December 15, 2022 § 47 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
Every day, from the second I open my eyes (and turn on my phone) to the second I crawl into bed (and turn off my phone), I scroll through dozens of writing-related emails:
- weekly newsletters from Hope Clark’s FundsforWriters + Writer’s Relief, both of which I signed up for years ago;
- occasional newsletters from Kathy Fish’s The Art of Flash Fiction (with whom I took a few flash intensives online) + Jackie Bluu’s The Writer’s Den (where I submitted a story for an anthology);
- less frequent but still present ones from The Loft Literary Center (where I taught memoir classes online) + The HerStories Project (which published “Sleep Like a Midlife Woman” in The Pandemic Midlife Crisis Gen X Women on the Brink anthology).
But that’s not all. There are also breaking news and blog posts from:
- Association of Writers and Writing Programs or AWP (which I joined after my MFA and am finally attending in Seattle this March);
- Poets & Writers (which I also joined post-MFA);
- Author’s Guild (which I joined while shopping around my memoir manuscript);
- Jane Friedman’s blog (where I took one online workshop) + The Writers Grotto (where I took a class during a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area) + Brevity blog (duh);
- Literary Hub (which shares writing tips and historical tidbits);
- Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (which provides indie lit updates);
- Winning Writers (where I entered a contest once) + Women on Writing (ditto);
- Creative Nonfiction (where I dream of seeing my name) + Narratively (where my dreams will never come true);
- Tammy Delatorre (who began offering regular write-ins on zoom long before Covid) + George Saunders from Story Club (who is very verbose);
- Forge NYC (where I applied to a fellowship a few years ago) and Lilith the New 40 (ditto) and Tablet Magazine (you get the gist).
Then there’s Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day + dictionary.com’s Word of the Day, both brief and befitting to get my writing muscles moving before sitting in my chair.
Add to those the literary journals on my radar:
- Hippocampus (which published “Gas Masks and Wedding Vows” in 2016 and has subsequently declined everything from flash to book manuscript submission);
- San Fedele Press (which published “Of Zero Chroma” in their Art in the Time of Covid 19 anthology);
- The Masters Review;
- The Kenyon Review;
- New England Review;
- The Commuter;
- Solstice Literary Magazine;
- So and So from Oldster Magazine;
There are the ones to which I subscribed while hunting for a publisher:
- Coffee House Press;
- WTAW Press;
- ugly duckling press;
- Hachette Book Group;
- Open Books Press;
- Catapult, Counterpoint, Soft Skull;
- Black Lawrence Press;
- Koehler Books;
- Cune Press;
- Claret Press;
- Jewish Book Council;
- Jewish Book Week.
And, of course, the Covid connected sit-ins and write-togethers with:
- Marcia Meier’s Writing through the Apocalypse (which I attended once at the start of the first lockdown);
- Writers Near & Far (which I co-created during that same trying timeframe);
- Allison K. Williams and Ashleigh Renard’s Writers’ Bridge (which I attended once when the world was quiet but never again because I teach yoga on zoom at the same hour on the same day);
- Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation Journals (which I read to make sure she is okay, which she’s not).
Recently, I joined Revel, a hybrid community for women 40+, where I offer bimonthly Sunday Deep Dive sessions and receive a surplus of reminders (your class is full) and alerts (do you want to increase the number of participants?).
Plus retreats in exotic faraway lands that lure me like:
- Julie Maloney in Greece;
- Nancy Stohlman and Kathy Fish in Costa Rica;
- Dinty W. Moore and Allison K. Williams in Italy, Portugal, and Costa Rica;
- Diana Friedman in the Pyrenees;
- Authors At Large in different locations every year.
And there’s no way to ignore my alma mater—Vermont College of Fine Arts—which caused a big brouhaha about relocating their summer residencies to Colorado and replacing their in-person winter ones with zoom.
Keep in mind that none of this has anything to do with social media.
Everyone, everywhere has so much to say about the people and the books they wrote/read, the craft and the business they run/recommend. All. The. Time.
Unable to keep up, I’ve been deleting them before opening them as if they were ticking time bombs.
But here’s what I want to know: is it just me? Or do you also feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of information in your inbox?
Jennifer Lang, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, now lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-shorts and Landed: a yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses will both be published by Vine Leaves Press (September 2023 and October 2024). A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serve as Assistant Editor for Brevity.
November 24, 2022 § 4 Comments
We give thanks today for the thousands of readers who visit our pages, for the dedicated teachers who feature us in the classroom, and for all of the talented writers who send their essays to Brevity and to the Brevity Blog, trusting us with the work they have labored over for many weeks or months.
We are thankful as well to our volunteer staff, who are the heart and soul of our literary enterprise. We don’t thank you enough, volunteers, but we truly value what you do and the generosity with which you do it.
And for those who contribute large and small sums to keep the lights on, a special thank you. We are proud to be able to pay the writers we feature in Brevity, and could not do it without you.
Finally, we are thankful for the readers, writers, and volunteer staff at countless other magazines that form our literary galaxy.
Art saves lives!
~ Dinty W. Moore, Brevity editor-in-chief
November 23, 2022 § 7 Comments
By Rey Katz
More than 1 million nonbinary adults live in the U.S., about one in every 330 people, according to an estimate in a 2021 study. As a nonbinary, queer writer, I reported on how to write about trans people with respect. Nonbinary people are underrepresented in journalism and publishing. It is so important to include our community when writing creative nonfiction.
In this post, I share 3 pieces of advice to make your creative nonfiction more inclusive towards trans, nonbinary, and agender people. Inclusive writing will increase your audience. The trans community and allies will promote work that speaks respectfully and correctly about trans people.
- Use people’s correct names and pronouns.
If you’re quoting or referring to anyone, trans or cis, please take one minute to double check which pronouns they use, such as “they/them,” “she/her,” or “he/him.” This information is often found on a person’s website, email signature, or social media bio. If you’re not sure and you are in contact with a source, you can simply ask, “What pronouns should I use for you in my piece?” It can be frustrating and hurtful if a piece is published with the wrong pronouns, especially in print where the mistake cannot be corrected. People’s pronouns should be treated as one more fact that should be checked for veracity, just like the spelling of a name, credentials, or title.
They/them pronouns can be straightforward to use with a little practice. When most people talk about an unknown person, they use they/them pronouns naturally. “Someone brought an apple pie and I want to thank them, but I don’t know if they left already.” If you are writing about someone who uses they/them pronouns, trust your intuition for what sounds right when referring to this person as “they” or “them.” For example: “Rey Katz met with me to discuss their research. They have been working in this field for five years, after finishing their previous project.”
Verbs should be singular when used with a person’s name, but plural when used with “they.” “Rey is here,” is correct, not, “Rey are here,” even though “They are here” is correct.
If a person uses “she,” “he,” or “they” pronouns, you can go ahead and use the correct pronouns without explanation. If someone uses multiple pronouns (e.g. both “he” and “she”) you may wish to provide a brief explanation.
- Write about trans and nonbinary people in a similar way as you write about cisgender people.
Ask yourself, is this person’s gender identity crucial to my piece? If not, don’t mention it. Focus on introducing a source or reference with the information that matters to your narrative, for example, their name, occupation, organization, or the name of their book. If you don’t mention that one of your sources is a male, cisgender scientist, don’t mention another source is a nonbinary, trans scientist later in the piece. Your sources’ gender might be relevant to a story about workplace discrimination, but not if you’re interviewing a medical researcher about a new breakthrough.
Don’t use the phrase “identifies as.” For example, “Rey Katz, a nonbinary writer, met with me at a coffee shop…” is more correct than “Rey Katz, who identifies as nonbinary, met with me…” Saying “identifies as” implies the writer is skeptical that this person’s identity is innate and real, which is disrespectful. Don’t say “identifies as they/them,” either. A person is not the same as their pronoun.
- Share and elevate the work of trans, nonbinary, and agender people, especially Black and Indigenous people and people of color.
A writer who I respect called me out on this point years ago and I am grateful. I, a white nonbinary person, had workshopped a personal essay about being nonbinary, and the only person I quoted was a white cisgender man. My classmate, a queer person of color, told me it’s important to choose whose voices we share. I replaced the quote in my essay with a quote from a trans person of color.
In your book reviews, recommendations, and lists, consider work by nonbinary and trans authors, especially people of color.
Consider citing trans experts, even if (especially if) your piece is not about being trans. It matters who you quote or interview. The authors and other experts you bring into your work gain a larger platform every time their words are shared with a new audience of your readers. Pay attention to the diversity of people you cite and interview and do the work to find and reach out to people from underrepresented communities.
We need more nonbinary and trans representation at all levels of publishing, including editors, agents, and leadership of news organizations in addition to journalists and writers. If you are in a position to hire, please consider qualified candidates who are not cisgender.
Every small step towards more widespread positive representation of trans and nonbinary people makes an impact. Together, we can uplift and share the true stories of the experts in our LGBTQ community.
Rey Katz is a nonbinary writer with an undergrad physics degree from MIT and a black belt in aikido. Their writing appears in publications such as Catapult, The Postscript, Massive Science, and Drizzle Review. They blog at nonbinaryconnection.com and post on TikTok and Twitter as @reywrites.
October 10, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Angie Chatman
As a writer teaching writing to adults in colleges, universities, and community organizations for over a decade, the most frequent question I get from my students is, “When will I get my paper back with your comments?” Never mind that it’s on the syllabus that I return papers within a week of submission if they are submitted on time. For many of my students, that is never soon enough.
The Instagram/Tik-Tok/YouTube/Twitterverse has trained us to expect feedback, satisfaction, gratification, or a clap back within seconds. Social media has shifted expectations, so that a response to even the most mundane topic not only needs to go viral, but it must also do so within minutes, or it doesn’t have value. Now, people see “likes” as the path from novice to master, and they want to get there as quickly as possible.
I also blame, in part, the US education system. At all levels, people consider learning as a series of tasks to master followed by a multiple-choice test where the correct answer is hidden amongst a bunch of red herrings. The progression becomes: learn the information, regurgitate it on a test, get the grade, move to the next level.
Creative writing doesn’t fit that paradigm at all. Like any art form or taught skill – learning how to dance, make music, mold clay, knit, crochet, embroider, carve – writing is best done via the apprenticeship model where you acquire skills from others who have more experience than you.
It also takes time. Lots of time.
There are no “grades.” No right or wrong answers. There are critiques, and suggestions, and guidance; however, apprentices don’t sit around and wait for feedback before taking the next step with their craft. Instead, they keep working, keep trying, keep experimenting. After years, and years, one may become a master, though even when that level is reached, writers recognize that there is still more to learn.
I had the pleasure of listening to cellist Yo-Yo Ma discuss the role of music in developing leadership skills for scientists. In that talk, he shared that he still practices for hours every day.
Why? Doesn’t he already “know” the music? Of course, he does. He’s certainly memorized the notes. He has the awards, honors, and “good grades” to document his mastery of the instrument. He has reached the highest levels for a cellist in the world.
Ma said he continues to practice a piece because there’s always more to access, more to interpret, more to feel. He considers his concerts a form of service. For him, it’s “part of the business of being human” to play to the best of his ability every single time. Not every single concert. Every single time he puts his bow to the strings.
There is no quick answer to how to be an artist. There is only being an artist. Don’t judge your work by how many likes you receive, how many times you’ve been published, in which literary magazines your work appears. Write because that’s the business of being a writer. Write to nurture humanity. And most important, write to nurture your soul.
Angie Chatman is a writer and storyteller. She appeared on the Moth Radio Hour episode, “Help Me.” Her essays have appeared in TaintTaintTaint Magazine, Literary Landscapes, the Rumpus, Pangyrus, Hippocampus Magazine, and fwriction: review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won a WEBBY award for storytelling on GBH/World Channel’s Stories from the Stage. A Chicago native, Angie now lives in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with her family, including rescue dog, Lizzie. She earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.
July 6, 2022 § 5 Comments
By E.A. Farro
Today, the stars wouldn’t get between Romeo and Juliet. The lovers could call one another or share locations and avoid tragic misunderstandings. Cell phones and satellites are just two of the technological achievements that require resource extraction and consumption, changing the chemical composition of our air and water. The shipwrecks that begin The Tempest and Twelfth Night wouldn’t be acts of god today. The storms would be extreme weather made more likely by climate change.
While literature has always explored advances in technology and their effect on human health and the environment, we’ve reached an inflection point. The rate of change in how we engage with technology and the associated impacts on our planet are unprecedented. The atmosphere in which characters live and plots unfold have changed as irrevocably as the one in which we live.
Geologic time periods are named to tell a story, starting with the Hadean (the Netherworlds), before life existed. Our current eon, the Phanerozoic (visible life) began 541 million years ago when animals evolved shells that left behind fossils. The proposed name for our current epoch is the Anthropocene—anthropo from the Greek for human—because humans have become the driving force on Earth. There is disagreement about the start of the Anthropocene. Estimates range from the beginning of agriculture, more than ten thousand years ago, to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945. Books like Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction digest how industrialization reshaped not only our own destiny but also that of the more than eight million other species on Earth.
Hurricanes, wildfires, and pandemics are no longer acts of divine retribution. What once formed boundary conditions are malleable. We are the gods. Or, at least, we’ve taken over key elements of their role without approaching omniscience. With all our power, we don’t know if reaching outer space or creating artificial intelligence is good or bad. We increase the quality of our life by removing mountain tops, like a snake eating its own tail. We have never been so powerful or so afraid of our own power. In Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem this self-hatred is enough to fuel a movement to help aliens take over Earth.
Facing existential crisis, we document the fragility and power of nature, like in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonder, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, and literary journals like Orion. We meditate on our relationship to place, like in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Annie Dillard’s Tinker at Pilgrim Creek, and literary journals like The Common and Ecotone. This writing soothes us with beauty, alarms us with destruction, and demands that we pay attention. It reminds us that we, too, are animal.
The awareness of climate change, ocean acidification, space trash, and sea-level rise permeate stories far outside of the genre of science and nature writing. In Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Oyehaug, the protagonists are separated by parallel worlds, and while climate change is not a plot point, the characters’ awareness of it reverberates as an additional anxiety throughout the book.
Imagining our future offers both warnings and hope. LeVar Burton says “By simply accepting the invitation to contemplate the ‘what if’ we unleash our superpower on the very nature of possibility itself, oftentimes resulting in the seemingly miraculous.” Anthony Doerr depicts living in a spaceship for multiple generations in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Octavia Butler shows the collapse of civilized society in Parable of the Sower. Benjamin Percy plays out a new energy source in The Ninth Metal. These books shove our faces in the consequences, intended or not, of human actions and choices.
Writing in the Anthropocene means facing unbearable tradeoffs. The fate of humans and our planet is an active question. Answering requires us to weigh our current food, flights, and fortunes against the lives of our descendants and the continued existence of other species. This reckoning carries accompanying grief and displacement. We need storytelling to integrate science, and what is at stake, into our personal narratives and government policies. Perhaps art can reach our hearts or, more importantly, our imaginations, where statistics and facts fail.
In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the young lovers shocks Verona out of the cycle of vengeance. It heals a broken system. Romeo and Juliet, today, would debate whether or not to bring children into a broken world. What future could their son and daughter inhabit? And would increasing the population only lead to more environmental destruction?
Science cannot answer all of the questions that confront us. Is a lake a spiritual entity worth saving? An ocean? Do we even know what spiritual means anymore? Is bravery in shades of gray or is it black and white?
Where science can go no further, art continues on, alone, into the dark of unknowing.
E.A. Farro is a climate scientist who spent several years working on environmental policy in politics. Her publications have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a Minnesota State Art Board grant, a Nan Snow Emerging Writers Award, a residency at Everwood Farmstead, among others. She teaches at the Loft Literary Center.
April 28, 2022 § 10 Comments
On the intersections of art, justice, and personal responsibility
By Jeannine Ouellette
Pamela Paul’s recent New York Times column, “The Limits of Lived Experience,” argues that writing about people whose lives differ from ours involves empathy and imagination, and is therefore good, while “policing” what others should or shouldn’t write is bad. Paul writes,
What troubles me most about the increasingly dogmatic emphasis on ‘lived experience’ is that it feels like yet another way of policing and limiting culture. Most creative people are open-minded, empathetic, and imaginative; they build worlds that let us cross borders. Recent efforts to contain and limit expression is a worrying one, and an issue I expect to return to in columns to come.
I find Paul’s take reductionist and full of red herrings, including the alarmist subject line with which her column swam into my inbox: “Who gets to tell stories?” This question and the column itself sidestep the issue’s central dilemma, which is simply that we assume responsibilities when we choose to write about others whose lives differ from ours, especially if they have less power than we do. Accepting these responsibilities means neither succumbing to dogma nor being censored, as Paul asserts. It means recognizing and engaging with questions of ethics, justice, and creative accountability. I emphasize questions, because this complex, multifaceted topic defies easy answers. No single formula can address every possibility across genre, from whether or how to write a fictional character who is gay when I am straight, to whether and when to step back entirely from a subject or character.
What we’re really talking about is the profound and indelible link between the workings of individual human imagination and the collective human experience. The least we can do is consider our work in this context. I often start by asking myself why I am writing a particular story at a particular time. For example, I teach creative writing in prisons. Not surprisingly, this work is powerful and has changed me. Yet, I haven’t written about it. To do so feels exploitative considering the vulnerability of my students and the significant difference between my privilege and power, and theirs. It could be read as suggesting a “good-doer-ism” with which I do not identify or wish to advance in my creative work. Yet, if I had a very compelling reason to write about my work in prisons, one that in no way risked using my students as “material,” perhaps I would. So far, that has not been the case.
Overall, as both writer and teacher, I find the question “why am I (or you) writing this story?” invaluable because it raises auxiliary questions about a story’s topic and characters in relation to a writer situated within a particular time and place. A recent example: after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for insulting Jada Smith’s hair at the Oscars, many Black women in my online writing groups expressed discomfort with white women publishing essays on the matter, pointing to racially charged contextual issues best understood and addressed by Black writers (media stereotypes of “the violent Black male,” racist laws regarding Black women’s hair, etc.).
Rather than thoughtfully consider such complexities, Paul defends the status quo, wherein those with the most power tell the most stories and gain the most from telling, regardless of who gets silenced and sidelined in the process. In Paul’s view, this is justified: “If we all wrote only from our personal experience, our films, performances, and literature would be reduced to memoir and transcription. What an impoverished culture that would be.”
This is not only hyperbolic, it is uncurious about the evolving ethics of storytelling in a world where we are, thankfully, growing slightly more aware of and hopefully more committed to changing how structures of oppression and ethics of representation interact with art. Such questions arose during my 2015-2017 MFA experience, yes, but I’ve felt them more viscerally since the whole world watched my city burn through June of 2020 after the violent police murder of George Floyd. The link between my values and my voice strengthened, and my understanding of my ethical obligations to speak to the issue of power and representation in creative writing intensified.
Art is bigger than self-expression. It’s bigger than the “imagination and empathy” Paul extols, as crucial as those elements are to creativity. Art operates as a change agent, fueling social evolution as it simultaneously responds to and pushes culture forward through actively engaging with the most important questions of its time.
What are those questions now? Other than those about our burning planet, almost all of our crucial discourse surrounds power structures, especially white supremacy and patriarchy as fueled by capitalism. Paul argues, “privileging only those voices with a stake in a story carries its own risks,” and points out that “authenticity of voice … doesn’t guarantee quality of prose, storytelling, pacing, dialogue, or other literary merits.” In so doing, she sounds distressingly similar to opponents of other social and racial justice efforts such as affirmative action, who’ve argued that prioritizing access for marginalized groups could result in unqualified hires.
This and other binaries in Paul’s column frustrate me. Instead of encouraging those who wish to write outside their own experience to consider their decisions with care and attention to the ethics of representation, seeking out resources as needed to do so responsibly and authentically (I’ve included some at the end of this essay), Paul reduces the conversation to a threat:
Taken to its logical conclusion, the belief that ‘lived experience’ trumps all other considerations would lead to a world in which we would create stories only about people like ourselves, in stories to be illustrated by people who looked like ourselves, to be reviewed and read only by people who resembled ourselves.
Hmm. According to a 2020 analysis, “Just How White is the Book Industry,” also published by The New York Times, “Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.”
This conversation should not be about some exaggerated risk of “censoring” those writers most likely to be published in the first place. Rather, it should be about how we can all make work that is imaginative, empathetic, and authentic without contributing to power structures or imbalances that continue to harm and destroy the lives of others. Ultimately, we will all bear the consequences for our art and its impacts, intended and unintended, in the wider world we share.
Resources for writers:
Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Narrative, North American Review, Masters Review, Penn Review, Calyx, and more. She teaches through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Catapult, the University of Minnesota, and Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter.
February 28, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
I love Zoom writing workshops. I love the way some people name themselves on Zoom: Steve’s iPad, or Grandma Lois, or JCO, as if Joyce Carol Oates is slumming with the twenty of us on a Saturday afternoon. I love the pronoun designations, eighty percent of them she/her, often the obvious ones; the rest silent, bestowing upon us the gift of guessing.
I love the beginning of these workshops, the participant credentialing. We hear from a novice, a nail technician contemplating a novel about a nail technician who solves crimes based on her knowledge of hands; the seasoned writer mentioning every journal that’s published her creative nonfiction about Overactive Bladder; the elderly white man describing in detail his 750-page manuscript about an Indigenous community on a South Dakota reservation he’s never bothered to visit, written in the voices of tribal people.
I love the chat box. I love deciphering the frequent “great idea” or “yes!” comments where the antecedents are mysterious. I love the two people who ask the same question in the chat that someone just asked aloud, how usually they are anal types worried about following instructions. I love feeling slightly superior because I don’t worry much about the instructions. I love it intensely when someone I know in the workshop sends me a direct chat message with a swear word in it.
I love the people who have to be told “You’re on mute,” as if we haven’t all been doing Zoom for three years. And oh, how I love their opposites, the people who forget to put themselves on mute when their cell phones ring, so you get to hear them yelling at someone.
I love seeing people’s cats walk in front of their screens. I especially love it when the cats’ tails brush against their owners’ faces, forming temporary moustaches. I love the man, at least I think it was a man although he didn’t tell us the pronouns to use, who aimed his camera at the top half of a portable whirring fan and left it there for the entire workshop. I deeply love the woman with makeup like Bette Davis’s in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane whose camera showed only her left eye and nostril in extreme closeup until the break, when she forgot to go on mute and yelled at her cleaning lady to reposition it.
Of course, I love to hear the white man read. He doesn’t read whatever we were supposed to write for twenty minutes based on the prompt. Instead, he reads from his manuscript about the tribe in South Dakota. He provides several minutes of prologue and an introduction to the personnel, followed by ten minutes of stilted, Tonto-like dialogue. I very much love the moment when the workshop instructor politely tries to wrestle control of the reading session, and fails. When others finally read, the white man turns back to his laptop, presumably composing page 751 of his manuscript. He forgets to put himself on mute. We hear him typing hard with his index fingers and exclaiming “mmm-HMMM!” when he writes something he likes. Gosh, I love that.
Unlike him, I love the prompts, the way they juice me up. The number of things I write that begin life as workshop prompts surprises me, even if they bloom into something different along the way. I almost never read my words aloud during the workshop. I love to hear people read who are insecure, tremulous, and often wonderful writers. They’re people who might not come to a workshop if it weren’t on Zoom, not knowing if it’s worth their time and money to travel, because they live in Tulsa or Bangor or East Jepeepee, the name my father called any place impossibly far away.
I’m from a tiny, snowbound town, so maybe I wouldn’t be there, either, if the workshop weren’t on Zoom. On Zoom I’m meeting Twinkle the moustache-tailed cat, hearing about the white man’s Native protagonist, staring into Baby Jane’s violently periwinkle-lidded left eye. It’s better than no workshop at all, and sometimes it’s better than workshops I’ve attended in person. This essay, in fact, is the offspring of a Zoom workshop prompt. I really love that.
Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Lumiere Review, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is presently working on a collection of short prose and is lightening her mood with the occasional humor piece.
February 21, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Laura Johnsrude
I love workshopping creative nonfiction pieces with other writers, around a small table, in a small room. (Ah, remember those small rooms?) I enjoy focusing on craft and style and I’m delighted when revision choices slap me in the face.
Nothing will annoy me so quickly, though, as around-the-circle workshop commentary being derailed by an earnest participant’s “you’re so brave,” or “I admire your honesty.” No matter that the speaker is heartfelt, moved by the power of the piece, the statements about the author—instead of the work—risk diverting the conversation to personal anecdotes and echoed praise around the room. Digressions about similar experiences can suck up a large slice of the author’s allotted critique time.
I’m not dissing such conversations. One of my favorite activities is meeting writer-friends at coffeeshops to discuss essays-in-progress, to bemoan the limits of memory, and to exchange story ideas.
But this essay is about constructive commentary of a piece of creative nonfiction writing.
Before paying for a writing workshop, I’ve always looked for cues that the experience will be fruitful, will include productive criticism guided by an experienced author and/or educator. I look for descriptions about how the commentary experience will run, whether the plan includes language that is both useful and kind: what works well for me; what works less well for me; I am unclear about. I feel fortunate because most of my paid workshop leaders controlled the conversations expertly, redirecting wayward discussions.
But I remember uneasy moments. I recall the look on my friend’s face—a friend with a chronic illness—when a reader told her she was brave, as feedback to my friend’s essay about some singular bodily discomfort, some daily hardship. My friend’s face froze, hardened, as we hung there waiting for our workshop leader to redirect the room, which she did. The author’s bravery (or cowardice) was immaterial to the craft assessment of her piece. Placing value on an author’s “good” character—her strength—is a fraught rubric. What if the author’s piece is about something repugnant, undignified, disturbing? What if the content or craft choice of the essay involves evasion, or the narrator’s helplessness, or shame? My guess is the reader would have said, “I admire your honesty.” Only a slight pivot, still focused on the author, not the language.
And there’s another rub—that an essay reveals personal and intimate details does not mean that it is well-written. Many of us have read raw and unguarded essays not yet revised beyond a first draft, but the author might merit the adjectives “brave” and “honest.”
No way to know.
Workshop feedback complimenting an author’s bravery and honesty implies an elevated relative worth of such unveiling, over essays revolving around the ordinary, the everyday.
Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a delightful essay around his habit of chewing gum, “Letter of Recommendation: Gum,” by shaping his images and language into a tight, compelling story.
I admire Knausgaard’s microscopic attention to sensory detail and use of scene to reflect on a moment when his habit made him feel small.
And that brings me to another argument against using the word “honest,” regarding the writer, in a venue designed to comment on the writing, either in a workshop or even in a book review (which is published criticism). I hadn’t considered that “honest” might be a loaded word in a creative nonfiction book review until I found myself stumbling over it, recently, as it implies some unlikely insider knowledge about whether the author has revealed everything, held nothing back, and it places a preferred value on doing so. Unlike “accuracy,” in evaluation of straight nonfiction writing, “honesty” is neither here, nor there, as creative nonfiction literary criticism. We can employ more appropriate terminology to admire how writers shape language to share painful and intimate details, or to portray habits, routines, or the microscopic analysis of a body part—a belly button, a hammertoe, a tattooed broken ankle.
No creative nonfiction writer reveals everything. We all choose what to include in a piece, select words and phrases that sound best, depict the memories that are most powerful. We vary sentence length to convey tone, or control pacing, or to end the last paragraph with a punch. We shape the story to suit the goal. We dip in and out of the present to bring in threads from long ago, and we employ metaphorical songs or images—the ones we decide will serve the piece. We intentionally shave the sections that don’t work, the tangents that swerve too far off course. The boring bits. We don’t tell the truth about which family member was unhelpful during our recovery because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t reveal our misgivings about a neighbor, even though the wariness is pertinent. We don’t interview everyone who was there, at the bedside, when our mother died, or when our daughter had a seizure. We tell our truth in whatever way we choose to do so, revising and rearranging the paragraphs until the essay lands, thump, as a finished whole.
We write creative nonfiction, not nonfiction, you see.
When you read my essay, please tell me what works best for you, what doesn’t work so well for you, and tell me what bits are unclear. Tell me when the voice is inconsistent, or the tense changes are distracting, or the pace slows down so much that your mind wanders. Tell me if my piece lacks depth, or if my reflections seem unexplored. Tell me which sensory details made you sigh, which lines you won’t forget, which metaphors are fresh and exciting.
But during workshop, please don’t tell me I’m brave. And don’t tell me I’m honest. Honesty is too high a bar for me. My focus is on the language, crafted to tell a truth, or many truths.
But not every truth.
Laura Johnsrude is a retired pediatrician living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her piece, “Drawing Blood,” was published in the spring 2018 issue of Bellevue Literary Review and won Honorable Mention for the Fel Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, and in The Boom Project anthology, and her book reviews have been published in Good River Review. Publication of her piece, “Losing Flesh,” in Under the Gum Tree is forthcoming. Find her on Twitter: @LauraJohnsrude
February 3, 2022 § 15 Comments
By Mallory McDuff
Oprah. Terry. Cheryl. Janisse. Brené. Liz.
It took ten seconds to write their first names on a blank index card, as if I were brainstorming party invites or recalling past lovers. I was a member of their virtual paparazzi, following these famous authors on social media, not to suck up, but because I thought of myself as a close friend of their work.
When my editor later reminded me of the deadline for endorsements for my book, Our Last Best Act, about revising my final wishes with climate and community in mind—I started with my pie-in-the-sky list. Typing out the names, I used the heading “long shots.”
“I realize this list is aspirational,” I wrote, apologetically. “So I’ve included writers within my reach in bold.”
The word “blurb” was first used by the late humorist Gelett Burgess, whose 1907 book cover featured a photo of a woman he named “Miss Belinda Blurb,” shouting affirmations. These days the requisite “ask” can feel like a request to sit at the adult table.
My list included climate experts, writers specializing in grief, practitioners of green burial, and those long-shot authors and influencers. Blending memoir with on-the-ground research, my book stemmed from the tragic mirror-image deaths of my parents—and my father’s lifelong intention to have a funeral that relied on family and friends without harm to the Earth.
I’d spent a year researching end-of-life options like conservation cemeteries, aquamation, death doulas, green burial, home funerals, and even human composting. My 15 and 22-year old daughters gave input about each choice, since they would have to implement my plan.
So the story was personal. But as a professor of environmental education and a single mom in the mountains of North Carolina, I didn’t have time during the pandemic to get existential or insecure about asking for blurbs. The process became relational, small points of connection for the long haul. Here’s what I learned that made the task feel a little less awkward:
Rejection now might lead to connection later.
While I didn’t hear back from Oprah or Cheryl Strayed, I received lovely rejection notes from several well-known authors or their PR people. Making a human connection felt like a win, even if it didn’t result in a blurb. One writer hadn’t responded to my e-mails, yet she discovered my request in her inbox months later and asked me to be a guest on her podcast. A climate scientist who declined to blurb offered to share my book on social media. Given her platform, I considered her offer a win.
Social media can be a viable way to engage and even follow up.
I’m a social media addict who doesn’t own a smartphone—for a reason. But communication with authors on social media was a vital way to connect, through comments about their posts but also direct messages. Long before writing this book, I’d been an authentic presence on their feeds. Literary citizenship felt like a positive use of time online.
Endorsers may give critical feedback before the book goes to print.
One of my endorsers who was an expert in green burial also sent three pages of single-spaced feedback, which were vital for my final edits. While I would have loved her suggestions earlier in the editing process, her input at that stage still proved invaluable.
Our shared humanity connects us—even in the awkward practice of asking for blurbs.
One of my dream endorsers wrote me at 10:30 pm as I graded papers on my laptop in bed. That night, we exchanged messages about the challenges faced by our teens in pandemic times, the struggles that held our hearts much more than a blurb or a book launch. I’ll never forget the last line of her e-mail that night: Drink some tea. Go for a walk. Take care of yourself.
Another A-game writer couldn’t commit to a blurb until she read the entire book. The hard copy arrived at her home the weekend before her family planned to gather with her elderly father—to talk about his final wishes. None of my strategic lists or Instagram fangirl comments could have anticipated the depth of that shared experience. Some trust in the serendipity of the universe reminded me of the mystery beyond my control.
Despite these lessons, asking for blurbs may remain one of the “most dreaded parts of writing books,” as an Episcopal priest wrote after asking me to blurb her forthcoming book. Decades ago, my parents had been on her “discernment committee,” a group who provide guidance to someone considering the priesthood.
“I was thinking about how much I adored your parents and how meaningful they were to my beginning life as a priest,” she wrote me. “That’s some wonderfully godly stuff—that in my life as a writer, I meet you.”
Writing about life, death, and Earth—in a climate crisis in a pandemic—made me see the people whose endorsements I sought as fellow travelers discerning the next best path. Brené Brown says it best with her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough.’ We’re all trying to create meaning with our stories. Asking and giving help along the way is one small gift we can share.
Mallory McDuff is the author of four books including her most recent: Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love (Dec. 2021, Broadleaf Books). She teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, WIRED, and more. @malmcduff
December 7, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Lisa Cooper Ellison
I haven’t worked on my memoir in two months. A small part of me believes this isn’t supposed to happen. As a writer and coach, my creative tool belt is packed with strategies. But when the world is big and I feel small, those strategies can’t prevent my stories from crawling right back into my belly button.
When that happens, I turn to my writing community for inspiration.
I know how precious this community is. I drafted my first stories in the early 1990s. Back then, the only two writer hangouts I knew of were coffee shops and college classes. At the time, I was a college dropout, which only left one option. Sometimes I’d stand in the back of local coffeehouses on open mic night, praying for the courage to share my work. Occasionally I’d read, but I never felt cool enough to ask the “real” writers if I could join them. Instead, I wrote alone. If my stories hadn’t been so persistent, I might’ve given up.
Thankfully, my writing community is now only a click away. It’s given me so much over the years. I turn to Brevity for Allison K William’s posts on building your author platform and her anti-huckster brand of self-promotion. Abby Alten Schwartz’s essay about thinking like an art director and Brenda Miller’s case study on the hermit crab form inspire me to see my work in new ways. But the ones that feed my soul remind me not to give up, like Chelsey Drysdale’s 100 agents and Shiv Dutta’s Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life. I soak in each writer’s successes, setbacks, and tenacious belief in their stories no matter how long and daunting the way ahead seems.
The writing organizations we depend on have spent the past eighteen months playing a whack-a-mole-style game of pivot. Some reinvented programs or invested in equipment so they could transition classes and conferences online. Others offered generous refund policies to help writers feel safe registering for in-person events at a time when uncertainty was the norm. Pre-pandemic, most ran on volunteer sweat and budgets that barely covered expenses. Now, they must account for the additional costs required to sustain themselves during COVID and the learning curves demanded by new systems.
Last year, I created a #Giveaway4Good campaign to support writers and communities as we weathered the relentless COVID doldrums. Each week I designed challenges that asked you to support charities, writing organizations, independent bookstores, and other writers in exchange for prizes. Together, we raised over $24,000—a response that fueled my courage and creativity during the first half of the year.
This fall, I’m in a creative trough caused by overwork, recent losses, and a broken middle finger. In the face of these setbacks, the world seems big, and I feel small. So once again, I’m leaning on our beloved community, but this time I’m also giving back by running a second #Giveaway4Good campaign.
Last week, writers earned tickets by donating to charities. This week, donate $10 or more to your favorite literary organization will receive one ticket toward my drawing for a $30 gift card to New Dominion Bookshop, PLUS one copy of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, The War of Art, Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction, Doodling for Writers, The Best of Brevity, The Business of Being a Writer, and a signed copy of My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson.
You’ll also be entered into my grand prize drawing for a one-year membership to James River Writers, a 3-pack of webinars from The Crow Collective Online Writing Workshops, one Jane Friedman webinar of your choice, a 10-page manuscript review plus one-hour coaching session with me, and a query letter review by Allison K Williams.
Generous donors of $100 or more will get access to a mindful writing class scheduled for early 2022 and a chance to win a storytelling coaching session with Amy Eaton.
Low on funds?
Support these organizations online by subscribing to their newsletters, following them on social media, and sharing two social media posts about a current offering or why you love them so much. Send me email proof, and you’ll earn one ticket into this week’s drawing.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this post given how challenging the past two months have been. But then I read a few Brevity blogs and thought of the good we’ll do. Your words and this community make me feel brave, big, and connected, and as a result, my creativity is flowing again.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others.