June 12, 2019 § 34 Comments
By Brianna Bell
Last week Jeffrey Goldberg, mansplainer-in-chief at The Atlantic, wrote an article appearing to suggest that women can’t write 10,000 words. Women across the world nodded their heads in unison, “Yes, Mr. Goldberg,” they said. “Finally a white man who understands us.”
I can’t write 10,000 words, because I’m a woman, of course. I can write 700 words, however, and a listicle is even better for my short attention span. As the wise Mark Twain once said, “write what you know,” and what I know is why I cannot write 10,000 words.
Here are the reasons:
Women can’t write long features because we’re so busy talking
I know that women can be long-winded, but that’s when we’re using our mouth, using our fingers to type is a completely different thing. Besides, women don’t need facts and figures to back them up when we ramble on with our words. If only we spent less time talking, we could have the gumption to write long-winded stories like white men can.
We are too busy with our families to write 10,000 words
Women work really hard to balance it all. But some dreams are just too big and insurmountable. Sure, we can write a 2,000-word feature in Good Housekeeping, but we cannot write a full cover story of 10,000 words. We can’t even read those cover stories—we skim them quickly between soccer practice or driving our elderly parent to their dentist appt (we can’t even write the full word, appointment, appt will do). There is no time to read 10,000 words, and there is definitely no time to write 10,000 words.
We prefer the personal essay
Women are such deep feelers. My feelings are so deep, an ocean can barely contain all the feelings I have, about all the things. The personal essay is perfect because it requires only feelings, no research or statistics.
The women who can write 10,000 words, write books instead
There are some women out there that are capable of writing more than their grocery list. But these energetic women decide to focus their time writing books. Although women don’t like reading 10,000-word magazine features, we love ourselves a good book. There’s nothing like chick lit and a hot bubble bath to relax us after a long day of balancing it all.
There already is one woman doing it
It is important to fill quotas, and I don’t think it’s right for men to dominate with their 10,000 words without a little bit of a challenge. Luckily, there was that one woman who wrote a cover story that one time, and so now thankfully we can say that we’ve already done it. There’s no need to put too much pressure on ourselves.
We get distracted easily
There’s nothing like a woman who flits about, from one task to the next. One minute she’s folding a load of laundry, the next she’s paying the heat bill, and then she remembers her Starbucks date with her high school friend Sally, so she’s flitted off to that. Expecting a woman to stay focused for an entire 10,000 words on a single story is an impossible expectation.
I know I said that this would be 10 points and 700 words, but I’ve been writing this at my kitchen island while my three kids, two cats, and a dog all begged for snacks and entertainment. I simply cannot finish, which proves that Mr. Goldberg was absolutely correct. Us women cannot be trusted to write 10,000 words.
For this woman writer, 590 words will do.
Brianna Bell is a Canadian freelance writer with work published in The Independent, CBC, and The Globe & Mail. She has never written a 10,000-word feature.
May 16, 2019 § 2 Comments
Michaella A. Thornton, in a flash essay from our May 2019 issue, released this week, writes beautifully about her one, her only child, and what the stranger in the grocery store will never understand:
I will not show you photographs of my pin-pricked stomach, a quilt of blue, green, and yellow bruises with Band-Aids of the solar system over fresh injection sites. I will not show you the hardship of lying prostrate on our marriage bed, ass in the air, gritting my teeth as my husband administers the long, nightly needle, progesterone shots to keep me pregnant. He never complains; he never tells anyone else what he is going through either. I will not show you our loneliness together. I will not show you him holding a fresh, perfect baby as the doctors put my organs back into my body, as I throw up into a kidney-shaped pan, crying over and over again to my newborn daughter, “I love you. I love you so much.”
May 15, 2019 § 3 Comments
In her insightful craft essay, “Genre as a Vessel for Presence,” in our May 2019 issue of Brevity, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction:
Both fiction and nonfiction can weave history, myth and legend into their narratives; both can investigate the limits of form. Both, at their best, are rooted in risk. My creative nonfiction is highly shaped and always already subjective, necessarily reliant on my faulty memory, idiosyncratic perceptions, evolving interpretations, and changeable feelings. My fiction, on the other hand, includes a great deal of accurate research, statistics, real places, the actual price of half a muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A recently published short story is factually accurate in almost every respect, but its mood is entirely different from the way I felt when it all was happening. During the events, I felt bliss, but the story is sad. In the most intimate and important sense, then, the text falsifies what happened. Yet a neutral observer could testify to its truth.
That’s just a bit of Joy Castro’s wisdom and analysis. Read the full craft essay here.
May 14, 2019 § 1 Comment
Megan Pillow Davis bares her teeth in the newest issue of Brevity, out just yesterday:
There are men all around me. There are all men and me. So I stare straight ahead. I drink my coffee. I let him touch me, because it could be worse, it could be worse, it could always be worse and then in the middle of the next sip of scalding coffee that I bring to my lips come the memories, descending on me like a flock of birds: the time when I was ten and a waiter cornered me in the dark restaurant hallway and ran a finger down the side of my breast and said wanna fuck—the time I was twelve and wore my first bikini to a pool party, and my father’s friend walked up and put his hand on my shoulder as he talked to my dad and with the other hand, pulled gently at the string of the bikini top, letting me know he could untie it any time he wanted—the time I was fourteen and in London on the Tube late at night and the drunk man got on and pressed his erection up against me again and again and I did nothing because I was terrified and then he stumbled off at the next stop—the time when I was sixteen, and the boy I thought was a friend grabbed my breast and kissed me with whiskey breath before I was able to push him away—and the time—and the time—the time the time the time the time and then the man turns and looks at me and the memories flutter and wing away.
This is just a bit. Read the entire brilliant essay here.
May 13, 2019 § 1 Comment
Our 61st Issue has launched, featuring a range of startling, melancholy, angry, and funny flash nonfiction from Patricia Foster, Och Gonzalez, Gordon Grice, David L. Ulin, Sheree Winslow, Jeff Newberry, Liza Porter, Sarah Beth Childers, Megan Pillow Davis, Jenny Apostol, Deborah Thompson, Caroline Crew, Suzanne LaFetra Collier, Jennifer Anderson, and Michaella A. Thornton.
In our Craft Section, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction, while Randon Billings Noble defends “themelessness” in assembling an essay collection.
With paint can photos by Elizabeth Fackler.
May 2, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Nicole Walker
It was after one of four Provost candidate presentations at Northern Arizona University that Julie Piering, Chair of the Philosophy Department, pulled me aside. She asked, have you heard of the Great Survival Debate, modeled after a long-standing tradition at the University of Montevallo in Central Alabama? I said, yes. I’m on Facebook. I’ve heard of all the discipline jousting events. She said great. And thus, I was signed up .
Here is the Scenario: For the debate, we imagine that the electric grid has failed or has been attacked and, after some time, nuclear plants were abandoned and the inevitable meltdown caused death, destruction, and the annihilation of society as we know it. The survivors, represented by the debate audience, are moving as far from the radiation poisoning as they can to begin building a new society. The group of academics invited to participate in the debate will fight for the LAST spot in the group that will journey into the wilderness with the coveted axe to build a better, safer society.
Each participant will be given 5 minutes to introduce their field and present their argument for why their discipline should be given the final spot in the new society.
We have been preparing for the apocalypse since Hector’s body got dragged around the city gates. Troy burns. Pick up your household gods. Move on. Start again.
Literature readers and writers imagine the end every day. Book after book. We lit folks and creative writers are invested. We’ve studied every angle. A quick Amazon title search includes Princess of the Apocalypse, Apocalypse Taco, Operation Apocalypse, Wake Me After the Apocalypse, Scooby Apocalypse, California Poppy Apocalypse (OK, that’s a t-shirt but no one representing the garment industry is here so I’ll take it), Jack’s Apocalypse, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses and Apocalypse Darling.
I had a book called Salmon of the Apocalypse that got picked up by a publisher. It was about how to prevent the end of the world through cooking. I renamed it Processed Meats, which does recall Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and that book’s baby-on-a-stick like a rotisserie but the publisher thought that Processed Meats was too gamy, so he made me change it to Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse, which I happily did because I had been working so hard to write that book and get it published, but then a couple of months later, the publisher decided, even though his books had won the William Styron Award, that publishing books is hard and closed up shop so my book never came out: dead it its own mini-bookpocalypse.
This is why writers will be the best for the apocalypse:
Writers can handle disappointment.
Writers can handle gruesomeness—see rotisserie baby a la Cormac McCarthy.
Look. There will be no internet during the apocalypse. You won’t be able to just Google how to make fire or how to hotwire a Harley Davidson. All those books about the apocalypse—they are study guides. You have to be able to read them for their deeper meaning, like what is a flint? and what is a spark plug? and how long does gasoline last anyway?
My department chair, Steve Rosendale, who abandoned me to my own devices for this presentation, did provide a helpful 3-point list of reasons why Literature should win. Citing our sources will be of utmost import in the apocalypse, in order that we may remember how we have to manage without the Chairs of our Departments now. So I quote NUMBER 1: “before philosophy (before!) the main way of transmitting memes or culture itself was story.” End quote. Remember, we won’t have Facebook or Twitter, so we’re going to have to transmit memes, together, in person, around a fire that we built thanks to those apocalypse books that described how to use a bow drill. It’s also known as fire bow, fire drill, fire by friction, and rubbing two sticks together. On the Internet, there are photographs of how this works, but in the apocalypse there won’t be. There will only be us, and, literature, which will supply the synonyms for bow drill and those creative creative writers who will see that a chopstick and a Matryoshka doll make an excellent fire drill. Also, we are the ones who know how to drive Harley Davidsons, the official motorbike of the apocalypse.
NUMBER 2: My Department Chair, Steve Rosendale also provides this: “poetry derives from the mnemonics of storytelling and certain features of language itself — rhyming makes the story more reliable to transmit.”
He additionally offered, NUMBER 3 “In an apocalypse these basic cultural capabilities will make English the most important discipline — mainly poetry.”
So, in final defense of literature, and to celebrate my upcoming collaborative, apocalypse-adjacent essay collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, I have provided for survival, a rhyming sonnet so that we may still speak, using mnemonics of story telling and rhyme, our stories:
The Five-Minute Apocalypse
The lights are out. Vultures. Cannibals too.
Well, it is a lot like Flagstaff at night
except without screens, which doesn’t feel right.
We sit around the campfire, Spam in lieu
of s’mores. Let the old kind of carbon spew.
We tell stories about the playwright who
warned us against fossil fuel as birthright.
Should have listened! Now, on canned meat, we chew.
As Language defined us, we defined it.
Every house, school, shop, bus, plate, spoon and cup
began with word first. Then was built to fit.
All gone, on words, regret, and Spam we sup.
It’s getting dark. Time out. Our last match lit.
At least English knows when their time is up.
Nicole Walker is the author of the forthcoming collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and of Sustainability: A Love Story from Ohio State University Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
April 8, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Ross West
Is this thing on?
[Tapping on microphone]
Okay, welcome, welcome everybody—nice to see such a good crowd. The subject of my talk today is Farrah Abraham. You may remember how she rocketed to fame as a participant on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She followed-up with appearances on Teen Mom, Teen Mom OG, Couples Therapy, Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars Family Edition, and Celebrity Big Brother.
Now twenty-seven, her indefatigable commitment to cultivating and leveraging her name, her celebrity—her brand, if you will—is simply breathtaking. What I’m here to tell you is that Farrah Abraham should be a role model and an inspiration for every writer attending this conference. This is true whether you are promoting a book, building a platform, or curating your career.
Just this month Abraham added “book critic” to her already impressive résumé with a review of Joan Didion’s groundbreaking Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Demonstrating the attention-getting panache of P.T. Barnum, Abraham titled her review, “Joan Didion is a Gin-drinking Bore Who Writes Convoluted Books.”
[Audience gasps and hisses]
I should add—
People, please. I should add, this piece was not written on spec—a practice painfully familiar to many of you fledgling self-promoters. No, Farrah Abraham was commissioned to write the piece—by Penthouse magazine.
I can see the name of that publication has some of you fidgeting in your seats. But let me remind you of a few authors who were glad to have their work appear in Penthouse: James Baldwin, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and Phillip Roth.
Abraham is not without a certain amount of her own literary credibility. Her memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended, was a New York Times e-book bestseller. How many of you can say that?
[Indistinct comment shouted by an audience member]
Yes, I agree, it was absolute garbage. Her review of Didion’s book is even worse. As if Abraham is completely unfamiliar with the concept of an essay collection, she’s stumped as to why the pieces jump “from year to year, often for no rhyme or reason. The non-linear structure confuses me. I had to wonder, ‘Was Didion even trying when she wrote this junk?’”
[Audience gasps and jeers]
Yes, junk. Ahem. And then there’s this: “If you’re looking to find out what not to do as a writer, this is a great book for you.”
[Groans and hoots]
Look, I don’t disagree with you. Let me come right out and say it: Abraham doesn’t have, and never will have, the literary talent of Joan Didion’s toenail clippings.
But that is not the point.
Now please, people, can we all get off our artsy-fartsy high horses and get down to business?
Here’s the bald-faced fact: Success in this today’s publishing world is all about ambition.
So how do we learn from a fantastically successful self-promoter like Farrah Abraham?
Has writing your book landed you an interview? If so, great. But how can you make that interview work for you? In other words, ask yourself this: What would Farrah Abraham do?
Research shows that the more times a prospective buyer is exposed to your book’s name, the more likely she will remember it, google it, and buy it. So when the interviewer asks you a question, keep in mind the writer’s eleventh commandment: Thou shalt take every opportunity to flog thy book. Commit to memory such phrases as “As I talked about in my book…” and “I devoted a whole chapter in my book to that…”
Listen to how smoothly Abraham does it: “When you need a book to read and ponder your drug problems, pick up a Didion essay collection. If you’re looking for a book that discusses real issues, you are better off picking up my memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended. My life story is closer to the truth of life.”
[Sneering, derisive laughter]
Yes, it’s appalling, grotesquely so . . . and it’s brilliant. Don’t forget, her book came out in 2012—seven years ago. But she’s still out there hustling the merch.
Let me be blunt: If you want to build your platform, if you want to blossom your career, sell books, and make money, you need to hold these truths to be self-evident: The race doesn’t go to the talented, or the clever, or the crafter of the most elegant lines since John Milton. The prize goes to the most aggressive promoter.
What matters is visibility, publicity; any and all attention you can generate in print, radio, television, podcasts, and blogs—exploding across social media with the attention-getting energy of a lightening bolt.
Abraham knows this in her bones. Her formal education is an associate’s degree from a defunct cooking school, but when she saw an opportunity to crap on one of the literary titans of the past hundred years did she hesitate? Not for one second. She’s a minnow calling a whale puny. That, ladies and gentlemen, is audacity.
And does she allow herself to be hobbled by some misplaced sense of humility? No! She’s riding the galloping stallion of her career and she’s giving it the spurs for all she’s worth.
If Farrah Abraham is anything, she’s shameless—a quality I suggest you nurture. And if you don’t already have the word careerist in your vocabulary, add it immediately, apply it to yourself, wear it as a badge of honor.
Any of you have a problem with that?
Another of Abraham’s skills: she thinks laterally. She accompanied the release of her memoir with a tie-in album of her music—one song for each chapter in the book. Pure cross-promotional genius. Farrah Abraham: TV star, best-selling author, literary critic, and accomplished musician. Has a nice Renaissance-woman ring, doesn’t it?
In point of fact, the reviews of her record were brutal; one used this phrase: “the most horrible combination of sounds to ever be assembled in the history of audio recording.” Doesn’t matter. Self-promotion is not a rearview mirror enterprise. What matters is what’s new and what’s next.
So ask yourself this: What am I going to do and how far am I willing to go? Abraham went all in, starring in the adult films Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom and Farrah 2: Backdoor and More. You might not want to promote yourself quite so, well, nakedly. But people, one way or another it’s all about exposure. You need to act and act aggressively. Your books are not going to sell themselves. Your career is not going to spontaneously generate.
Let me leave you with this thought. Being a writer is, first and foremost, about pushing, plugging, hyping, branding, merchandizing, and in every other possible way advertising your work and yourself. It’s not a career for the timid.
Are there any questions?
Ross West earned an MFA at the University of Oregon, where he worked for nineteen years as science writer and editor of the research publication Inquiry then as senior managing editor of the university magazine Oregon Quarterly (circ. 95,000). His essays have been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest; Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and The Best of Dark Horse Presents. They have also appeared in Oregon Quarterly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Recent publications include an excerpt from his novel in Embark (October 2018) and a short story in Spank the Carp (February 2019). He served as the text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and the Atlas of Yellowstone.