find a way to truly reach our audience.

I sincerely hope you can join me. The details are here:

Even if you can’t attend live, everyone who registers will get access to the recording. 

Seven Reasons for Rejection

January 13, 2022 § 18 Comments

For editors, rejection is often a gut-level process: they’ve edited this journal for 5, 10, 15 years; they know instinctively if a piece doesn’t fit. For writers, rejection sucks. No matter how much we know that rejection is not feedback, we take it to heart. Question our worth. Wonder if we’ll ever write anything publishable. Rejection’s sting is the price we pay for the occasional, glorious feeling of acceptance—that we can’t predict or control.

But we can control our work. Often, a piece that’s been rejected multiple times has an identifiable problem. Take a look at your orphan essay, book or pitch. One of these issues might apply:

You’re submitting to the wrong outlet. The lowest bar to clear. Editor after editor has told me that half—half!—of what they receive is “wrong.” Not necessarily poorly written, but sent to the wrong place. A sweet personal essay sent to bitterly satirical McSweeney’s. A pitch about wolverine conservation sent to Glamour. Here at Brevity, we receive many submissions over 750 words, some of them thousands of words over. Double-check the guidelines and know the venue.

You’re submitting far above your skill level. Does our writing belong in the publication we admire? It’s hard to judge our own work, so judge theirs. Ideally, you’re already reading that press’s books, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Take a look at your own recent work. Are you actively or instinctively using those same (or similar) tools? This can be a sign you’re reaching for the right level.

The piece starts too early. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter situate the reader clearly in the story? Or is it backstory, set-up, or explanation? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph. For a book, cut the first 50 pages—then figure out what needs to be added back.

The piece ends too late. About half the essays I edit can cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper “button” to feel satisfyingly finished. Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have worked on that element of our craft.

Does your piece end with a summary, explanation, justification or excuse? Summarizing and explaining tell the reader, I’d better spell it out in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.

Instead, use the last line to usher the reader into a larger image, gently enfold them in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. More on endings here.

There’s too much filtering language.

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing filtering puts the reader more in the emotion of the scene. They can feel for us, instead of being told what we felt. Editing out most filtering language will immediately improve your work and increase your chances of acceptance.

Not making the abstract concrete. Often, our work deals with higher-level concepts, and it should! But are you embodying those concepts in concrete situations or action? If you grew up in poverty, are you telling how crappy that felt, how the other kids weren’t kind…or making “poverty” visible?

We bought mac and cheese from the dollar store and made it with water instead of milk.

Read your work. Can you make abstract concepts concrete?

No space for the reader. Explaining, filtering, excess set-up and wrap-up are all the same problem: we’re worried our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense? But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Make the reader a detective. Let them put clues together, notice dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guess a character’s thoughts from their gestures. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—meet them on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

Seeing what’s wrong in our own work is hard. Be methodical in your later drafts. Identify what great writers are doing and try those techniques. Make checklists of specific elements to fix, change, and write better next time. Rejection’s hard, but it’s not forever—and the more we work to anticipate and fix problems in our writing before submission, the more likely we’ll be able to send our words into the world.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tired of rejection? Join her and Creative Nonfiction magazine for What’s Wrong with this Work? Turning Rejections into Publications January 19th (yes there’s a recording). Register here.

The Memoirist’s Dilemma

January 10, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Beth Kephart

If she writes the story the way she wants to write the story—the guttural cry, the injustice exclamation mark—someone will get hurt. Broken, even. Things break.

If she lays out the plot lines in the order of their occurrence—the momentum building, the inevitability rising, the just before and all the moments after—what will she have? The truth, and also the lie. There are multiple plot lines. They tangle.

Better to tell the story as allegory or camouflage, where x never precisely equals y, and the facts collide until there are no facts, and innuendo might be accusation (but if it is, the camo will contain the secret), all of which, come to think of it, is the stuff of auto fiction. Though she’d like to write that the paint was blue and not red, because red is a completely different story, and not to use the proper pronouns will confuse the pronouns, and weather is ultimately both temperature and mood, so she’ll have to keep the weather.

Better, then, to go with comedy—to turn the whole blare of the incident on its waggish head. There’s the chance (give her a few days) that she could find some humor in it. That she could render the day itself a circus then lean on circus metaphors—the big rent-a-tent where the scene went down, the daring trapeze (flyer, catcher), the clown that she imagines she was in the moment between the before and the after, with her tripping slap-slap of shoes, and her arms flapped out (flapping flapping) for the balance that does not come; she is still, now, on the short stone wall flapping her arms searching for balance, and the bone has not yet cracked, she has not yet heard it cracking—but maybe the circus metaphor is overdone, and besides, comedy is a truther’s stretch—inaccurate, bungling, and boggling.

Probably best, then, to go with grace. To write of how, now, she lies on the couch at night while her husband lies in the room above her, a boot the size of an elephant leg encasing the bone that broke and slowly is healing. She lies there, alone, and the night breezes in, the end-of-summer cicadas, the hoof beats of the deer near the hosta they have, stem by stem, been stealing. She lies there listening to the dark, and the ways of the dark, sounds she otherwise would not be hearing. So that this is the new, here, in her world. This is the new, yet still dawning.
___

Beth Kephart is a writer, teacher, and book artist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays and We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class. Her website is bethkephartbooks.com

Same Memoir, Different Planet: An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

November 10, 2021 § 4 Comments

by P.J. Powell and Natalie Lockett

Charlie Jane Anders / Photo by Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People

In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Nebula- and Locus-award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders blends memoir, anecdote, and expert writing advice into a how-to guide for writers on using creativity to get through hard times.

P.J. Powell and Nat Lockett interviewed Anders for the Brevity blog, exploring how memoirists can use a sci-fi master’s writing tools to convey defining moments of their past.

Nat & P.J.: You talk about getting into a character’s head and transporting yourself to another place when you write sci-fi. Could a memoirist think of their past in the same way?

Charlie Jane Anders: Totally. The moment you turn something that really happened into a story, it [moves] beyond an unprocessed series of events that you’re putting on the page as they happened. You massage it. You create a narrative around it. You channel your imagination and try to create a scene and a moment—try to draw people in and push them through a chain of events with a certain logic. Real life never quite has that cohesiveness.

Memoir, personal essay, and creative nonfiction require a lot of the same muscles, strengths, and ideas fiction does. You can still do a lot of the stuff in Never Say You Can’t Survive in terms creating characters, plots, scenes, momentum, and through-lines. Even if you’re writing about real people, you’re still kind of turning them into characters.

Natalie Lockett

N & PJ: What can you do in sci-fi writing that could help someone telling a true story?

Charlie Jane Anders: You can do what we can’t in real life: control the focus and the frame; juxtapose things.

In reality, you can’t cut directly from a person saying something to that person doing the exact opposite. Those things might happen three weeks apart, but in your story – fiction or nonfiction – you can skip that time and cut right to the next important action.

You can also slow down or speed up time. Live in a moment for pages, then go through 100 years in a paragraph. And while you’re writing, even as you’re emotionally inhabiting the characters in the moment, there’s a part of you that can be building in an extra layer of meaning and allowing us to see the bigger picture. You can depict that layer through what the characters notice and see, the narrative itself, or the order in which you present things.

N & PJ: What advice do you have for rendering real people in written recollection?

CJA: Part of how I deal with my past is trying to understand what really happened. If you put yourself in the shoes of other, real people, that can be powerful. It’s hard to do, and there’s nothing wrong with telling your story as you see it. Just know other people might see things differently. Sometimes, oftentimes, I’ll have a version of events in my head that’s like, “Okay, this happened and this happened,” but then I’ll go back and find actual facts or documentary evidence proving my recollection is flawed and it didn’t quite happen the way I think it did.

It’s really liberating and healthy to realize we all fudge the past a little bit. Your perspective is always going to be limited, and you have to accept that and try to get a reality check as much as you can. But at the same time, yeah, it’s your story, it’s your experience. You’re writing about what you feel happened. I’ve written personal essays where I was like, “Okay, I know everybody, we all agreed at the time this is what happened,” and then I’ll write it and people are like, “Oh, is that what happened? I mean, I feel like…” Because time has passed, and our recollections may have diverged.

Memory is weird.

N & PJ: As someone whose stories can take place anywhere from augmented-reality San Francisco to a space society orbiting a living blob, what world-building advice can you give to people writing creative nonfiction?

CJA: The thing people and worlds have in common is they’re meaningless without a history. Real or made-up people don’t exist out of nowhere; they’re a product of all the things that have happened and the choices they’ve made. It’s the same with the settings where your memoir takes place.

In The City in the Middle of the Night humans have been living on this other planet for hundreds of years, and I had to keep going back and thinking of that so the settings and characters would feel real. Everywhere you look, you see the past. We know there were wars between these two human cities because there’s this war memorial. Later, we go to a garbage dump, and there’s random, weird crap from the war effort and back when these two cities used to trade.

P.J. Powell

Real life is like that, too. New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Ida will always look different than New Orleans before. I read an article about Confederate statues standing for over 100 years. People got used to them being there. Why? To understand that you have to understand not just the Civil War, but Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and this mythology of the lost cause people created in the South after the war.

A sense of past makes the world of the story feel lived in; it helps us understand why the characters are the way they are.

N & PJ: Never Say You Can’t Survive is about writing to help us as individuals and as a society through tough times. Why is the concept of “story” so important in fiction, nonfiction, and life?

You can present a million statistics and facts, and it doesn’t make any difference. People are swayed by anecdotes, narratives, and emotion. Not so much information, as by the emotional content of, “Here’s a really compelling story.”

I’ve worked as a journalist and you’re taught that, yeah, you might have a ton of facts showing there’s a problem, but you need a narrative hook. If this problem affects lots of people, [find] a person affected by the problem, make them a character in your article, and show us their journey. Show us how it affects them personally. Nobody is going to care if it’s like, “Oh, a million people had this problem.” Who cares? I can’t encompass that. My brain can’t wrap itself around a million people doing a thing.

But if I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this specific person had this problem and I feel really bad for them” and there’s a picture of them looking really sad, or, “Oh, they did this thing and they’re awesome” and they look really happy, that’s how we process the world, and that’s a huge challenge for anybody who’s trying to get us to grapple with abstract things like climate change, pandemics and other nebulous, hard-to-encompass problems.

Stories are powerful. Stories are what the world is made of. If you can tell a story that’s compelling, whether it’s made-up or real, it could change people’s views of the world. It can rewrite our ideas about reality and that’s powerful and important.

___

P.J. Powell and Natalie “Nat” Lockett co-host Write Away with Nat and PJ, a podcast where they explore writing and books they love by interviewing authors and publishing professionals. (More writing advice and conversation with Charlie Jane Anders will be featured on the November 15, 2021 episode.) P.J. Powell’s short fiction and essays have been published in Evening Street Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Youth Imagination, and other placesNat Lockett is an author and essayist with nonfiction work featured in Herstry and Across the Margin. Her first novel, The Dead King, is currently haunting editor inboxes via her agent Tara Gonzalez of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

To Do or Not To Do: On the Comfort of List Essays

November 5, 2021 § 17 Comments

By Jill Kolongowski

As a nonfiction writer, I’m scared of plot. Perhaps that’s why I’m a nonfiction writer. I’m drawn to writing about the way things are, or thinking about the way things could or might be. It feels like my job is to find a plot in the senseless.

And the past year and a half has felt utterly senseless. Our first daughter was born three months into the first lockdown in Northern California. I wrote some pieces about the weather, but they were fragments, incomplete. I felt like I could not write any beginnings, and I couldn’t write endings either. Especially in the early days with a newborn in a pandemic, time felt unmoored, and completely beside the point.

But what I could do was make lists. With a list, I could put a small bit of sense in the senseless. Do this, then do that. Sometimes, there was no “then,” either. Just a list—one thing, another, ways to shape the day, a container of some form of order, when every moment felt beyond unpredictable. In between feeding the baby every two hours, I made small lists. Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. I sometimes crossed things off, and sometimes crossing things off felt like it took too long, but the list was a concrete object narrative I needed.

My writing started to take the same form. All I made were list essays: “Ways I Was Afraid My Daughter Might Die In the First Two Months of Life.” “Things I’ve Forgotten.” “Cliches for New Mothers.” “Things I’ve Googled at 3 am.” The lists had no beginning, no end. They jumped in wherever my brain was stuck, and followed with me as my worries jumped from one thing to the next. The list essay didn’t demand anything from me, didn’t tell me I was doing anything wrong—all things I needed to feel, as a new mother. The lists were expansive, welcoming, and forgiving. I didn’t need to put things in order. I didn’t need to find sense in the senseless, or have an epiphany. I didn’t need to get anything right. I just needed to get it down.

Of course, the trick is that list essays do have plot. They do have story. Their story lives in the rhythms, in the juxtapositions, in the crescendos. When I wrote the collaborative “161 Things That Scare Me” with my students for Brevity, I collected our fears on notecards, and then spread the fears out on the floor. I looked for patterns. I saw fears of creatures, fears of voids (heights, depths, space), fears of the body, fears of the heart. I saw how often we listed the same thing (fear of a loved one dying. Fear of losing ourselves. Spiders). The plot, as it always does, revealed itself as I wrote—that we have our own fears that are uniquely ours, the result of traumas or circumstances, and we have fears that we all share. The cumulative list was a list of human vulnerability.

The list essay is what I use to get unstuck. When narrative or plot or sense seem impossible, there are still rhythms, juxtapositions, and crescendos worthy of consideration. Make a list of what you did today. Make a list of what your cat did today. Make a list of things that scared you today. Make a list of your internet searches today. Make a list of texts you wrote then deleted. Make a list of the flowers in your neighborhood. Make a list of what you see in your neighbors’ front yards—the dog and the fence that were there, and now are gone. Make a list of things you saw in the gutter, and wonder how they got there. Like Ross Gay, make a list of what delighted you today.

Then, look for patterns. What came first, second, and last? Does that order mean something? What kinds of things do you list? Why do you think you’re drawn to those lists? As Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in Several Short Sentences about Writing:

“…everything you notice is important.
Let me say that a different way:
If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.
But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice.
And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice
In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. |
Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important?
It will have to be you”
(37, emphasis mine).

Make a list of what you did today, and you have a story now. It’s not just a story of the day-to-day minutia that can feel oppressive, but it’s your story, the story of how you’re spending your moments. Story lives in every object, in every list, in Put away laundry. Read one article. Shave armpits. Read one chapter. Thaw chicken. Write a paragraph. That’s a story about me, becoming a new mother and a new person, and learning to put the fragments together into a bigger whole, even though it feels slow. Thaw chicken is a story when a family needs to eat. Write a paragraph is a story of a writer trying her best. Put away laundry on a list for three weeks / forever is a story of how we choose to spend our time, what matters, and what doesn’t.

The list essay taught me that there is always story to be found, even if your lens focus feels microscopic or unimportant. The story is yours. What should you write about? Make a list.
___

Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of a collection of essays called Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017). Other essays are published in BrevityWaxwingSweet: A Literary ConfectionRiver Teeth, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essays have won Sundog Lit’s First Annual Contest series and the Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Creative Nonfiction at Lunch Ticket. She is at work on a new essay collection about anxiety and disaster, and you can find her online at jillkwrites.com.

The Power of Small Journeys

November 3, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

I wasn’t visiting Manhattan to discover the tiny waterfall park on 51st Street, or the set of hidden stairs off Beekman Place leading to the East River.

No, I’d gone there in August for a research fellowship at the New York Public Library.

But stumbling upon the waterfall on my first night in town (and later the hidden staircase), I felt as though I’d never been to New York before, and this discovery was a reward for making the journey. The wall of water appears to spill from an apartment terrace overhead, bestowing the quiet of the woods on a busy corner of Midtown Manhattan.

Other things that sparked my interest during the trip: the art deco GE building on Lexington Avenue whose spires in the form of lightning bolts are aimed at celebrating the power of electricity and the petanque players I observed one day in Bryant Park who appeared to have arrived directly from France that morning. The public library’s main branch on 42nd Street is, of course, exquisite in its own right: the frescoed-ceilings in the main reading room are so ethereal they seem to be not just from another era, but the temporal equivalent of another planet.

Walking from my hotel to the library each day, I marveled over the variety of observations emerging from the same route done different ways. I had to walk eight blocks south and three avenues over, and each time I did so, I’d invent a new route: two blocks down, then one avenue over, now six blocks further south and two avenues over. The next time, I might walk four blocks south, and two avenues over, followed by four more blocks south, and so forth.

And it wasn’t long before I got that feeling, that urge. The urge to record my observations. In other words: The need to write.

Change of scenery, change of energy.

The energy that fuels writing.

I hadn’t visited New York since the first Covid lockdown in 2020, and I felt estranged from the city that, as a native Long Islander, I had had in my backyard growing up.

But I think the feeling that surged through me wasn’t simply a hankering for Gotham. It was more akin to the gift traveling anywhere bestows on everyone, but perhaps especially writers. The jolt that new discoveries afford us. Travel encourages us to pay attention, and to paraphrase Anne Lamott, writing is all about learning how to pay attention.

It reminded me of a trip to Montreal, where I fell under the spell of French simply by seeing a road sign on the highway for “hebergement” (lodging). This was back before Covid, but at a time when traveling farther afield wasn’t possible. So we jumped in the car and drove up from our home in Connecticut. Dusting off my high school French, I was thrilled when I managed to complete a simple transaction in a bakery. We were staying in a residential neighborhood called Rosemount-La Petite Patrie which is full of delightful duplexes with second floor balconies facing the street that overflowed with flowers, bikes and the odd pair of running shoes. On a whim one evening, I took a walk at sunset. As the sky turned purple, I craned my neck to get a better view. On a sliver of park land I glimpsed between duplexes I could see soccer players practicing, while bike commuters ambled by me. And notebook in hand, I began taking an inventory of the neighborhood’s businesses: a grocer, an off-license, a hair salon, a book shop, a toy emporium, a real estate office, the plumber, a driving school (automatique and manuelle) and so on.

Why would I do that? Well, I just felt so alive I needed to note everything I was seeing.

For some people, this swooning would move them to look at real estate brochures, and imagine a new life in the vacation destination.

For us writers, the swooning means one thing: new writing. Which, for us, is a new life. A new lease on life.

Perhaps it’s the discovery of something that seems hidden. A similar sensation occurred one morning when I dropped off my son at school in our suburban Connecticut town. Along the route is a glorious waterfall that’s largely hidden from the road. I turned on the first road after the waterfall only to discover not a creek feeding the falls as I had expected but a small pond surrounded by stately homes and long, manicured lawns dotted with canoes. A tiny neighborhood nestled in a de facto nature preserve I knew nothing about in my own town. By the pond was a bench next to a Little Library so I sat down and got to work.

If I said going to Paris — or Tokyo or Rio — will awake the writing muse within you, it wouldn’t sound like a major discovery. It also wouldn’t be of much use to writers who for a variety of reasons can’t jet off to these far-flung places.

Instead, what I’ve found is small journeys are often enough to get me writing again or writing in a new way.

Ideally on the journey I discover a waterfall park in Midtown Manhattan, or trot out my rusty French to order a croissant in Montreal “comme ça.” But even simply making a detour after school dropoff and finding a new writing nook at the edge of a pond will do. And it’s a relief knowing a short trip – one that’s within practically anyone’s reach – will provide a jolt. The jolt we writers so desperately need – the one that gets us writing.
__

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.

Rendering Truth Faster

October 27, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Melissa Uchiyama

Revelation while using an undersized lid: It was during an intensive, two-day Japanese cooking course taught by a chef and food writing legend, Elizabeth Andoh. Among the miso, dishes, and knives, one item was a drop-down lid called an otoshibuta (otōshee-bootah)

Instead of the Western lid made to fit exactly on the rim of a pot or pan, cooks here employ wooden, ill-fitting lids that lightly sit atop. The diameter is smaller; a 20 cm pot may take an 18 cm lid. Any detritus or foam to be skimmed from vegetables or fat from other ingredients can be skimmed while the otoshibuta sits on the ingredients. Underneath it, there is no air the way a western lid works, perched on the outer rim of the pot. With this drop lid, there is no space, so very little condensation or steam can dilute the flavor. The wood simply is there, pressed with surface tension.

After my workshop, I purchased my own otoshibuta and tried it a few times; what I most wanted, though, was to use the principle in my writing. I started reading shorter pieces to see authors model this principle. I knew the drop lid flavored with urgency instead of diluting words.

Not only is cooking time lessened and flavor deepened with the lid; the ill-fitting lids are made to separate and catch the foam, or aku, that emerges when boiling or simmering veggies or foods that contain bitterness and/or impurities. Drafts are needed; what comes out in the process of these events, characters, feelings expressed, are necessary. What goes in and what simmers away over heat is not what will stay. Some of it simply dissipates. Some pain leaves, but there is still the flavor, the molecules of disaster and relief. We skim off what is unnecessary or too bitter. The meat of the peace, the heart of it, should remain. If cooked with seasoning and skill, a meal will satisfy the writer, and later, the reader.

It is the skimming and the pressure, combined, that can gift my pot and pieces with a gentler, more efficient way to reach my goal. Pressing and skimming. Essence stays, bitter aku goes.

Brief essays encapsulate the art of no wasted movement. Less water and little oil is needed — flavors intensify under the immediacy of a lid that concentrates what is simply there

Kate Hopper, author and mentor, says, “Giving yourself a goal of cutting a certain number of words can help distill a piece.” What about starting out with this? I decide to exchange my free-flow style for a position that moves deftly, with limited words.

I want fillers gone. If my story can cook down without dilution, I’m in. I challenge my writing student and myself to describe an event in 250 words or less. We do. She writes a lyrical, urgent offering of a girl digging for a pebble to throw into the sky for her mother just before the sun goes down. I dive into my creative non-fiction with a similar, more mindful urgency than I typically have, immediately honing in on a frantic moment of discovery: a dead swallow caught in my jasmine, now dead. Remembering is quicker now.  

This goal works especially well at the start when the writer is empowered with a burst of energy and with ingredients that are still sharp and acidic with memory. I know my form and plan where to land.

“I think writers often write a lot in order to find their way to the true story,” Kate says. She reminds me of a long-form essay we worked on. It can take writing the whole gamut of our thoughts and events as we re-explore events to arrive at the mound of hope: somewhere, in all of this descriptive sludge of vocabulary and memory, our story is there. It’s just deeply hidden, bobbing between the carrots and potatoes, weaving its way through the pot as it boils. At the right time, the words and bits that are no longer needed will be scooped out in the aku. The editor in us will know what needs to remain and what can go.

“Asking the questions”, says Kate, “What is the true story here? What is the heart of this piece?” can help a writer compress. One you’ve figured out what that heart is, the extra stuff can go. You can look at it with new eyes and decide what serves the story and what doesn’t.”

I see what skims off and what remains. I continue to use it with my student, asking, “What is at the heart of the story? I generally have to slice off whole, flowery portions. This is big; I’ve been the queen of flowers writing who has yelled aloud at myself, “What are you trying to say?”

In the Japanese kitchen, nothing is wasted, including energy. With a wooden otoshibuta, the cook easily scoops or scrapes this detritus from the rim around the gap. It is the drop-down pressure, or limited word count, that helps the cook remove any detraction from a piece. Editing is easier.

My teacher’s otoshibuta drawer holds lids of various diameters and intentions, some in young pine and some two generations old. Maybe for us, too, there is the right way to draw out our most rigorous poem, or the right surface tension and urgency for our creative nonfiction.

We can enact this tension as we:

  • Launch into 500-word essays instead of a usual 2,000. Challenge word length.
  • Sail or cut right into the heart of the piece, the place of wound, the place of discovery.
  • Whittle it down to the place of injury and fear it revealed.
  • Use urgency to get to the place where healing or whatever you’re after, can occur.

I begin a new piece, aiming directly for the action. A writerly mis en place is beginning with the right lid.

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Melissa Uchiyama writes essays about food, culture, and immigration. She leads creative writing camps for young writers in Japan, where she resides. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, LA Review of Books, The Japan Times, The Kyoto Journal, Taste, The Epoch Times, and anthologies, Knocked Up Abroad Again and Mothering Through the Darkness. Connect with Melissa on https://www.eatenjapan.com/about or on Twitter, @melibelletokyo.

Drawing Inspiration from Micronature

October 25, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino

Nature: There’s inspiration for you. Everyone says so.

But what part of nature? The natural world writ large is too immense to tell me a story. White puffy clouds are too changeable, their reversion to gray disappointing. Tall firs are aloof, reliant on intimidation. I cannot be inspired by the fragile bowl of the sky; I cannot be inspired by something too mysteriously beautiful to understand. If I don’t understand it, how can I write it? I lose myself instead of finding myself. To be sure, losing one’s self is valuable sometimes, but for me, it rarely holds literary sway.

I consider instead the specificity of a dead fawn’s matchstick legs tangled on the roadside; of a turkey’s clucks and gobbles, tiny-brained invader of my driveway. I finger two greedy curls of wild grape vines, capturing nearby phlox an inch at a time. I go for the micro, not the macro. The variant, not the vista. I’m a sucker for wabi sabi, the beauty in nature’s imperfections, the smaller the flaw-containing object, the better.

When I’m walking the dirt road along the nature conservancy near my house in preparation for writing, I usually walk the same way, to the same place. I absorb the particularity of small changes along the route, substituting the question “What’s different?” for “What’s glorious?” I am as always amazed by nature’s editing process, the random-seeming aggregation of her sloppy mistakes with her happy accidents and her delicate precision.

Still, the question: Does nature inspire my writing? I know that nature does a poor job of inspiring me to write about nature. I once wrote about a rafter of turkeys; that piece garnered 21 rejections before it went back in the drawer. Micronature, on the other hand, does a great job of inspiring me to consider the hallowed value of detail.

Detail is the beat. Detail tells the story. Detail is more than what something or someone looks like.

Sound is a detail. The maddening insistence of a loon on the river channel inspires me to include the low, anguished cry of a widow in my description of her mourning, and to compare it to a loon.

Texture is a detail. A grouping of overgrown perennial grasses next to a neighbor’s house reminds me to describe the feeling of smooth legs brushing against the sharp edges of tall grasses.

Color is a detail. The beaten-in side of a small boat on the river helps me envision the precise color of red lipstick a clerk wore in Dollar General, the rust and creases in the metal reminding me that her mouth had a battered quality I need to describe.

Movement is a detail. The red-winged blackbirds that attack my feeder in late Spring have a single-minded way of dive-bombing from a tall hemlock to the feeder’s platform. I summon their urgency to describe someone rushing to the scene of an accident.

Smell is a detail. I have examples from the natural world, but the best example is from the world of spirits. It occurred while I was writing a memoirish essay about my mother. I happened to crack open a bottle of bourbon one night to accompany my efforts. Writing that evening about a formative time in my adolescence, I described my mother as smelling of bourbon and sleep, and knew it was right.

Whether these examples work for you or leave you cold, I urge you to consider how small details, even imperfections, in the natural world can be a fruitful place to begin your musings. Look down, not up. Holding something from your backyard in your hand may remind you how often small things lead us to bigger things. Micronature may cause you to register wonder at a manageable scale, jump-starting imagination and metaphorical thinking. And it may be that the small imperfections in nature assist us as we characterize the human imperfections that make our work true and convincing.
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Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.

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