September 8, 2021 § 15 Comments
By Helena de Bres
Every memoirist worries, at least a little and often a lot, about wronging their family, friends and lovers by writing about them. It’s probably impossible to create a good memoir without including people other than yourself in it. But as soon as you do that, you risk hurting, exposing, exploiting and betraying your subjects, some of whom you may deeply love.
We memoirists could just abandon the whole genre in light of these distressing facts. When encouraged by his nephew to write his autobiography, Freud replied: “A psychologically complete and honest confession of life [. . .] would require so much indiscretion […] about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question.” But for those of us who love writing memoir, that’s a big ask. So it’s tempting, instead, to seek an ethical quick fix that will let us keep writing our messy interpersonal histories with a clean conscience.
One option here is the Forget Them! approach. You might injure others when writing about them, this idea goes, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. William Faulkner wrote: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
Setting aside the sexism (how many Faulkners is that ode worth?), it’s implausible that the cause of literature trumps every interest of all of a writer’s subjects. Philosopher Felicia Ackerman notes that presumably no one would excuse Keats for torturing someone to get “Ode on a Grecian Urn” written. Once we admit that ethical constraint, why not others?
There’s also the point that not every writer rises to the level of Keats. In his memoir Family Man, Calvin Trillin proposes what he calls “the Dostoyevsky Test”: “If you have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, there is no reason to be concerned about the effect what you write might have on the life of some member of your family…If you don’t have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can’t.” I’m not sure I want to give even Dostoyevsky a free pass. Maybe sometimes a writer really should just let it rip for art, and let the human casualties pile up. But in the large majority of cases there’s likely to be a more decent alternative available that doesn’t leave art bleeding on the tracks instead.
A second option is Check your Intentions! Andre Dubus III said in an interview about his memoir Townie: “I had a conversation with the novelist Richard Russo, who’s a buddy of mine. I told him I was tortured about writing about my family, and he said, “Look, if this were me, I’d ask myself, Am I trying to hurt anybody with this book? Am I trying to skewer anybody? If the honest answer is no, I’m just trying to capture as honestly as I can what it was like for me, then I’d do it.’ It was such good advice.”
Was it, though? It’s certainly morally better to write without malice than with it. But that’s a pretty low bar. Writers can intend only the very best for those they write about, while inadvertently harming them, treating them unfairly, or violating their privacy. Shouldn’t we care about what our subjects have to say about the matter, rather than just what’s going on in our own heads?
The Obtain Consent! approach heads down that road, arguing that all that matters is whether or not a subject approves of how they’re portrayed. Some writers go to great efforts to inform or even collaborate with their subjects while writing, and commit to respecting any wishes they have about how they’re represented. Annie Dillard reports: “I’ve promised to take out anything that anyone objects to—anything at all.”
This approach rules out writing about people who can’t give informed consent, including children and people with severe cognitive disabilities. While writers should be careful in those cases, surely a total ban isn’t called for. Requiring consent would also cripple many memoirs written about those who don’t deserve to have their past deeds shielded. In other cases, obtaining consent wouldn’t be enough. Consensual exploitation remains morally problematic, even if less so than the nonconsensual kind.
A final ethical quick fix is Narrow Your Targets! Maybe writers should select only a subset of their associates to write about. How about those who deserve it? Anne Lamott’s widely cited dictum springs to mind here: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
While that’s funny, I don’t think it supports an open season on those who’ve wronged the writer. For one thing, if the motivation is mainly revenge, the act may not be justified: vengeance is a morally suspect motivation. For another, we generally think that retaliation for wrongs should be proportionate. Your ex-best-friend may have injured you, but your publishing a permanent record of the injury may do them much worse harm. And what at least some (not all!) wrongdoers deserve is compassion and forgiveness, especially if they’ve sincerely acknowledged their bad behavior and made a serious attempt to atone for it.
How about narrowing your targets to those who’ve left the planet? Many memoirists have waited till the deaths of loved or hated ones before doing a number on them. Presumably the idea is that you can’t harm someone after they’re gone. Your welfare can only go down if you notice it happening, right? And no one’s noticing anything from beyond the grave.
But harming someone isn’t the only way to wrong them in memoir: you can also violate their privacy, use them unjustly, or break a commitment not to write about them. These kinds of acts are plausibly wrong regardless of whether or not the victim hears about them, and it’s hard to see how someone’s being dead changes that fact.
It seems there’s no easy way out of the moral morass of writing a memoir. Any of us who care about doing the right thing will have to think long, hard and possibly agonizingly about how to balance our literary aims with the interests and rights of those whose lives we draw on. One upside is that we’re likely to learn a lot about our own values along the way. We might come out of the endeavor not just with a book or essay, but with a better sense of how we want to relate to our fellow humans in the future, in life as well as on the page. Fingers crossed our moms will still be speaking to us, too.
Helena de Bres teaches philosophy at Wellesley College. Her book Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir is out this September with The University of Chicago Press. Her creative writing has appeared in The Point, Aeon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review and The New York Times. She’s currently working on two books of creative nonfiction: a memoir about the nature and value of philosophy and a book on the philosophy of twins.
August 23, 2021 § 15 Comments
From the French verb, “bricoler,” to tinker with things you already have
Collage, also from the French, “coller,” to glue
By Nina Gaby
Pile and slash, cut and paste. Start with one element. Maybe the scroll or the shard. The thing you found in the road. Kind of like that first glimmer you have for writing.
I’ve amassed ephemera, handmade papers, antique Japanese ledger books, milagros, wire of varying gauge, Italian calling cards, vintage cloth and wrapping papers. I have fired translucent porcelain tiles, grids and scrolls. Pried nails off barns. Just like the snippets of sentences, phrases you scribble on the back of the grocery receipt and place next to the other scrap you saved. The tinkering. The bone folder, the tiny antique hammer, the special glue.
Writing flash essays and creating collage are processes with notable similarities. Both require careful attention–the “mise en place,” the organizing and arranging of your workspace, reading the entire recipe (as in what was that submission deadline again?) Gathering ingredients and tools. The spontaneous ability to pair and discard.
Porcelain was my starting point. Flawless, white; its very nature close to that of paper. My collage process started simply with paper-thin porcelain pages fired to translucency, stacked and bound with rusted wire to represent unsent letters. The purity of the surface allows the viewer to project their own thoughts, much as the reading of a poem becomes a personal narrative. Slowly the pages changed in shape. I added sulfates, the ceramic equivalent of watercolors, and piles of oxides, which fused and broke the tiles in a serendipitous manner. I was asked to donate to a 10”x10” art fundraiser. The gallery supplied a wooden cradle frame to which I affixed shards, wire and paper, and this new body of work was born.
While working up a solo mixed-media show, “Other Alphabets” –which explored the narrative existing outside of actual words–I discovered the Asemic writing of Sam Roxas-Chua and Simon Lewty. Like staring at a Rothko or a length of Japanese Boro, unfamiliar symbols go far in convincing us that intuition is the secret sauce. Why does this element work next to that, why does this word–and no other– fit right here? The associative nature of creativity is so powerful that I am typing while I am gluing and fear I will ruin my already rickety keyboard.
I cram too many things onto the collage frame much as we might cram a bunch of modifiers into a sentence. Over describing, over whelming. I resist the urge to add polka dots to the margin or scribble with walnut ink all over the background.
Us “pilers” instead of “filers” will make unique associations as we rummage, intuitively knowing that the very thing needed to advance the design is crammed in that corner, much as the writer knows to advance the sentence after rummaging through a dozen wrong words.
Maybe we cram inspiration from other senses. Taste, music. What’s the essay writing playlist, the studio rock list? What’s for lunch? While the essayist may take a break and read another’s words, I might go to “Art Propelled” or Instagram. Edmund De Waal writes about his installation “Library of Exile,” and before I know it I have gessoed, burned, and slashed a diptych with his quote “where books are burned in the end people will also be burned.” I tie on a button that belonged to my grandmother, a pogrom survivor. I add too many porcelain scrolls, molded clay faces and scribbled shards. I edit but leave a Jewish star scraped into the thick chalky paint. I return to this essay and have a hard time knowing which of these descriptors I should leave in. Is it too heavy for these fragile times? In the background Tom Petty sings about not having to live like a refugee.
Phrases from my flash essays become titles for the collages but my writing tends to the darkness pulled from many regrets. The visual work, for the most part, is “pretty” so I rework those titles. Maybe the pandemic inspired in me the need to do more pleasing things.
Because we write on computers, we miss the other senses. I stop to read a bit, and as more evidence of order in the universe, Brian Doyle describes in “Sensualiterature” from the Sunday CNF Short Reads:
One of the things that we do not talk about when we talk about writing is the sound and scent and sensuality of it, the scratching and hammering and tapping, the pitter of pencils and the scribble and scrawl of pens… the dark moist smell of ink and the rough grain of dense paper and the faint scent of glue.
OK, thank you. It’s all bricolage. It’s all right there.
And because this draft comes in at 904 words, I go back to the delete key.
Nina Gaby’s newest body of work will be exhibited both in St. Johnsbury, Vermont this August with the Vermont Book Arts Guild, and in Rochester, NY, for the month of September, along with her artist sister, in a show they have entitled “Mixed States,” referencing mood, terrain, geography, and the always changing landscape of visual narrative. See more at www.ninagaby.com.
August 18, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Samuel Autman
I don’t know if my obsession with Laurie Lynn Drummond’s flash essay “Alive,” reflects a fascination with serial killers, or if I feel attached to it because it was published in 2003, the year I began teaching college, shortly after leaving daily journalism. No matter the reason, I can’t go for a semester without teaching this creative writing catnip.
With unforgettable grit, vulnerability and powerful detail, Drummond’s piece never fails to dazzle the students in my classrooms. This scorching little essay demonstrates how to blend personal history, location and reflection in less than 700 words.
Over the years I’ve narrowed Drummond’s work down to seven powers.
An Irresistible Opening
Like the first five minutes of Law & Order: SVU, an effective opening must hook the audience. Americans are obsessed with serial killers. In the first paragraph we learn of a serial killer at work, with a trail of “three murdered women,” “four attempted abductions,” and been off “with a machete.” In Baton Rouge he’s created “a line of women snaked out of the police supply store” buying pepper spray.
Then I ask the class to imagine what kind of an atmosphere would there be if a serial killer was active on our town or campus? Location matters. While people expect larger cities like New York or Chicago to be scary, Baton Rouge doesn’t seem like a place to expect such violent crime.
Relevant Personal Detail
That the serial killer is targeting women makes the narrator’s gender significant. She’s also a former Baton Rouge police officer who knows firsthand “what one human being can do to another.” She has “seen crime scene pictures of the serial killer’s first victim,” details withheld from the press.” As the narrator, Drummond is uniquely positioned to tell this story.
Because the piece is gendered I always ask for a show of hands “How many people in class have ever felt someone was following them?” Without fail most young women raise their hands. In recent years young men are doing so, too, underscoring a collective sense of danger.
People in law enforcement are trained to scan their surroundings and people. One day while picking up a newspaper at a newsstand, Drummond catches a man eyeballing her. He’s a “A nice-looking man–bald, early thirties, dark shirt–in a green Chevy Blazer is backing out of the space across from mine.” This is just enough detail to paint an image in the reader’s mind. The essay was enhanced by an accompanying police sketch.
Unpacking Moments of Transformation
Up until this moment Drummond’s life was going along fine. This stranger is an interruption. “His car stops, and I feel his gaze as I retrieve my wallet, open the car door. Our eyes meet, and he smiles. I keep my face blank and walk briskly into the store.” She recreates this moment skillfully by using bodily details, hers and his.
Drummond pulls the reader into her trembling hands, dry mouth and constricting throat, sensations we all fear in moments of terror. She’s simultaneously writing from her body and pulling us into her head. In the same brief paragraphs she describes the way he moves.
When she leaves the newsstand she’s convinced he’s following her vehicle. During that time we are hearing her inner thoughts. What’s so masterful is there’s no proof that this is the serial killer.
And then his car pulls off onto the freeway. She’s free
While the eyes of the reader’s mind are led to wonder if she has interacted with the Baton Rouge serial killer, most people don’t realize Drummond’s piece has not one word of dialogue.
Drummond voices her thoughts as they unfold creating a heightened tension revealing her inner world. It’s an exquisite dance between the inner and outer worlds. Had it all been her describing the outer world, it could have been void of her emotions. Had it been only inner musing it could have become disembodied text that didn’t connect with anyone else. Because they are seamlessly married, dialogue is not needed.
The Cloud of Unknowing
For the rest of the essay Drummond marinates, ruminates and reflects on the vulnerability that hangs in the Baton Rouge air, hers and the collective. She never tells us if the guy she saw at the newsstand was the serial killer.
Here are the big questions. Does Drummond even know if the guy she has seen is the serial killer at work? Did anything happen other than she saw a guy who smiled at her and followed her a few blocks? Are we convinced he’s the serial killer? Does it even matter? These questions feed a spirited debate for a few minutes. Then an insightful person will say something like, “It’s not about whether or not he was the serial killer. It’s about the writer making us feel the fear she felt.”
Because I came from daily newspapers I was accustomed to writing for a limited space. That’s the beauty of Brevity’s 750-word limit. Students are forced to think like journalists but be more literary. The challenge of any ending is to close the essay in a way that allows the curtain to fall without moralizing or being preachy.
Drummond’s parting epiphany: “And that’s when I finally get, really get, what I have always known. Alertness, tolerance, compassion, suspicion: none of it matters. I am vulnerable simply because I’m alive,” often leaves the class divided. Some argue ending on “ I am vulnerable simply because I’m alive” is a cop out. Others note the universality of aliveness in the human experience. Despite all of our differences, isn’t everybody in the classroom alive?
If someone doesn’t say it, I point out that the essay’s last word happens to be the essay’s title, and manages to do so without being sappy.
Samuel Autman teaches creative writing at DePauw University. His essays have appeared in The Chalk Circle, The Kept Secret, The St. Louis Anthology, Sweeter Voices Still, Ninth Letter, The Common Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Little Patuxent Review, Bonfires, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Memoir Magazine and Brevity.
August 13, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Suzanne Farrell Smith
One of the many measures my sons’ elementary school has in place for pandemic-time in-person learning is file boxes: an open box under each chair to hold all personal materials, so no one shares crayons or germs. Smart—in theory. In practice, the boxes are a bit of a mess. In and out go folders, books, pencils, markers, stickers, rulers, paper clips, paper masks, notes from home, notes for home, open hand sanitizer bottles, used tissues, animal crackers, empty juice boxes, pepperoni, Cheetos. The box is like a closet without bars and shelves. A catch-all with no way to catch.
I love my closets with their bars and shelves, dedicated boxes and bins. As a highly organized person, I hang my dresses from sleeveless to long sleeve, knee-length to ankle. My tops are sorted by color, then by pattern. Towels are stacked by shape. My closets are 3D Excel spreadsheets.
When I think of creative nonfiction, I think of the genre as a wide-open box, one that is ever expanding to include more shapes and inventions. I love it. But … well, I like my bars and shelves, my containers.
To better understand the contours and corners of creative nonfiction, I organize the genre. Using Sue William Silverman’s definitions in “The Meandering River,” I’ve built a spreadsheet that arranges the subgenres by focus and length. I’ve developed a list of characteristics for each subgenre and a list of characteristics specific to brief pieces. I’ve catalogued my library by content and again by type (traditional memoir, experimental memoir, essay collections, etc.). I like to find things easily. I like to know a type of writing when I see it. I like to place essays in conversation with each other, to read similarly styled pieces in one sitting, to learn more about the whole by reading lots of the parts.
The resource I use most often, in both teaching and writing, is my list of what makes creative nonfiction writing good. Before I share the list, a caveat: search “traits of good writing” and you’ll find pages for days. When I taught elementary school, my colleagues and I assessed our students’ work with “6 Traits” and, later, “6 + 1 Traits” from Education Northwest. To evaluate my undergraduate students’ essays, I used the campus writing center’s 10-characteristic rubric. Teaching graduate school, I offered a four-criteria scale on creative works. (These resources are included below this post.)
Adult writers are my students now, and over the past few years, I’ve combined and condensed the lists into one that I find easy to teach, apply, and remember. The list is a touchstone for my students when they ask for and provide specific feedback and as a means to closely evaluate their prose. Good creative nonfiction writing is COCOC: clear, organized, coherent, original, and correct.
- Clear: The writing is clear, both at the macro level and sentence level. It has a strong core, or purpose/central idea. (Recall being asked “What is the main idea?” on reading comprehension tests.) The piece reads fluently. If an essay is clear, readers are not lost in time and space. Readers don’t re-read sentences or paragraphs searching for context. The only questions readers ask are the ones the writer wants them to ask.
- Organized: The piece has a form, shape/controlling design, and structure. For example, for a particular story, I might choose the subgenre of personal essay (form), use a symmetrical pattern to swing back and forth between the personal and the universal (shape), and decide where to start, where to end, and how much of each side to include (structure).
- Coherent: Summaries, scenes, and details support the core. Nothing seems like a diversion too far afield. Everything hangs together (like a well-organized closet).
- Original: The voice is distinct and reveals identity and personality. There’s evident commitment to telling a true story with craft and connecting in an honest, intimate way with readers. The writer has taken care to say things in new ways.
- Correct: Rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are followed. If a rule is broken, it’s intentional and meaningful.
For very brief pieces, I add a sixth trait: compressed. Like a peony on the verge of blooming, a small wonder, or flash, contains a showstopper inside a bud no bigger than a marble.
The funny thing about all my defining and listing is that I edit a journal called Waterwheel Review, and we don’t label the pieces we publish by genre. Not creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry. Nothing. We let the author decide what it is and let readers decide how to receive it. And we infuse each issue with other arts: music, film, painting, sculpture, a science project, a video of two men chopping logs for a fence. As a teacher and writer, I order everything. As a publisher, I let Waterwheel be a big ole file box.
Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of The Memory Sessions, a memoir about her search for lost childhood memory; and The Writing Shop, a guidebook for writing teachers. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for her essay “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity. She teaches creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshop, mentors emerging authors, reads for Longridge Review, and is founding editor of Waterwheel Review. Suzanne lives by a creek in the Connecticut woods with her husband and three sons. More can be found at suzannefarrellsmith.com.
Elementary (6 + 1 Traits from Education Northwest)
- Ideas: The student has a main point or storyline with supporting details. The writing has clarity, focus, and a sense of purpose.
- Organization: There’s a sound internal structure of the piece. The student organizes, groups, and sequences.
- Voice: The student brings the topic to life by showing enthusiasm for writing. The writing shows evidence of the writer’s personality and style.
- Word choice: The student understands there are different ways to say things and stretches to use new words and phrases.
- Sentence Fluency: The writing has rhythm and flow, with a variety of sentence structures and lengths.
- Conventions: The student shows awareness of spelling, punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, and capitalization.
- Presentation: The student has taken care with the overall appearance of the work.
Undergraduate (points range from 1 to 5 for each)
- The essay is coherent.
- The essay is clear.
- The essay makes a well-organized argument.
- The essay proposes an original perspective or otherwise advances an existing debate.
- Adequate research is included.
- The essay effectively uses quotations, summary, and paraphrase.
- The essay uses details and examples effectively.
- Paragraphs are clear, focused and structurally sound.
- Transitions between sentences and paragraphs skillfully move the writing forward.
- Standard English grammar is correctly used.
Graduate (points range from 1 to 25 for each)
- The piece tells one true story with a central conflict and resolution/learning.
- The piece includes actions, details, and dialogue to bring the true story to life.
- The piece is clear, coherent, and organized.
- The piece is on time; has been revised through the writing process; is edited and proofread for conventions; includes name, the title, and page numbers; is double-spaced in a standard 12-point font.
July 29, 2021 § 14 Comments
You may not be ready to step into the world yet. Or plan travel. Or be around groups of people. And that’s just fine. The Delta variant, angry political arguments, the idea that wanting to protect your own health and others is somehow not a universal given, all of these are frightening.
In this past span of 18+ months we’re sort of calling “a year,” virtual teaching and online workshops have flourished. Suddenly, we’re all able to cater to people who can’t leave their houses for reasons physical or emotional or financial or just because. And it turns out there are great ways to teach online, to interact with students and help students interact with each other.
Yet, many of us still miss personal, human connection without a mediating screen. Gentle crosstalk without a Zoom delay. The warm presence of writerly bodies across a table. Hugs.
Fortunately, whether you’re a staying-home-still or a stepping-into-the-world person, on a budget or ready to spend your accumulated vacation funds, there are upcoming events for you! You might enjoy:
August 13-15 (live) Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This three-day writing conference features 50+ notable speakers including Athena Dixon, Lilly Dancyger and Marian Winik; engaging sessions focused on writing, publishing, networking and writing life, interactive all-conference panels, author and attendee readings, social activities, networking opps, meals, and optional, intimate pre-conference workshops. Cost is $489 and 8 places remain. More information/register here.
August 21 (virtual) Woodhall Writers Conference. This first-time conference includes small-group workshops with top-notch instructors, enlightening panels on the Future of Publishing and Book Pitches, keynote speeches by inspiring writers, and networking interactions that will help you expand your artistic community. Workshops include: Introduction to Short Forms with Tom Hazuka and Darien Gee, Poetry with Charles Rafferty and Prose Writing with Eugenia Kim. Cost is $175 with a workshop, or $95 for keynotes and panels only. More information/register here.
October 10-17 (live) Rebirth Your Book in Tuscany. Truly excited to travel and write, but want some guidance? Or maybe you just want to write in a castle? Join Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor (me!) Allison K Williams for personal coaching, editorial feedback on up to 75 pages, seminars on writing and publishing, live-editing, great food and inspiring scenery, all in a tiny town in the hills outside Florence. Cost is $3250, payment plans available. More information here.
Ongoing (virtual) Low on cash but want to better the business aspect of your work? Enjoy Jane Friedman’s free Sunday Business Sermons. Jane’s frank, friendly style gets to the nuts and bolts of publishing and process. You can watch live upcoming sessions on Using Discord and Better Slide Presentations, or enjoy the recordings of past sessions at Jane’s YouTube channel, including Branding Tips&Tricks and How I Get So Much Done. FREE, no registration needed. Topics list and dates here.
Ongoing (virtual) Creative Nonfiction Magazine offers webinars, live and asynchronous courses, and self-guided courses to generate new writing, stay focused, and create your best work. Upcoming webinars include Byline Boot Camp: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Short Nonfiction Published with Melissa Petro, and Mind Music: Writing the Lyric Essay with Amy Hassinger. Most webinars are $15 early bird/$25 regular; course prices vary. Find out more/register here.
What are YOU teaching or learning, and when and where and how much? We invite you to share your upcoming events—and events you’re excited about!—in comments.
July 21, 2021 § 31 Comments
By Crystal Byers
It was a day like any other school day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.
“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said, handing students their work.
Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Student faces reveal disappointment, and I do my darnedest to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Just be aware of the number and try to reduce them,” I said. I looked my students in the eyes along the way.
“Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific.” I took a breath and allowed my words a chance to be heard. “I want you to listen carefully,” I said with another dramatic pause. “We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said?” I stopped in the middle of my classroom to verify I had their attention. “I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again.” I inhaled, then exhaled. “We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing for effect and smiling a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down as I continued passing out papers.
“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best.” I spoke of the next part of the assignment—revisions. How the word revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’
I kept walking, talking, and returning the graded assignment. “Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time,” I said. I spoke of showing versus telling, cutting superfluous details and exploding the particulars of one moment.”
Speaking of a single moment, just then my left foot stepped onto a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. My weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I made an unsuccessful attempt to catch myself and heard the soft thud of my right knee bumping the hard tile. I sat on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I felt thankful for wearing pants instead of a skirt that day and wondered how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.
My class very politely stifled their laughter, and I gathered my composure and arose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.
Another student made eye contact and said, “Are you okay?” His concern was real.
“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”
Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.
A day or two passed before I finally told my husband the story. As suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.
And I admit it. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, someone else will be happy to do that for us.
Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University and continues finetuning her memoir Help in the Time of Schizophrenia. Her essays appear at The Houston Flood Museum and The Porch Magazine. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.
July 15, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Brian Watson
I lost track of the revision count. There had been many since the first draft of my memoir. The more I worked, the more details flew into my mind. I caught my breath in May, thinking that all was good. The word count? 103,946.
Judas Priest, that’s a lot.
Part of me was proud. One hundred thousand words was a mythical goal. I have things to say — important things, of course — and the words just tumbled out of me.
A friend read a small part of it. She was encouraging, as I had hoped she would be, but her hammer fell.
“Do you really need all of this description?”
My ego fell into a thousand pieces. A crash, a calamity.
And I paused. I stepped away from the impulse to be defensive. My friend was a writer. She knows what she’s talking about. And I can listen to sage advice, gently given. Before my ego had a chance to reassemble, I looked again at the pages. I could see what she meant. She was right.
The memoir began as an exorcism. My old traumas and their many ghosts were siphoned out of me, onto the screen. The words poured out in an urgent rush. A Columbia River of ideas, with no Grand Coulee to dam any of them up.
Words are very important to a trauma survivor like me. I must describe everything. I must be precisely clear. You must know exactly how I felt.
But your reader is never your therapist. Nor your parent. My words, the descriptions, they were getting in the way. I loved my outpourings but yes, they walled the reader away from the crux of it all. My words were supposed to embrace the reader. The reader would then, in turn, embrace them, but with my ego still shattered, helpless, I saw something different. My words kept the reader away. The descriptions made everything opaque.
A concern lingered: What if, after I make more revisions, cut the extra words out, my voice as an author is damaged? I refused my entry into that rabbit hole of despair, took a deep breath, and began.
The first thing to go were summary descriptions. I laughed at first. I was certain. I already excised them all. Surely there were none left.
But I went looking, and I found them.
In a chapter that described my discovery, at age seventeen, of the glory holes in the men’s restroom at the local Sears, a paragraph began like this.
I returned to that restroom time and again for quick anonymous sexual releases. One time, however, a man had asked me to…
That first sentence had to go. Get the reader into the action. Faster. And that triple dose of adjectives there at the end of it? Cut it all.
During one of my suddenly frequent visits, a stall neighbor whispered, follow me.
The clouds parted. This is the way. Summary descriptions now popped off the page at me. I was merciless, slashing them all.
And then I saw my writing tics. Phrasing that is natural to my speaking voice. Over and over, I saw them in sentences. …to a point… …as a result…
Time to wield the editorial machete. Chop, chop, chop.
What else caught my eye? Redundant descriptions. The reader already knows I’m in Japan. I did not need to remind them in forty separate paragraphs of where I was.
Another thing I saw was my need to take the reader by the hand. To carefully, specifically, walk them, step by step, inch by inch, from moment to moment, scene to scene.
The reader might be interested, once, in mapping out the exact route I took to commute to work, for example, but once was enough. The reader might care, once, how I navigated my apartment, how the rooms were connected, which doors I closed as I crossed into the kitchen and sat at the table. But the reader will likely be happier just to know that I sat down.
I also began to think about adverbs. I love them. But they don’t bring that much to the party if all they do is confirm action for the reader. If instead, I save them for moments when my protagonist surprises the reader, when actions surprise — he was stubbornly elated — adverbs are more powerful. Chop, chop, chop.
At the end of June, the threshing, as I came to call these new revisions, the machete-way-clearing, was done. Chaff removed. Wheat remained. Thoughts made accessible. Word count? 77,518.
Did I mourn the absent words? Maybe, for the briefest of moments. But the revisions empowered me. I know that I can tell my story in stronger ways. In ways that will connect me more profoundly to readers. I took my thresher and my machete and opened the memoir up, and it felt good. And my concerns over voice were unfounded. If anything, my voice rings louder, truer.
Let go of ego. (It’s not as hard as you think.)
You’ve got this!
Brian Watson is currently preparing a proposal for his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he now lives in the Seattle after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro, and a cantankerous old cat, Butters. His website is http://iambrianwatson.com/
June 23, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
After Brenda Miller’s “Pantoum for 1979”—and, really, after Brenda in so many ways
At the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets1
Narrative, even in creative nonfiction, leaps forward, circles back, success in circuit. But ‘90s Utah, desert no dessert—as at other creative writing programs, the choice an or: fiction or poetry, narrative or lyric. A limited menu, prix fixe, the occasional à lá carte visiting writer, or nonfiction workshop taught by a dabbling faculty, and always, always, as a square meal of narrative. When offered, though, those classrooms stuffed, writers starved for it, nonfiction the neutral field on which we fed.
At the University of Utah, as elsewhere, students fed into fiction or—like me—to poetry. Then Brenda Miller was afforded, forded, foraged the first dissertation in creative nonfiction—a foretaste—though her degree notes none of this. At her defense, I recall the classroom stuffed, us writers starved for it. We hungered to see what she’d do next.
After Brenda broke the seal, things blurred a bit. Dawn Marano cultivating a taste for nonfiction at the University of Utah Press2; in course, Utah adding nonfiction to the spread, hiring Robin Hemley as a dedicated position. We hungered for what came next, couldn’t know how Robin and Nicole Walker (there then studying poetry) would nurture NonfictioNOW3. But that was then, and even then, lyric essays slow curing in Nicole’s head/cranium.
And not just Utah—other programs (Ohio, Nebraska, Eastern Washington, though not Iowa) added nonfiction to the spread. Phillip Lopate spread from teaching fiction to nonfiction, edited The Art of the Personal Essay4; Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre a pop-up of publishing. Deborah Tall coined the fusion cuisine “lyric essay.”5 Dinty W. Moore begat Brevity.6
Still, River Teeth’s subtitle is “A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative,” wouldn’t break Beautiful Things tiny milkteeth for fifteen years7; the selections in Lopate’s anthology firmly in narrative’s maw. At best, they ruminated through meditations, assayed and essayed a bit less logical. Even Dinty, in The Best of Brevity, claims his nascent mag considered only the compressed narrative.8 Soon, however, his concept of flash omnivorated.
But writers ruminated through meditation toward less logic, more lyric. Work labeled flash fiction, prose poems—at Quarterly West, when we didn’t know what to do with them, we published these delicacies as whatever the author preferred; the anthology In Short (Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones)9 proferred them in all their chimerical glory. By Y2K it was clear the possibilities were omnivorating. While Tell It Slant (Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola)10 presented a craft table of memoir and journalism, it also offered a taste of lyric essay.
Despite being labeled poets, writers—Elissa Gabbert, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine—were crafting delicacies no one knew what to do with. We devoured them like gathering breadcrumbs to trace a path, gorging on those leaping, circular forms. After Tell It Slant, Rose Metal Press (Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney)11 added a leaf to the craft table, made a groaning board of those lyric essays and braids and hermit crabs. If it seems like women nourished much of this work—they did, they do—I don’t know what it means but it sustains me.
Devouring those early poets-turned-essayists, I could trace a path for my own work, as I gorged on Doyle’s Leaping12, on Lee Ann Roripaugh’s haibun and zuihitsu13. I browsed poetic genres and conventions, bending them to prose. I read for sustenance, this stuff by women, to realize, astounded, spun around, that my favorite Annie Dillard book, Holy the Firm, is a book-length lyric essay, an evolutionary leap forward in 1977.14 But, like anything, the writing aged ahead of the critical work explaining how.
Bending Genres (edited by Nicole Walker and Margot Singer and featuring a lot of Utah expats)15 tried, and succeeded, at feeding us some answers. Even Lopate argued “The Lyric Essay” in his update To Show and to Tell16 (spoiler: he’s agin’ it). All that writing, finally nibbling at how. In 2015, NonfictioNOW had a couple panels on hybrids; in 2018, a smorgasbord.17
And yet, in 2020, my grad students at the University of Minnesota argued the lyric essay (spoiler: they’re agin’ it), not for inability to digest, but fed up, glutted on it. Utah now offers a feast of “fiction, nonfiction, poetry, digital writing, hybrid and other experimental forms, [and] book arts.”18 In 2018 at NonfictioNOW, invited to the table, I presented on a hybrid panel19 (mostly women) on poetic forms imported into nonfiction and cited Brenda, present in the audience, got to thank her for setting that table. This is not to say all is sweetness: recently, Ander Monson addressed other judges’ distaste for lyric essay in NEA grant decisions20 (spoiler: they’re agin’ it).
Creative writing programs and syllabus cellars at Assay21 and elsewhere now offer a feast for teaching and studying, an entire palette of genres for every palate. Far from the food desert of the ‘90s, us gone undernourished, the limited menu prix fixe poetry and fiction; the only sips of nonfiction, narrative. Despite this, narrative nonfiction still gets the grants, the agents and advances, the main entrée on the buffet (I prefer to make a meal of hors d’oeuvres, am always eyeing what’s being circulated on the platters). But as we see, even narrative circles back, awaits the great leap forward.
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com
1. Eliot, T.S., “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Print.
4. Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Anchor Books, 1995
5. Tall, Deborah and John D’Agata, Foreword to Seneca Review (Fall 1997). Print. Archived online at https://www.hws.edu/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx
8. Moore, Dinty W. “On Voice, Concision, and 20 Years of Flash Nonfiction.” The Best of Brevity, ed. Zöe Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2020. Print.
9. Jones, Mary Paumier and Judith Kitchen, eds., In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. Norton: 1996. Print.
10. Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola, eds., Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Print.
12. Doyle, Brian. Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003. Print.
13. Roripaugh, Lee Ann. Running Brush. Website. https://runningbrush.wordpress.com/
14. Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.
15. Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
16. Lopate, Phillip, “The Lyric Essay.” To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonficton. New York: Free Press, 2013.
20. Monson, Ander, “Dear Essayists Applying for an NEA.” Essay Daily (16 Feb 2021)
June 21, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Helen Collins Sitler
Two summers ago chimney swifts nested in my chimney. I didn’t know a thing about swifts, except that they were there, and that I was intrigued enough to write about them.
As I sat surrounded by field guides to birds, I didn’t know what I needed to know so I took a lot of notes. Gradually, I noticed that field guides all use similar categories: description, voice, habitat, migration …. Those categories provided ideas for organizing and for section headings when I began to draft.
All the notetaking served to narrow/winnow relevant information. How exactly does the swift, with its stuttering flight pattern (description), manage to zoom into my chimney without conking itself unconscious or crash-landing on the damper? The answer to that question was useful. I was learning about swifts’ capacity for distance. Did you know they can sleep while they fly? Which is good, since their migration takes them thousands of miles from North America to Central and South America. Some information, like swifts’ chittering utterances (voice) turned out not to be relevant for the piece that emerged. Still, notes I never used cemented a deeper expertise, which gave me confidence in the writing.
I did a happy dance when a local ornithologist fact-checked a draft and reported back, “You have the biology correct.” For one reader, at least, I had successfully woven in uncited research as I linked the nestlings’ development with my own recovery from a hip replacement. Now, with that essay out for review, I’m hoping an editor somewhere concurs.
For a retired academic like me, writing creative nonfiction feels like coloring outside the lines. I taught Research Writing to hundreds of high school and college students. We slogged through MLA and APA documentation and sometimes other formats, depending on students’ majors. Documentation is ingrained in my psyche.
Now, retired and shifting from academic writing to creative nonfiction, I no longer want (Ballenger 174-76) or (Ballenger, 2009, pp. 174-76) to intrude on my prose. But making the research slide into sentences invisibly, or at least not intrusively, is a challenge. So I’ve returned to my teaching roots for help. I cannot write well without doing exactly the same things I asked my students to do.
When I taught Research Writing, I required students to take notes from their sources. Whether on the screen or printed out, from an interview or an observation, they had to write notes. Why? Because writing notes by hand increases the likelihood that you’ll remember that material better. And because interacting with those notes by injecting your own commentary will offer new insights. Highlighting, underlining, and margin notes on a printout are nice, but hand-written notes and personal commentary make the magic. Students hated doing this. It was labor-intensive and time-consuming. I remained adamant. “Turn in notes from at least three sources,” I would tell them. “I want to see the information you’ve gathered and also your personal responses/questions/confusions about that information.”
Guess what. When students had to write out notes and add personal insights, they began to gain control of the material. After some notetaking days, we would do what compositionist Bruce Ballenger calls a bookless draft, i.e., an information dump. I instructed, “Ten minutes to skim through the notes you’ve taken. Now put them inside your backpacks. Do NOT pull them out. Now empty your brain of everything you know. Write about why you chose your topic and what you’ve found. Create a scene about a person, a place. Invent a dialogue. Just write.” To their surprise, students could write about their topics in their own words. Suddenly, they realized they KNEW this stuff. They had been working the words and their own thinking together all along, in their notetaking. Now they could begin to claim expertise in their own voices. This drafting was often awkward and full of gaps, but even that was instructive. What do you still need to find out?
My own journals are full of research notes (carefully documented), random thoughts derived from those notes, and awkward attempts to merge the two into something coherent, graceful, and mostly quotation-free. Often this drafting surprises me and leads me to links that might surprise a reader. Who would expect that measures of the whiteness of LED lightbulbs—the differences between 5000K and 2700K–held the key to why I so desperately changed out lightbulbs in my home after my husband died? “Light Therapy,” published in Hippocampus, explains how the light spectrum connected to my grief.
Some academic safety nets, like keeping careful track of sources, still apply. For all researched writing, I’ve learned to keep two copies. One, with the research made as invisible as possible, becomes the submission copy. The other is identical, but filled with footnotes and links to electronic sources. It stays in a computer file so I can provide fact-verification if an editor asks.
Re-immersion in eloquent, fact-filled writing is helpful, too. In classes that weren’t Research Writing and where students had more freedom to color outside the lines, we often read Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyas Volodoras.” To my class I would say, “Highlight anyplace where Doyle uses information he had to have looked up. The things a person doesn’t walk around already knowing.” It didn’t take long for students to highlight so heavily that their page and a half of text started to curl from wetness. Students would look up from their papers puzzled. How can this be packed full of research, yet read like a poem? How can it be so emotional but at the same time so fact-y?
If you haven’t read “Joyas,” you need to. I re-read it periodically, to remind myself that research can be presented with beauty, elegance, and even humor. Then I return to taking notes and writing information dumps and know that the outcome will be worth the labor.
Helen Collins Sitler’s creative nonfiction—all with a bit or a lot of research—has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Harmony, The Sunlight Press, and Post Road. She is currently intrigued by such things as high school graduation rates in the 1920s and baseball player Roberto Clemente’s many accomplishments.
June 17, 2021 § 9 Comments
Last night, in a webinar for Creative Nonfiction, we talked about sentences. What makes them soar lyrically across the page; what makes them stumble awkwardly into your editor’s inbox. Two great questions came in afterward (Thank you Maria-Veronica and Catherine!). First:
What are the most important or key elements that make a long sentence great? In what way can it have as great an impact as a short one?
I love long sentences. The bane of my MFA existence was classmates who “corrected” what they saw as run-on sentences in my work. Thanks for the effort, fellow writers, but 90% of the time I wanted the sentence that long! Maria-Veronica’s question made me think deeply about why. What makes a long, complex, multi-claused sentence not a run-on?
1) Rhythm: the sentence pulls the reader in with flow or beats, often including deliberate repetition.
2) Direction: the sentence spirals deeper into a moment, or the sentence zooms out to show context as part of the immediate moment. If the direction changes, the reader is clearly brought along.
3) Unity: the sentence has one time and one location, unless there’s a specific reason to go elsewhere; or the sentence uses one metaphor and explores it fully. We’re expanding one moment, not compressing a whole bunch of moments into one.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
– Jack Kerouac, On The Road
Note how the deliberate repetition of “mad”-syllable-syllable establishes rhythmic beats. “To be saved” breaks the pattern and slows us a little as the clauses get longer. Then, repeating “burn” accelerates the sentence through the final, un-punctuated image.
On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.
– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
The sentence starts in a close, intimate moment, then zooms out to the feeling of sexual release and otherworldly expansion. Halfway through, “sliding down a rainbow” navigates the reader from the universe back down toward earth; the things on earth; the people; and the sentence circles back to where we started.
He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.
– Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Forty-five words showing and exploring how one man says, “I love you.”
For fun, try rearranging the words in one of the sentences above and seeing how their power diminishes in another order. (These and many other beautiful sentences at https://thejohnfox.com/beautiful-sentences/)
I’m also a fan of the sentence fragment, judiciously deployed. Catherine asked about one of the samples on my slides, a fragment from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and here’s the whole gorgeous passage:
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
The ten fragments (and two grammatically complete sentences) are showing death, from the point of view of the person experiencing it, as a series of physical experiences flashing into consciousness and then unconsciousness.
Use whatever sentence structures make your story sing on the page. If that’s fragments, great! If that’s run-ons, make ’em work! The important part is knowing what you’re doing—it’s not a fragment because you messed up, it’s a fragment chosen to best deliver that moment of the story. There is no prize for “best grammar” in the publishing world, no golden star for subject-verb agreement, no blue ribbon for adjective order or time served for use of adverbs, but plenty of writers bend language to their will.
Be one of them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Pre-order Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, or join her June 28 for a free keynote or paid masterclass on writing YA Memoir with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators of Western Washington.