The Observer Effect

August 18, 2017 § 3 Comments

080317 mug shotBy Shelley Blanton-Stroud

I watch and record unobtrusively from a hard leather chair just behind them, invisible in my middle age, which I believe I have turned into an advantage.

They look like they’re thirty, like college acquaintances, graduated maybe in 2008, into the great recession, re-gathering at this brick Denver hotel for a wedding weekend, I guess, making up for lost time, re-introducing themselves. I’ve done okay. All of us have. Haven’t we?

I focus on one pair, seated awkwardly close on a low, cow-hide sofa. One is bunch-muscled, compact, thickly side-parted. I write that he is wearing a speckled ivory, v-necked sweater over a white tee and dark blue jeans, with heavy black glasses, and that he’s nodding earnestly.

I write that the man at his side is lanky, his knees jutting up higher than his belt on that sofa built more for looking at than sitting on. I record his roguish brown hair and manicured beard, his round wireless glasses, his blue, slightly western-cut, though not exactly western, shirt, buttoned to the throat. His jeans are snug—could they be tailored, I ask my notebook.  A messenger bag of waxed canvas and leather sits on the floor near his artfully distressed boots. I hear the man in the v-neck say, You’re married? Congrats, man.

It gets noisy so I miss a few sentences and when I hear their voices again, they’re talking about an idea. Not people. Not an event. I’ve missed the beginning; I have no context. They say concept and arbitrary and economic and presumption and aversion. The clusters of people they know from college (are they friends, exactly?) use similar words, wearing clothes that are not the same as theirs but which might be sold on the same block as the store where Western Shirt shops, expensive stores, but casual, emphasizing conspicuously humble fabrics.

Then two women exit the elevator and cross the lobby with lowball glasses, icy brown, cherries at bottom, stopping in front of the others, saying outfit, boots, drunk. This stops the other conversations for a couple of minutes until a subgroup cracks open to fold in the fresh arrivals, and they too slowly begin using the right abstract words and begin to look uncomfortable in their not-quite-right-for-the-occasion clothes, one in a shiny backless black jumpsuit and the other in a slick skirt half an inch shorter than her Spanx control slip.

I take notes in a pink moleskin, Uniball blue marring creamy pages. I feel free, every now and then, to look up at one or another of them and then to continue recording. They don’t see me. As I said, I’m invisible. It’s my superpower.

I’m dressed for the evening in cat-burglar black. I got ready early, an hour before I was to meet my colleagues, in order to capture this time, after the work of the conference, before the work of evening networking. This is my golden hour, notebook time.

I am in the habit of using my notebook to hide in over-stimulating environments, not unlike the way I disappear into my kitchen during a party to enjoy the noise, the music, the buzz going on outside, while I’m safely cocooned, refilling a water pitcher, rinsing glasses, drinking my Pinot alone. The spot at the edge of at story is comfortable, fulfilling.

I tell myself I get out my notebook at times like this—in a hotel lobby in the break between activities at a professional conference—to stay fluent, to feed the flow. Also, I say to myself, I’m sharpening my observations, recording the words and movements of people I see in public to make sure I know how people really behave. I tell myself that.

I finish a sentence and look up to see Western Shirt staring at the notebook in my lap. I look down again and keep writing as the skin on my neck flushes, my fingers tingle. How rude, his staring.

Two minutes later, his voice rises and his words become even more abstract—privilege, dysmorphic, consciousness—his language creating a kind of contagion. The clusters of others advance the abstractness of the words they use now too—epistemological, Aristotelian, feudalistic.

Now this is boring. It’s almost time for dinner. I sigh and lay my pen down and look up to see Western Shirt register my frown.  I look down and write that.

Then I hear him say in a much louder voice, I used to be so into you, which causes the others to hush. I stop recording to watch.

Jump-suit’s mouth drops open—Bullshit!

The group laughs, eyes shifting left to right.

V-neck sweater says, But you guys hooked up? Sophomore year? Right? 

Only the once, Western Shirt says.

Tittering from the group. 

Well there’s always the reception, Jumpsuit says, pink-cheeked, head tilted.

The group laughs, relieved. This is a joke. They reshape into new tiny formulations, invigorated for more concrete talk—who did what, when, with whom.

I’m still watching when Western Shirt turns away from them, toward me. He salutes, two fingers flicking out from his forehead, head nodding in a tiny dip.

I drop my pen.

The observer effect—I learned it in college for a test, quantum mechanics. Observing a situation changes it. Instruments of observation always alter the state of what they measure. If you check the pressure of your car tires, you can’t help letting out some of the air. You change the pressure of the tires whose pressure you aim to check.

Tonight the object of my observation has seen my pen, my notebook, and has chosen to perform for me, improving on reality for the benefit of my notes. What will happen to him this weekend because of that? What will happen to his wife at home?

I am not invisible. I have no superpower.

I do not see the world as it is. My recording it changes it. My Uniball turns everything blue. I do not record reality. I create it.
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Shelley Blanton-Stroud teaches college composition at California State University, Sacramento, coaches workplace writing, and labors over an infinite revision of her first novel and the first draft of a second. Her essay, “The Bourbon Cure,” appeared last year in the Brevity Blog. Other work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Eunoia Review, Mamalode and Soundings Review. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Northern California, where she serves on the writers’ advisory board for the Belize Writers’ Conference and on the Slow Food Sacramento board of directors.

The Worst Book Openings Ever

August 8, 2017 § 5 Comments

kale-nutrition-facts“Here I was, flat broke, standing outside a sketchy hipster bar in Brooklyn, and a bearded young man in skinny jeans and a lumberjack’s red plaid shirt was pointing a gun at my head demanding my Uber password. ‘Move a muscle and I’ll make a kale salad out of your brains,’ he snarled.”

Brevity founding editor Dinty W. Moore offers the brilliant literary gem above along with five other horrible book openings this week over on Psychology Today blog.

See if you can tell which ones are made up and which one was penned by none other than Thomas Wolfe.

 

A Brief Guide to Essays

August 1, 2017 § 24 Comments

We’re ready for our prose poem!

The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”

Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!

It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:

Lyric

They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.

***

Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.

***

Not this one.

 

Prose Poem

Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.

 

Collage

Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.

***

I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?

***

In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.

***

The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”

***

In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.

***

The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.

 

Braided Essay

You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.

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Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.

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As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.

The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.

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Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.

***

Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.

***

Some nice braided essays:

The Search for Marvin Gardens by John McPhee

Buzzards by Lee Zacharias

***

Seriously. The strands have to repeat.

 

Hermit Crab

It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.

1) Choose an existing form, such as guidebook, grocery list, rejection letter or recipe.

2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.

3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.

4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.

5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.

6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

 

Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 12 Comments

Your problem’s in the third paragraph. And let’s tighten that closing while you’re here.

Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.

I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.

When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.

Where the heck do I start the next draft?

One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.

Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:

1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.

Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.

8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.

This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”

I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.

By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.

13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.

In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:

She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.

It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.

And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:

21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost

It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.

Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

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 § 7 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.

*

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.

*

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

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