The Essay: Brave, Engaged, Inventive

April 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

ned-stuckey-french1-230x345Redivider, the journal of new art and literature out of Emerson College, is  accepting submissions for the 2017 Beacon Street Prize through the end of April. Redivider’s nonfiction editor, Paul Haney, recently interviewed this year’s nonfiction judge, Ned Stuckey-French, also known as “the most interesting man in the world, when it comes to discussing the essay.”

Stuckey-French touches on Montaigne, Bacon, Adorno, the lyric essay, Eula Biss, the 1980s essay renaissance, and his time spent living “a kind of double life as a janitor and undercover trade union organizer.”

Here’s an excerpt from the interview, but the smart thing to do would be to follow the link to read the whole thing:

Reading essays is kind of like going out to dinner in Manhattan or some other big city. There’s always a great family restaurant that introduces you to new décor and food and presentation and wine and service. In judging this contest I’m hoping for an unexpected dining experience.

I also like to think that my tastes are broad, democratic, and always expanding (though I’ve never been a big fan of anchovies). I like essays that use humor and research. I like essays that make me say, “Wow, I’ve felt that or sensed that, but never heard it put into words.” I like essays that are brave and engaged, essays that tackle big issues though they may go after those issues via a small, quiet, and personal opening. I like essays that are formally inventive but that don’t indulge in form for form’s sake, but use form instead to reveal something about a subject in such a way that when you’ve finished reading the essay, you think, “Of course, that’s the way to say that.” I like essays that are skeptical and unafraid of the contradictions of life. I like essays that recognize that history is sly and we don’t have the universe all figured out even as they try to figure things out. I like essays that describe the beauty of our world – be that beauty wild, natural and inhuman, or urban, constructed, and social.

Here’s the link to the full interview.

Seeking Essays on How You Teach Brevity

April 14, 2017 § 1 Comment

antique schoolbook reader page schoolhouse graphicBrevity is celebrating its 20th Anniversary! As part of our celebration, we’d like to showcase the various ways the journal is used in classrooms and other workshop settings. Do you teach from Brevity? Send us a brief (but not necessarily Brevity brief) piece about how you use Brevity: a lesson plan, thoughts on a Brevity essay you most like to teach, reminiscences of student reactions to the work. We’ll be collecting these and publishing a selection on the Brevity blog in conjunction with our special anniversary issue, slated for early September.

Send your contributions by August 31, 2017, to brevityintheclassroom@gmail.com

Never Call Yourself a Writer, and Other Rules for Writing

April 12, 2017 § 36 Comments

shawna kenneyBy Shawna Kenney

First thought, best thought; revise, revise, revise. Write first thing in the morning when the mind is alert; write at night and never while sober. Do it alone, in an office with the door closed, surrounded by books; write in coffee shops, surrounded by stimulating characters and conversation. Use traditional quotation marks and capitalization Unless You Are a ‘Genius.’ Journal in longhand; always type fast. Sentences longer than three or four lines are unacceptable and tedious, unless you are William Faulkner, William Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, David Foster Wallace or one of those other people who can get away with it. Short is good.

Write with an ideal reader in mind; fuck the audience. Never show anyone an early draft; find a workshop for feedback. Write to please everyone; quit workshop and hire an editor. Take classes to improve; don’t go to college—you’ll lose your voice. Don’t send work out until it’s ready; submit early and often—it’ll never be perfect. Find a guru. Trust yourself. Kill your darlings. Study the masters and steal their attributes, but never plagiarize—even from yourself.

Don’t write a memoir until you’re ninety; write a memoir while you’re young and events are still fresh; write many memoirs. Write about what’s eating you; eat while you write, or write on an empty stomach. When writing nonfiction, recreate scenes you don’t fully remember; only use facts and information that is verifiable. Show your family your work; never share what you’ve written with those you’ve written about—you are the ultimate authority on your life.

Get a big desk. Keep a notebook in your pocket. Write for two consecutive hours each day. Sneak writing in on 15-minute breaks. Take long naps. Get up early and write before everyone else is awake; stay up late and write when everyone is in bed. Write on napkins, grocery receipts, scrap paper, on your phone or computer, or only in a Moleskin.  Write in pen. Always write in pencil first. Special writing software makes you more organized and gets you published faster. Write to get paid. Never expect money for your writing. Value your skills and charge what you’re worth. People who write for money are hacks. People who make money writing are lucky. Say this writing mantra every day: I am my own mantra. Never call yourself a writer until someone else does. Feel free to call yourself a writer, as long as you are writing. Fiction is thinly-veiled memoir. Memoir is mostly fiction. Poetry is useless. Poets are crazy blessed saints. Deep down, we all want to be poets.

Make an outline, then tear up the map and feel your way through. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there. All art is a process of discovery. Write what you know. Write to figure out what you don’t know. Write for your dead mother, your sweet pup, your unborn baby, or the ancestors you never knew. Write for yourself. Don’t write unless you can write the right way. Just write.

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Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers  and co-author of the forthcoming Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.

My Thesis was Not a Book: This is Not the End

April 6, 2017 § 8 Comments

2bwby Colin Hosten

I graduated from my MFA program with an incomplete thesis. There was still a lot more of my story to be written, and yet I deliberately chose not to finish writing it. The idea of ending the program with only a partial story had seemed anathema to my goals upon entering the program. Yet I was pleased, even proud of the incomplete work that I submitted for my thesis—in part because of its incompleteness.

The thesis, you see, was technically “complete.” It fulfilled all the requirements—of length, formatting, and quality—specified by the program. I even numbered the front matter correctly and added extra space in the margin for binding. My thesis did everything it needed to do in order for me to earn an MFA.

But my thesis was not a book. I was almost halfway through the program before I learned to appreciate the difference.

Like too many MFA students, I entered my program with grand visions of exiting with the next American masterpiece. Yes, I read extensively and cranked out what seemed like hundreds of craft essays, but I stayed fixated on the goal of finishing the program with a finished book—and not just any finished book, but a brilliant, MFA-polished, finished book, ready to be snatched up in a lucrative bidding war by all the major New York publishers.

My first semester advisor listened and nodded as I spelled out the milestones and checkpoints I had planned for the two-year program, before gently telling me that writing a book in addition to a thesis was a difficult proposition—that, in fact, focusing on a book could potentially be counter-productive to my thesis.

“What’s the difference?” I wanted to know. Wasn’t it just a matter of reformatting the thesis for publication?

She preferred to show rather than tell me the difference, and she had to look no further than my first creative submission packet for the perfect example.

The difference between a book and a thesis was the difference between glossing the psychological trauma of my sexual confusion as a teenager in one paragraph, versus creating a fleshed-out scene about a boy who tortured me daily, highlighting his face, his clothes, his mannerisms, his breath.

It was the difference between using the setting of Trinidad as a mere backdrop, versus bringing the island to sensory life for the reader, almost as if it were a character in its own right, the way Antigua is portrayed by Jamaica Kincaid in her book-length essay, A Small Place.

It was the difference between submitting work with clunky and overwritten dialogue, versus taking the time to reread, revise, edit, and polish a manuscript thoroughly.

And so on.

Developing the perspective, precision, and—overall—patience to distinguish between a book and a thesis became one of the biggest and most important lessons of my MFA experience. I appreciate now that completing a book worth reading necessarily demands endurance. It is an exercise in persistence, not just in setting realistic expectations and then making realistic plans to achieve them, but in the very way I conceptualize the writing process.

The story of my childhood in Trinidad is not a story to be rushed. It must be carefully crafted and finessed with the almost-obsessive attentiveness of an artist. It involves digging deep to make sure I have not left any important nuggets buried. It requires as much emphasis on the storytelling as on the story. I’ve come to see writing as a process, more than a means to an end. And I’ve learned that the more I take time to enjoy and savor that process, the more my eventual readers will, too.

The essays that became my thesis constitute just over half of the outline I’ve projected for my book. I haven’t gotten to the part where the sweet, little island boy leaves his homeland yet. But I think I know how to write it when I do. And I will, in time. There is no rush, you see; the patience is part of the process.

My incomplete thesis represented the end of my tenure as an MFA student. But it’s not the end of my story by any means. In many ways, it feels as though my work as a writer is just beginning.

___

Colin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay ReviewEssay DailyOUT Magazine, and Spry Literary. A former Assistant Editor at Hyperion Books for Children, he continues to work as a freelance writer and editor, while teaching in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

Hi! You are About to be Rejected from Our Quarterly

April 5, 2017 § 19 Comments

zz_candlerBy Pete Candler

Last week I received a very odd email from a notable Quarterly Magazine, in which the new Executive Director pre-warned me that I would soon receive a rejection notice for a submission I made to the journal over two years ago, which submission I withdrew in December.  Here is my response:

10:01 PM
Hello,

Hello!

My name is XXXXX…

Hi, XXXXX!

…and I am writing you as the new Executive Director at XXXXX Quarterly.

Hey, congratulations! So is this your first email as Executive Director? I’m sure it’s going to be great!

I know it’s been quite some time since you’ve received word from us about your Quarterly submission…

Oh, that! I was starting to wonder about you guys. I assumed you went belly-up, or maybe there was a grease fire or something. That was—what? —December 2014? Thanks for assuming I’m still alive at this point, though!

…and I want to apologize for that. Our staff is quite small and…

No, don’t sweat it! I am sure y’all have been insanely busy—

…the Quarterly was on a long (too long!) hiatus.

—Oh. Nevermind.

A long hiatus, huh? Where’d you go? Mar-a-Lago? I hear that place is kind of hard to stay away from. And with a hiatus program like that, can I come work for you? Because I really like not working with as few other people as possible.

I am excited to announce that we sent our 49th issue to press…

Forty-ninth! Wow, congrats, y’all! Are you still writing each one out by hand?

…and subscribers will receive their copy in the next six weeks.

That is so great. I am so happy for them!

We’ll also reopen our submissions very, very soon!

[whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In”]

Please note that you will soon receive a rejection notice for your former submission.

Oh. Well that’s a new one. Never had a pre-rejection notice before. That’s so sweet. Most journals only let you down you one time. But you’ve given me the opportunity to experience rejection twice! You guys—always bucking convention!

To be honest, it’s been so long since I submitted the thing you’re referring to that I’m not even sure what you’re referring to. I’m not even the same person I was when I sent that to you. I have had another kid since then. But don’t worry about it—I don’t think I sent you a birth announcement.

Oh, and by the by—I withdrew the submission after two years. I’m sorry if I was a little hasty! The kid is talking now, though!

We highly encourage you to resubmit in April if you are still interested.

Why wouldn’t I be interested? I’ve waited this long, what’s a few more years of my life? 

One thing, though: could I give you the contact information for my attorney, in the event that I am deceased by the time I hear back from you if I decide to resubmit? She is handling all of my posthumous publications.

Please do expect a wait time of 4-6 weeks while we get back up to speed.

4-6 weeks? Did you mean to type “weeks”? Is that lunar weeks? Or like Book of Genesis weeks?

Thank you so much for your interest in XXXX Quarterly! I hope to hear more from you soon.

You bet! But just in case you don’t, rest assured that my silence is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the journal.

 

10:22 PM
Hello again,

Oh hey! That was fast. I was just in the middle of writing you too! Two years of absolute silence from you all and then two emails in twenty-one minutes! I’m starting to feel a special bond with you, XXXXX.

Because so many have already asked…

Ah. Nevermind.

… please allow me to clarify: The impending rejection is merely an administrative necessity to re-open submissions and allow those still interested to submit again (or submit a newer piece) in April.

Well why didn’t you just say so? Not that I understand the term “administrative necessity,” me being an artist and all. But do continue!

It is in no way an indication of merit or interest in the piece.

Uh huh. I liked it better when you were bucking convention and pre-breaking up with me. But this line sounds familiar. 

I do apologize if that was unclear. Please feel free to ask more questions. We’re deeply interested in reading your work!

How deep is your love?

__

Pete Candlers scholarly and creative work has been rejected by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Modern Theology, Poetry, and The New Yorker, which once returned an unsolicited manuscript (circa 1997) submission with no note or letter but with a simple but thorough slash through the pages. Candler lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes fiction and essays. He is currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic. His twitter handle: @tweetcandler

 

Seeing an Essay and My Father Anew

April 4, 2017 § 3 Comments

Victor Domino1x

Gilbert’s father bought a great-great-great grandson of this legendary bull, shown in 1935

By Richard Gilbert

Almost three years ago, I began writing about accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. What provoked reliving the trip was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery. I remembered a stockman’s cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, 58 years later. Why?

Trying to answer just that, the essay explores reflexive story-making and the complex relationship among memory, imagination, and inner narratives. I found out late last week that “The Founder Effect” made the 2017 long list for the Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British biennial competition. It pays £20,000 to the winner, and they also publish five runners up. Two writer friends made the long list too: Jill Christman, who teaches for Ball State University, and Pat Madden, who teaches for Brigham Young University.

Competition is steep, so I’m counting the long list as my award. The 2015 winner was David Bradley’s provocative essay “A Eulogy for Nigger.” For some further great reading, go to the 2015 long list and pick an author and title and google it—those essays were first published or have since appeared in an array of journals. They are diverse in length and approach. Starting with the current competition, Notting Hill entries cannot have been previously published.

After a year of working on “The Founder Effect,” I tried to get it published. When it didn’t get anywhere, I sent it to a thoughtful friend who hadn’t seen it. He said he couldn’t understand its point. I suspected that, in my effort to make the most of the essay, I’d screwed it up. Two other friends had fretted that I was overworking it. Finally I hired a developmental editor, the talented novelist Joan Dempsey, up in Maine, to read it and advise me.

Joan pointed out that I started telling the story by alternating between my trip and related aspects, but then went into apparently unrelated stories about my father. After that, I let it sit a long time. Then I cut a ton. The trick was, I wanted to keep some of the memoir stuff. I write about the bull breeder’s life going on after we moved to Florida, so some of my father’s and my post-ranching life seemed relevant too.

And I restored something neither my friend nor Joan had seen. This was an initial foreground thread about my wife Kathy’s recovery from foot surgery. That thread grounds the essay in the here and now. It echoes the essay’s notion that in life, as in stories, the little things can be the big things. For example, the lone step at our house’s side door and a low tile lip on our shower loomed like Everest to someone with only one useable foot. And a friend bringing us a casserole dish? Huge. These lively segments make the essay kind of amusing, too, because while Kathy was recovering, and I was tending her, I was also lost down the internet rabbit hole, learning about Herfords and our bull’s breeder.

I learned a couple of things in this essay’s long writing and revision process. Per writing, I saw that the bullheaded drafting mind, the mind trying really hard to do something, isn’t the mind that can see immediately when a strategy doesn’t work. You need time, probably help from a writing posse, and maybe a professional’s eye. Of course ultimately the writer must decide alone.

Per life, the essay’s illumination of how I form narratives, often from mere scraps, helped me see my mind’s operating system. And pondering such reflexive story-making—amid my existing inner stew of memory, imagination, and previous stories—I finally saw my father’s narrative arc apart from its effect on me. That shift felt, and feels, big.

All this from exploring, for almost three years now, the memory of going with Dad to buy a bull in remote southwestern Georgia over half a century ago. I worked for 15 years in journalism, which teaches you to make the most of what you’ve got and to move on. To apply to essaying, those maxims must address a different dimension. “Literature,” Cyril Connolly said, “is the art of writing something that will be read twice.”

__

Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood. His essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named by Longreads as one of its “Best of 2016.” He is working on a collection of essays about animals and landscapes.

 

Workshop Comments for Sean Spicer

March 30, 2017 § 9 Comments

467e35ce-e050-11e6-8fcb-68eb4ed74971_1280x720Dear Sean,

Thanks for sharing your messages. Overall, what I understand your work to be about is that facts don’t matter. If that’s not the intended meaning, I can point to a few examples of misdirection you might consider revising.

One strength of your messages is the consistency of the tone. The narrator’s voice is strong and appropriate for the perceived purpose of the work. So, good job with that. Your messages certainly feel new in their divergence from recent conventions, such as your use of “ramspecking,” which you informed us is a phenomenon that “is going back since the beginning of time.” The term itself hasn’t been used since the 90s, so by using it the current context you were able to make it sound new and exciting and slightly diabolical. What fun!

Another element that is working well in your messages is the sense of urgency. The stakes are high. That being said, at times it seems the narrator is withholding to increase the tension. For example, after a reporter asked you about FBI Director Comey’s announcement that there was no evidence of wiretapping, your response was:

What I’m getting at is that there’s a lot of information that we have come to learn about what happened in terms of surveillance throughout the 2016 election and the transition. And when you look at somebody like Michael Flynn, and you realize that, while they might have been looking at somebody else at that time, how does somebody’s name that’s protected by law from being disclosed get put out in public? Why was it put out in the public? Because the people in the intelligence community would have had access to that information. They could have found out who it was. But yet, you’ve got to question, why was a name that should have been protected by law from being put out into the public domain, put out there? What were the motives behind that? What else do we need to know?

Ambiguity should be purposeful not confusing. Withholding to create suspense is essentially manipulation. Even if the manipulation is unintended, it is unnecessary to artificially inflate the stakes, which are naturally compelling. You are working too hard; let the material work through you.

A couple places that could use some attention are the consistency and clarity of the content. It could be the lack of consistency causing the issues with clarity. Or, maybe, it’s actually the content itself that is causing the problem. In response to questions about Trump’s ties to Russia, you said, “There is a whole second set of concerns here in terms of what was Hillary Clinton’s role. When you look at the Obama history—the Obama administration and the Clinton’s involvement with Russia in terms of donations that the Clintons received from Russian entities, the idea that they sold off a tremendous amount of the uranium to the Russian government, and yet where was the concern for that? What are we doing to look into that?” Answering a question with a question is not the most rhetorically effective choice. In this case, the reader is pulled out of the narrative. Try not to disrupt the dream.

There is a lot of telling, which isn’t in and of itself a problem. It’s just that as it is, there isn’t enough showing to ground the reader. Like when you said, “This was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” Instead of telling, show the reader that this was true. Perhaps, consider using a photo? As a result of this overreliance on telling, the abstract moralizing doesn’t feel earned. At times the exposition feels repetitive and recursive. Here again, some scenes showing specific facts on the ground might justify, or perhaps change, the story in the sky. One easy fix would be to address inconsistencies in the use of pronouns. For example, the pronouns switch between “we” and “them” rather quickly and neither is clearly defined: “That’s why we slow it down and make sure that if they are a five year old that maybe they’re with their parents and they don’t pose a threat. . . . To assume that just because of someone’s age or gender or whatever that they don’t pose a threat would be wrong.” The binary “us versus them“ trope, if that is what is meant, is overused and tired. This may be the one case in which more creativity rather than less is advised.

Finally, and this too could be a consequence of content, the arc isn’t clear. While the stakes are high, they are always high. There is no building or resolution. This may be why the pace feels both stilted and jarring. You might consider slowing down, maybe getting closer. As encouraged above, showing, using scenes and specific examples might be a way to close that narrative distance. Also, you might experiment with switching to present tense or including another point-of-view to shake things up. It doesn’t feel like this piece is what it wants to be yet. Some of these changes might help it figure out what it needs to be.

As always, do what you want. It’s your work.

Sincerely,

But it’s also mine.
__

Morgan Riedl lives in Fort Collins, where she writes, rides horses, and practices jui jitsu. She will be graduating from Colorado State University with an MA in creative nonfiction this May. She’s currently working on a collection of personal essays on the body.

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