August 22, 2017 § 21 Comments
“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.
I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.
“But it feels that intense,” I argued.
“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.
I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had watched us run through a crucial scene in which I played a mother recalling her beloved child, who died many years before. To get to those deep emotions I’d used my sense memory training, a cornerstone practice of method acting.
Actors practice sense memories, using their imaginations—tasting an imagined cup of steaming hot chocolate, folding a pretend pair of threadbare jeans—in order to sharpen their ability to call up emotions those senses may trigger. Just as you might bake your grandmother’s lemon cake and find the smell carries you back to the summers you sat on her back doorstep watching fireflies until bedtime. You might feel sad and miss her, or maybe grateful you had her love when you were small. Those long-held emotions come alive again, triggered by a smell.
In rehearsal, I’d imagined my own life’s experiences into an emotional well from which my character could draw. And I succeeded. I produced a torrent of tears and full-throated keening when I was reminded of my little boy’s drowning, as though the loss took place only yesterday.
The scene ended. I wiped my face dry, thrilled with myself, very impressed. Boy, had I shown everyone how I could act! The director calmly rose from his chair and I waited for my praise. In a gentle voice, so quiet only I and my scene partner could hear he said, “Sometimes it’s important to remember that what we want in theatre is for the audience to experience the tears. You, my dear, are so good at stirring yourself up, I’m afraid they’ll just sit back and watch you do it, and that’s not what we want.”
In an instant, I knew he was right.
“Just do the doing,” he reminded me, and went back to his seat.
“Do the doing” was a phrase we had all learned in Acting 101: play the action and logic of the scene using the senses people use every day of their lives—hearing, smelling, tasting—and the emotion will come. A play is for the benefit of an audience. Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.
It’s the same for writers. We must resist what I’ve come to think of as the frontal assault method—using more and bigger words to show we really mean it.
“What should I do?” I asked my writing mentor, scared there was some big mystery I would never master.
“When you arrive at an intense moment,” she said, “you need to grow as still as possible and pay attention to every detail that comes to you. What do you hear? See? Smell? What little detail comes to the fore of your attention? Wait for these things to happen. Grow still and don’t project, just wait. Then as simply as you can, describe those things.”
That lesson I learned as a young actress applies to the present tasks I face as a writer. I strive to be more observant, less judgmental. I try to trust the reader’s intelligence; I don’t need to bonk them over the head with what I mean. I try to write it, and get out of the way. I allow myself more time to explore details and follow where they entice my imagination to go—the writer’s version of sense memory—instead of stressing over the “right answer.” It’s more intimate this way, I find, and more fun, and though I often don’t quite know exactly where I’m going, I know I’ve got the tools to get there. By trusting sensory detail, logic, and human behavior to get across the emotion inherent in conflict, my writing has calmed down and my imagination feels freer. I work at giving my readers just enough so they can piece it together and experience the emotions themselves.
As I was writing this piece I happened to come across two pertinent quotes in a class I was taking—funny how that happens. Anton Chekhov said, “The more sensitive the matter in hand, the more calmly one should describe it—and the more touching it will be at last.” And Fanny Bryce’s tip to Helen Hayes: “If you cry, [the audience] won’t.”
Cecile Callan earned her masters from the Bennington Writing Seminars in January. She is working on a historical novel set in the horse-racing world of the American south, in the decade before the Civil War. While a student at UCLA, the novel was nominated for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize. In a past life she was a professional actress, wrote the award-winning play “Angels Twice Descending,” and is a published poet. She is thrilled to be working as an editorial assistant for Narrative Magazine.
August 18, 2017 § 21 Comments
By 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.
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.
August 8, 2017 § 5 Comments
“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.
August 1, 2017 § 24 Comments
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.
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.
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:
Seriously. The strands have to repeat.
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.
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.
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.
July 25, 2017 § 12 Comments
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?
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.
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.
June 5, 2017 § 7 Comments
By Susan 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.
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.