The Periphery: Preserving Your Writing Time (and Focus)

October 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

lizmBy Liz Matthews

The anatomy of my eyeballs is in trouble and I’ll need laser surgery to widen the canals.

“Don’t look this up on the internet,” my ophthalmologist says to me twice during my initial consult.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “my imagination is worse than the internet.” I don’t tell him that I didn’t even Google ‘what’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?’ before this appointment. I don’t explain that as a writer, I prefer to linger in this hazy space, on the periphery of truth and fact.

On the same morning that I learn I am among the 10% of the population who has small eyes, I also hear on the radio that in today’s culture, we are distracted every eleven minutes, and that it takes twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. No wonder. No wonder when I finally catch up with my college roommate or talk to my sister who lives across the country, I can’t focus afterwards. No wonder when I finally sit down to write, my mind is too crowded with not just to-do-lists, but also conversations, the idea of a full inbox, and voices that say about me, “you don’t really like to text, do you?”

In my writing workshops, I encourage my students to write on the spot about something they know nothing about without using Google. “May I just look something up quickly?” one of them asks. No. It defeats the purpose of the exercise, to imagine what it feels like to be, say, a miner or an opera singer. Now I will also share that it would take some time – more than twenty minutes – to recover from that distraction. If we allow ourselves the opportunity to always be distracted, how can we be creative?

I am in the process of revising a novel that involves a high school student who spends a lot of time in the art studio. I have been trying to get in touch with a woman from my hometown who became an art teacher at our high school. We exchanged a few emails, but didn’t land on a date to get coffee or even talk on the phone. A few weeks later, I run into her at a mutual friend’s party. I tell her that her voicemail is full. Should I email her instead?

“I rarely check my phone or email, but keep trying me.” She is unapologetic, which is unfamiliar and inspiring. She is also a fine artist – a painter – and a mom to two small children. She is not teaching right now so she can spend more time on her art. “Just keep trying my phone. If I’m free, I’ll answer.”

I replay this conversation in my mind for weeks following the party. Here’s a different approach for how to stay focused to make creative work. Even if we sneak in phone calls here and there, we have to take into account the time it takes to process these conversations. We have to allow room for how these external voices will inform our work, will continue to distract us. We can still ensure our family’s safety, still be accessible, without becoming Google or Wikipedia or Alexa – always available to answer questions, to provide small talk responses on text.

At the party where I run into my old high school friend, she says, “I’m curious what you wanted to ask me about teaching art.”

“Just about the classroom, the type of kids who take art these days, the assignments you give. Do any of them have nose rings?”

She explains about the self-portraits she assigns, how the middle school students aren’t mature enough to stare at their reflection for long periods of time, how this assignment is best suited for high school students, who know and understand themselves better. I imagine my sixteen-year-old self, staring at my reflection. The teenager who doesn’t know yet that her eyes are considered small, that her teeth will become crooked again, and that nearly three decades later, she’ll still want to write. I also recognize how useful this anecdote is for the teenage character I’m working on, who is struggling with her identity, how this assignment could showcase some interior monologue as she considers her reflection. I wonder if this exchange would have come across through email – or even over a phone conversation. As we make eye contact, I see this friend as the teenage artist who painted murals in the art store in the center of town. She also always knew what she wanted to be.

I tell my writing students that it’s important to quiet your mind before writing, to take a walk, meditate, wake up early, do whatever you need to do to be open to your creative voice and to silence your judgmental voice. But now I have this to offer – think about what you do before you sit down to write. Think about how you procrastinate. Maybe you shouldn’t make that call until later. Maybe you shouldn’t be so vigilant about cleaning out that inbox. If someone needs to reach you, they will reach you.


Liz Matthews received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008. Her writing has been published at The Rumpus, Brain Child, Quality Women’s Fiction, and Town & Country online. She lives in Connecticut with her family, and teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop.




Mirrors and Microprose: Lauren Gillette’s “Things I Did” Project

October 15, 2018 § 3 Comments

2018-10-12_0901By Nina Gaby

There’s an immediate familiarity to Lauren Gillette’s crisp and unsympathetic management of narrative despite the contrast to my own mixed-media micro-memoir exhibit one gallery over in the AVA Center for the Arts in Lebanon, NH. My work can be fussy – translucent porcelain sheets interleaved with text on rustic papers and old boxes of ephemera. Quite different from Gillette’s “Things I Did”–  a collection of 12×12 inch mirrors mounted edge to edge, each with a five-line account of a life etched onto the glass, each written by a stranger from Craigslist who answered her call. Dozens of these mirrors surround the viewer at eye level on three sides of the exhibit space. The fourth wall is all window, adding street energy to the mix.

The exhibit, curated by AVA’s Mila Pinigin, involves four mixed-media artists projecting narrative in unique ways, talking about story, examining the interplay between the written word and the visual structure containing that word or object standing in for that word.

What was familiar to me was the simplicity of the project. I had run across Gillette’s earlier work, “Wish/Regret” in 2012, by chance on an artwalk in Portsmouth, NH. Once again spare and focused, Gillette’s small square book, beautifully produced by Plainspoke Press, accompanied the exhibit. I purchased it to use as a provocative template for the therapy groups I run.

In “Wish/Regret,” the Maine artist paired two mugshots taken with her Hasselblad. In the first image the subject states a wish, the second, a regret. It is up to the viewer to fill in the rest, which becomes the blank slate for projection of the viewer’s own story in the same way that viewing her mirrors, and her other projects, invite one in.

Things I Did 6Gillette does not see herself as a writer, but echoes what so many writers say when they start a piece. “I start a project not knowing where it will go.” She states, “I put it out to the public and they never disappoint. They show me where to go. People–their poetic souls, their generosity. They always slay me. It’s amazing.”

On a brilliant October morning we dismantled our respective shows and went down the street for chai. I asked Gillette some questions:

Nina Gaby: Words are usually presented on the flat page, obviously you find shape in other materials. How did you make that jump?

Lauren Gillette: I’m a visual artist so the jump was taking the leap to ease more writing into the project, but to remind myself that if I go a little too far away from the visual I’ll need to make that leap sooner rather than later. I used to be a portrait painter and always thought there were stories but nobody knew them. Any way we can tell our stories is fine. I just hope to find that universal thread between people.

NG: It’s an intimate show. As the viewer gets close enough to read between the five lines of each story, they literally see themselves, in fragments, reading the story. What have people said to you about that experience?

LG: Good question. They start to make up their own list, they have their own thoughts. I don’t think much about what the viewer sees, once the exhibit is up, they see the pieces. I just hope some connection happens. In this world today any threads we can have between us helps. Our lack of connection is shows up even in children. Chronic illness, for instance, in pediatric cases earlier and earlier. Much of this can be attributed to how we distance ourselves.

NG: For those of us who work in microprose and flash, we would be interested in how you think about “less is more.” Does the visual replace the text?

Things I Did 2LG: Visual is presentation, how you look at it. In this case more writing than visual went through a process to get to the simple vehicle of the mirror. Sometimes I just want to be married to everything I make or write but it goes against my nature to say, well that’s a nice sentence, why don’t I save it? If it doesn’t push the concept forward it has to go.

NG: So you edit.

LG: Yes. A lot. It takes me a long time to figure out I really don’t like something. “Things I Did” started out as embroidery. Very laborious, not that that’s bad, but it looked horrible and it just wasn’t pushing the arc forward. I never edit what anyone else gives me for the projects, not even the spelling. They edit themselves. But my own stuff, the visual, the writing, I edit a lot to make it smaller. More universal. That thread I keep talking about.

NG: Are you aware of the impact? I heard the Outreach Coordinator at the arts center had groups of young disadvantaged women in and this really got them thinking about how they would describe their own lives, led to some good conversation about how they want to look at their lives.

LG: I try to take ego out of it. I try to see it from someone else’s point of view. Like– is it interesting to people? Helpful to people? I’m thrilled if someone says something nice, but as we’re all trying to do as artists is let people be a witness to themselves. People respond to what they recognize. So that’s not about me. No one wants to be impressed, they just want to be moved.

To read more about Gillette’s work and how she came to this project, or to add your own five-line history, visit her blog at:


Nina Gaby is a visual artist, writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner. She has exhibited widely over the past four decades, is published in a number of anthologies and journals and has been a frequent contributor to the Brevity blog. To see Gaby’s work go to


Explaining Pain: How I Wrote “A Murder of Crows”

October 12, 2018 § 5 Comments



by Jan Priddy

To understand how I wrote “A Murder of Crows,” my essay in Brevity‘s September 2018 issue, you must first understand why.

My husband and I feel a connection to crows, more as family than foreigners. About twenty-five years ago my husband came home from work with a baby crow in a paper sack. He had found “Elvis” beside his squashed brother on the shoulder of highway 101. Elvis was not yet fledged—that is, he had quills but not quite feathers and could not fly. His beak and legs were partly pink. His eyes were still blue. We rescued him but deliberately made no effort to tame him. Elvis lived in an enclosed garden for a few weeks. Local crows arrived to speak to him through the window. When he could fly, we let him go. Friends who rehabilitated birds in another state assured us that he would likely fare well as a juvenile, even re-released outside his original range. That proved true. For years we saw Elvis hanging with the local murder.

Since then I have read a good deal about ravens and crows. We talk to the crows during our beach walks, often engaging in lengthy exchanges of clicks and caws. When a raven pair moved into our community, we celebrated.

The story of the murder came from our eldest son who had attended and then worked as a  counselor in a local children’s camp. One of his last summers, perhaps even the last, he came home from the first week with a terrible story.


So why use the form of a fable to recount this true event? I have taught fables as a narrative form. I once began my school year with “Blue Donkey Fable” by Suniti Namjoshi. Fables teach lessons. The boy who cried wolf. Fox’s sour grapes. Animals are often used as characters because they come prepackaged with known personalities and powers in the same way King might be a character or Farmer or Cook. Fables are told in past tense and third person. They are short. They are “once upon a time” and never intended to be believed as literally true. The author is not an actor in the story.

Since I always write the assignments I give my students, I have several conventional fables with crow characters. A crow plays with an abandoned garden glove. A young crow refuses to take practical advice from her elders. Each of my crow fables ends with a stated moral.

One wrinkle I add to my students’ assignment is to require revision to a different verb tense and using a different point of view. I tell students this is a “sneaky writer’s trick,” which it is. Choosing another perspective, even in nonfiction, may reveal deeper understanding and detail, though here my purpose is to help students develop control of rhetoric.

My fable about the summer camp murder violates the rules of a fable because it is a story about violation. The fabulist voice distances that pain while direct address and present tense intrude on the narrative. I ask questions. I include scientific facts. It is not a general tale set anywhere, but a specific event set somewhere. It is not a conventional fable with a stated moral. It is not a koan meant to twirl around forever. But even my fable is intended to warn while pushing the creative nonfiction envelope.

I do not believe in being sentimental about animals, but this brutal reaction to an ordinary annoyance still shocks me. The story of hubris outlives the event.


The life expectancy of an American crow is only seven or eight years. Elvis is long gone by now, but for some time my husband would spot “our crow,” the only local bird with white on his flight feathers, perched overhead on a cable line. The bird and my husband would call to one another. Gary would announce when he came home for lunch, “I saw Elvis!”

Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Pushcart nomination, MFA, and publication in journals such as CALYXThe HumanistLiminal StoriesNorth American Review, and nonfiction anthologies on running and race. She is currently struggling with a utopian science fiction story in which nearly everyone dies. She loves birds.

On Writing “Katy Perry Is Crooning and Won’t Stop Just Because I Did”

October 11, 2018 § 4 Comments

Shuly Cawood author picby Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

I grew up in Yellow Springs, a village in Ohio, and I return to it several times throughout the year to see my parents and to be in a place I still love and that most feels like home to me. I live in a city now, not a very big one—population 65,000—but large compared to the town in which I grew up with a population of under 4,000.

You want to know what it’s like to grow up in that small of a town? One Saturday afternoon, many years ago, our German Shepherd, named Sable, jumped our picket fence and ran to the school grounds a block away, as there was a festival happening there, and my sister and I, likely early teens at the time, had gone to it. Because Yellow Springs is a small town, the news traveled fast to us. People recognized her as our dog, but they didn’t just tell us, “Your dog is loose.” We were told, “Sable’s on the hayride.” (And yes, she was.)

My high school graduating class had 69 students (and we had a big class), so at YSHS we didn’t just know everyone in our grade: we knew everyone a year below and a year above, and most of the students from two years below and two years above, and on and on. We only had so many people to know, and this made the business of knowing easier. Even today, I am always struck by the number of people I know and who know me when I go anywhere in Yellow Springs, even though I have not lived there for twenty years.

The piece, “Katy Perry Is Crooning and Won’t Stop Just Because I Did,” is about one day in my small town, a day when I was there a few months ago. On the morning of that day, while out and about in Yellow Springs, I talked to a villager (a person I have known for decades) who told me of the unexpected death of a man earlier that same morning, someone who is a few years younger than I am. This villager told me about the death of the person not just because it was sad and jarring—his being under fifty and, from outward appearances, in seemingly good health—but also because there was an assumption I would know him. And I did.

These are the kinds of assumptions you can make, though, in a small town. Later that same day, while I was taking a walk, I ran into the brother of the man who died. Only in a small town can you hear terrible news about a person and then a few hours later happen to run into the family bearing the weight of that news. Only in a small town can you also know the brother, even if you have not lived there for twenty years.

In my small town, I didn’t feel right about not saying anything, not stopping to offer my condolences to the brother. Perhaps I would have felt or acted differently had I been somewhere else. Perhaps the news might not have seemed as sad and awful had I not known who they were, had the news been that of complete strangers.

I realize I have used the words know, known, knowing so many times in trying to tell you how all of this began.

I started writing down snippets that night (more a listing of details) and then wrote the piece fully while in a coffee shop in downtown Yellow Springs. I was finishing up a full-length poetry manuscript the week of my visit, so this piece’s first incarnation was as a poem. The poem became an essay only after I decided to submit it to Brevity. I write very prose-like poems anyway, so all I needed to do was take out the line breaks. Oh, and I also had to change one detail—I had taken some creative license with the placement of the car since poems don’t have to adhere to the truth, but for this to be a creative nonfiction essay, the car needed to be where it actually was in “real life,” as they say.

I miss living in a small town. I miss my village. I miss knowing so many people and being known the way I am known there—not because I am famous but because I grew up there and have a history there, a history I am still building, even though I don’t live there anymore.

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press). She has an MFA from Queens University, and her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Zone 3, Santa Clara Review, New Madrid Journal, and Cider Press Review, among others.


The Fire is a Lion: Writing at Rock Creek

October 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

zz FullSizeRender (6)By Emily H. Freeman

On the way to write with the boys from the group home, we turn off the highway at a piece of land adjacent to Rock Creek, the pristine fly-fishing stream that attracts anglers to Montana from around the world. Mountains loom in the distance, shaded in varying grays from the 20,000-acre wildfire burning in their midst — the Sapphire Complex, it’s called, a joining of what was once three smaller fires, each with its own evocative moniker: Sliderock. Goat Creek. Little Hogback.

Lily, my partner from a local watershed restoration organization, stops the truck and unlocks the gate, and in the distance I see a vast fenced-in area of dried-out dirt surrounding a small pond. It’s a construction scar from a failed development project, Lily explains, putting two words to something I’ve seen, but never named: construction scar. A thwarted attempt at change.

A white van rolls in behind us: four teenaged boys and two staff members of the group home where they live.

We hand out notebooks and pencils at the base of an old cottonwood snag, its sides stippled with perfectly round holes where birds have made feasts of what once lived beneath its bark. My job this morning is to write with these boys, and to be as present and encouraging as I can, in the hour that we’ll spend together. After we write, we’ll take care of the land.

The boys tell me their names, their ages. One says he loves to write, is working on a novel. Another, politely unabashed, tells me he doesn’t like writing at all. A third tells me that he sometimes writes raps and poems, and the fourth, a shy redhead, mumbles something inaudible, barely meets my gaze.

A woodpecker flies to the tree above us, perches on a high branch, as though listening. Lily points it out to the group. “Pileated,” she says. “Largest woodpecker in Montana.”

One by one, the boys turn their heads to look.

We talk about wildfires, about the smoke that’s been filling the valley for weeks, and I ask the boys to write about it.

With such a short time together, and little knowledge of their backstories, I throw out my best hopes for quick and fruitful writing prompts. I tell them to use their five senses, to imagine the fire as an animal, an emotion, metaphor.

Heads bend down to notebooks; pencils start to move. It’s quiet now, save for the intermittent roar of semis in the distance, the chattering of kestrels wheeling overhead. Through the trees behind us, Rock Creek throws its voice into the song.

When it’s time to share, the boys’ voices start quiet and tentative, growing in strength as they realize they have the group’s full attention. The fire is a lion, they say, a tiger, an unnamed mythical beast. It is greed, it is violence; it is an insatiable hunger. Some of the adults share what they wrote, as well, privileging the boys with their own vulnerability.

And then: it’s time. Too short, but writing is only a part of what we’re here to do. Bodies shift and notebooks are rounded up.

We shift our attention to the construction scar, brightly colored plastic flags marking spots where young plants are growing: black cottonwood and mock orange, choke cherry and rocky mountain maple. These are the plants that will restore the soil, create habitat, and heal the land.

The boys know the drill, having worked with Lily all summer long. They walk over to her truck, its bed filled with a 150-gallon tank. She opens the valve, and water drains through a hose into a large container set on the ground. We scoop out bucketsful, then slowly walk through the warming mid-day air to pour out the contents at each flag. At some, a foot-high wild rose grows, branches prickly and resilient-looking. At others, a small red twig marks a willow, and at still others: nothing. Lily insists they be watered anyway, that roots will get established even if there’s nothing to show for it above ground.

For an hour we fill, and trudge, and tend. In the center of the pond, a duck family floats, nearly still, on the water’s surface. Two boys across the pond spot salamanders, catch frogs. Another finds a snake. The reemergence of these small and fragile creatures is a sign that the project is working.

Water gone, we circle up at the truck. Lily sits on the tailgate and pulls up a wildlife identification app on her phone.

“What kind of frog do you think you found?” she asks the boys.

“Leopard Frog?” one offers.

“More likely a Pacific Chorus Frog,” she says.

She finds the frog on the app, turns up the volume on her phone and holds it in the middle of the circle for the boys to hear. Conversations fade, and the frog’s call – a kind of guttural chuckling — fills the air.

In the next two weeks, the fire in the distance will grow to nearly twice its size, with no signs of slowing, evacuation and pre-evacuation orders in place for the houses at its borders.

In the next three weeks, the boys will start school again, moving through already complex channels with an added burden that most of their classmates will never know.

In the next few months, one of them — a high-school senior — will turn 18, and age out of the group home system entirely. He’ll have to move out on his own, and, as much as the staff of his home has done to prepare him for this inevitability, he’ll nevertheless be a not-yet-high school graduate, somebody’s still-young son, navigating the world largely on his own.

But none of that is happening right now.

Right now, we are a motley assemblage of kids and adults, standing within an ember’s throw of a fiery mountain, crowded around a phone from which emanates the call of a small amphibian.

And somewhere in the pond, another frog turns to listen.

Emily H. Freeman has taught writing in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation through the Missoula Writing Collaborative. Her work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons.



Schizophrenia, Dandelions, and the Non-Linear Essay

September 19, 2018 § 1 Comment

RobinsonPhotoIn the Craft Essay section of Brevity‘s September 2018 issue Elizabeth Robinson considers an array of non-linear patterns for writing an essay, because unfamiliar patterns “realign our attentions, create greater plasticity in our art-making, and drench us in unknowing.”  Here’s an excerpt:

We read narrative obedient to the “upside-down checkmark” (tension, climax and resolution). The truth of it is so transparent that we need not evaluate, much less notice, it.

Despite that transparency, some of us are incapable of linearity. For us, linearity is a sin against the erotic chaos, the proliferating patterns of the world. Patterns. Pattern thinkers. Even to suggest it is to lapse into sentence fragments for us who see constellations instead of lines.

You can explore Robinson’s sampler of non-linear patterns here in Brevity Craft.


Brevity’s 59th Issue Predicts the Best Days for Breeding

September 17, 2018 § 1 Comment

mybodhisattvaBrevity’s September 2018 issue contains crisp flash essays exploring blood on the pool deck, aces of spades, cremation, crow murder, diner Bodhisattvas, and the best days for breeding, from these amazing writers: Steven Schwartz, Peggy Duffy, Rachael Peckham, Alysia Sawchyn, Xujun Eberlein, Julie Marie Wade, Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, John A. McDermott, Austyn Gaffney, Jan Priddy, Suzanne Farrell Smith, Gabe Montesanti, Renée Branum, Sondra Kline, and Fleming Meeks.

In our Craft Section, Elizabeth Robinson offers a pattern sampler, because non-linear essays “realign our attentions … (and) drench us in unknowing,” while Beth Kephart explores the interplay of language and visual arts (and marriage), and Rebecca Fish Ewan offers an illustrated crash course on graphic memoir.

With haunting photos from Therese Brown.

All right here, ready and waiting.

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