Go Ahead. Prompt Me.

December 1, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino 

I once took a delightful prose workshop from a noted essayist and poet. His opening prompt was single word, an entry in his word-a-day calendar, and he required us to use it in the writing assignment: GORGONIZE. I was unfamiliar with the word, which means to have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect.  I found myself writing about two rustics who found a word-a-day calendar at Walmart in a remainder bin and used the words they’d learned – often improperly, always unsuccessfully – in pick-up lines directed to college women at a bar. After stumbling home a bit inebriated, the younger of the boys was excoriated by his mother for drinking. “Do not gorgonize me with them yellow eyes,” he spat at her, causing her to back off immediately.  

Using both the assigned word and the real-life circumstance of its discovery – a calendar – in my piece made for a satisfying writing experience, even if it wasn’t the best prose I’d ever written. This experience launched new thinking about prompts; how minimal the spark can be to light up a piece of writing. Finding an obscure, highfalutin word remains for me an occasional way to break a logjam, a portal to freewriting when I am unsure what to write on a given day.

At the other end of the spectrum is David Means’ wonderful short story “Depletion Prompts” (New Yorker, November 1, 2021), written entirely in prompts generated by the narrator himself. They are so highly specific that the prompts themselves form not only a complete story, but also a meta-story about the insecurities of the writing process.

In nonfiction, I have relished using photographs and postcards as prompts, sometimes focused on what is shown in the picture, sometimes on what hovers just behind or beyond it. An old postcard from the Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago catapulted me into a story about my German great-grandfather’s early days in the U.S. A discomfiting polaroid of me in fifth grade seated next to my teacher, Sister Mary Alphonso, bore fruit in a creative nonfiction story about the spelling bee in that class, the photo taken shortly after my crushing defeat.

Often it isn’t what’s in the picture that’s interesting, but what occurred beyond its edges, either in space or in time. Responding to a prompt to write about what isn’t seen in a photo I chose, I wrote about the eventual cancers of the three relatives in it, and my food memories before and during their illnesses, in a recently-published essay called “Cancer Buffet.”

Some prompts encourage the writer to combine unrelated material. For example, one instructor asked workshop participants to combine a childhood memory with a story from the news, from a different era than the memory, that has stayed with the writer. Sometimes it’s futile to force a combination, but I saw at least one magical result in that workshop, from an eighteen-year-old just starting to write.

Most of us who write occasionally from prompts use these middle-ground approaches, prompts that provide a set of instructions somewhere between word-a-day and David Means, and they’re not hard to find. Workshops frequently include prompts. Writing texts often contain them. Entire books can be found comprised solely of prompts. In my experience, they don’t often result in a polished, saleable piece of work, but can be helpful fuel, warming a writer towards creativity and productivity. At their worst, they hem the writer in. Breaking free of such prompts isn’t an act of subversion so much as an act of liberation. 

With that in mind, here’s a prompt for today: Choose a postcard in which the picture has no obvious connection to your life, such as a postcard of artwork from a gallery. Salvador Dali’s art works well here. Now open a dictionary to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a word until you land on a noun. Finally, select a relative, living or dead, whose story you’d like to tell.  Beat at low speed until combined; then increase your mixer to high speed and continue until the ingredients form a silky-smooth amalgam. You may not use “amalgam” as your noun. You may not substitute Salvador Dali for your family member, unless he was a family member, in which case you may not use a postcard of his artwork. If Dali’s artwork reminds you of your life, please substitute a picture of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” If that reminds you of your life, please don’t write today.
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Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory.

Same Memoir, Different Planet: An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

November 10, 2021 § 4 Comments

by P.J. Powell and Natalie Lockett

Charlie Jane Anders / Photo by Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People

In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Nebula- and Locus-award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders blends memoir, anecdote, and expert writing advice into a how-to guide for writers on using creativity to get through hard times.

P.J. Powell and Nat Lockett interviewed Anders for the Brevity blog, exploring how memoirists can use a sci-fi master’s writing tools to convey defining moments of their past.

Nat & P.J.: You talk about getting into a character’s head and transporting yourself to another place when you write sci-fi. Could a memoirist think of their past in the same way?

Charlie Jane Anders: Totally. The moment you turn something that really happened into a story, it [moves] beyond an unprocessed series of events that you’re putting on the page as they happened. You massage it. You create a narrative around it. You channel your imagination and try to create a scene and a moment—try to draw people in and push them through a chain of events with a certain logic. Real life never quite has that cohesiveness.

Memoir, personal essay, and creative nonfiction require a lot of the same muscles, strengths, and ideas fiction does. You can still do a lot of the stuff in Never Say You Can’t Survive in terms creating characters, plots, scenes, momentum, and through-lines. Even if you’re writing about real people, you’re still kind of turning them into characters.

Natalie Lockett

N & PJ: What can you do in sci-fi writing that could help someone telling a true story?

Charlie Jane Anders: You can do what we can’t in real life: control the focus and the frame; juxtapose things.

In reality, you can’t cut directly from a person saying something to that person doing the exact opposite. Those things might happen three weeks apart, but in your story – fiction or nonfiction – you can skip that time and cut right to the next important action.

You can also slow down or speed up time. Live in a moment for pages, then go through 100 years in a paragraph. And while you’re writing, even as you’re emotionally inhabiting the characters in the moment, there’s a part of you that can be building in an extra layer of meaning and allowing us to see the bigger picture. You can depict that layer through what the characters notice and see, the narrative itself, or the order in which you present things.

N & PJ: What advice do you have for rendering real people in written recollection?

CJA: Part of how I deal with my past is trying to understand what really happened. If you put yourself in the shoes of other, real people, that can be powerful. It’s hard to do, and there’s nothing wrong with telling your story as you see it. Just know other people might see things differently. Sometimes, oftentimes, I’ll have a version of events in my head that’s like, “Okay, this happened and this happened,” but then I’ll go back and find actual facts or documentary evidence proving my recollection is flawed and it didn’t quite happen the way I think it did.

It’s really liberating and healthy to realize we all fudge the past a little bit. Your perspective is always going to be limited, and you have to accept that and try to get a reality check as much as you can. But at the same time, yeah, it’s your story, it’s your experience. You’re writing about what you feel happened. I’ve written personal essays where I was like, “Okay, I know everybody, we all agreed at the time this is what happened,” and then I’ll write it and people are like, “Oh, is that what happened? I mean, I feel like…” Because time has passed, and our recollections may have diverged.

Memory is weird.

N & PJ: As someone whose stories can take place anywhere from augmented-reality San Francisco to a space society orbiting a living blob, what world-building advice can you give to people writing creative nonfiction?

CJA: The thing people and worlds have in common is they’re meaningless without a history. Real or made-up people don’t exist out of nowhere; they’re a product of all the things that have happened and the choices they’ve made. It’s the same with the settings where your memoir takes place.

In The City in the Middle of the Night humans have been living on this other planet for hundreds of years, and I had to keep going back and thinking of that so the settings and characters would feel real. Everywhere you look, you see the past. We know there were wars between these two human cities because there’s this war memorial. Later, we go to a garbage dump, and there’s random, weird crap from the war effort and back when these two cities used to trade.

P.J. Powell

Real life is like that, too. New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Ida will always look different than New Orleans before. I read an article about Confederate statues standing for over 100 years. People got used to them being there. Why? To understand that you have to understand not just the Civil War, but Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and this mythology of the lost cause people created in the South after the war.

A sense of past makes the world of the story feel lived in; it helps us understand why the characters are the way they are.

N & PJ: Never Say You Can’t Survive is about writing to help us as individuals and as a society through tough times. Why is the concept of “story” so important in fiction, nonfiction, and life?

You can present a million statistics and facts, and it doesn’t make any difference. People are swayed by anecdotes, narratives, and emotion. Not so much information, as by the emotional content of, “Here’s a really compelling story.”

I’ve worked as a journalist and you’re taught that, yeah, you might have a ton of facts showing there’s a problem, but you need a narrative hook. If this problem affects lots of people, [find] a person affected by the problem, make them a character in your article, and show us their journey. Show us how it affects them personally. Nobody is going to care if it’s like, “Oh, a million people had this problem.” Who cares? I can’t encompass that. My brain can’t wrap itself around a million people doing a thing.

But if I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this specific person had this problem and I feel really bad for them” and there’s a picture of them looking really sad, or, “Oh, they did this thing and they’re awesome” and they look really happy, that’s how we process the world, and that’s a huge challenge for anybody who’s trying to get us to grapple with abstract things like climate change, pandemics and other nebulous, hard-to-encompass problems.

Stories are powerful. Stories are what the world is made of. If you can tell a story that’s compelling, whether it’s made-up or real, it could change people’s views of the world. It can rewrite our ideas about reality and that’s powerful and important.

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P.J. Powell and Natalie “Nat” Lockett co-host Write Away with Nat and PJ, a podcast where they explore writing and books they love by interviewing authors and publishing professionals. (More writing advice and conversation with Charlie Jane Anders will be featured on the November 15, 2021 episode.) P.J. Powell’s short fiction and essays have been published in Evening Street Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Youth Imagination, and other placesNat Lockett is an author and essayist with nonfiction work featured in Herstry and Across the Margin. Her first novel, The Dead King, is currently haunting editor inboxes via her agent Tara Gonzalez of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

What Metallica’s “Black Album” Teaches Us About Writing Briefly

October 22, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Brendan O’Meara

Thirty years ago, Metallica’s self-titled record Metallica, better known as ‘The Black Album,’ was released. It was Metallica’s fifth studio album and was a watershed moment for the band in terms of sound and, more important, brevity.

Metallica had made a name for itself with epic seven-, eight-, nine-minute-long songs, but it was ‘The Black Album’ where the four key players wanted to challenge themselves not by making increasingly epic songs with more intricate time signatures, but something more welterweight.

They wanted to reach more people, and in order to do so, they needed to cut the fat.

What can we, as writers, learn from this pivot?

Lars Ulrich, the band’s de facto spokesperson and drummer, said on the first episode of The Metallica Podcast, “Is it easier to write a short song or a long song? I would say it’s easier to write a long song. The hardest thing to do is edit yourself.”

It’s incumbent upon the writer to pen the shortest possible work, no matter the length. The editing down comes with constant rigor and self-questioning, self-reflection: Do I need this? Do I really need this? Aw, dammit, no!

We can’t fall in love with a great sentence or paragraph or guitar solo or lyric if it’s not in service of the piece. The floors of great artists are littered with masterpieces.

And even if you love a great turn of phrase, or an overly verbose exhibition of your lyrical pyrotechnics, you might be getting in the way of the message. Where are my footnote writers out there? You know who you are.

James Hetfield, lead singer and lyricist said on Episode 2 of The Metallica Podcast, “Drawing the listener in by not overplaying. Their ears get bigger to hear what you’re doing and it draws them in. Through subtlety, you can make more dynamics … Simplify stuff. Don’t be so fancy.”

This takes an incredible amount of restraint because if you can shred, why wouldn’t you shred? It means checking the ego and asking yourself, again, how does this serve the song, the essay, the book? Are you trying to be too funny? Are you undercutting your narrative with a gag, too much telling, a flourish better left on the bench? Ulrich said much of their earlier music, certainly on the album that preceded ‘The Black Album,’ was “self indulgent.” To get past this, strip it down and ask more and more of the words left behind to carry the day.

By keeping things as lean as possible, there’s nowhere for the message or the story to hide. If we surrender to the story, anything unnecessary melts off the skeleton and, as Hetfield says, the ear gets bigger, drawing them in.

And this isn’t to say iron out every wrinkle, every ounce of weirdness that you bring to the page. Part of what makes a piece snap, crackle, and pop is the you-ness you bring to a subject. That can be a unique take, your language, and even your ability to appear in the piece as a guide.

Hetfield managed to cut open his veins more from ‘The Black Album,’ and what he found was a greater connection to the audience. Again, it wasn’t self-indulgent, but in relaying a delicately worded personal trauma, it let the audience feel seen.

Matt Wardlaw of Ultimate Classic Rock writes, “The situations were getting vaguer and connecting with broader audiences. ‘I’ started showing up in Metallica’s lyrics more and staying. Hetfield’s characters weren’t getting strapped to an electric chair or chopping their breakfast on a mirror anymore, but the anger, aggression and fear were stronger than ever in the whipping boys and scapegoats that reached millions.”

For the memoir or personal essay writer, it’s not enough to have had this weird/quirky/traumatic experience. It has to serve the reader in some way. This way the reader can overlay her own experience on yours. You dissolve away, you become a vessel for the reader’s experience. You, in effect, become invisible, but all present.

In physics, we talk about density. A cube of lead the size of dice is heavier than an equal mass of aluminum that’s several times “bigger.” That’s packing a punch in a small package, and that’s the great lesson in Metallica’s ‘Black Album,’ that it sacrificed zero power in going shorter, finding freedom in tighter confines.

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Brendan O’Meara hosts The Creative Nonfiction Podcast and is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter @CNFPod. Better yet, sign up for his newsletter at brendanomeara.com.

Dear Book, Dear Writer

October 18, 2021 § 22 Comments

By Julie Lambert

Dear Book,

I’ve thought about you for so long. I’m a little scared of you. What will happen when I release you? What story do you want to tell? Am I seeing you clearly? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do this correctly, in the way that I want you to be created. I’m stuck right now. I don’t know what you want me to do. Where you want me to go? I think I know the way, but I’m open and listening. Can you whisper to me? I promise I’ll do my best to let you lead the way. I trust you. I really do. Do you trust me? I know it’s hard. I know you’ve wanted to hide. To keep this secret between us. Why do we have to let everybody in on it? I feel that way, too, sometimes. I want to go back to just living a normal life, doing things that normal everyday people do. But I know I wouldn’t be happy. Would you? Do you want to be permanently affixed to the bulletin board, always as a notecard? I mean, what happens to a notecard? It gets thrown away in the trash when it’s no longer relevant, no longer serves a purpose. Or do you want to be pages? Pages in a book? Yes, books are sometimes thrown out, too, but not as often as notecards. I hope people value books more.

Okay, now what do you want to say to me? I know, I haven’t heard your voice in awhile, I’ve been distracted, running after the quick fix, the sparkly trappings of a writer’s life— writing residencies, more classes, more books to read— but I swear I did some of that to develop my relationship with you. So that I could understand you better. You know this is my first time, right? I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what’s required of me. I don’t know what’s at stake. What’s that? Right, I’m talking again. Sorry. I said it was your turn. Okay, I’ll shut up, but one last thing. Could you just drop me some clues every so often, just to let me know if I’m going the wrong way or moving in the right direction? It would really help me to keep going. Not a lot, just a few crumbs. Right, okay, I’ll stop.

Dear Writer,

You’ve asked me so many questions I don’t know where to begin. I’m fine hanging out here on the bulletin board. I’m not in any rush. What I’m saying will have as much relevance today as it will tomorrow. Remember what I said to you earlier today, “hold it lightly?” I know you’ve got so much going on in your life. So many things you’re trying to tune into. I appreciate that you almost always commit Tuesdays and Thursdays to visiting with me. No one else does that you know. You’re the only one who comes up in the attic to talk to me. But I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I’m okay and I kind of like my time alone, but I want you to be ready. I want you to be prepared for when I’m ready to talk because once I begin, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop. Have you set aside some time for me before the kids are out of school? Before this summer? Because we’re going to need it. I need to get off this bulletin board before the summer. I’m kinda tired of being vertical and I can’t hold myself up any longer. I want to behave and lay down on the page. Not for too long, though, because I know once the readers come, I want to be in their heads. I want to dance and play in their minds. Don’t you think that’s the place I belong? I’ve been in your head for so long, I’m finally getting some air and I like it, but we both know the only way I can stay alive is to be passed on to other people. Not in a bad, contagious kinda way, but in an ever expanding sort of way, a continuous conversation. That’s what I want to be. Can you help me?

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Julie Lambert is a nonfiction writer, poet, and women’s health and wellness activist, currently working on her debut memoir, Shed 1,000 Bodies. For twenty years she’s worked with organizations and individuals to improve women’s and children’s lives through education, health and wellness. In the past five years, she’s studied creative nonfiction and poetry with some of the most well-known and respected writers working in these genres. Her personal essay, “Mother’s Day,” about postpartum depression and psychosis was awarded 2nd place in Hypertext Review’s Spring/Summer 2020 Nonfiction contest. She is a graduate of The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop 2021 with T. Kira Madden, and The Writer’s Hotel 2019 with Meghan Daum. The Illinois Arts Council Agency awarded her an Individual Artist Support grant of $1,500 in 2019, and she’s been an invited storyteller at the KGB Bar in NYC, and the de Maat Studio, Second City in Chicago. She has a BA in English Language and Literature from Smith College, and a Master’s in English Language and Literature from Loyola University Chicago. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and four children.

Lessons in Memoir from Self-Portraiture

September 17, 2021 § 1 Comment

Our new issue includes a fascinating Craft Essay from author Kim Pittaway exploring the need to convey depth and shadow when writing the self, how “a slimly pen-stroked ‘I’ isn’t a portrait,” and what we can learn from visual artists and self-portraiture.

Her essay includes links and examples, and a series of excellent, unusual prompts such as:

What catches your eye? Throughout a day or a weekend, snap images of where your gaze settles: the irritating scuff on the white-painted stair riser heading up to your bedroom; the dog’s wagging tale as its dream delights it; the way the water pools on the barbecue lid in the rain. Print out the images. What insights might a stranger discovering your collection draw from these photos?

Who’s in your group? If you were to paint a group self-portrait of you at 17, who else would be in the frame? Describe them—both the real people and the influential figures who loomed large (your Virgin Marys). Now step back and describe yourself as each of them sees you. Try it at 27. 57. 77.

Wish I’d been there: What moment in history would you most like to have witnessed? Research the scene—and then place yourself in it, but at its fringes. Are you Caravaggio holding the lantern? The short-order cook at the Greensboro Sit-In? The kid behind the kid who caught a World Series home run baseball? Be as true to you as you can be: What do you see of yourself in this imagined scene that you might miss revealing in a more factual moment?

You can read Pittaway’s full craft essay here.

But What About Mom?

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.
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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.

Bricolage, the Writing of Words/the Pasting of Pieces

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.

The Seven Powers of Laurie Lynn Drummond’s ‘Alive’

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.

Succinct Description

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

No Dialogue

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.”

Ending Well

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.

What Makes for Good Creative Nonfiction Writing?

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.

~

References

Elementary (6 + 1 Traits from Education Northwest)

  1. Ideas: The student has a main point or storyline with supporting details. The writing has clarity, focus, and a sense of purpose.
  2. Organization: There’s a sound internal structure of the piece. The student organizes, groups, and sequences.
  3. Voice: The student brings the topic to life by showing enthusiasm for writing. The writing shows evidence of the writer’s personality and style.
  4. Word choice: The student understands there are different ways to say things and stretches to use new words and phrases.
  5. Sentence Fluency: The writing has rhythm and flow, with a variety of sentence structures and lengths.
  6. Conventions: The student shows awareness of spelling, punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, and capitalization.
  7. Presentation: The student has taken care with the overall appearance of the work.

Undergraduate (points range from 1 to 5 for each)

  1. The essay is coherent.                                           
  2. The essay is clear.                                                 
  3. The essay makes a well-organized argument.
  4. The essay proposes an original perspective or otherwise advances an existing debate.
  5. Adequate research is included.      
  6. The essay effectively uses quotations, summary, and paraphrase.                                                 
  7. The essay uses details and examples effectively.
  8. Paragraphs are clear, focused and structurally sound.
  9. Transitions between sentences and paragraphs skillfully move the writing forward.                      
  10. Standard English grammar is correctly used.

Graduate (points range from 1 to 25 for each)

  1. The piece tells one true story with a central conflict and resolution/learning.
  2. The piece includes actions, details, and dialogue to bring the true story to life.
  3. The piece is clear, coherent, and organized.
  4. 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.

Come Together

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.

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