The Life-Changing Magic of Brevity’s 54th Issue

January 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

salvage-slideBrevity’s January 2017 issue looks at typos, teeth, Toledo, lunch lady arms, and Einstein’s theory of time and space, featuring fine flash nonfiction from Brenda Miller, Daisy Hernandez, Sonya Huber, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Sean Lovelace, Beth Ann Fennelly, Lucinda Roy, Jill Talbot, Lori Jakiela, Elizabeth K. Brown, Paula Cisewski, Eleanor Stanford, Allegra Hyde, Michele Morano, David Naimon, Staci Greason, and Maya Zeller. With original artwork by Allison Dalton.

In our craft section, Brandon Schrand considers our ability to equivocate artfully in the essay, Peter Selgin examines the need to resist total seduction by sounds and surfaces, and Rachel Tolliver and M. Sausun discuss nonfiction and social justice in the new political era.

Exactly what are you waiting for?

A Writing Life, Despite

January 16, 2017 § 9 Comments

zz_nina_bw_02smallBy Nina B. Lichtenstein

A few years ago I took a fancy-schmancy aptitude test in an elegant historic brownstone in Boston. I had just completed my PhD in French lit, and had fast come to realize that a little “portfolio diversification” would be wise, considering French departments were shutting down across the nation, and that to each job opening there were typically 400+ applicants; this regardless if it was for a tenure-track or a contingent faculty position, or if it was in Muskogee, Oklahoma or at a small New England private college where I had envisioned myself growing old amidst the climbing ivy and quintessential campus quad.

I decided it would be worth the rather steep price for the two-day testing with a follow-up session deciphering the results, because as long as my work could involve writing of some sort, I was committed to keeping an open mind to options beyond academia. I wanted, or hoped, to leave with some proof on paper of other useful abilities of mine that I could combine with writing. What if I was really cut out for being a dairy farmer or social worker instead and just didn’t know it? The idea intrigued me as much as it horrified me. While I was afraid to learn things I was not prepared for, I also needed to find out that I hadn’t come this far for no reason.

After two days of intense testing, I left with one big, strange new word in my pocket: Ideaphoria: “An experience where one feels a constant onslaught of new ideas, creating a euphoric state of idea creation.” I, however, remain convinced that this term is just nice talk for ADD, the state of mind that can be both a blessing and a curse.

I know that this “diagnosis” might be a common problem among writers: Many of us keep generating neat ideas for essays and short stories, and we sit ourselves down, like Anne Lamott tells us to, butt in chair, and begin to write with enthusiasm and energy, only to find that after the second or third paragraph, we open another document, feeling urgently the need to move on to the next exciting idea, of which several have revealed themselves by association as we were writing. Enthused anew like a butterfly in its mid-morning ecstasy on a mild summer day, fluttering from flower to flower in an instinctive and euphoric search of the sweet nectar, we move on.

The problem is, of course, that few things are completed this way for humans looking to develop their vocation as a writer.

I can tell you that this ideaphoria thing feels like being high, and when it hits I run as if airborne to my computer where my fingers dance on the keyboard while I float, gleefully, like I’m catching an exhilarating ride on the wings of a butterfly. However, contrary to the butterfly who might be rescuing a colony of pupae, or ensuring the continuity of a genus of wild roses as it moves on to the next source, my fluttering remains just that: a sweet but brief lingering among fertile but incomplete paragraphs that cannot and will not develop unless I pollinate them consistently and with conviction. The result is that I have countless folders of undeveloped barely begun stories.

Just now, for example, I feel an immense and uncomfortable restlessness because since I sat down this morning and began writing this piece, I have a new, brilliant, and urgent idea for a blog post. I also thought of a pitch for “Israel Story,” the Israeli version of “This American Life,” that I simply must pursue, like now. Waiting until I’m done here feels like torture. Or masochism, since I don’t have to take it, but do anyway.

But, I will take it this time, because it would be too ironic if I leave this page now.

Since I was born and raised both in a time (1960s-70s) and in a country (Norway) where diagnosis such as ADD and ADHD were neither made nor medicated, I must have taught myself how to adapt and adjust. I recall report cards reading, “Nina disrupts in class and walks around the room without asking permission,” and as a kid I didn’t hide under the covers with a flashlight and book, but roamed my neighborhood in search of curiosities I would get in trouble for exploring.

Somehow, I managed along the way to complete a BA, an MA and then the PHD, requiring no small effort of task completion. I forgot to say that I’m also insanely stubborn and have occasional perfectionistic tendencies: curses in relationships but blessings in the business of finishing a project, although more often the butt out of chair kind, like painting or re-organizing my closet.

I have come to realize that in many ways I’ve learned to navigate this “diagnosis” ever since those early years in Oslo, since although I struggle to bring all the ideas I get so euphoric about to paper, and then onward toward completion, the stubborn part in me enables me to eventually finish a few of them, and send them out into the world. And there is struggle: the frustrations and disappointments from rejections as well as the inevitable self-doubt laced with resignation and self-loathing. But, occasionally it happens, an essay is accepted, and a veil is lifted as I realize I can do it. In fact, this sounds just like what I keep reading a writer’s life is often like.

And nobody said it was going to be easy.


Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature from UCONN. She has lived, studied/taught, and raised three sons in CT. A fresh empty-nester, she migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted (see diagnosis). Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa just came out, and currently she lives in Jerusalem working on a new book project. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Lilith Magazine, and Literary Mama, among other places.

A Review of Mary Cappello’s Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack

January 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

9780226356068.jpgBy Joey Franklin

All my life I have been a browser of dictionaries, a Sunday-afternoon flipper of phone books, a belly-on-the-carpet peruser of atlases and anthologies. I’ve been a geek for information since I picked up my first children’s illustrated encyclopedia. But I also love a good story, which is probably why I read essays. Who can resist the genre’s uncanny alchemy of information and personal narrative steeped in the mind of a thoughtful observer? Life is chaos, as information is chaos, but the essay reveals order, structure, and meaning in both. It’s the kind of literature that helps us find, rather than escape ourselves—the essay as atlas to the heart, dictionary of our own self-definition or, as Mary Cappello describes it in her new book, an almanac to mood.

Cappello’s new collection of essays, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, is a 300-page thought experiment on mood, but calling it a collection doesn’t do justice to the scope of Cappello’s project. These essays don’t merely play off one another. They are distinct, stand-alone attempts at describing the often ineffable nature and origin of mood, part and parcel of one another—much the way that moods themselves are distinct and unique, but collectively make up the reality of who we are.

If you’ve read her book Awkward: A Detour, you’ll recognize in Life Breaks In what I call the Cappello Approach. It’s a disciplined, if idiosyncratic, dive into a subject, a Mariana Trench-level exploration that defies metaphor, or else demands a mixing. She’s not only turning her subject over to see it from every angle, but cutting it open, and cutting it up, tincturing bits in alcohol, grinding some into powder, spinning some in a centrifuge. Her subjects go under the knife and under the microscope; she looks under the hood and under the bed.

Subjects that get the Cappello Approach in this book, to name a few: clouds, the View-Master, family photos, mood rings, the physiology of hearing, parent/child relationships, taxidermy, dioramas, the classic children’s book Good Night Moon, and, most interestingly, a 19th-century orphanage-turned-natural-history-museum. Through all this, Cappello develops a subtle argument for mood as an essential piece of the self-discovery puzzle. She writes, “If mood defies representation, we should be protective of it, for it must have something to tell us that we cannot see and need to know.”

The Cappello approach is to the essay what I imagine the Swiss Army knife is to the toothpick, what Majong is to tic-tac-toe. In Life Breaks In, she confesses her love of “writing that resists its reader.” “I’m suspicious of the easy invitation that bows to protocol,” she writes. “Or the stuff that chatters recognizably, incapable of interestingly interrupting my day by making my heart skip a beat or requiring that I listen with my eyes.” Studious. Funky. Playful. Brooding. This is not a book you bring to the beach. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a joy to read. On the contrary, Cappello is the best kind of daunting. Life Breaks In is inspiring in the way of performances by preternaturally gifted musicians and athletes—a “wouldn’t it be great if I could jump that high, pluck strings that beautifully, sing with such grace, pull a double-pump-fake lay-in from under the rim with my tongue hanging out” type experience; except, it’s not Mike I want to be like, but Mary.

How about a classical author comparison? Cappello is at times as cerebral as Bacon, but where Bacon’s essays amount to a series of declarative statements that imply an immense amount of introspection, Cappello’s work is an immense amount of introspection that implies a series of assertions. If Bacon posits himself as a font of wisdom and right thinking, Cappello posits herself as a font of curiosity and deep thinking. And her mood is never Bacon, always Montaigne.

Near the beginning of Life Breaks In, Cappello claims, “in order to write or make art one must be in love, not with an individual per se, but with life itself.” And it may be Cappello’s passion that comes through most clearly in this book—a passion wide enough and deep enough to encompass life and all its many moods.


Joey Franklin’s first book, My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married, won the 2015 Association of Mormon Letters book prize for nonfiction, and was a finalist the 2016 Utah Book Award. His essays have appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Gettysburg Review, and many other publications.  He teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, and is currently at work on a memoir about the saints and scoundrels hiding in his family tree.

True Stories, Podcasts, and Cult Music

December 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

truestory-issue1-coverMatt Tullis has hosted 49 episodes of Gangrey: The Podcast so far, focusing on literary journalism, and how it is reported, written, edited, and revised.  In a recent installment, Tullis talks with Steven Kurutz, features reporter for the New York Times, about “Fruitland,” the story that launched Creative Nonfiction magazine’s new series, True Story.

“Fruitland” explores the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, “two brothers … who as teenagers in the late 1970s self-recorded an album in a log-cabin studio their father built for them on the family farm. The album, Dreamin’ Wild, flopped upon its release but was rediscovered in a junk shop in 2008 and reissued by Light in the Attic records to critical and cult acclaim–but not without bringing out ghosts from the past and taking an emotional toll and the brothers and their family.”

Also joining the podcast on this episode is Hattie Fletcher. Fletcher is the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction, and is editing each installment of True Story.

Give it a listen.


Summary Judgment

December 15, 2016 § 5 Comments


Write this as a scene?

A few days ago, I heard a writer read the first five pages of his brand-new manuscript in process, the first book he has ever tackled. It wasn’t the time to point out issues, it was the time for encouragement. Keep writing. You can do it. Don’t judge the first draft, just get it on the page.

But there were some issues. The same issues I see in most writers’ first drafts–often in my own first drafts. And the biggest issue was summarizing. We’ve all heard “show don’t tell,” and we all have some level of understanding what that means. But it’s hard to recognize and root out of our own work explanations that don’t serve the narrative.

One way to track down telling? Look for summaries.

He told her about the day he’d had, that he’d seen his boss and asked for a raise.

They met by moonlight and exchanged vows of eternal love.

If I were editing this imaginary book, I’d comment on the first sentence, “Can you write this as dialogue?” and on the second, “Can you write this as a scene?” These two comments end up in almost every manuscript I edit. They are so common, I have them set up as text-expanders. Just as we type “omw” and our phone helpfully texts “On my way!” I can type “wtd” or “wts” and pop out these key comments. (I have a number of text-expanders–my favorite is the very useful, “It’s hard to tell what this means–these words aren’t effectively carrying out your intention here,” which expands from “wtf.”)

Yes, there are times when summaries are useful. If we’ve just come out of the chapter where Prabhat has asked his boss for a raise and she threw a fax machine at him, we might open the next chapter with “He told her about the day he’d had.” Though I’d still push for Prabhat walking through the door on “I asked.” and rubbing his bruised head.

Think about the movie of your book in your head. Are you watching a scene play out in a location with people taking actions and talking to each other? Or are you hearing the protagonist’s voice, I told Ruth about the day I had, that I’d seen my boss and asked for a raise. I hoped she’d understand, but she said I deserved it and she was going home to her mother, narrating a silent movie or a series of snapshots?

“Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean “describe everything,” as Joshua Henkin points out in Writer’s Digest. We don’t need all the furniture in the room. But first-draft summaries can often be treated as shorthand. We use descriptions of scenes and summaries of dialogues as placeholders, both consciously and as writing habits, and it’s much easier to revise a first draft than to work from a blank page. But whether it’s a narrative summary or your note to yourself-as-writer, PUT KITCHEN SCENE HERE WHERE THEY FIGHT AND SHE GOES HOME TO MOTHER, hunt down summaries in later drafts. When a character tells another character about something that happened somewhere else at another time, when you catch He explained that… and They discussed… and I told them… with no quotation marks in sight, mentally read those as:

“Scene to be written here.”

“This will eventually be dialogue.”

Consider them your own text-expanders.



Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast and recently recorded the webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir, now available from Editors Canada.

The Hybrid Writer’s Life (Post-MFA)

December 5, 2016 § 21 Comments

zz headshot.jpg

Photo by Chris Marley

By Paige Sullivan

A newly-enrolled MFA student, my job as an assistant editor at my program’s top-tier, in-house literary journal was what you’d expect: reading the slush pile. The journal accepted both paper and online submissions, meaning each week I’d work through a stack of submission packets colorfully paper clipped together in addition to sifting through the online queue.

While the work was sometimes dull, it was crucial to sharpening my reading skills, and it afforded me an invaluable understanding of the spectrum of talent and skill that exists out there. Truly, we got it all: exceptional work, promising work, and strange poems that tried to compare love to meatball marinara.

My favorite part of reading the paper submissions were the more personal touches of the printed and hand-signed cover letters, which were sometimes accompanied by a business card. For me, these submissions became fascinating character studies. Yes, there were writers like me: MFA students or graduates who neatly listed 3-4 italicized publications, any accolades, and where they lived and worked. Others were less conventional and thus more interesting.

One woman included a business card that read, “Poet….Hairdresser.” There was more than one letter from an attorney who wrote poems when they weren’t practicing law. One writer mentioned that in addition to their day job and their writing, they were active in the competitive breeding and show rabbit circuit. Incredible.

As I soon came to the conclusion that the academic career path was not the career path for me, I became more and more fascinated with these kinds of writers: the ones who had other interests and obligations outside the typical gamut of writing/literature/ composition/teaching/adjuncting. The lawyers and hairdressers and rabbit enthusiasts who found room in their lives to make art, too.

While I was not discouraged from pursuing a non-academic career path, I can’t say there was a wealth of structured support within my department. I thus figured out a great deal on my own, cobbling together myriad experiences in freelance writing and editing, writing random articles on ethical travel habits and Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Atlanta between grading papers and preparing poems for workshop.

There are ways in which writers self-soothe:

Well, Robert Frost didn’t publish his first book until late in life, so I’m doing pretty ok.

Well, Wallace Stevens wasn’t an academic. He worked in insurance and turned out pretty ok.

Hey, William Carlos Williams was a doctor! Surely if I don’t become a professor I’m not dooming myself.

I’m sure I’m not the only poet who read O.T. Marod’s essay “Poet at Work” in a recent issue of The Point and felt both the rush and deflation of recognition. Writers are no strangers to the complex paradoxes of their identities–the delicious, almost flippant valor that comes with simply responding, “I’m a writer” when someone asks what you do, tethered to the falter in your confidence when the person lobs back an “Oh, huh.” or “Really?”

Then again, maybe more confident writers don’t feel the need to qualify their pronouncements. On good days, I don’t. Other days, it feels almost blase to flash my poet moniker without the self-conscious need to defend and protect it.

Perhaps we can agree with Marod’s essential points: that poets and writers commonly struggle with a profound crises of role and identity, and that many of us live a dashed or hyphenated identity, as his allegorical poet/tutor does, to make both art and a living.

But is that really so bad?

Yes, in a perfect world, poets would have a salary commensurate with experience and a nice benefits package. But our art isn’t (always) for hire, and I can’t say that that really bothers me.

On the contrary, I think the hybridity of identities and skills working writers claim can be mutually fruitful. I think good writers should likely be passionate about the world around them to remain passionate about art.

And while there’s comfort and prestige and familiar structures that come with academia, preaching the gospel of the tenure-track faculty position isn’t sustainable or realistic–but that doesn’t have to mean something dire.

I am hungry for an expanded conversation of hybrid writers, MFAs With Day Jobs–whatever you want to call them–beyond the perfunctory Well, Philip Larkin was a librarian, so…. exception to the rule anecdote. I want to talk more about people who have a life on the other side of the dash that is just as interesting and enriching and challenging as the life of a poet….and of a rabbit breeder.


Paige Sullivan recently completed her MFA at Georgia State University, where she served as the poetry editor of New South. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or will soon appear in Bitter Southerner, Ninth Letter, Arts & Letters, Grist and other publications. In addition to freelancing, she works as a marketing professional in Atlanta’s nonprofit sector.


Clock Striker Crashes Through Courthouse Ceiling, 1935

December 1, 2016 § 6 Comments

Time-Keepers-1.jpgNovelist and essayist Lee Martin reflects on the violent attacks at Ohio State University this past Monday:

When the cable broke and the striking weights fell, the janitor, Ben Conover, found himself trapped in the belfry, where he’d gone to wind the courthouse clock. The clock stopped at 8:30 a.m., the time when the strands of the cable that held the weights unraveled. Seven hundred pounds of iron weights came down, demolishing the belfry staircase, crashing through two ceilings, and coming to rest, finally, at the rear of the Bar of Justice in the Circuit Court Room.

How the plaster dust must have risen and coated Ben’s boots, the legs of his coveralls, perhaps even his eyebrows and hair.

It was Friday, April 12. The year was still a year of economic depression. The unemployment rate was 20.1 percent. There in the small towns and farming communities of my native southeastern Illinois, Ben Conover’s world must have been one of want, must have been one of always standing on guard against the next worst thing. I know because I’m the child of parents who survived the Great Depression. On that day in April of 1935, my father would have been twenty-one years old, the only son of an aging farmer in Lukin Township. When I was a boy, I heard the stories of the market crashing, the banks closing, the savings being lost, the crop prices bottoming out. One day you could think you were flush, maybe even a little up on the game, and the next day you could be falling.


This morning, when word came that there was an active shooter on the campus of The Ohio State University where I teach, the news struck a blow that rattled me and put an ache into my throat. I was safe in my home, but my thoughts turned toward those who weren’t. I watched the story unfold on television, facts coming in a few at a time, until it became clear that there had been no shooter, only a single person who drove his car into a group of students and then got out with a butcher knife. Eleven people ended up being treated for lacerations from the knife, and injuries from being hit by the vehicle. A campus police officer shot and killed the attacker.

It’s toward evening now as I write this, 4:05 p.m., the time, if this were an ordinary day, when I’d be getting ready to meet my MFA creative nonfiction workshop, but Ohio State has canceled classes, to resume tomorrow. My next class will meet on Wednesday evening. Each time I’ve stepped on campus the past few years, I’ve wondered if this day might come. This is the world we’ve made.

I sit and look out my window on a day that’s become cloudy, look out over the lake, where the water moves in ripples and the twilight waits. Soon lights will come on in the homes on the other side, and the darkness, little by little, will creep in, the Earth turning over one more time.

I think about Ben Conover trapped in that belfry while the chaos swirled beneath him. I imagine people calling out to make sure no one was hurt, giving thanks when that turned out to be true. I’ve read the newspaper report. No one was in the Circuit Court Room when the weights fell. One minute Ben had been turning the windlass, and then the cable broke, and like that, the clock stopped. No whirring of the gears, no pealing of the bells, nothing to mark the hours.

Before Ben made himself known—before someone brought a ladder so he could climb down—did he hear the wind moving through the giant oaks on the courthouse lawn? Did he hear birdsong? The chatter of squirrels? I like to think he reveled in the pause, in what must have seemed like time’s heavenly absence.

Did he imagine it all unwinding, as I do now, spooling backwards, past every human pain and sorrow, to the days before the people came, when the land belonged to the animals: bison, gray wolf, mountain lion, deer. I imagine them moving through woods and prairie grass. No thought of time. No sense of how it hurtles forward into the future.

Then something comes—some scent, some vibration, some sound—and they freeze, ears alert, the muscles in their haunches about to quiver.

Oh, to hold them there in that majesty, that blessed instant, that split second, before nerves twitch, and they run.


Lee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; Break the Skin, and Late One Night. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Glimmer Train, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Essays. HHe teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English.

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