Towards a Daily Writing Practice: A Credo

May 23, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Karen Babine

I don’t believe in inspiration anymore.

I believe in compulsion.

I believe in friction. I believe in the energy of phrases pulled from a stranger’s conversation, of ideas that don’t quite match their contexts, a belief in being so aware that you stand next to Alexander Smith and become the world’s amanuensis because you have no choice.

I believe the world is an interesting place.

I believe in doing the work of being a writer, the work of studying at the page of masters to learn their brush strokes, how to mix that particular color of blue. I remember a conversation with the fiction writer Will Weaver and asking him if he had a writing schedule, and he said he did, that he wrote every day, because it would be a shame if the Angel of Fiction showed up and he wasn’t there. We may enjoy it, we may hate it, but what gets us to the page is the compulsion to translate what we see, what we think, what we imagine onto a page that is not suited for such tellings. We never see the iceberg of work that goes into a writer’s sentence, but we know it is there.

            Pianists play scales, basketball players shoot free throws, and writers write.

Once, I heard a talk by a scholar of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and this man had combed through archives for the drafts of Heaney’s poem “Punishment.” He went through the changes Heaney had made, not just small-scale word-level changes, but structural changes, stanza changes, scything whole swathes, and planting new ones. And then, on the thirteenth draft, Heaney changed the entire poem into a sonnet, shifting his phrasing into iambic pentameter, confining himself to a rhyme scheme, tightening his fingers around those fourteen lines. Just to see what would happen. In the next draft, the sonnet had given way back to quatrains, where it stayed. But the point is that Seamus Heaney, one we might assume knew what he was doing, still did the dirty work of being a writer. He did not believe in magic, in poetry coming to him. He had to dig for it.

I believe in a writing practice. By that, I mean considering writing in the same mode as yoga practice: it is not something to be achieved. It is to be pursued. With practice, we are able to move our bodies and our pens in new directions not possible yesterday. Writing is a muscle, not magic, after all. If I think of writing as an embodied practice, the movement of my pen on paper, the click of my fingers on a keyboard, how tired my hand is when I’m out of practice, then I’m in a mindset of how my body is in the world is how my body is in the world and that is a place to write from. Because of this, I have long used Julia Cameron’s Writer’s Backpack, which consists of Morning Pages, Walks, and Artist Dates. I have come to believe in starting a day with what is most important to me. If I wait for inspiration, if I wait for a block of several hours to write, there will always be something else to do. If I start the day with writing, I will have always done the work of being a writer before the grocery shopping or lawn mowing or teaching. Because Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks are part of an active writing practice, the work of putting a writer’s body into the world, practicing looking and seeing before we put it on the page, we are doing what I consider the most important work of being a writer: writers are always writing; they are not always typing. For some, Morning Pages might look like 2am Pages, or fitting the work of the mind onto the page in the way that fits best.

I believe in the work of writing, of the writer priming the pump, so that the well is never dry. I believe in carrying a notebook and collecting observations, phrases, angles of light, the shift of air currents and what in the world is that smell??, and I believe that each writing project will create its own process. I believe in leaning into the writerly urge to collect notebooks, to let them stack on the shelf in pristine order, and I believe in that little internal tug that might be fear as I pull one out and put it to use. I believe in this paper-bag-brown Moleskine and I believe in the cheap pen which somehow leads to lovelier handwriting than the expensive pen next to it, because the drag of this pen against this paper is an alchemical combination that feels right.

I believe in the practice of being in the world, my body in the world, and my pen in the world. What I learned on the last project will not help me on the next one, but what I’m learning for the one I have not yet written is that by the time this book tells me what it wants to be, I’ll have everything I need, contained in that notebook. I won’t be starting from scratch, because I’ve done the work.

I broadly interpret Cameron’s Artist Dates and Walks (sometimes it’s walking through a farmer’s market or the produce section at the grocery store with a writer’s eye, not just a cook’s) and it’s a good reminder that space is not neutral and the writer’s presence in a space is not neutral either. I believe in the attention of staring at a shelf of dishes you don’t need at the thrift store and letting your mind and sarcasm play against the colors, the ring of crystal you absolutely don’t need, but take home anyway because it’s beautiful. Your mind at work disrupts air currents, molecules, and that is a good place to start writing. Best not to pretend otherwise. Otherwise it’s like the old joke about the guy who prays please, God, help me win the lottery! over and over and finally God yells, “Then buy a ticket!”
___

Karen Babine is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions) and Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press), both winners of the Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, Waxwing, and Terrain.org, and has twice been listed as a Notable in Best American Essays. Her nonfiction craft essays have appeared in Brevity and LitHub, and are forthcoming in the Writer’s Chronicle and CRAFT, She teaches at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

In Praise of One Beat Words

May 18, 2022 § 23 Comments

By Linda Button

Here’s to one beat words. Short and sweet and quick. Hot in your mouth, fast to say, they leap from tongue to brain in a flash. They amp up your tone and add salt to your prose. And by one beat words I mean short.

Short words are honed to work fast. Why? Most hail from the harsh north, where each breath is hard won. Blunt like chipped tools. Tough to make it through dark, cold nights. Not like the tongues from the warm south, born of sun filled days, where time stretched out with ease, no rush! and each sound led us down a long, slow path that seemed to have no end.

Words from the north cut to the chase. (A phrase, by the way, from the first days of film, where they meant “cut to the good stuff)”.

My folks, spawn of a long line of hicks, spoke in grunts. Dogs were mutts. You swam in the crick. Fixed the ruf. Each word shot from my dad’s mouth. We paid close heed. We ducked and did what he said. “Git here.” “Go on.”

Then, I was wooed by a posh school. They did not teach me to write well. They loved such long words. Lots of them. Scores. Tomes. Why use three words when you could use twelve? Fill the page, they pressed us. We purged our guts, plied words from our word gods, stuffed our work to awe our profs. Big blocks of text. No white space. No sense of dire. All was flat. We thought that made us sound, not just smart, cool.

But

where

were

our

crisp

bold

thoughts?

Lost in veils. We had draped them in fluff. Masked and dressed for show.

I learned how to write when I got my dream job in, well, we called it the boob tube. The boob tube. Fourth grade zone. True. We learned to keep it short to reach the most folks. Our goal: keep them glued. “How much time do you have? Wait, wait, don’t go! Stay here. Look, here’s a new fun thing we just found for you. Try this. Try that. Stay with us.”

We wrote scripts for the ear, not the eye. That taught me to be blunt, like my dad. Hack off the dreck. Cut to the core. Clean up your prose. Trim the split ends. We carved each plea to one beat. We got to the point. We caught them in our trap.

Wow, I thought. I can say less and mean more.

Try this

Fill a page with your tale. The whole side. Then, take each word: the four beat, three beat even and, yes, the two beat words. Find a way to say the same thing with one beat. See how you forge a clear stone path of thoughts to the end. See how they change the pace, how the quick steps fuel what you mean.

Our brains eat short words like fast food. That makes sense. Short takes less space. Each word drops in, plunk.

Then, when the time feels right, slip them one glorious note.

Glo-ri-ous. Mmmmm. Stands out, right?

Choose your words with care. Hone them. Make them punch through.

And, please, keep it short. And glorious.

In this blog I have used just one beat words. Tell me, did it work, or am I full of bunk?

_____

Linda Button spent 20 years running an award-winning agency and romping across six continents to speak on creativity and writing. Her essays on relationships have appeared in the New York Times Modern Love  and Boston Magazine. She completed the Memoir Incubator at Grub Street and is working on a memoir about marriage, madness, and how martial arts saved her. https://lindabutton.works

Opening Literary Windows to Better Understand Our World

May 6, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Candy Schulman

It began during the pandemic lockdown. Teaching my nonfiction writing workshops to Zoom rectangles, I could hear Black Lives Matter marches outside my 14th floor Greenwich Village apartment. Their voices made me understand that my own reading habits and recommendations to students were still not diverse enough.

My millennial daughter pointed out that I was drawn to work by women whose lives mirrored mine. These writers made me feel less alone in a complex world. One weekend my daughter’s friend read aloud the first paragraph of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had….If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.”

Kawakami’s first novel, Heaven, was about bullying. This heartbreaking, deeply disturbing allegory transported me back to my childhood in Brooklyn—where I too had been bullied at fourteen, 6,894 miles away from Osaka. My essays on bullying were similar to Kawakami’s experience, and also different. Reading diverse authors emphasized the universality of the human condition.

Next my daughter recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a historical novel spanning 300 years, from Ghana to American slavery and beyond. It was so disturbing that I could not read it before bedtime. In my classes I’d often paraphrased Kafka’s claim that the job of an artist is to make us uncomfortable, not happy. Gyasi’s horrifying descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves emphasized Kafka’s view that “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”

As writers we need to “wake up” in order to surprise our readers and create original voices. With over two million books published worldwide, I was grateful for my daughter’s guidance. I’d introduced her to reading and was always proud that she grew up to love literature. Now she was teaching me.

I followed her recommendations as if she were my book club leader. Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong, illuminated her shame, depression, and racial identity struggles as the daughter of Korean immigrants in America. As soon as I read the last page of Hong’s hybrid memoir of personal experience and cultural criticism, I put it on my syllabus. An Asian American student emailed me: “Minor Feelings changed my life. Thank you.”

I studied books and styles I might never have read before. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an inventive memoir about psychological abuse in a love relationship between two women. Its innovative structure where each chapter is crafted around a narrative trope made me think anew about ways we order our essays and memoirs.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, a Chinese American coming-of-age story begins, “Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house…” Her first paragraph was the lengthy kind I urged my students to divide into shorter morsels. Yes, a writer could break the rules—once traditional craft is mastered.

One night in class, after workshopping a student’s personal essay written in the second person, I warned that the “you” voice was tricky and rarely effective. A student recommended “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read,” a second person epistolary essay by Ocean Vuong. His brilliant lyricism, in spite of numerous transitional spaces, was the kind I warned students often made prose feel jumpy. I changed my mind when saw how effortlessly Vuong achieved it in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Writers need to stretch and grow. I tell my students that learning to write is a lifelong process. My essay style has evolved over the years. Broader reading tastes have enabled me to penetrate new boundaries in style, format, chronology, and language. All writers can spread our literary wings across oceans. After 35 years of teaching, I’ve expanded my knowledge about the craft of writing—as well as systemic racism, slavery, immigration, and prejudice.

My teaching syllabus has evolved from mostly white voices of women who’d grown up with more than one or two windows in their house. The daughter of first-generation Americans, I was raised in a modest Brooklyn house with five windows. My apartment today has eight windows. I keep opening them as wide as possible, inviting a wide array of today’s literary voices into my writing life and my classroom.

___
Candy Schulman is an essayist, memoir writer, and creative nonfiction professor at The New School in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Longreads, Salon, among others. Her work has been featured in anthologies including Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press), Same Time Next Week (In Fact Books/Creative Nonfiction), and forthcoming Embrace the Merciless Joy (McSweeney’s). Candy has twice won the Best Essay Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and notable honors from Best American Essays.

Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Diverse Voices in a New Anthology

May 4, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Rachael Hanel

After years of teaching media writing to undergraduates, I received the opportunity this semester to teach creative nonfiction to MFA candidates. Ever since I learned that Debra Monroe had published an anthology of creative nonfiction in 2020, I knew I wanted to use that book in a class.

What excited me most about the anthology, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, was Monroe’s clear intent to new, diverse voices among some of the CNF stalwarts we’re used to. Of course there are many great CNF readers out there, Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay being one of them. Others on my shelf include In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism: A Reader, and The Literary Journalists.

These fine volumes do what any CNF reader should do: present diverse offerings in terms of subject matter and form. Beginning and practiced CNF writers alike can learn a lot from them.

But they don’t always represent a wide diversity of voices. When I teach media writing, I primarily use examples from the world of literary journalism. Those anthologies rely heavily on the New Journalists of the 1960s that broke with the traditional journalistic form and made themselves part of the story: Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Hunter S. Thompson. No comprehensive study of literary journalism is complete without reading works by these trailblazers.

But it is 2022, and so many skilled CNF writers from traditionally underrepresented groups are contributing mightily to the diversity of voices. Monroe put together her collection precisely with an eye toward diversity, and the result is splendid and rich.

My students are responding positively. Not only do they like the variety of form and subject, but they see themselves in the writers. Says one: “I’m rarely exposed to writers who come from the same ethnic, linguistic and cultural background as myself, so it was interesting this week to read two essays from Mexican American writers.” I was thrilled to hear that, but also a little sad: He’s a graduate student in his mid-40s, and this is one of the few times he’s been exposed to writers who share his background.

Monroe’s book, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology, is also helping me diversify other examples I use in class. I’m not going to throw away some tried-and-true essays that stand the test of time: “The American Male, Age 10” by Susan Orlean and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. But when I wanted to find examples of long-form journalistic profiles, I turned to my collection of The New York Times Magazine and chose a profile of Gayl Jones, a Black writer who seemingly disappeared from public view, as well as a profile of Questlove—both modern examples from 2021 that showed so well what a good profile can do.

I asked Monroe some questions about her anthology via email.

RH: What was the impetus in creating this anthology?

DM: As my friend, a poet, said: It’s the genre where the most is happening. It’s in an exciting state of change—open to influence, so suited to this era. Existing anthologies were already fifteen years old, with traditional essays. Do you remember when creative nonfiction used to be described as “like fiction only true.” I wanted an anthology with experimental essays and lyric essays, too.

And my campus is minority-white. Ten years ago, I ordered an anthology people recommended, and when I saw the table of contents, I thought: OK, I’ll photocopy essays by writers of color. But I walked into my class and saw my students. I didn’t like implying that writers of color were special status: photocopy-only. So I photocopied every reading assignment, aiming for variety. I discovered that many creative nonfiction teachers were photocopying for similar reasons. Sometimes, I’d order a few essay collections by single authors but didn’t get the sampler effect, the big range. And my craft lessons were a disorganized amalgamation. I wanted craft lessons in one place, synthesized in an accessible but not reductive way for readers just encountering the genre.

RH: There are so many excellent essays spanning centuries. How did you choose which ones to include?

DM: I’m indebted to Sarah Einstein for suggesting that the turn of the century is a good cutoff date for “contemporary.” I tried to stick to that. There are 48 essays in the anthology—500 pages of essays!—and the oldest, just four, by writers everyone considers essential, were published in the late-1990s.

Being inclusive affected decisions, too. Every campus isn’t as diverse as mine, but the country is. I used demographic percentages from the U.S. census as benchmarks. After that, I selected for variety in forms, styles, subjects. I consciously included well-known writers as well as writers who should be known.

RH: The release of this book got caught up, like many others, with the arrival of COVID-19. What was it like promoting a book during lockdown?

DM: I’d asked the textbook publisher to rent a booth at AWP—before the pandemic, prelapsarian times. My publisher does a lot of English titles, but was new to creative writing. When I sent a follow-up email asking for rented space for an off-site reading, explaining that this is how writers launch books—readings in bars—I never got an answer. So I rented, out of pocket, a private room in the Liberty Bar, a PA, a lectern. Four contributors agreed to read: short, sweet readings, five minutes each. Ira Sukrungruang, Camille Dungy, Sonja Livingston, Sayantani Dasgupta, Bonnie Ilza Cisneros. I sent invitations and had so many RSVPs I worried about the space being too small. You recall the slow-fizzle confusion as AWP had trouble deciding whether to cancel the San Antonio convention. As COVID news got worse, my readers began to cancel, and then I canceled. The only other publicity has been me posting on social media and one interview in Assay. Promoting the anthology has been like everything during COVID, subdued and solitary.

RH: It’s a large book with heft and depth. You told me that some people have commented about the size, but it’s comparable to fiction and poetry anthologies. Do you think the size signals that CNF is as worthy as other genres of a large reader?

DM: Yes, this magical genre deserves a big anthology! As teachers, we dip into big anthologies again and again, in different ways for different students or courses. Students find themselves seduced into reading essays not on the syllabus, and they keep these anthologies long after the semester is over, as resources.

RH: From my experience teaching out of this book, students are responding positively. You told me in an earlier conversation that one writing instructor reported a student said the anthology opened the world of CNF to her. Can you expand on that conversation? What else are you hearing from students or instructors?

DM: I recently taught out of it for an undergrad literature class that also included fiction and poetry. Students, nonmajors who’d never heard of the genre, loved creative nonfiction the most. On their evaluations, they said things like: These essays are about life now. These are the most relevant readings I’ve been assigned in college. That was a literature class, but their remarks remind me of what someone teaching creative writing in Oklahoma said. She sent this note:

It’s an amazing anthology, a game-changer. It makes a case, without being didactic, that we are in this together. One of my students said, “‘For the first time ever, I feel like I am living in the middle of history and my experience matters.” You do realize that the whole anthology, with introduction, headnotes, prompts, constitutes a radical pedagogy?

I included over a hundred writing prompts, and I’ve heard from people teaching graduate classes that the prompts have generated great essays. Writers gravitate toward their most unsettling experiences, and these experiences bubble up into even innocuous topics in interesting ways. I think how, in medical terminology, to “express” means to release something trapped, swollen. But the direct approach doesn’t always make for an artful release. Prompts help students make inroads into otherwise daunting or overfamiliar topics. Essays in the anthology cover many subjects, but those that cover dark subjects approach these sideways, as if by stealth. A student said to me last week that a few essays clarified for her that trauma isn’t always compelling, but, she added, “our imperfect buoyancy afterward is.” She’s already such a good writer. She put that well.

____

Rachael Hanel teaches media writing and creative nonfiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book of narrative nonfiction, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to Symbionese Liberation Army, is coming out in December from the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013.

Why Are You Telling This Story?

April 28, 2022 § 10 Comments

On the intersections of art, justice, and personal responsibility

By Jeannine Ouellette

Pamela Paul’s recent New York Times column, “The Limits of Lived Experience,” argues that writing about people whose lives differ from ours involves empathy and imagination, and is therefore good, while “policing” what others should or shouldn’t write is bad. Paul writes,

What troubles me most about the increasingly dogmatic emphasis on ‘lived experience’ is that it feels like yet another way of policing and limiting culture. Most creative people are open-minded, empathetic, and imaginative; they build worlds that let us cross borders. Recent efforts to contain and limit expression is a worrying one, and an issue I expect to return to in columns to come.

I find Paul’s take reductionist and full of red herrings, including the alarmist subject line with which her column swam into my inbox: “Who gets to tell stories?” This question and the column itself sidestep the issue’s central dilemma, which is simply that we assume responsibilities when we choose to write about others whose lives differ from ours, especially if they have less power than we do. Accepting these responsibilities means neither succumbing to dogma nor being censored, as Paul asserts. It means recognizing and engaging with questions of ethics, justice, and creative accountability. I emphasize questions, because this complex, multifaceted topic defies easy answers. No single formula can address every possibility across genre, from whether or how to write a fictional character who is gay when I am straight, to whether and when to step back entirely from a subject or character. 

What we’re really talking about is the profound and indelible link between the workings of individual human imagination and the collective human experience. The least we can do is consider our work in this context. I often start by asking myself why I am writing a particular story at a particular time. For example, I teach creative writing in prisons. Not surprisingly, this work is powerful and has changed me. Yet, I haven’t written about it. To do so feels exploitative considering the vulnerability of my students and the significant difference between my privilege and power, and theirs. It could be read as suggesting a “good-doer-ism” with which I do not identify or wish to advance in my creative work. Yet, if I had a very compelling reason to write about my work in prisons, one that in no way risked using my students as “material,” perhaps I would. So far, that has not been the case. 

Overall, as both writer and teacher, I find the question “why am I (or you) writing this story?”  invaluable because it raises auxiliary questions about a story’s topic and characters in relation to a writer situated within a particular time and place. A recent example: after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for insulting Jada Smith’s hair at the Oscars, many Black women in my online writing groups expressed discomfort with white women publishing essays on the matter, pointing to racially charged contextual issues best understood and addressed by Black writers (media stereotypes of “the violent Black male,” racist laws regarding Black women’s hair, etc.).

Rather than thoughtfully consider such complexities, Paul defends the status quo, wherein those with the most power tell the most stories and gain the most from telling, regardless of who gets silenced and sidelined in the process. In Paul’s view, this is justified: “If we all wrote only from our personal experience, our films, performances, and literature would be reduced to memoir and transcription. What an impoverished culture that would be.”

This is not only hyperbolic, it is uncurious about the evolving ethics of storytelling in a world where we are, thankfully, growing slightly more aware of and hopefully more committed to changing how structures of oppression and ethics of representation interact with art. Such questions arose during my 2015-2017 MFA experience, yes, but I’ve felt them more viscerally since the whole world watched my city burn through June of 2020 after the violent police murder of George Floyd. The link between my values and my voice strengthened, and my understanding of my ethical obligations to speak to the issue of power and representation in creative writing intensified.

Art is bigger than self-expression. It’s bigger than the “imagination and empathy” Paul extols, as crucial as those elements are to creativity. Art operates as a change agent, fueling social evolution as it simultaneously responds to and pushes culture forward through actively engaging with the most important questions of its time.

What are those questions now? Other than those about our burning planet, almost all of our crucial discourse surrounds power structures, especially white supremacy and patriarchy as fueled by capitalism. Paul argues, “privileging only those voices with a stake in a story carries its own risks,” and points out that “authenticity of voice … doesn’t guarantee quality of prose, storytelling, pacing, dialogue, or other literary merits.” In so doing, she sounds distressingly similar to opponents of other social and racial justice efforts such as affirmative action, who’ve argued that prioritizing access for marginalized groups could result in unqualified hires. 

This and other binaries in Paul’s column frustrate me. Instead of encouraging those who wish to write outside their own experience to consider their decisions with care and attention to the ethics of representation, seeking out resources as needed to do so responsibly and authentically (I’ve included some at the end of this essay), Paul reduces the conversation to a threat:

Taken to its logical conclusion, the belief that ‘lived experience’ trumps all other considerations would lead to a world in which we would create stories only about people like ourselves, in stories to be illustrated by people who looked like ourselves, to be reviewed and read only by people who resembled ourselves.

Hmm. According to a 2020 analysis, “Just How White is the Book Industry,” also published by The New York Times, “Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.”

This conversation should not be about some exaggerated risk of “censoring” those writers most likely to be published in the first place. Rather, it should be about how we can all make work that is imaginative, empathetic, and authentic without contributing to power structures or imbalances that continue to harm and destroy the lives of others. Ultimately, we will all bear the consequences for our art and its impacts, intended and unintended, in the wider world we share.

Resources for writers:

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping

Writing the Other

Representation Matters: A Literary Call to Arms

When it Comes to Writing the Other, What Questions Are You Not Asking?

Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Narrative, North American Review, Masters Review, Penn Review, Calyx, and more. She teaches through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Catapult, the University of Minnesota, and Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter.

One Writer’s March Madness

March 29, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Jennie Burke

People ask if I am the mother of basketball players. My four children tower above me, the son and the daughters, scraping the door jambs at six-four, six-one…the high, high fives. They rest their chins on top of my head, and say how cute when I ask, “can one of you reach me the sugar off the top of that shelf?” They fold around and over me in embrace. But they do not play basketball. None of us do.

I cannot reach the sugar, and I cannot write, even though I want to. Even though the elevator pitch, imperfect, at least has bones: This hopeful memoir highlights the people, places and experiences from the writer’s years as a military wife and teacher that helped her to understand, face and ultimately triumph over a family history of generational trauma and addiction.

I cannot write. I am raising children in an era of injustice, uncivil politics, pandemic, and the atrocities of war. Instead, I imagine an alternative reality where I write morning pages free and grateful at the break of dawn. There’s a mug of fresh coffee on one side of my laptop. The light of a single candle gleams on the other. When my children wake up, I greet them and feed them and send them to school. I put away breakfast, believing in a day that holds possibility, or at least normalcy.

My rational brain reminds me that fear, anxiety and depression are consequences of creativity. I take solace in the fact that wonder, curiosity and hope are, too – each trait as undeniable as my own measure: holding steady at five-foot-six.

My husband has programmed our television to play all 64 basketball games of the NCAA Tournament. Crowd sound fills the void of our quiet kitchen. I am drawn to the cheers, the jovial commentary, the high-pitched squeaks of rubber soles on a glossy parquet floor. The sounds of life on the other side, outside of my mind. Of achievement, camaraderie and surprise. Since I cannot write, I fit next to my husband on the sofa in surrender. 

“Did you watch the tournament with your family, growing up?” I ask. I’m happy to see his face light up. His father was an alcoholic; there was pain.

“Yes!” he says. “We had it on all day! My dad loved it. Happy memory.”

The Peacocks from St. Peter’s University (a small, “affordable” college in Jersey City, New Jersey) are on the verge of a shocking upset over the Number Two seed, The University of Kentucky. I am captivated by their determination, skill and lack of bravado – and by the fact that their performance has given me a blessed reprieve from the doom reel of fear and failure in my brain. 

A player steps up to the free-throw line, and drains a shot that edges St. Peter’s to victory. A jubilant commentator asks the void to “Think of all he’s gone through to get to just…this…moment!”

I think of the thousands of words I have written and scrapped over the past six years. The hours I sometimes believe I’ve wasted, focused on a screen, on a story arc, on meaning, instead of my children, my husband, my friends, the flowers. But what if going through it, here, now, in this mess of a March, is preparation for my best work? I watch the players celebrate and allow myself to join in their victory. To feel a little hope.

After the game, a broadcaster interviews the St. Peter’s coach on the sideline. He is humble and friendly and “eats self-doubt for breakfast.” I wonder about the forces, outside of me, that have sown the seeds of my inadequacy. The broadcaster asks the coach if he feels nervous about the challenges his team will face. “Nervous for what?” the coach replies. “It’s just basketball.” 

My husband reaches for the remote. It’s time for bed. The players are reduced to a thin line as the television clicks off and the screen fades to black. The house is quiet again. The window above the kitchen sink is cracked open and I can hear the spring peepers chirping from the retention pond across the cul de sac. My husband asks about my plans for tomorrow – I tell him I’m going to the gym. I’m going to drink water and eat. I’m going to write. When I stand up from the sofa, I square back my shoulders. I level my chin. I look up. He tells me I look taller. He asks me if I’m growing. 

____

Jennie Burke is a writer and teacher from Baltimore. Her work on addiction, parenting and craft can be found on Twitter @jennieburke or her website www.jennieburke.com

Why Your Essay Got Rejected

February 24, 2022 § 30 Comments

Last month I responded to 113 essays and book beginnings. A fraction of what a literary magazine might see in submissions; a lot for me to comment on. Nobody got a form rejection, because the pages were for a webinar—What’s Wrong with this Work: Turning Rejections into Publications—and the learning was the point. The authors listed their previous rejections from literary magazines, mass media, websites and agents, as many as 35 rejections for a single essay.

I hadn’t expected so many submissions. About 50 had arrived, and I’d been on a roll, picking pieces to edit live while screen-sharing during the webinar, and thought “Sure, I can do one comment on everyone!” Then the coordinator sent a reminder email. I wasn’t publicly committed to 113 responses—officially, I needed 2-5 volunteers—but I’m glad I plowed through them all, because I needed to know this and so do you:

It’s probably not your writing.

By “your writing” I mean sentence-level prose. The ability to frame a paragraph, write a rounded character, show setting and imply backstory. Almost every essay was well-written, from competently to marvelously. I only told two writers: “Consider working with a writing group or taking a class to improve your craft—your story is bigger than your ability to tell it right now.”

So why were they getting rejected? For that matter, why are you? And what can you do about it?

Topic

Many well-written pieces made a good point but didn’t say anything new. Writing about the pandemic, cancer, addiction, aging parents or cultural racism? Your angle must be something we haven’t heard many times before—and/or your writing must be incredibly moving or incredibly funny. The world doesn’t want another “sorry about being a white lady” piece. Sorry.

For memoirs, most opening pages lacked cultural relevance. How does your story intersect with the larger world now? What makes your book more than a family album?

Fix this: Read widely in the publication you want to be in and in your genre. What’s already being talked about? How can you add to the conversation? Make your fresh angle or new insights clear from the first page.

Story/Stakes/Change

Many essays with strong concepts lacked a dramatic arc. The stakes weren’t clear. A series of observations showed another person’s character, or the narrator retold past events without a clear choice in the present. “Slice of life” pieces portrayed a particular family or group, but read as charming collections of characters rather than a personal journey for anyone.

Fix this: Ask of your essay, “What’s my state at the beginning? What’s my state at the end? What made me change and where in the essay does that moment of realization happen?” If you can’t put your finger on a sentence showing change, you don’t have a story.

Style of Writing/Where It Was Submitted

Literary essays had been rejected by mass media. Essays with the style and tone of mass media had been rejected from literary magazines. I could see why the authors were confused—they had strong writing and great stories! But they were trying to wear a ballgown to change the oil. Great dress, wrong place.

Fix this: Pick three recent pieces from your chosen publication. Analyze paragraph by paragraph. Where is the premise established? What’s an active scene and what’s imagery or reflection? Does the writer give advice, tell personal anecdotes, reference needed cultural change? That’s mass media. Crying at the end but you’re not sure why? Literary all the way. Now analyze your own work: do you see similar components to the published pieces?

Confusing Openings

When too many names, places or events show up in the first few paragraphs, the reader gets confused before they get oriented. They’re trying to track who or what will be important, and they don’t yet have the background to care about anyone.

Fix this: Count the nouns. Seriously. People, places, things. How many concrete things are in your opening? If there are more than three proper nouns, three objects or one location, make sure you have a specific reason to put them there…and that it’s working.

Opening with Death

I’ve seen many memoirs open with a loved one’s death, then flashback to fill in the story. But we don’t know why the person you’re mourning matters! You’re asking the reader to attend a stranger’s funeral and fully empathize with the chief mourner.

Fix this: The death was a big event…but this is still your story. Where does your journey begin? Start there.

Length

Not many magazines take essays over 5000 words, and not many readers want to soldier through one. Most mass media essays are 900-2000 words, with the sweet spot around 1500. Most literary magazines take work up to about 25 double-spaced pages. Over 5000 words is long for personal essay that’s not deeply researched or culturally situated, and you’ll probably need previous publication credits in big-name, similar journals, or even a shorter piece in the same magazine.

Fix this: If your story’s big, make a choice: either tell sections of it in a couple of shorter essays; or write the whole book.

Rejection is often not “bad writing.” Often, the submission is a mismatch with the venue, the opening is muddy or the overall point isn’t clear, or someone’s narrating their family album. You can fix this. Why not pick your favorite piece without a home, and fix it now?

Want more of Allison’s writing advice? Join the upcoming webinar Writing Memoir for YA and Middle Grade, with tips and techniques for learning the market, writing a captivating memoir, and getting published.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Honesty and Bravery in Creative Nonfiction Workshop Commentary

February 21, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Laura Johnsrude

I love workshopping creative nonfiction pieces with other writers, around a small table, in a small room. (Ah, remember those small rooms?) I enjoy focusing on craft and style and I’m delighted when revision choices slap me in the face.

Nothing will annoy me so quickly, though, as around-the-circle workshop commentary being derailed by an earnest participant’s “you’re so brave,” or “I admire your honesty.” No matter that the speaker is heartfelt, moved by the power of the piece, the statements about the author—instead of the work—risk diverting the conversation to personal anecdotes and echoed praise around the room. Digressions about similar experiences can suck up a large slice of the author’s allotted critique time.

I’m not dissing such conversations. One of my favorite activities is meeting writer-friends at coffeeshops to discuss essays-in-progress, to bemoan the limits of memory, and to exchange story ideas. 

But this essay is about constructive commentary of a piece of creative nonfiction writing.  

Before paying for a writing workshop, I’ve always looked for cues that the experience will be fruitful, will include productive criticism guided by an experienced author and/or educator. I look for descriptions about how the commentary experience will run, whether the plan includes language that is both useful and kind: what works well for me; what works less well for me; I am unclear about. I feel fortunate because most of my paid workshop leaders controlled the conversations expertly, redirecting wayward discussions.

But I remember uneasy moments. I recall the look on my friend’s face—a friend with a chronic illness—when a reader told her she was brave, as feedback to my friend’s essay about some singular bodily discomfort, some daily hardship. My friend’s face froze, hardened, as we hung there waiting for our workshop leader to redirect the room, which she did. The author’s bravery (or cowardice) was immaterial to the craft assessment of her piece. Placing value on an author’s “good” character—her strength—is a fraught rubric. What if the author’s piece is about something repugnant, undignified, disturbing? What if the content or craft choice of the essay involves evasion, or the narrator’s helplessness, or shame? My guess is the reader would have said, “I admire your honesty.” Only a slight pivot, still focused on the author, not the language.

And there’s another rub—that an essay reveals personal and intimate details does not mean that it is well-written. Many of us have read raw and unguarded essays not yet revised beyond a first draft, but the author might merit the adjectives “brave” and “honest.”

No way to know.

Workshop feedback complimenting an author’s bravery and honesty implies an elevated relative worth of such unveiling, over essays revolving around the ordinary, the everyday.

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a delightful essay around his habit of chewing gum, “Letter of Recommendation: Gum,” by shaping his images and language into a tight, compelling story.

I admire Knausgaard’s microscopic attention to sensory detail and use of scene to reflect on a moment when his habit made him feel small.

And that brings me to another argument against using the word “honest,” regarding the writer, in a venue designed to comment on the writing, either in a workshop or even in a book review (which is published criticism). I hadn’t considered that “honest” might be a loaded word in a creative nonfiction book review until I found myself stumbling over it, recently, as it implies some unlikely insider knowledge about whether the author has revealed everything, held nothing back, and it places a preferred value on doing so. Unlike “accuracy,” in evaluation of straight nonfiction writing, “honesty” is neither here, nor there, as creative nonfiction literary criticism. We can employ more appropriate terminology to admire how writers shape language to share painful and intimate details, or to portray habits, routines, or the microscopic analysis of a body part—a belly button, a hammertoe, a tattooed broken ankle.

No creative nonfiction writer reveals everything. We all choose what to include in a piece, select words and phrases that sound best, depict the memories that are most powerful. We vary sentence length to convey tone, or control pacing, or to end the last paragraph with a punch. We shape the story to suit the goal. We dip in and out of the present to bring in threads from long ago, and we employ metaphorical songs or images—the ones we decide will serve the piece. We intentionally shave the sections that don’t work, the tangents that swerve too far off course. The boring bits. We don’t tell the truth about which family member was unhelpful during our recovery because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t reveal our misgivings about a neighbor, even though the wariness is pertinent. We don’t interview everyone who was there, at the bedside, when our mother died, or when our daughter had a seizure. We tell our truth in whatever way we choose to do so, revising and rearranging the paragraphs until the essay lands, thump, as a finished whole.

We write creative nonfiction, not nonfiction, you see.

When you read my essay, please tell me what works best for you, what doesn’t work so well for you, and tell me what bits are unclear. Tell me when the voice is inconsistent, or the tense changes are distracting, or the pace slows down so much that your mind wanders. Tell me if my piece lacks depth, or if my reflections seem unexplored. Tell me which sensory details made you sigh, which lines you won’t forget, which metaphors are fresh and exciting.

But during workshop, please don’t tell me I’m brave. And don’t tell me I’m honest. Honesty is too high a bar for me. My focus is on the language, crafted to tell a truth, or many truths.

But not every truth.

__

Laura Johnsrude is a retired pediatrician living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her piece, “Drawing Blood,” was published in the spring 2018 issue of Bellevue Literary Review and won Honorable Mention for the Fel Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. Her essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Minerva Rising, and in The Boom Project anthology, and her book reviews have been published in Good River Review. Publication of her piece, “Losing Flesh,” in Under the Gum Tree is forthcoming. Find her on Twitter: @LauraJohnsrude

Writing is Detestable, and You’ll Never Make Any Money At It 

February 14, 2022 § 22 Comments

—excerpted from Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life, by Alexis Paige

Every so often I forget that the life I want is already mine. When I was eight, my younger brother and I left the Sonoran Desert in winter for mysterious reasons and Eastern climes, wearing only faded tees and worn corduroy, for it was still the ’70s somewhere in 1983. Our destination was Ye-Olde New England, which would become the damp, wooly kingdom of my late childhood and adolescence. My parents had divorced, and Mom traded Arizona for a job promotion in Texas. Meanwhile, Dad, the seventh of twelve children from an Irish-Catholic family in Massachusetts, moved back East for work and the outsized support that Catholic broods tend to have the numbers for.

Our new school in New Hampshire did not have crispy rattlesnake skins or tumbleweeds on the grounds, nor, would it seem, a surly pony called Chompers, whom the Phoenix school had kept around for class pictures. While the old school favored a Western film set, the new one—a low-slung slab of concrete burrowed into a stand of eastern white pines—looked like a Soviet bunker. The school was a designated fallout shelter, in fact, indicated by the shrill black-and-yellow radiation trefoil placard that was bolted to the front door. At least we’d be safe, I reasoned, when nuclear war came to town.

I did poorly socially and academically at first, but climbed the class  ranks in reading with ease. This didn’t improve my social capital, but it did buy me almost unlimited library privileges, which I used to get out of class or recess. It also didn’t help matters socially that I was small for my age and younger than my peers. Nor that my brother and I had the same Supercuts’ bowl haircut; that we were the kids of a single father, which was unusual then; or, that the children of this frozen land spoke a strange, sarcastic dialect  of American English, characterized by many missing r’s and insults against one’s mother.

By spring, I came to regard my third-grade teacher as either an idiot or an arch-nemesis, or both. I began to openly challenge her in class, to pass notes with a girl who had loopy handwriting, and to talk too much out of turn. Obviously, these stratagems didn’t win me friends or influence the teacher that I had done my math homework, but I see them now as the rational coping behaviors of a voluble child with undiagnosed ADHD.

 “Vociferous,” I remember the teacher saying about me one day that winter, to my beloved librarian,  in front of the whole class.

“What is the meaning of ‘Zoscissorous’?” I asked Dad later when he got home from work.

 As if in our own little parody of Abbott and Costello, he said, “Sisyphus? With an ‘S’? It’s an old myth. Look it up in the Funk & Wagnalls.”

I went into the den and found the encyclopedias, which Dad had bought volume-by-volume at our local grocery. “Sy-phyll-iss,” I sounded out proudly, pointing at the entry for “Sisyphus: Greek Myth.” I grew quiet then and read, somberly, to myself:

Sisyphus: Useless man-child, smote by Zeus, forced to perform repetitive tasks in Hades.

Origin: Greek, rhymes with Alexis.

“Ah!” I said with a sigh of recognition, “the story of my life.”

***

My students never believe me when I tell such stories, or any stories for that matter, and why should they? Dubious ground, myth. I teach aspiring nurses, dairy farmers, veterinary technicians, pilots, and engineers at a small technical college in Vermont, where the cows in fact do outnumber the people. The college doesn’t have a liberal arts division, no majors in any of the stuff the Greeks might have recognized. I’ve made peace with this, and with my role in it: my students simply aren’t the artsy-intellectual types (or the rich kids) who end up at the ivied institutions my snarky college roommate memorably, and collectively, called Camp Trust Fund. I don’t delude myself that what passes for education in contemporary America isn’t a blunt instrument of late-stage capitalism, nor do I delude myself that things were any better under Socrates. My students leave with a solid grounding in the practical aspects of their vocation, with some theoretical background, and with low student debt. Most of them also leave with starting salaries higher than my own at mid-career. They don’t believe this either, but it’s true. Most of my stories are true in their own way.

But I don’t do any of this for the money. As a small-pond professor, I have rare autonomy, I still enjoy the classroom, and in an academic market glutted with applicants among dwindling opportunities, I am fortunate to have made it to the Xanadu of   the Tenure Track. I teach foundational writing classes—composition, technical writing, rhetoric—because they’re what our students need most, but my department is small enough that I also get to teach creative writing, literature, and a humanities course about mass  incarceration and the rampant injustice of the American penal system. You do the work that’s on hand to the best of your ability. This is what I tell myself anyway when overcome by my own frailties, my own futility, or by the vast and unsolvable human condition.

On the first day of class, the stories begin. “Does anyone know what in media res means?” I might ask at the cold open of a basic college freshman English class. [Crickets. Dramatic pause.] “Does no one learn Latin anymore?” I’ll cry. If in rare form I might leave the classroom for a beat in mock exasperation, or else I’ll threaten to throw myself out the window (but only on the first floor). The students don’t know yet that I’m just riffing, for theater or pedagogy or to feel alive myself. They don’t know that I’m trying to suspend them in the filmiest, flimsiest bubble for as long as I can, before it’s margins and citing sources and the  exact number of words that constitute a paragraph. (The answer: false.)

I usually start with how much I hate writing. “Everything is hard, but writing most of all,” I’ll say. It’s too early for open challenges, but some of the students will begin to stir, to bristle. Sure, they can buy the idea that writing is hard, that it is hard for them, but not for me. After all, I’m the professor. Aren’t I supposed to be the expert? I’ll raise the stakes then and suggest that writing is even harder for me than it is for them—for teaching is nothing if not a preposterous game of one-upmanship where the house always wins, initially. “All you have to write is one measly term paper; meanwhile, I’m writing a book that is literally [wink, wink, wink] trying to kill me.”

“Writing is a detestable activity,” I’ll continue. “You’ll never make any money at it, for one.” [Pause.] “Thirdly, you’ll never be published, and with all due respect to Herman Melville, do you wish to toil in futility and obscurity, only to die a pauper? Dorothy Parker was right when she said, ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’” [I’ll write this on the board.] “And do you see the comma splice here?” I never go in any discernable order on these tears; I always begin in medias res. If my act is going as planned, the students are now wondering one of many things:

  • What’s a comma splice?
  • What the fuck is wrong with my teacher?
  • Who is Dorothy Parker, and can I switch into her class?

But I have them. For this moment, I have them. They’re taking notes (or cell phone pics)  from the board, where I have written

WHAT ALL WRITERS NEED:

            Intuition

            Gumption

            A Penchant for Masochism

            Caffeine

            A Flying Pinball Machine

            A Tangent that Will Burn Up in Reentry

            Other Suffering Writers

            A Sense of Humor

            One Good Pen

            One Bad Idea

The classroom hour is up now, and it’s time to bring the balloon back down to earth. I’ll sigh wistfully and say something like this: “Writing is hard, that’s true, but it’s not all bad.” [Pause.] “Often, it’s excruciating.” [And rarely, marvelous.]   

Smiles crack wide, and if the opening salvo has gone better than I’d hoped, one bold hand shoots skyward, and with an earnestness so precious it makes you believe once again in the innocence of youth, a small voice says,

“What does Masochism mean?”

Or “Do you recommend a particular pen?”

Or “I think I have the wrong room. Is this Freshman English?”
___

Alexis Paige is the author of two books: Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life, a craft memoir and ode to Adult ADHD; and Not a Place on Any Map, a memoir in vignettes about the geography of trauma and addiction—both published by Vine Leaves Press. Paige’s work also appears in many journals and anthologies, including LongformHippocampusFourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she was an Assistant Editor from 2013-2019. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige has also received “Notable” mentions in Best American Essays and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Assistant Professor of English at Vermont Technical College, she holds an MA in poetry and an MFA in nonfiction. Paige lives in Vermont with her husband and a rotating cast of rescue animals. You can find her online @alexispaigeauthor.com

Lighting the Path: Getting the Best from Your Beta Readers

February 10, 2022 § 38 Comments

By Heidi Croot

Author photo of Heidi Croot

They’ll respond with a quick “yes” because they’ll want to please you.

Then the inevitable panic will bloom in their eyes. A vigorous throat clearing across the phone line. A dust-up of confusion in their email.

“Um, what is a beta reader supposed to do exactly?”

Of the eighteen people I asked to test-read my memoir manuscript—fellow writers, psychotherapists, friends, and family members (including my aunts and uncle who appear frequently in its pages…read about that here)—only three knew from experience what they were saying yes to.

The rest needed help. And I was eager to provide it, knowing the more they gained clarity and confidence, the more I stood to reap constructive insights.

Hence the “Beta Reader Guidelines,” a one-pager I developed to guide willing but inexperienced people in what to notice and mention as they turn my pages.

Below, my template, which I offer to Brevity Blog readers and fellow striving writers to adapt and use as you see fit, with my heartfelt good wishes for the success of your writing project.

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity blog, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi at twitter.com/heidicroot.


What is the Role of a Beta Reader?

Thank you for helping me work out the kinks and make the book better!

First thing to know…

This page is meant to offer a menu of suggestions, in the event you’ve never been a beta reader before and are unsure how to proceed. Pick and choose what resonates or go entirely your own way.

Second thing to know: please respond by…

…a month after receipt. If this is not possible, please let me know quickly so I can find a replacement.

The best way you can help…

  1. Be a finder, not a fixer. The beta reader’s job is to highlight problem areas (nothing is sacred); the writer’s job is to fix them (but by all means, share ideas if they occur).
  2. Be honest and straightforward. A useful technique is to offer feedback in the form of questions.
  3. Pay attention to your body as you read: it will signal enjoyment or frustration.
  4. Choose how to send me your feedback: You can a) mark up pages in the manuscript; b) use an online revision tool; c) write a note with your comments and page numbers; or d) call or zoom.

Mechanical problems

As you read, please mark where…

  • you have to read something twice to get it
  • the dialogue doesn’t sound natural
  • the facts are wrong (e.g. dates, timelines, behaviour theory)
  • something is repeated, redundant, contradictory, sloppy
  • you notice continuity problems (e.g. inconsistencies in how people, places, beliefs are described)

Gut reactions

As you read, please mark where…

  • your attention stalls, you’re bored, you’re skimming pages (because it’s saggy and dull; you’re asking why is this section even in here; you’ve lost that “what’s going to happen next” feeling)
  • you’re especially engaged by a sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter: it stands out, you laughed or cried
  • you feel a spike of annoyance, such as when something…
    • is hinted at, or dangled, but you’re made to wait too long
    • doesn’t seem to fit with what has gone before; e.g. is out of character
    • is misleading
    • lacks fair-mindedness; e.g. is unnecessarily judgmental

Your thoughts about the narrator

  • What is her prime goal? Do you have a good sense of what she wants and fears early enough in the book?
  • Why do you trust or distrust the narrator?
  • What makes you like or dislike the narrator?
  • Over the course of the book, how does she change, how does she grow, what does she learn?
  • Is her “voice” (tone, style, use of language, personality) consistent throughout?

Overall…

  • What is your big-picture impression of the book?
  • Did the first chapter “hook” you; i.e. make you want to keep reading?
  • Did the last chapter satisfy you?
  • Did the book show you something new, did you have an “aha” moment, do you think about certain things in a different way?
  • Does this book remind you of anything else you’ve read?
  • Would you recommend the book to a friend (i.e. someone who enjoys memoir)?

I appreciate your time and look forward to your feedback!

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