Making Research Invisible, Or At Least Not Intrusive

June 21, 2021 § 3 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.
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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.

The Long and the Short of It

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.

Rhythm:

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.

Direction:

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.

Unity:

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.

How Writers Learn and Grow

June 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Aimee Christian

This spring, I attended my first writing conference, and it was almost embarrassingly life-changing.

For a long time, I wondered how people just sit down and write a book and send it off to an agent and then get it published. Where do they find the discipline? How do they know it’s any good? How do they know when it’s done? And then wait, when we study craft, are we saying these writers did these things intentionally? They didn’t just sit down and dash off sheer brilliance? They knew what they were doing?! So many questions!

I am forty-eight and now I finally know. They don’t just sit down and write perfection. They too had to learn it from somewhere.

For the past year I have been taking the class to end all writing classes. A year long memoir incubator. That name should say it all. A year ago, I had little more than a folder full of bits and pieces of creative nonfiction from fits and starts at writing. I applied to the class with 50 not-terrible pages. They were premature, and I had more ideas, all in desperate need of incubating. So for a year, I wrote. Through the pandemic. Through a change of jobs, remote school for a disabled kid (read: no school) and another kid (read: not enough school), getting and surviving COVID, losing my father, and more. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And in the process, I learned more about writing and about myself in this year than ever before.

In this class, we also read. We read each other’s half-baked manuscripts, we read excellent memoirs, we read craft books and essays. We picked pieces apart, we studied craft, we learned to give feedback and make edits both developmental and line by painstaking line.

As the third trimester of the class began to near its end, our brilliant and patient teacher prepared us for the conference. Her process was well thought out. We prepped as though we were querying: writing synopses of our manuscripts, picking out agents we might want to meet with, practicing our pitches.

That I was even able to follow the lingo in the conference: prompt, comps, query, proposals, prologues, revisions, writer vs author, memoir vs autobiography, and more, just shows how much I learned in a year. I didn’t know any of that a year ago.

Overall, the conference was humbling. The content was both about writing and about all the steps that come after it, and because it was virtual, we didn’t have to choose one session over another. They were all recorded, so we were able to see one and then go back and watch the others later. It was a lot of information, all varying degrees of useful, all of them leading me to one (long) conclusion, which is my new mantra:

I am not quite done with my manuscript, I have a community of writers around me, I have lots of resources, I need to avail myself of them, and when I am ready to query I will know it, and I will be successful even if it takes me a very long time and success doesn’t look the way I think it should right now.

But most of all, I WROTE A BOOK. And I know it’s gonna be a good one, too, because now I have help I didn’t have before. My friends and I read each other’s work and we can see easy improvements in each other’s pieces that we can’t see in our own. I can move paragraphs or sentences around in someone else’s essay in minutes but hang on to pages and pages in my own manuscript for dear life that a fellow writer can take a quick red pen to and say “this has to go” and when she does, I know immediately that she’s right. Or she can offer a pointed “Like what?” or “How?” to a sentence which makes the story I’m trying to tell so much clearer.

I know I am late to the party here. You probably know all this. But now I know, too. I won’t go it alone anymore because I don’t have to. This is how writers learn and grow. It makes us better writers, better editors, and overall better members of the writing community. Count me in, for however long it takes.
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Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.

Emotional Subcontractors: Working with Adverbs

June 8, 2021 § 8 Comments

Everyone hates on adverbs.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.

When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?

Replace redundant adverbs.

She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.

But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.

She thumped her coffee on the counter.

Skip the “duh” adverbs.

If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.

Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:

Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)

Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.

Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:

“Tell me right now!” she said quickly.

Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.

As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:

RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?

SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.

Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)

Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.

 “That’s him,” she said accusingly.

Instead:

“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.

“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.

“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”

With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:

He turned angrily and raised his fist.

He whipped around, his fist raised.

He spun, his fist raised.

Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.

He smiled bitterly.

They ran haltingly.

She danced jerkily.

Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”

In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:

Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.

The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.

Plumb the adverbs in your own work:

1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?

2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.

3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.

Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.

Teaching Brevity: Brian Doyle’s “Imagining Foxes”

May 27, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Amie Souza Reilly

Brian Doyle’s essay “Imagining Foxes” remembers the afternoon he and his siblings spent playing in a tiny patch of cedar forest. However, the importance of that day does not come from what they witness in the woods, but from what they don’t actually see at all. His is an essay about finding meaning in absence.

In the beginning, Doyle lists all they observed, and readers, like the Doyle children, forget that the “forest” is only twelve blocks long. This is the way he leads us into imagination, by showing us how to forget while also remembering.

And interspersed in descriptions of the birds they saw, Doyle mentions the deer they didn’t see:

although we did see mats of grass, which sure looked like places deer would nap, like uncles after big meals, sprawled on their sides with their vests unbuttoned, snoring like heroes.

Like a balancing act, he continues to write of the real and imagined—holes where mammals live, the undeniable scratch marks of bears—though of course we know there are most likely no bears in this stretch of trees hemmed in by highways.

But after these teetering lists, in the third paragraph of the essay, there is a switch. Here, Doyle steps away from recollection and addresses his readers: “…but my point here is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.” The nostalgia-laden description, the nap of remembering, is broken.

The thing the Doyle kids did not see, not really, was a fox. He says they smelled him, heard him, saw the little dabs in the dirt were his feet surely trotted. But they never actually saw the fox. And the fact that it was never actually seen is precisely what Doyle wants to talk about. This essay is a lesson in writing as much as a lesson in life.

“Imaging Foxes” reminds me of what Vivian Gornick writes about imagination and memoir in The Situation and the Story. “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

Doyle’s essay is about imagination, about experience and wonder. The forest is the place that held the event, the experience inside it is the memory. There’s a tug at nostalgia in his words. How magical, the memory of childhood afternoons spent lost.

When teaching this essay to a class full of students, most barely out of childhood themselves, I ask them to write down that Doyle sentence, and to think of it as a key that turns in a lock, opening something special. Write it down, I say, in the middle of your paper:

But my point is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.

And then I ask them to think of a childhood space, perhaps somewhere that felt wonderous then, though they may experience it differently now. After, I have them imagine what they see, smell, and feel inside that place, and write it all above the Doyle sentence. Below it, I ask them to describe what is not there. In this act of separating the memory, of turning, briefly, outside of themselves, I hope that they find the meaning of that absence.

“If you stop imagining them then they are all dead,” Doyle writes at the end of this essay, “and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?”

It is not about absence at all, but about the fullness of wonder.

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Amie Souza Reilly is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University and is the Assistant Managing Editor at Brevity Magazine. Her work can be found in trampset, Catapult, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son. 

Teaching Brevity: Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing”

May 21, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Suzanne Roberts

In 1857 Henry David Thoreau wrote in a letter to a friend: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” As a travel writer, I’m often asked to write about five ghost towns or six roadside attractions in 500 words. It feels impossible every time. I sit down and write 1,500 or 2,000 words. Then I kill 75% of my darlings.

Because I know this is what editors often ask for—challenging word counts—I assign the very short essay to my students. I ask for a 1,000-word essay, saying every word has to count. When they return to class, I tell them that every word must count double—in a revision of no more than 500 words. My students complain, and I send them home to do the work. Their next revision—you guessed it—can be no longer then 250 words. They tell me cutting that much will “ruin” their work, so I share with them an essay that does its work in a mere 230 words.

Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing” captures the ways girls navigate a patriarchal world where the “girl thing to do” is to take care of babies and then suffer advances from the children’s lecherous fathers. The title “Girl/Thing” echoes the first line about babysitting being a “girl thing” but also, at the end of the essay, a girl that is a thing: “(Y)ou don’t know anymore if you are a girl and if that noun means you are a person, place, or thing.” Not only does the word “thing” accumulate meaning from the first line to the last, but as the essay moves along, the point of view shifts from the first person “I” to the plural “us” and finally to “you,” implicating the reader. In the end, it’s the reader who “can’t do anything” about the world she inhabits, that is not until the girl grows into a woman who writes her—and our—story.

Writers from Aristotle to Poe have told us to begin in medias res, or in the middle of things. Vodicka does this by beginning the essay with the word because. This puts the reader into the situation, in the middle of things, in that car with the creepy father, creating immediate conflict. When we begin a sentence with the word because, it usually follows a question, an interrogation. But the teenaged girl, who might answer a question with only the word because doesn’t get to speak in this essay at all. The only person whose voice we hear in direct dialogue is that of the father, the Patriarchy, who says, “You’re growing up so fast.” This sole line of dialogue could seem innocuous, for it’s something we often say to children. But because the father’s hand is on the narrator’s “innocuous upper thigh,” we see how menacing this line is. The use of the adjective “innocuous” signals the reader that while the thigh and the voiceless girl may be innocuous, the man’s hand and his words transform her very body to a thing, a place of danger.

“Girl/Thing” creates meaning sentence by sentence but also makes use of sound, word by word. We hear the father is “slurry” and the sentences that follows is heavy on s sounds—slides, space, seconds, says, sitting. As the danger of the “roving hand” slides across the divide, the alliteration reminds the reader of a hissing serpent, that original scourge of innocence. In the penultimate lines, Vodicka juxtaposes her newly earned certificate in “the art of child-rearing” with the next sentence: “A certified screw.” Female as mother, as object of desire, as girl/thing.

In teaching this essay, I don’t point out the ways that craft creates meaning but ask questions that lead students there: Why does the essay begin with the word because? What does the title mean? How is the language similar in the first and last lines? What is the point of view? Where does it change and why? Who gets to speak aloud in the essay and why? What sounds do you hear when we read this aloud? What details might have been left out of this essay?

Then I ask students to look critically at their own essays, with the questions we have discussed in mind. What details in their work can be left out or condensed into one word, action, or line of dialogue?Can titles contain double meanings? Is it possible to begin their essay with the word because? Can the direct dialogue be condensed to one line that will do the work of all the dialogue?

I often tell students I can’t teach them how to write, but I can assign literature that will, if they study the architecture of the work. Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing” shows students how much meaning can be made in the space of 230 words.
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Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir in travel essays, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (NATJA Bronze Medal Winner and Finalist for the Gilda Award and Foreword Reviews Best Book of the Year in Travel) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Her collection of lyrical essays, Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, & Other Difficulties is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2022. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included twice in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.

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Teaching Brevity: Christine Byl’s “Bear Fragments

May 21, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Suzanne Roberts

  1. Choose a subject. It could be mineral, plant, or animal. Christine Byl’s “Bear Fragments,” takes on the subject of bears: actual bears (black bears and grizzly bears) and human interactions with them (both gentle and gruesome), bear folktales and legends, and the bear within.
  2. For Byl, bears are ideas and emotion, language and representation. Bears are art and story. But in the end, we understand that bears are bears—beings of wildness, separate from our human imaginings of them. Make your own subject into an abstraction and then ground it in the thing is really is, the animal body. Byl does this by moving from a friend’s fearful imaginings, to legends, to the animal, back to language, to the realities of a bear encounter, back to myth, and finally to the physical fact of the bear. Try a similar pattern in your own essay.
  3. Like Byl does in her essay, choose one of the senses for each segment. In section one, Byl focuses on the sounds, section two on sight, three on taste, four on thought, five on touch, six on sight again, and seven on smell, which finally grounds the ideas in this most primal sense. Try adopting this arrangement or use your own, focusing on one of the senses in each section.
  4. Escape the circle of “I” and let the subject take over. Byl stays at the periphery of her subject until the end. She writes, “I have never had to try” and “I knew a photographer” but the first person “I” hovers on the outside of things until the very last line: “It brings to mind adrenaline and rot and sex, and everything I’ve ever known that’s wild.”
  5. Incorporate dialogue in section five. Make it surprising.
  6. Find a way, as Byl does, to combine science and imagination: “Mid-winter, cubs are born. For months in the den, they suck the sow’s mile-grub-moth-root-beetle-seed while she lies on her side dreaming of glacier-lilied fields.” We cannot know what the bear dreams of, but we can imagine it.
  7. In the last section, address the reader, using the second person “you.” Write it in seven sections. Make sure that through your juxtapositions, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And that the last line brings it all together.
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    Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir in travel essays, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (NATJA Bronze Medal Winner and Finalist for the Gilda Award and Foreword Reviews Best Book of the Year in Travel) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Her collection of lyrical essays, Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, & Other Difficulties is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2022. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included twice in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.

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    THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.

Brevity’s Expanded Teaching Resources and Search Options

May 21, 2021 § Leave a comment

We’ve just expanded the Resources for Teaching Brevity section on our main website and each day this week we are featuring highlights. You can visit the menu page to see all of our new teaching resources or hop on over to check out these three new pages:

Searching Brevity Essays by Craft Element

Searching Brevity Essays by Mode

Searching Brevity Essays by Topic

We will be rolling out new features in the weeks and months to come, so be sure to check in regularly as your plan your upcoming semesters.

And if you use Brevity in your teaching and have a resource to add, please let us know.

Teaching Brevity: Torrey Peters’s “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay”

May 20, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Emily Dillon

At 1,789 words, Torrey Peters’s “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” (Issue 49, 2015) is the only essay over 750 words that Brevity has ever published. Editor-in-chief Dinty W. Moore says, “We made an exception because of the power of the essay and the importance of the subject.” While Moore is of course correct that he made an exception, I would not be surprised if Peters intentionally exceeded the word count. After all, her essay, which compiles and arranges details from research on transgender murder, is nothing if not a meditation on excess–excessive violence, excessive hate, and excessive death.

The essay begins, “Brunete was beaten to death with a stick. The victim was shot by two men on a motorcycle in front of a motel. The victim was shot in the head.” This passive voice structure, often devoid of dependent clauses, continues unabated throughout the essay, centering the transgender victim in the first words of each sentence and stirring fear with the omnipresent but unnamed murderer.  The repetition of this detached violence through almost 2,000 words simultaneously desensitizes and overly sensitizes the reader; we become immune to the violence but then, just as swiftly, triggered by its personal touches (“her burned body was dumped in a trash bin” or “the victim was killed with an ax”), in much the same way that watching violence on the news sometimes causes us to tune out and then, when particularly gruesome, tune in and rue humanity. In addition, the repetitive use of “the victim,” used to describe the subjects of various reports, tricks the reader into creating a composite character, as if every form of violence happens to one person. In this way, transgender murder becomes larger than any one story, “the victim” a symbol for what every transgender person becomes or fears becoming.

For the classroom–whether focused on creative writing, journalism, or criminal justice studies–this essay is useful but tricky. How can the teacher mine its expert craft and essential storytelling while also respecting the psychological health of students, especially students who identify as transgender or, more broadly, queer? From my experience teaching both secondary and higher education, the teacher’s role is not to censor injustice but to contextualize it and to offer options for student engagement. In a criminal justice classroom, this pedagogical approach may mean a content warning prior to assigning the reading and concurrently offering readings on contemporary queer justice movements; in a journalism classroom, it may mean assigning students to model the essay’s passive voice with a topic of their choice and reflect on that construction’s impact; in the creative writing classroom, it may mean asking students to try the essay’s found form on any subject, with an emphasis on compiling clips until they are surprised by a new revelation. In every case, it is relevant to share with students that the author Torrey Peters is herself transgender and using this litany of murders to explore her own fear, not to create a detached and gratuitious witness of violence. In particular, her personal stake emerges when the language starts to break down, when the repetition is not of similar images but exact wording: about two-thirds of the way through the essay, every other sentence becomes “The victim was a person of color.” When the language breaks and begins to skip like an old record, so too does the speaker’s distance. Suddenly, she is there, reading the reports with us.

In other words, the pedagogical danger is the most obvious assignment: asking students to go find a violent or oppressive topic in the news and to repeat the form. Don’t do it. For one, repeating a form without using it to find a unique revelation is bad copying, not art. The only reason that Amy Butcher’s Brevity essay “Women These Days” (Issue 58, 2018) successfully uses Peters’s form is that Butcher alters the form enough to expose her own stakes in violence against women, ending her litany with a harsh criticism of her male partner. Secondly, using this prompt may do more harm than good for the student, especially if it forces a student to confront current or past trauma without the aid of a psychological professional. If a student chooses to go there when offered choice, great; if we as educators force them to do it, not good.

Aside from the relevant classroom fields discussed above, this essay is also useful for any educator choosing to observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th, as the title of the essay implies. I would not recommend using this essay on the Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31st, as that day was intended by founder Rachel Crandall-Crocker to celebrate living transgender people. But don’t worry about finding stories of celebration–Peters’s has those too. Whether on the Transgender Day of Visibility or at another time in conjunction with her essay, consider assigning Peters’s most recent novel Detransition Baby (2021), published with Random House. Garth Greenwell has praised Detransition Baby as “the smartest novel I’ve read in ages … utterly savage & lacerating while also conveying endlessly expanding compassion,” which is not unlike what we find in the powerful, personal, and exquisitely crafted flash “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay.” 
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Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from the Piedmont Plateau of Maryland, between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She seeks honest representations of lived experiences in her work, which ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. She is currently an assistant editor for Brevity.

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THIS POST IS PART OF BREVITY‘S EXPANDED TEACHING SECTION. PLEASE VISIT Resources for Teaching Brevity TO SEE OUR HELPFUL NEW RESOURCES.

Expanded Classroom Resources: Prompts for Teaching The Flash Essay

May 20, 2021 § 2 Comments

We’ve just launched an expanded Resources for Teaching Brevity section on our main website and each day this week we are featuring highlights here on the Blog. You can visit the menu page to see all of our new teaching resources or start your tour at Prompts for Teaching the Flash Essay.

Our Prompts for Flash Essays section offers:

– A prompt as simple as this: “Give directions or instructions to somebody you know, somebody you love, about something that’s important to you.” (Dinah Lenney)

– The twin prompts of writing “your grubbiest experience” and describing “the textures of your childhood” (Eliza Fogel)

– A prompt asking you to research an unknown ancestor (or walk around a cemetery.) (Sonja Livingston)

– A prompt that encourages students to “keep an eye on their own peripheral images and involuntary memories” in order to write an associative essay. With a nod to the boxes of Joseph Cornell. (Alison Townsend)

– A lyric essay prompt asking students to record one overheard snippet of conversation each day for a week, “more if something catches the ear,” and then transform their fragments into an experimental flash. (Sally Ashton)

– A prompt to “write a letter that you can never send or will never send—to someone with whom you are not in touch, or who has passed, or to whom the ability to speak at a certain level or pitch has faded… A brief essay in the form of a letter, a direct address, a wish.” (Sejal Shah)

We will be rolling out new features in the weeks and months to come, so be sure to check in regularly as your plan your upcoming semesters.

And if you use Best of Brevity in your teaching and have a resource to add, please let us know.

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