October 10, 2017 § 30 Comments
I’m all about brevity, and not just for Brevity. I’m ruthless with my editing clients’ work. In the big picture, asking if a scene is needed or a subplot is serving the story as a whole. Line by line, chopping words and phrases:
in a car
That night I
fell asleep in my bed anddreamed
got out of his car, walked across the lot, and through the front door of the apartment building, where hepressed the elevatorbutton for the tenth floor.
Not all editors have this near-ridiculous focus on using the fewest possible words to tell the story. And I have to be careful to curb this instinct when working with a writer whose natural style is wordier, or who’s writing in a more-descriptive cultural tradition. But usually, cutting every possible extraneous word benefits an essay or a book. Sharpens the focus. Keeps the reader on what matters instead of losing them in a thicket of less-important language.
The subject of vigorous trimming came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching. I advised a group of memoirists to print their current draft, edit it on paper as much as possible, including scissoring pages apart and moving scenes or paragraphs if needed. Then retype the entire draft into a new document, “Not cutting and pasting, and not adding the edits into the previous document. Retyping.”
I hadn’t realized this was, shall we say, unusual until I caught the looks of horror. Retype an entire manuscript? Every word? When there’s a perfectly good Save As New File option?
But retyping lights up a new part of the brain. Reading words on a paper page and copying them is different than agonizing in one’s head and putting the results on screen. Physically snipping a manuscript into scenes points out repetition in a way that encountering the same scenes while scrolling doesn’t. Retype the entire thing and you’ll know what words to leave out because you won’t want to type them. If you feel resistance at the keyboard to a paragraph or a moment, ask if the book really needs it. Retyping instead of copy-pasting also re-immerses the writer in the flow of the story–sometimes new memories or scenes show up as you go. And it doesn’t take nearly as long as writing the story the first time. For me, the wordcount-per-hour is about four times faster, and a solid two hours of retyping feels like an honest day’s work.
A student asked, “When did you start doing that?”
At first, I didn’t understand the question. Wasn’t vicious trimming part of everyone’s process? (Nope.) I thought back to seventh grade. When I first started
exploring the themes of being misunderstood by parents and peers and the loneliness of the true artist writing terrible middle-school poetry. My grandmother gave me a pretty hardback journal, dark blue with a unicorn–of course it was a unicorn!–stamped in silver. I didn’t want to waste a page. Only final drafts belonged in this book, because only finished pieces deserved a hard cover, thought tween-me. Every poem was first written on looseleaf paper, kept in a manila folder in my Trapper Keeper, because manila felt more grown-up than snapping them into the three-ring section. Every poem was rewritten five, six, ten times, each time removing any word that could be left out. I don’t know why I thought stripping away the excess made better poems, but I was sure it did.
Seventh-grade me was right. Strip away the excess to reveal the heart of the work. Yes, there are voices and styles that require more words–make sure that’s the strongest choice, and even then ask of every word, do you belong here? Are you doing a job no other word can do? Are you earning your place in this line?
Physically rewriting is just enough effort to truly question every line. To find the brevity in your natural voice. When you’re ready, print your draft. Mark it up. Cut it apart. And then retype–your fingers will tell you what belongs.
October 9, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Amanda Avutu
I was 21 and the worst kind of poet. By which I mean, I wore black dresses and had silver cat eye glasses. So, when a poet came to speak to my undergraduate poetry class about her novel, you can well imagine the twist my black knit stockings were in.
“How do you move back and forth between poetry and fiction??” I inquired during the Q & A session. It was not so much a question as an indictment.
Baseball players don’t play football! Ballerinas don’t dance tap! Hip Hop artists don’t sing Country! Poets don’t write fiction! So went my absolutist 20-something Poet logic.
Poets made each word justify not only its existence, but its placement, musicality, and visual appeal.
Poets were Allison from my fifth-grade class, nibbling tiny bites out of a bologna and cheese sandwich.
Other writers were competitive eaters, swallowing bologna and cheese sandwiches whole, not caring about the white bread stuck to the roofs of their mouths.
After the seminar, the visiting writer graciously signed copies of her book. In mine, she thoughtfully inscribed, “To Amanda, Wishing you luck navigating seamlessly between fiction and poetry.” I remember thinking—rather uncharitably— that I would never need her “luck,” because the only thing I wrote and the only thing I would write was poetry.
I’m 40, and while I still wear black dresses and glasses, I no longer consider myself a Poet or even a poet. I’ve written plays and short stories, novels and essays. I’ve also had brief—dark moments—where I was completely wordless. My god, those were terrifying. Generally, though I’ve become, quite simply, omnivorous where words are concerned. I consume them and produce them with vigor, regardless of their classification. What I’ve learned is that each form allows me to explore, and to expose, different pieces of myself. When I was writing poetry, my truth bobbed just below the surface of abstractions; bits of cereal swimming in the plausible deniability of milk. In my fiction, I anchored my tiny truth and then launched my readers and myself into an alternate reality. These days, I primarily write narrative nonfiction and I tell my truth as my truth. Nothing, however opaque, protects me from my reader’s gaping maw. And as much as my younger self might scoff at the idea, I’ve learned that my truth is my truth is my truth, which becomes my art, regardless of how I tell it.
There was a sense, over these last two decades, of betrayal. My husband fell in love with the poet, my degree proclaimed my proficiencies as poetry centric, since junior high—when I began writing awful rhyming verse—poetry was my identity. Now, though, I realize my poet self is there, making sure there is room for catharsis and that there is the strength to be a conduit. Making sure each word in each sentence justifies its existence. She buries tiny, delicious, moments for my readers to happen upon and savor. She has always been there and will always be there to make sure that whatever I write, it sings.
Amanda Avutu’s nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, O, the Oprah Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, Bitter Southerner, and the New York Times’ Family Ties column.
October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Piasecki
I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.
I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.
My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.
I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.
A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.
During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.
I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.
I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.
As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”
Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:
I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.
Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.
Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.
When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.
But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.
October 2, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop. In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, and a Brevity essay as well, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.
“Fish” is a nonfiction piece that complicates students’ ideas of what an essay is and how it should behave. A triptych, each part is only ¾–1 page long. The first part resembles nature or environmental writing and describes, in a zoomed-in empathetic third-person point of view, a salmon fighting to climb a man-made fish ladder: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teachers her a lesson about progress.” The second section, written in first person (but with an awareness that shifts between a child’s and an adult’s perspective), is a vivid memory of deep-sea fishing with her father and his friends, and struggling to reel in a huge barracuda: “I am eleven years old and holding onto a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast. I must have been beautiful then.” The third part, written in second person, reads like food writing – in this case, how to prepare fish: “Cooking filets of fish is not complicated…. It’s the sauce that’s difficult.”
“Fish” represents three different kinds of nonfiction writing – nature documentary, memoir, and food writing – with which students are already familiar. But how do they work (or not work) together as a triptych of styles seemingly linked only by topic? Each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish – only the recipe-like third section offers us much closure, and none gives that satisfying moral or meaning that students long for. Their reaction to “Fish” is complicated further by unexpected lyric elements: “This isn’t an essay; it’s a poem,” they complain. While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois. Strain through cheese cloth. Strain one more time for good measure.” Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning. And Walker breaks her prose into short paragraphs sometimes only a line long, which visually resembles poetry and affects the pacing of how we read her essay. How can all of these elements co-exist in the same piece of writing?
As all of you are well aware, the verb “essay” or “assay” means to attempt. Walker’s “Fish” makes explicit the many approaches we may take to our topics. What is interesting is the way she tries to do several at once – create three distinct styles and voices and points of view, and yet tie them together not only through topic, but more subtly through recurrent words and images. As a result, “Fish” offers much for discussion about the choices she’s made and the effects they have on readers, both in the individual sections and across the whole piece.
After discussing “Fish,” I like to lead students through a guided free-write imitation: I have them start by writing about a vivid memory involving a single-ingredient food item – an animal, a fruit or vegetable, a spice, etc. Then, I have them try to write a brief scene from the sensory perspective of that food item. Finally, they write directions for their favorite recipe for that item. For their assignment, they can develop these sections, but I encourage them to explore other ways of considering that food item (its history, its cultural associations, etc.), so long as they end up with at least a three-part essay. As they refine their piece, they should also experiment with creating distinct voices, styles, and points of view for each section, as well as finding ways to tie the sections together via language, imagery, or other elements. This piece often is one of the strongest my students produce, and encourages them to play with a number of writing techniques in a short piece.
reprinted with permission, previously published in Assay
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, the forthcoming collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works with various literary organizations, including Motionpoems, ROAR: Literature and Revolution from Feminist People, and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
September 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Ann Claycomb cut about 250 words from 2009 essay, “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by Ann’s reflections on the process.)
By Ann Claycomb
6:40 a.m. Sesame Street
Your son pads in, pats you on the head. His hand is sticky, his patting gentle and inexorable.
You finally fell deeply asleep only after your third trip to the bathroom, at 5:00 a.m. When you do not immediately get up, your son crawls into bed. He smells like pee, enough to make your eyes water.
Sesame Street has been brought to today you by the number 8 and the letter P. Your son turns over, managing to kick you and elbow you in one movement.
“Mommy,” he whispers, “pee starts with P.”
11:30 a.m. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
You watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when you were little. When he said you should “just be you,” you would guiltily slip off your Snow White costume.
This morning you have been The Joker, Cat Woman, Wonder Woman, and a lost kitty’s mommy. You have been mean and turned nice, been nice and turned mean, died and come back to life. You eat cereal while you make your children’s lunch, scooping up spoonfuls between slicing cucumbers and pouring juice. Your daughter wants to eat her cucumbers on the sofa. She rearranges the skirts of her best church dress, pushes her tiara higher on her head.
Mr. Rogers is visiting a cereal plant. He dons a hard-hat, looks with amazement into a huge whirling vat of corn flakes.
Your son asks for cereal. You tell him you don’t have the kind that Mr. Rogers has. He suggests you go to the store and buy some. You wonder if the trolley on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood still goes to the Land of Make-Believe. That was always your favorite part.
5:00 p.m. The Joy of Painting
Your son wants you to sit with him on the floor to watch a man paint a picture of pine trees around a lake at sunset. From your daughter’s room come the sounds of despair as she throws herself at the door.
“You’re bad!” she shrieked as you hauled her back there.
Your son took your hand, pulled you down the hall. “I don’t think you’re bad, Mommy.”
You can achieve a gorgeous wash of pink across the canvas by applying the paint in a thin layer then sweeping a wet brush over it. Your son wants to know if that man is a real painter. You tell him yes, but not a good one. The spaghetti water boils over, hissing, on the stove.
You go to your daughter’s room, push open the door she has wedged shut with stuffed animals. She holds out her arms to be picked up. You carry her to the sofa and adjust her on your lap so she is not pressing against your belly. You rest your hand there instead.
“I want the baby to come soon,” your daughter says.
You kiss her head, careful of the tiara. On the t.v., the camera zooms in on a brush conjuring a dark green tree out of white space. Your daughter thinks the man must be a very good painter, but your son turns around to assure her that he is not.
Ann Claycomb’s Thoughts:
The first hundred words went easily. The baby who is pressing on the narrator’s bladder in the opening of “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” is now nearly eight years old. Making that first pass over the essay felt like putting a hand in my son’s drawer and unearthing a tangle of mismatched toddler socks, the kind with the raised letters on the bottoms that act as scuffs under little feet. There is nothing sentimental about that discovery, just exasperation—“what are these still doing in here?”—before they go into the trash. So out went the explicit expressions of how the narrator felt at moments throughout the essay (“You are so tired.” “You are exhausted.”) Of course she is tired. The readers don’t need her to tell them that. And out went words big and small that had felt important eight years ago but now just—aren’t. Singleton socks, every one of them, and too small to fit any feet in this house.
Then it got harder. The initial version of the essay was clearly invested in repetition—men with scraggily beards, one in the morning, one at night—and in near-repetition. But did we need both Wonder Woman and Supergirl? And those bearded men didn’t matter so much as I’d thought they did. Certainly their beards didn’t, not anymore. In fact, the longer I looked at the word scraggily the more I hated it. Yet still my finger hesitated over the “delete” key. The repetition had felt clever. Now it felt like a bad habit I had to quit. It wasn’t until the man and his music and the dream of him were all gone from the opening section that the spell was broken. (And isn’t that the way it is with all of the New Yorker articles taking up space in my head?)
But once the early morning was stripped of the narrator’s regrets about the night before, it felt too thin. Rearranging and rewriting accomplished what more cutting wouldn’t have done. Now, as in the original version, in each present-tense section the immediate past peers through (“You finally fell asleep,” “You have been the Joker,” “you hauled her back there.”) The intrusions keep immediacy from winning out. This day isn’t just these three moments, after all, any more than any day can be distilled into an hour-long t.v. show or a year into a day. The past tells us how we got to where we are, here and now.
Neither the past nor the present, of course, tells us where we are headed, any more than this piece could have predicted what life would be like with three children in the house, how my daughter would fall madly in love with the baby, how her twin would grow sinewy and fierce inside his new roles: big brother, older son. But then, programming guides only work when you consult them, which these days in our house, we rarely do.
Ann Claycomb believes in the power of fairy tales, chocolate, and a good workout, in no particular order. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is the author of numerous pieces of published short fiction and creative nonfiction. Her first novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, came out this year. She lives with her husband, three children, and two cats in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is at work on her next novel.
September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Emily Franklin chose to lengthen her 2005 essay, “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland.” The results are below. )
By Emily Franklin
1) Where is D., my first love, first sex? Armed with vague notions of where I could find D. I type in his name with the same trepidation I had a decade prior when I’d called him at his hotel in London and we’d met for a curry and kissed like we were trying to rewind. Remnants of my teen aged heart aflutter, on the screen I weed out the genealogy sites, the porn. What am I looking for? Old love? Myself? No. Just to be able to picture D. as an adult, in his life now. White pages produce an address, but divulge no details. Ideally, I’d stumble onto his wedding announcement complete with photo of the bride (would she look like me? Have a familiar name, or fat thighs?).
2) Ponytailed and perky with her be-ribboned shirts and banana-seated bicycle, A. once called me a Kyke though later, after her father forced her, she apologized and admitted she didn’t know what the word meant.
I learn D. is married, that his sister is still childless, that his parents had relocated to North Carolina. All this I ascertain by way of his mother’s obituary, whose face I cannot recall. Just that she wrote to me after D. broke up with me (on the phone, the night before the SATs), that her sons called her Fred for no good reason, that she smelled of syrup, that she died young. In suburban Connecticut my first love lives without his mother, the funeral held on his birthday.
Locating A.’s whereabouts requires no filtration. Her unusual last name is highlighted on the screen on the first link. She is now a gossip/society writer for a glossy Hollywood magazine. With her head tilted to the right, her publicity photo is remarkably similar to the second grade school picture I unearthed in an old journal; Fair Isle sweater, hair straight and gleaming, eyes ahead; sure.
3) T.’s letters to me were crammed with confetti, fishing lures depronged, Hershey’s kisses with their paper inserts rewritten to reveal grotesque or funny fortunes. Our summer group of girls met for the last time in Atlanta in 1988, swapping jeans, smoking Camels, nursing one girl back to health after her hidden abortion. There was pot, beer, a drummer with long hair, some pizza place in Little Five Points where we clustered and hugged, already missing each other. T. stood off to the side, heavy-mouthed and forever pushing her eyebrows against the grain. “I want them to go the other way,” she explained when one of the girls nudged her.
Finding T. takes minimal effort. Her father, a well-known Canadian actor, has passed away and articles about his life and family are abundant. One grammatical error keeps showing, however: survived by son named T. When I locate the same misattributed pronoun in each piece, the truth clicks. Then, the website. T. is now an artist, and a male, and – in his words (and isn’t this what we hope to find of our search engine queries?) – happy.
4) What am I searching for – photos, yes, background, my inner-investigator enjoying the private eye excitement? But maybe what I wonder is if people can change. Perhaps that’s the unsaid impetus – are you the same person you were when I knew you? Am I? Are you living the life I might have predicted? Am I?
And – here’s where the heart-racing-finger-hesitating-on-the-contact comes in – should we still know one another now?
5) Back when I wrote this, you got two, maybe four links. Sufficient. Now the same search is twelve pages, 3,120 results. Does this give a better sense? Maybe. But the reasons for searching haven’t changed, haven’t improved. If I search for D. it’s still because I want confirmation he’s alive. And, more honestly, I want to scratch the itch of wondering if I am still the best thing that ever happened to him, if he would regret dumping me over the phone the night before the SATs. If he remembers hooking up in a hotel room in London years later, if that remains sweet for him. But of course these are not items one can source. For the writer, it leaves me to narrate the spaces in between.
And spaces are important. People worry about forgetting. I worry about remembering. The soon-to-be-lost art of forgetting, the gentle receding of old flames and glorious trips and trauma in the rear view mirror.
When we log on, we are Jacques Cousteau, diving for vampire squid, blob fish, dumbo octopuses with their odd-cute faces and ear-placed fins. We are excavating other humans and our pasts. But what do we gain by knowing? Are we better for tethering each past (relationship, comment, job, moment, selfie, purchase, pain) to us as we navigate the now?
The mind was built to remember what it needs. Googleland prevents the natural discourse between now and then, holding on and letting go. We know we are losing – our ability to recall lyrics from that song you Frankenstein-style danced to in 8th grade, our knowledge of bird species or geography or how to get from one place to another without being told and directed. We hare shifted our lives from this land to Googeland.
6) The truth is that T. did not want to be in touch. Even though I wrote a heartfelt letter and wanted to know him as he is now. And D. dumped me and probably never looked back (or maybe his wife looked for me on-line just to see). And the anti-Semitic fashion-forward girl in the Fair Isle sweater? She’s nothing but kind, and happy to consider pieces for her hug glossy magazine.
Here is the truth: we think we want to know everything. Here is the other truth: we really only want to know some – and quite often, not even that. As the world opens up, we have to give ourselves permission to undo, to lose touch, to fade and to forget. To embrace the deep-sea darkness of the unknown.
Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, as well as seventeen novels for young adults including Last Night at the Circle Cinema named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her work has been published in The New York Times, and numerous literary magazines, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She lives with her spouse and four children near Boston.
September 25, 2017 § 7 Comments
By Frances Backhouse
Recently, while flipping through an Italian cookbook, it occurred to me that I’ve organized my third-year creative nonfiction workshop like an Italian meal. At twelve to thirteen weeks, with one three-hour class a week, it lasts longer than even the most leisurely Italian repast, but the structure is similar. During the first few classes, I serve up an array of bite-sized activities and assignments – the antipasto course, which both whets the students’ appetites and take the edge off their hunger while they’re busy writing first drafts of the pieces they’ll submit for workshopping. Once those drafts come to the table, we move onto the primo and secondo courses and spend the bulk of the term thoughtfully chewing our way through two essays per student. The last class is the dolce – a sweet, celebratory finale in which the students read excerpts from works they’ve written and polished over the term.
The part of this culinary metaphor that I want to expand on here is the antipasto course, specifically the ingredients provided by Brevity for the first assignment of the term. (But I’ll cease talking about food, so you don’t get hungry and wander off to the kitchen.) For this assignment, worth 10 percent of the course grade, each student chooses one essay from the collection of craft essays on the Brevity website and explores it through a short class presentation, plus a written reflection, due a few weeks after their presentation. Although both parts are mandatory, I grade only the written submission. I tell the students to think of the presentation as a preliminary articulation of their thoughts, with the class discussion offering ideas for refining them. My other instructions for the assignment are as follows:
The presentation should be about 15 minutes long: in the first 5 minutes you’ll tell us why you picked that essay and highlight what you consider to be the most interesting and important points; then you’ll lead us through a 10-minute discussion of the essay. Everyone is expected to read all of the essays in advance.
The written part of the assignment is a 750- to 900-word reflection. Begin with a brief overview or summary of your chosen essay (no more than one or two paragraphs). Then move on to a discussion of what you took away from reading this essay. For example: What questions did it answer for you? What questions did it raise? How did it inspire you? How did it challenge you? If you find the essay doesn’t offer you enough substance to feed 750 to 900 words of reflection, you may follow links in the essay or do your own research to expand on ideas raised by the essay. (If you go beyond the text of the original essay, include end-notes citing your additional sources.)
Typically, there are fifteen students in the course. I introduce the assignment during the first class and schedule five presentations for each of the next three classes.
The presentation sign-up is done online via CourseSpaces, my university’s learning management system. I give the students a couple of days to browse the Brevity website and then I open up a forum where they claim their preferred craft essay. Some of them leap in the moment the forum opens to ensure they get the piece they want, while others dither or procrastinate and finally settle on something just before the deadline. Banter often accompanies the choosing. “Damn you, Ellen! That was my first choice too,” one student wrote last year when someone else beat her to the essay “Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again” (a perennial favorite). “Sniffed this one out,” wrote another as she announced her choice: “The Nose Knows: How Smells Can Connect Us to the Past and Lead Us to the Page.”
The beauty of allowing the students to choose their essays is that it let’s them take ownership of the learning process and pursue the topics that are of most interest to them. In past years, those whose first literary love is poetry have picked “What Can Sonnets Teach Us About Essays” and “Line Breaks: They’re Not Just For Poets Anymore.” A student mourning the loss of her grandmother opted for “Writing the Sharp Edges of Grief.” Another, who knew that revision was his weak point, challenged himself by choosing “Becoming Your Own Best Critic.” And the beguilingly titled “And There’s Your Mother Calling Out to You: In Pursuit of Memory” always gets snapped up quickly.
The students generally deliver insightful presentations and turn in intelligent written reflections. The quality of both writing and analysis varies, of course, but there’s enough evidence of engagement overall that I can easily count the assignment as a pedagogical success. However, the greatest merit may be in the discussions that follow the formal presentations. These free-flowing, student-initiated conversations often exceed the prescribed ten minutes and take us in unexpected but worthwhile directions, such as the lively debate about muses that followed a presentation on the essay “My Muse – He’s Just Not That Into Me.”
The value of these conversations is (at least) twofold: they get students thinking about craft in new ways; and they start building the bonds that are critical to effective workshopping. One particularly powerful case was a series of overlapping discussions about stereotyping, stigma and gender politics within the literary world that was prompted by three self-identified queer students’ presentations on “Writing Trans Characters,” “Mapping Identity: Borich’s Body Geographic” and “The Craft of Writing Queer.” But all of the discussions help lay the foundation for the sensitive work of peer-critiquing because they get the students talking about creative nonfiction in universal terms before they zero in on each other’s personal offerings.
If you’re teaching CNF, you’re welcome to add this assignment to your teaching menu. I’m sure you’ll find that Brevity’s pantry of craft essays holds plenty of delicious fare.
‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.
Frances Backhouse teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is the author of six nonfiction books, including Women of the Klondike and Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. Her short-form CNF has appeared most recently in the Bellingham Review and The New Territory.