How to Write an Essay

February 20, 2019 § 20 Comments

ShuberHeadshotBy Sonya Huber

  1. That thing that makes your guts turn queasy, the thing you did, the thing you saw… you know what I mean. The thing that swims in front of your eyes before you’re even awake, the face of the haunter, the hurricane. Scream at it with the alphabet until it becomes a piece of toast or at least a grave, anything with edges. Make a list of all the people with that same piece of toast and feel less alone.
  2. Procrastinate on a major serious to-do until the procrastination gets a pedigree and health insurance, turns from Pinocchio into a real boy. Take your bullshit seriously, unless you’re one of those people who was born doing that. In that case, take your bullshit out back and shoot it in the head.
  3. Smell smoke—or some weird almost-smell, cardamom mixed with musty stairwell, and put off picking up your kid from daycare in order to find that smell. Catch it and nail it to a piece of plywood and then describe your failure and how glad you are that you failed.
  4. Stop capitalism for a moment by being kind to yourself and to others. See a human in the turn of a hand, the flick of a gesture. Then try to sell that little portrait on the sidewalk. Have a fight with the person you painted who thinks you made them look mean.
  5. Get really good at bonding with strangers as your honesty with friends and family atrophies into a voracious gnarled beast who breathes the smoke of dirty laundry and wants only more and more material.
  6. Write an essay to make people fall in love with your brilliance but then have the essay turn out to be about your endless need for praise and your intellectual insecurity.
  7. Pick a fight with a dead person. Lose.
  8. Pick a fight with a leader of the un-free world and destroy.
  9. Become skilled at writing 3000-word personal ads in which you portray yourself as a supremely sensitive and reflective person able to see nuance and subtle conflict in the smallest scene. In real life, become even more of a conflict-avoidant mess of anxieties.
  10. Love bricks. Love people. Love the decapitated wooden head of a decoy duck. Let language welcome you home when home has been a hard idea. Let words locate the people who are home to you.
  11. Freak out about endings and the even number “10” and resist the urge to end cute, end with a bow, blow up the ending. Wreck it good with a side (chopped, smothered) of restraining order. End on a noun, end on the nametag from Waffle House.
  12. Throw in some asterisks and numbered lists and a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (the cocaine of essayists) and then roll this all up into a bottle, pour gasoline in it, and light it on fire … but only on the page because, come on, the most dangerous thing you’ve done besides grab a microphone is press command-P.
  13. Be soft. Be shattered.
    Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program. She swears this is not reflective of in-depth, wonderful, and non-surreal curriculum in the Fairfield MFA.


The Comedian Carrying an Umbrella: Teaching E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”

February 15, 2019 § 6 Comments

watkinson_headshotBy Geoff Watkinson

First published in 1941, E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” traces White’s middle-aged pilgrimage back to the lake in Maine where he spent the Augusts of his childhood. It was the first essay I ever taught, at 23-years-old, as a teaching fellow during grad school.

White’s language is conversational and grounded; the plot of returning to a significant childhood location is universal; and the theme of accepting mortality is The Big One, worthy of a lot of discussion. I felt comfortable teaching it.

The opening paragraph expresses the nostalgia for such a significant childhood place:

“I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”

The lyricism builds a bridge for me to connect with my students. I tell them about the cabin at Fairview Lake in northern New Jersey that my grandparents owned when I was small and my memories of bear tracks in the snow and snakes in the trees and the dozens of sunfish my brother and I caught.

I ask my students to write about their magical place before continuing our discussion—their “holy spot” or “cathedral,” as White calls it. We consider sensory details, using White’s essay as the foundation—“how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and of the wet woods whose scent entered through the screen.”

White’s approachability makes it easy for a first-semester college student to get through the essay. The difficulty comes from the larger symbolism and metaphors: the essay is a definitive example of peeling back the onion to reveal more and more meaning. It becomes challenging, for example, to try to make sense of White’s dizzying sense of “living a dual existence,” as he writes “I began to sustain the illusion that he [his son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there.” When the dragonfly first appears, White becomes convinced “…beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.” The passage of time feels like an illusion.

The lake was a “constant and trustworthy body of water.” As the essay progresses, White is both haunted and comforted by this notion, struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. The baton has been passed from one generation to the next as White recognizes that he has taken over his own father’s role while his son has taken his childhood position.  Through metaphor, White acknowledges his relative insignificance in this circle of life, as depicted by the school of minnows, “each minnow with its small, individual shadow…”

There is the metaphor, too, of the reducing number of paths from the lake. When White was a child, there were three paths; that number has been reduced to two, representative of the thinning possibilities of his own life: “For a moment I missed terribly the middle alternative.” White places the changes in greater context, focusing out from his individual experience to a lyrical recognition of “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible…”

As the end of our first class, we are left trying to make sense of the thunderstorm that emerges over the lake: “the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen long ago with childish awe. The second-act climax of the drama of the electrical disturbance over a lake in America had not changed in any important respect.” The children scream with delight after bathing in the rain and there is “…the joke about getting drenched linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain. And the comedian who waded in carrying an umbrella.” The entire class has been building towards this moment.

Who is the comedian? Is it God?

White writes, “Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched [my son], his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he bulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.”

Why does White feel “the chill of death” and how do we make sense of this?

Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University, and he is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review ( Read more of his work at, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.

On Reading Outside Our Genre

February 11, 2019 § 3 Comments

zz_nina_bw_02smallBy Nina B. Lichtenstein

I have just been humbled by how work-shopping and reading manuscripts outside of my genre—my CNF comfort zone—has been a tremendous gift and revelation. Fresh out of my MFA program’s winter residency, I am inspired by everything I’ve learned, but as usual, growth does not come without pain.

About six weeks before the residency was set to begin, in anticipation mixed with both curiosity and excitement, I clicked open the shared Google doc folder containing the seven different 40- to 60-page CNF and fiction manuscripts for the “Extreme Workshop” I’d signed up for (“extreme” because normal MS length for workshops is eighteen pages). I’d had a literary fiction project percolating in me for some time, and decided to give it a go, eager to get a feel of whether this was something I could do.

I downloaded the first MS, the page-count ticking in at fifty-eight. I took a deep breath and scanned the opening paragraph, including the author’s letter to us readers. Words like “fantasy fiction” and “sub-genre” and “LitPRG” and “video games,” jumped from the page, as my eyes glossed over. Yeah, ok. No. I’ll save this one for later, I thought as I closed the doc, and opened the next one. Then the next, and the next, only to realize that four out of the seven manuscripts were not only popular-fiction, but its subgenre fantasy-fiction, or its sub-subgenre, urban fan-fic. I recognized nothing about the characters and their worlds or conflicts. When I’m at a bookstore, I never, ever, stop at “that” table or browse “those” shelves. I noticed my fingers going numb and a prickly feeling behind my eyes, or was it along my hairline? Something like panic. Oh. My. God. I. Can’t. Even…

With a great sense of relief, I found the one CNF piece about mourning the loss of a parent, and read it in one, enchanted sitting, and then the one, literary fiction MS, where I was swept away to communist-era Hungary with all its fascinating, dark, and complex realities. Eventually, there was no way around my fate: I had to tackle the fan-fic pieces. It was not easy. After completing the first read-through of MS #1, but before writing my feedback letter to the author, I sent the workshop faculty leaders an email pleading for help. I had to be coaxed down from the ledge of despair. I felt stupid and useless, wallowing in self-doubt, unable to see the bigger picture of what I had to offer, or what the writing could give me. While waiting for the emergency intervention, I willed myself to keep calm and compose the three-page commentary, beginning by stating my uninitiated fan-fic reader status, but vowing to do my best to offer constructive suggestions on plot, character development, scenes, pacing, and the like. I sent it to my teachers, to see if I had managed to generate a reasonable response. Then something surprising happened.

About two hours after they answered my email, reiterating the advantages of reading outside our genre and telling me my feedback was thoughtful and well written, a letter ticked in to my inbox from the very author whose MS I had freaked out about. He admitted having trouble reading my CNF MS (about Jews in Norway during WWII, family secrets, and collaboration), and said he had to force himself to complete it, and feared he would be unable to provide any useful critique. He wondered if I had any suggestions, adding he was aware of the irony that he was asking for advice from the person to whom he was supposed to give counsel. I suddenly realized that reading outside of one’s customary genre isn’t just a challenge for me; that we writers are all in this together. His candid letter made me feel better, and I thanked him for his honesty, adding some guidelines I had tried to follow when I critiqued his MS.

When the ten-day residency began in middle of January, set in the wintery landscape of Freeport, Maine, I spent the first half in a CNF workshop, pouring over often-deeply intimate memoir pieces about illness, trauma, and spiritual journeys. The last day I told the lively group of writers how apprehensive I was about the second half of the residency, and all the fantasy fiction shoptalk I anticipated. I expected to feel like a fish out of water and an outsider, not able to follow the way of the current or appreciate the otherworldly lingo. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.

In the Extreme Workshop, my MS was workshopped the first day, and at the end of the session, I was euphoric by all the helpful feedback and validation my fellow students had provided on my project. For four days, we gathered around a massive conference table at the Harraseeket Inn, discussing the many elements of what makes a good story, regardless of its genre; while flames flickered in the quiet gas fireplace we were lucky to have in the meeting room. Where a CNF’er pointed out the need for a fan-fic’er to go deeper into the character’s mind and motives, a fan-fic’er suggested how to improve the pace or increase the stakes in a CNF’ers piece. It was a writer’s dream for a workshop: each participant brought their unique strengths and lens, accumulated over years of honing the craft and sensibilities of their specific genre, sharing generously, and critiquing compassionately.

I don’t believe any one of us left dissatisfied, and I, for one, learned a valuable lesson: that my preconceived notions about what I am capable of as a reader, and what type of writing can be helpful to read as I develop my craft, were misinformed and needed to be shed. Instead, it is exactly by reading as widely as possible that I will optimize my understanding of what works best in storytelling and world building, regardless of genre.

Nina B. Lichtenstein
 is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature. She has lived, taught, and raised three sons in CT, but recently migrated north to Maine. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, Lilith MagazineLiterary Mama, and here on the Brevity Blog, among other places. Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa was published in 2017. She humbly just began her 2nd semester at USM’s Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program.

Dipping My Mother’s Hair in Ink: On Later Doubts About Memoir

February 6, 2019 § 21 Comments

zz-brandeisBy Gayle Brandeis

The boy who sat behind my mother in primary school dipped the tip of her braid into the inkwell carved into his desk, turned her hair into a brush slashing calligraphy across the back of her shirt, marking her with his intent. My grandmother told her to be flattered, said it meant he liked her, but did my grandmother worry about this boy, this ink, his intent? Did she scrub and scrub at her daughter’s shirt, hoping it would come clean? Did it ever come clean? Did the ink wash out of my mother’s hair, dark swirls of it disappearing down the drain, or did it seep deeply into each shaft, dyeing it until her mother trimmed off the ends, littering the floor with the intent of that boy? And where is it all now, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy, in what landfill, what house, what dust molecule? Have I breathed in flecks of it, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy?

The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, the memoir I wrote about my mother, her delusion, her suicide, was the most necessary book I’ve ever written; as hard as it was to write, I desperately had to get it out of my body, get it onto the page, start to find shape for the mess of my grief. Writing it helped me find compassion for my mom, helped me feel closer to her than I had in years, if ever. It helped me feel much clearer inside myself, more whole. Still, when it was published in late 2017 and interviewers asked how my mother would have felt about the book being in the world, shame crept over me, and I started to wonder: had I done the same thing as that boy? Had I dipped my mother’s hair in ink, too, used her as an unwitting pen? Was I as complicit as that boy, doing something without her consent, taking what was hers and making it my own? Were my hands irrevocably stained?

Trusting the urgency of the creative process is one thing; holding on to that trust after publication is another. While the book was received with overwhelmingly open arms and led to breathtakingly profound conversations, I also received Tweets like “Shame on you” after an excerpt was published, and “If I was your mother, I would kill myself, too.” Of course I am not alone in such trolling—it is sadly part and parcel of being a writer in the world these days, especially a woman writer—and I’ve received very little compared to many writers I know, but those Tweets got under my skin, fed the doubts and guilt already bubbling and growing inside me like a yeast. What had I done to my mother? Was I that boy, that ink?

The question of how my mother would have felt about my memoir came up again at a university reading last year, and the same shame started to re-percolate in my gut. Then my gracious host said he sensed my mom would have loved seeing her face on the cover of my book, and I realized, yes, that’s true—my mother always wanted to be the center of attention; she would likely be thrilled to see herself on the cover of a book. Something relaxed in me at this revelation. And I trust that at her best, truest self, my mother would understand I wrote this book from a place of love, from a sincere desire to fathom her, to connect. I may have started writing my memoir with a lot of anger and confusion, but every single word ultimately became a love letter. If I’ve plunged my mom’s hair into ink, I’ve also written her more deeply into my heart, tattooed her there, her presence now refreshed, indelible.

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press). Find out more at


Using Your Storytelling Skills to Make an Impact

February 4, 2019 § 11 Comments

raecoffeeBy Rae Pagliarulo

In my job as a Nonprofit Development Director (a professional fundraiser, for those not intimate with the lingo), I write all the time. Grant proposals, grant reports, direct mail appeals, email appeals, newsletters — the list goes on. (And on.)

I have done this work for years, but it was never as interesting as while I was making my way through my 3-year MFA program. In class, whether poetry or nonfiction, I heard the same thing over and over: “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t summarize the fight you had with your friend – put your reader in the room, let them feel your heart pounding in your chest, let them sit uncomfortably in the silence that stretches on after a cutting insult. It’s something writing students learn and relearn, find loopholes around, get schooled on.

What I didn’t realize, as I shuttled back and forth from campus to my office, was that this advice would prove useful to me whether I was sitting in workshop or sitting at my desk, eating stale bagels leftover from the morning staff meeting.

When I tell the story of my nonprofit’s impact, I have to do it in a small amount of space. Some grant making organizations (whom I affectionately call “the funders”) only give me 500 characters (INCLUDING spaces, which is just cruel) to explain something complicated and nuanced like, oh, I don’t know – the impact that our organization’s work has on our students’ lives.

As anyone who’s ever published in Brevity or River Teeth‘s Beautiful Things, or who’s had a particularly passionate point to make on Twitter can tell you — 500 characters, including spaces, goes by in a flash. (Literally.)

I find myself pressured to squeeze as much relevant info into an unfairly short container — We did this program and made this change and initiated this partnership, and oh, wait wait! We also did surveys and a demographic analysis and finished next year’s budg–

What I realize, time and again, as I write these reports and requests, is that sometimes a single story — a moment of showing — can do a better job at communicating impact than all the telling I can muster.

Take the one document anyone can recognize — the end-of-year fundraising appeal. If you’ve ever given a cent to a nonprofit, chances are you receive dozens of post-Thanksgiving letters imploring you to give NOW, to give TODAY, to give IMMEDIATELY, before the year is over. Every nonprofit is jockeying for your attention (and your dollars), so each one has to try and stand out from the crowd.

Often, in documents like these, I’m forced to make difficult cuts. The limited space makes me re-prioritize over and over again. When I’m telling this story, what is really important?

Could I write a letter detailing the numerous successful programs we implemented this year? The establishment of our core values? The fundraising totals from our spring gala? The high-level partnerships we initiated with other organizations? Sure. That’s all true. And it’s all important — to someone.

But I could also tell you the story of one third grade student who started the year off as a shy, reserved student, someone who wouldn’t dream of raising their hand — and ended the year as a group leader who couldn’t wait to share their opinions with the class.

When that document is out of my hands, and it’s just about my reader’s perception of it, that one person who’s deciding which organization to mail their $50 check to this Christmas, what is really important? To them?

A lot of it (okay, all of it) has to do with audience, of course. Some funders just want their heartstrings tugged, while others want hard data and little else. Some individual donors, like that person deciding where to send their check, fall along similar lines.

But here again — I remember those late nights spent in workshop, talking about our invisible audiences, the hordes of people who would someday read our novels and essays. Who were they? What was important to them? What was absolutely essential for them to know about us, and our lives, and our impact? How could we get everything across to them that we wanted to? How could we be sure that what’s important to us is also important to them?

In the professional world, I have the advantage of knowing exactly what my audience wants from me. In fact, my success as a Development Director hinges on my ability to read guidelines and questions so carefully and closely that I end up understanding the funder’s priorities better than they themselves do.

But this practice — the truffle-hunt of essential information — will help me no matter what I’m writing. Personally, I can’t wait to use my research skills to summarize comps for my literary agent, once we’re ready to shop my collection of essays around. (Seriously — cannot WAIT.)

The point is this — it’s easy to dismiss an MFA as a degree that’s only tactically useful if you’re teaching comp or creative writing, or if you’ve somehow finagled yourself a career as a working writer. Some days, I feel conflicted about the fact that I have to qualify my three-part answer to the question, “What do you do?” Because my business card doesn’t say “Writer.” Even though it’s part of my job, it’s far from the only one.

What I can rest easy with is the knowledge that every day, I use my degree and my creative writing skills in ways I couldn’t have imagined. And for my money, I couldn’t ask for a better story of impact.

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.

Chasing Our Elusive Voice

January 18, 2019 § 1 Comment

SusanRowePhotoIn Brevity’s January 2019 issue, Susan Bruns Rowe explores the difficulties of defining and refining our written voice:

Once, in a writing workshop, the instructor asked us to give our definitions of voice. Tone, style, and point of view were some of the answers offered. “Yes, it’s all of those things,” she said. “Is it innate or acquired?” Both, the class agreed. Again the instructor nodded, suggesting that if we write with our innate voice we can refine it and make it distinctly ours. I didn’t find this particularly helpful. What is one’s innate voice? And if that voice is b-o-r-i-n-g (as I suspected mine was) how does one make it less so?

Read the full essay here, and perhaps the entire January issue as well.

The Diptych as Short-Form Memoir

January 15, 2019 § 1 Comment

nicole-breit-photo-200x300In Brevity‘s January issue, Nicole Breit explores the power of the diptych in structuring essays, and offers two writing prompts to get you started:

There’s something surprisingly potent about the number two when it comes to story. Perhaps it’s that we don’t expect it, so accustomed are we to three: beginning, middle, end. As Philip Graham observes, two in a story invites us to explore “not so much beginnings and endings as points of entry and points of departure.”

As we observe the diptych in art, our minds grasp for the link, search to discover a connection. Compare, contrast.

Read her brilliant craft essay here, and, afterwards, please wander a while and enjoy our entire January 2019 issue.

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