How to Write an Essay

February 20, 2019 § 20 Comments

ShuberHeadshotBy Sonya Huber

  1. That thing that makes your guts turn queasy, the thing you did, the thing you saw… you know what I mean. The thing that swims in front of your eyes before you’re even awake, the face of the haunter, the hurricane. Scream at it with the alphabet until it becomes a piece of toast or at least a grave, anything with edges. Make a list of all the people with that same piece of toast and feel less alone.
  2. Procrastinate on a major serious to-do until the procrastination gets a pedigree and health insurance, turns from Pinocchio into a real boy. Take your bullshit seriously, unless you’re one of those people who was born doing that. In that case, take your bullshit out back and shoot it in the head.
  3. Smell smoke—or some weird almost-smell, cardamom mixed with musty stairwell, and put off picking up your kid from daycare in order to find that smell. Catch it and nail it to a piece of plywood and then describe your failure and how glad you are that you failed.
  4. Stop capitalism for a moment by being kind to yourself and to others. See a human in the turn of a hand, the flick of a gesture. Then try to sell that little portrait on the sidewalk. Have a fight with the person you painted who thinks you made them look mean.
  5. Get really good at bonding with strangers as your honesty with friends and family atrophies into a voracious gnarled beast who breathes the smoke of dirty laundry and wants only more and more material.
  6. Write an essay to make people fall in love with your brilliance but then have the essay turn out to be about your endless need for praise and your intellectual insecurity.
  7. Pick a fight with a dead person. Lose.
  8. Pick a fight with a leader of the un-free world and destroy.
  9. Become skilled at writing 3000-word personal ads in which you portray yourself as a supremely sensitive and reflective person able to see nuance and subtle conflict in the smallest scene. In real life, become even more of a conflict-avoidant mess of anxieties.
  10. Love bricks. Love people. Love the decapitated wooden head of a decoy duck. Let language welcome you home when home has been a hard idea. Let words locate the people who are home to you.
  11. Freak out about endings and the even number “10” and resist the urge to end cute, end with a bow, blow up the ending. Wreck it good with a side (chopped, smothered) of restraining order. End on a noun, end on the nametag from Waffle House.
  12. Throw in some asterisks and numbered lists and a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (the cocaine of essayists) and then roll this all up into a bottle, pour gasoline in it, and light it on fire … but only on the page because, come on, the most dangerous thing you’ve done besides grab a microphone is press command-P.
  13. Be soft. Be shattered.
    Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program. She swears this is not reflective of in-depth, wonderful, and non-surreal curriculum in the Fairfield MFA.


The Second Hand Unwinds

February 19, 2019 § 34 Comments

Finishing a writing project is awesome. Hitting that last page, fingers speeding toward the end of what happened, now that you finally know.

Finishing takes forever. Thus far, I’ve published one short writing-life book with a hard deadline from a small press. From idea to publication took three years. I’ve written two more books of greater weight (for me), a memoir and a Young Adult novel. Each took ten years. Sure, they overlapped, I wasn’t writing continuously the entire time, I published other short pieces throughout, but from generating pre-first-draft material to querying agents was ten years.

The memoir agented but never sold. Recently, a friend urged me to revise and send it out again. She texted:

At this particular point in cultural and political history, a searing memoir…might be particularly welcome? Maybe the time is riper now…

While I appreciated the encouragement, that book is over. Years ago I would have been glad to publish. Now it’s not a life I want to present to the world. I’m not that person any more, and now-me looks at that manuscript—at ten years’ work—and says “meh.” It’s just not that good. The level of better I could make it isn’t worth the time it would take.

The YA novel is on a break from submission. Two months ago, I was devastated by a rejection from an agent who’d been very excited to read the full manuscript. She told me more or less, “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.”

It took a week to become un-devastated. A couple weeks to actually receive the feedback and truly consider her words. I mean, hadn’t five beta-readers, all excellent writers themselves, loved it? What about the high-school student readers who agreed to come early to talk about the book and were already deep in discussion when I arrived at 6:50AM? Meanwhile another agent rejected the full: “It slows down in the middle.”

I printed one copy through Createspace having fun mocking up a placeholder cover, thinking if I read it like a real book maybe I’d notice what was wrong. I carried the book through three states and four countries without opening it.

Then a writer contacted me about editing her YA novel. I looked at the first 25 pages and emailed her, “You write very well, but the story hasn’t started yet.”

A bolt of lightning hit me. I dragged out my own book and flipped through.

Chapter One: Girl with gun ready to shoot

Chapter Two: Flashback…to a nap…in a library.

Chapter Three: a scene in which the girl recaps everything we already know to another character.

Well, fuck.

My readers were wrapped up in clever voice and interesting premise. They hadn’t noticed what a merciless stranger found: Nothing happens in the middle.

You can be an incredible writer and still lack dramatic structure. You can be a sharp structuralist and lack voice. You can make characters live and breathe on the page, then find them staring at each other over a kitchen table while the agent flips ahead to see if it gets good anytime soon. And you won’t know any of these things about your work until after you have invested as much time as it takes you to write a book, plus some more.

I’ve done the Seven Drafts process and quite a few more than seven drafts. I’ve had beta readers and entered chapters in contests. I’ve taken pages to a workshop and paid for query feedback. Theoretically, I’ve done everything right and I’m still not done. ‘Not done’ interferes with my sense of entitlement. I ticked all the boxes! Why aren’t I finished? It’s frustrating and annoying and makes it hard to want to work on the book. But now that I know it’s not as good as I can make it, now that I understand the problem, I need to work some more.

The biggest separation between writers who publish and those who don’t is that writers who publish keep working after they feel entitled to be done. They write yet another draft. They painstakingly revise thousands of words that end up cut. They let time pass.

The more involved we are in a particular project, the more meaningful it is to our writer-self, the longer we spent writing, the more time it takes to let serious feedback sink in.

We all feel the clock ticking, watching emerging writers spring forth apparently fully-formed. We all want to be done, to share our book with the world. It’s not just you. We all need a little more time.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.

The Comedian Carrying an Umbrella: Teaching E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”

February 15, 2019 § 6 Comments

watkinson_headshotBy Geoff Watkinson

First published in 1941, E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” traces White’s middle-aged pilgrimage back to the lake in Maine where he spent the Augusts of his childhood. It was the first essay I ever taught, at 23-years-old, as a teaching fellow during grad school.

White’s language is conversational and grounded; the plot of returning to a significant childhood location is universal; and the theme of accepting mortality is The Big One, worthy of a lot of discussion. I felt comfortable teaching it.

The opening paragraph expresses the nostalgia for such a significant childhood place:

“I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”

The lyricism builds a bridge for me to connect with my students. I tell them about the cabin at Fairview Lake in northern New Jersey that my grandparents owned when I was small and my memories of bear tracks in the snow and snakes in the trees and the dozens of sunfish my brother and I caught.

I ask my students to write about their magical place before continuing our discussion—their “holy spot” or “cathedral,” as White calls it. We consider sensory details, using White’s essay as the foundation—“how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”

White’s approachability makes it easy for a first-semester college student to get through the essay. The difficulty comes from the larger symbolism and metaphors: the essay is a definitive example of peeling back the onion to reveal more and more meaning. It becomes challenging, for example, to try to make sense of White’s dizzying sense of “living a dual existence,” as he writes “I began to sustain the illusion that he [his son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there.” When the dragonfly first appears, White becomes convinced “…beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.” The passage of time feels like an illusion.

The lake was a “constant and trustworthy body of water.” As the essay progresses, White is both haunted and comforted by this notion, struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. The baton has been passed from one generation to the next as White recognizes that he has taken over his own father’s role while his son has taken his childhood position.  Through metaphor, White acknowledges his relative insignificance in this circle of life, as depicted by the school of minnows, “each minnow with its small, individual shadow…”

There is the metaphor, too, of the reducing number of paths from the lake. When White was a child, there were three paths; that number has been reduced to two, representative of the thinning possibilities of his own life: “For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative.” White places the changes in greater context, focusing out from his individual experience to a lyrical recognition of “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible…”

As the end of our first class, we are left trying to make sense of the thunderstorm that emerges over the lake: “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect.” The children scream with delight after bathing in the rain and there is “…the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.” The entire class has been building towards this moment.

Who is the comedian? Is it God?

White writes, “Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched [my son], his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he bulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”

Why does White feel “the chill of death” and how do we make sense of this?

Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University, and he is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review ( Read more of his work at, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.

Using Your Storytelling Skills to Make an Impact

February 4, 2019 § 11 Comments

raecoffeeBy Rae Pagliarulo

In my job as a Nonprofit Development Director (a professional fundraiser, for those not intimate with the lingo), I write all the time. Grant proposals, grant reports, direct mail appeals, email appeals, newsletters — the list goes on. (And on.)

I have done this work for years, but it was never as interesting as while I was making my way through my 3-year MFA program. In class, whether poetry or nonfiction, I heard the same thing over and over: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t summarize the fight you had with your friend – put your reader in the room, let them feel your heart pounding in your chest, let them sit uncomfortably in the silence that stretches on after a cutting insult. It’s something writing students learn and relearn, find loopholes around, get schooled on.

What I didn’t realize, as I shuttled back and forth from campus to my office, was that this advice would prove useful to me whether I was sitting in workshop or sitting at my desk, eating stale bagels leftover from the morning staff meeting.

When I tell the story of my nonprofit’s impact, I have to do it in a small amount of space. Some grant making organizations (whom I affectionately call “the funders”) only give me 500 characters (INCLUDING spaces, which is just cruel) to explain something complicated and nuanced like, oh, I don’t know – the impact that our organization’s work has on our students’ lives.

As anyone who’s ever published in Brevity or River Teeth‘s Beautiful Things, or who’s had a particularly passionate point to make on Twitter can tell you — 500 characters, including spaces, goes by in a flash. (Literally.)

I find myself pressured to squeeze as much relevant info into an unfairly short container — We did this program and made this change and initiated this partnership, and oh, wait wait! We also did surveys and a demographic analysis and finished next year’s budg–

What I realize, time and again, as I write these reports and requests, is that sometimes a single story — a moment of showing — can do a better job at communicating impact than all the telling I can muster.

Take the one document anyone can recognize — the end-of-year fundraising appeal. If you’ve ever given a cent to a nonprofit, chances are you receive dozens of post-Thanksgiving letters imploring you to give NOW, to give TODAY, to give IMMEDIATELY, before the year is over. Every nonprofit is jockeying for your attention (and your dollars), so each one has to try and stand out from the crowd.

Often, in documents like these, I’m forced to make difficult cuts. The limited space makes me re-prioritize over and over again. When I’m telling this story, what is really important?

Could I write a letter detailing the numerous successful programs we implemented this year? The establishment of our core values? The fundraising totals from our spring gala? The high-level partnerships we initiated with other organizations? Sure. That’s all true. And it’s all important — to someone.

But I could also tell you the story of one third grade student who started the year off as a shy, reserved student, someone who wouldn’t dream of raising their hand — and ended the year as a group leader who couldn’t wait to share their opinions with the class.

When that document is out of my hands, and it’s just about my reader’s perception of it, that one person who’s deciding which organization to mail their $50 check to this Christmas, what is really important? To them?

A lot of it (okay, all of it) has to do with audience, of course. Some funders just want their heartstrings tugged, while others want hard data and little else. Some individual donors, like that person deciding where to send their check, fall along similar lines.

But here again — I remember those late nights spent in workshop, talking about our invisible audiences, the hordes of people who would someday read our novels and essays. Who were they? What was important to them? What was absolutely essential for them to know about us, and our lives, and our impact? How could we get everything across to them that we wanted to? How could we be sure that what’s important to us is also important to them?

In the professional world, I have the advantage of knowing exactly what my audience wants from me. In fact, my success as a Development Director hinges on my ability to read guidelines and questions so carefully and closely that I end up understanding the funder’s priorities better than they themselves do.

But this practice — the truffle-hunt of essential information — will help me no matter what I’m writing. Personally, I can’t wait to use my research skills to summarize comps for my literary agent, once we’re ready to shop my collection of essays around. (Seriously — cannot WAIT.)

The point is this — it’s easy to dismiss an MFA as a degree that’s only tactically useful if you’re teaching comp or creative writing, or if you’ve somehow finagled yourself a career as a working writer. Some days, I feel conflicted about the fact that I have to qualify my three-part answer to the question, “What do you do?” Because my business card doesn’t say “Writer.” Even though it’s part of my job, it’s far from the only one.

What I can rest easy with is the knowledge that every day, I use my degree and my creative writing skills in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And for my money, I couldn’t ask for a better story of impact.

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

Writing From Immediacy

January 31, 2019 § 2 Comments

I often tell people in the throes of a break-up, “Every relationship we’re in teaches us a little more about who to be in the relationship we’re meant to be in later.” It’s a little convoluted, but it comforts me to believe that, to think that the awful things my first husband and I did to each other helped us learn how to be honest and kind to our current spouses. But it’s hard to look ahead from within the moment of trauma, to try to process or analyze what’s happening to us in a larger sense.

Writing memoir often requires distance. Many writers have both given and received the advice, “Take some time, allow yourself to step back. Don’t write from the heat of the moment.” It’s usually very good advice. We are far more able to present our actions, and the actions of others, without judgement, allowing the reader to decide whose side they want to be on, with some time away from the events themselves.

Dani Shapiro has both given and believed this advice. But her writing process for her recent memoir, Inheritance, countered the received wisdom. In an interview at The Millions, she says:

In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

At first, this process didn’t seem to work for a memoir. She’d taken two months away from the manuscript, and when she came back to it:

I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

What helped Shapiro was considering Joan Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking.

In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story.

Shapiro’s work ended up mirroring that process, finding a way to tell what happened to her with a sense of immediacy, but without herself (as writer or as narrator) actually living within that moment of trauma as she wrote.

As memoirists, the ability to summon up the immediacy of our trauma without being sucked into it as we write is valuable. It’s difficult to walk that edge of telling what happened vividly enough for the reader to be in the moment of happening, while maintaining enough remove to use our writing craft and sense of structure, but that edge is what divides memoir from therapy, what makes a story powerful and life-changing for the reader as well as the writer.

Shapiro’s discussion of her process is illuminating; read the whole interview here.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her on Instagram @guerillamemoir.

Chasing Our Elusive Voice

January 18, 2019 § 1 Comment

SusanRowePhotoIn Brevity’s January 2019 issue, Susan Bruns Rowe explores the difficulties of defining and refining our written voice:

Once, in a writing workshop, the instructor asked us to give our definitions of voice. Tone, style, and point of view were some of the answers offered. “Yes, it’s all of those things,” she said. “Is it innate or acquired?” Both, the class agreed. Again the instructor nodded, suggesting that if we write with our innate voice we can refine it and make it distinctly ours. I didn’t find this particularly helpful. What is one’s innate voice? And if that voice is b-o-r-i-n-g (as I suspected mine was) how does one make it less so?

Read the full essay here, and perhaps the entire January issue as well.

The Diptych as Short-Form Memoir

January 15, 2019 § 1 Comment

nicole-breit-photo-200x300In Brevity‘s January issue, Nicole Breit explores the power of the diptych in structuring essays, and offers two writing prompts to get you started:

There’s something surprisingly potent about the number two when it comes to story. Perhaps it’s that we don’t expect it, so accustomed are we to three: beginning, middle, end. As Philip Graham observes, two in a story invites us to explore “not so much beginnings and endings as points of entry and points of departure.”

As we observe the diptych in art, our minds grasp for the link, search to discover a connection. Compare, contrast.

Read her brilliant craft essay here, and, afterwards, please wander a while and enjoy our entire January 2019 issue.

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