The Sanctity of the First Read

September 29, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Alyson Shelton

“What are you working on?” Someone new in my life might ask.

“An essay.” I’ll answer.

“About what?” 

“Something.” 

And that’s that.

I’m actually a decent conversationalist but not when it comes to my writing. Perhaps I’m superstitious, worrying that the heat of the idea will cool with sharing, but I also cherish that time when my idea is nascent and full of promise. And so, I don’t read very early drafts and I don’t ask anyone to read mine. It is a mostly unspoken policy and one I hold dear. The last thing I need is your pained look, which could be related to stomach cramps or the reverberations of some stupid thing you said to a cashier, to register with me as questioning the validity of my concept.

I didn’t like sharing baby name ideas either. I didn’t want to hear about that guy you once knew, the master manipulator, who had the same name as my soon-to-be-born son. Instead, I wanted to dwell in potential.

I’m still like this. Potential keeps me going on the darkest of days. 

The promise of eventually sharing a work in progress with my most trusted readers keeps me going. The first read is a thing of great beauty. 

And I know they only have one first read to give me. And so, I use it wisely.

I’ve been writing long enough to know when my writing is ready for readers. It’s that beautiful and maddening moment when there’s nothing left to change without feedback. In my eagerness for validation, I have fumbled the hand-off many times.

When I was younger and greener, I craved validation before I put too much time into a draft. I wanted to know I was on the right track. Little did I know that the less time I put into it, the less validation I could expect. It’s harder to love the early idea; it’s muddy and lacks the specificity and punch that rewriting brings. 

I wanted to be “good” at writing. I wanted to be “good” at everything. And I wanted the growth to sting less. 

After decades of writing and receiving feedback, here is my formula for reduced sting:

1, Write that first draft, even if you have to trick yourself. Just get started. Try not to judge yourself. Try not to get in your way. Try not to hate how the words on the page are not matching the idea in your head.

2. Return to it. Make it better. Show, don’t tell. Lean into the pieces that are uniquely you. Your writing superpowers. Don’t try to be anyone else; they already wrote something, this is yours.

3. Read it out loud. This is a great time to refine voice, yours as the writer and your characters’.

4. If you’re thinking of sharing it, consider the questions you’d ask. Would they be about plot holes? Character arcs? Word choice? Connective tissue? Voice? If you know the answers to your questions, or even have an inkling, you’re not ready to share it. Take your own suggestions. Fix it.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you don’t know the answers to your questions. I know something is ready to share when I’m at the crossroads. When I feel with certainty that if I continue to edit my work, there is a decent chance I will make it worse. I will dilute it, editing out the very thing I am trying to capture. 

6. Find a trusted reader. Someone who treats you and your work, with care. Someone who never ever starts notes with, “Well, what I would do here is—”

No. Full stop.

Find someone who always, without fail, begins their notes with all the things to love about your work. Someone who sees what you are trying to do and works with you to make it more of that very thing.

I bet you’ve read more than once that trusted readers are gold. They are, which means they might not be easy to find.

Please know that reading with the care you’d like, the kind that stings the least, takes time and energy. It’s best if it’s not done as a “favor.” It’s best if you are acknowledging someone for the service they are rendering. You can pay them in kind, by exchanging work, or other agreed upon services, or of course with money. People do like paying bills with the work they do. 

Clear expectations and boundaries make for the best notes. These conversations could feel awkward, especially at first, but wouldn’t you rather it get weird before you show them the work you hold dear to your heart?

Yes, yes, you would.

Also consider how much a cheap or free read might “cost” you emotionally. Is it truly a free read if you walk away feeling deflated, worthless and discouraged?

No.

I’ve received all of the reads there are from the best, where they get it, love it and have ideas for how to make it better, to the absolute soul-crushing worst. I say this without reservation. Receiving an MFA in a truly toxic environment gives me this confidence.

Guard your work. Care for your voice. Believe in yourself and never squander a first read.
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Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award-winning feature, Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, which successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp Little Old Lady (LOL), Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From.

Anatomy of a Reader 

September 28, 2022 § 28 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

To write is one thing, to be read — deeply read, seen on the page for the writer we can be — is another. 

Words on a page amount to something or nothing, until someone other than the writer reads them, and then those words amount to a whole new world. A world of response. A world in which the words give shape to life beyond the writer’s hopes and dreams and take hold as the reader’s. 

The ultimate reader is one who, like you, reads the piece in published form. But before then, the wise and the brave writer asks for feedback on the early, pre-published drafts. If it takes courage to write, it surely takes courage to ask for feedback and then more courage to receive it: Courage and calm and confidence. Not always present in good measure, but even a scrap of each will do to get the process going. 

To be a reader of a writer’s early draft is no less daunting, for it is to be both honoured and burdened: honoured to be asked for comment and burdened to do so, and not everyone is up to the task. 

I categorize draft readers into three groups: the surfer, the pedantic, and the bold. 

The surfers are willing to read, though are most comfortable on the surface of your words; they lack the interest in or capacity for substantive response: “Oh, it’s good,” they might say. “I like it. The dog is funny.” How disappointing when your reader doesn’t match the courage it took for you to ask them to be your reader. The surfers’ feedback — well meaning but in its vagueness void of value — is, if not irrelevant, then dissatisfying and especially so at the early stages of testing out a new piece of writing. In those early stages, writers need bold comment and naked assessment. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Next up, the pedantics. These are eager readers, pencil in hand, happy, so happy, to slice and dice your words. In short, they copyedit, even proofread, well before those important tasks are needed — or wanted. Your work comes back to you with changes marked, tracked, and shouting off the page: “Typo on page four.” “Break up the description of the neglected garden; it’s too much as one chunk.” “Fix the comma splice in line 3.” These comments — commands, really — are well meant but as disappointing as the surfers’. They come too soon: the trees in sharp relief while the beauty — or potential beauty — of the forest is unseen and unremarked. 

Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person. 

Finally, the bold. Now, these are the treasures among a writer’s early readers, for the bold understand that feedback on a draft is more than mere opinion and is less, indeed quite different, than detailed editing. It is a commitment to be clear, honest, and constructive in response to what is (or is not yet) on the page. Such a reading requires time and skill, and respect for the writer as someone whose work deserves substantive assessment by a discerning — a bold — reader. Music to the writer’s ear is feedback something like this: “The idea is sound, but you have not written the story you are hinting at. You have sidestepped it with the frippery of the dog’s behaviour, which is amusing but not needed as foreground here. What I want more of is the woman’s childhood and her obsession with the house on the corner. Tell me who lives there and why is the garden so neglected?” 

Perhaps, finally, I asked the right person. 

The feedback from a bold reader gives us substance to work with and to build on. It proves to us that we are creating something of value with our writing, something worth reading and responding to, and, therefore, something worth continuing to work on. Alternatively, of course, it might be something to ditch, to move on from. Having even only one such reader in our circle makes a writer fortunate indeed. 

The lesson? Know the anatomy of your draft readers and choose them wisely. Keep the surfers and pedantics in your circle, for they each have their place later in the writing process. And nurture the bold readers in your midst, for they are few and far between. Be brave enough to ask for their feedback, courageous enough to receive it, and smart enough to heed it. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in Steering the Craft (2015), her gem of a book on the craft of writing: The critique is a response to your work, to your writing. It is not personal. Learn from it. However, you are the final arbiter. The discipline of art is freedom. 

So, at the end of the day, to write is to be free to work with words as we see fit — to choose them and shape them; to work alone when necessary and, equally, to connect with others when needed: Wise is the writer who asks for comment and feedback and input along the way. And fortunate is the writer who has even one reader in their circle willing to be bold and in so being to invest in us their time, their insight, their skill. And when we find you, dear bold reader, beware, for we shall never let you go. 

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Amanda Le Rougetel lives in the heart of the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A retired college instructor, she blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches writing workshops through Writing as Tool.

Thoughts On the Road Not Taken

September 21, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Sandra Hager Eliason

“Two roads diverged,” I thought, recalling Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken. He describes his decision to take the road less traveled by, and the difference it made. I see the poem as a metaphor for my life. 

Reading and writing consumed my high school years, and I was confident my poetry, short stories, and essays would be published someday. In college, ideas blossomed and flowed easily onto the paper, the sticky keys of my manual typewriter preventing my fingers from keeping up with my brain. 

Yet, as Frost says, “way leads on to way,” and writing left me when, through a circuitous route, the road led to medical school. I saw no future in writing when everyone else was getting MBAs. I trusted hard work and diligent efforts on the medical path to lead to success. I have often asked myself what would have happened had I taken the other road. 

In my medical practice, I was drawn to patient stories. I captured them in the chart, first in cursive on paper, later typed into the computer, striving to record more than “just the facts,” to make my patients real on paper. Instead of “Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man with dementia,” followed by exam and assessment, I wanted anyone reading the chart to know that Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man who lives alone, and his children are scattered across the world, unable to help him. I strove to make each patient more than the sore throat seen on March 15th, or the appendicitis that went to the hospital. It turned out I was still writing, although in a limited fashion, prescribed by the format of the medical chart.

As retirement approached, I anticipated the void of leaving these stories behind, and wondered who I would become without them. I enrolled in a writing class. Maybe I could return to where I started. Then I came upon a writing contest in a medical magazine, tidied up a piece I had written years ago, and sent it at the last minute. Lo and behold, I won. Maybe I could write creatively for a wider audience, break out of the stilted format that patient charts required, leaving myself and my reflections out, recording colorless facts. 

In a chart, you must back everything you say with data, facts not necessary in a story or essay. When you have practiced leaving out feelings or description (it doesn’t matter in the chart the look on their face, how their hair was styled, the way their blue shirt contrasted with the pale green walls), you become accustomed to writing that neither creates scene nor conjures emotion. Relearning to write creatively, to take the stories stored in my brain and convert them from medical writing to another form, was like trying to re-find the overgrown path. 

Who could teach me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be? I knew plenty of medical people, but found myself in a writerless wasteland. As I groped to decide where to spend my time (and money!), my husband rightly observed, “You couldn’t just hang up a shingle and be a doctor, you had to take classes and learn. This is the same.” 

Bless him! I had to approach this writer thing with the same single-minded determination I used to study medicine. Instead of learning about muscles and cells, I was learning about sentences and paragraphs. Instead of diseases, I was learning themes.

I chose classes, went to conferences, and found places to meet other writers, who generously included me in local writing associations and gave me access to online groups. They provided workshopping and beta readers, things I previously had no idea existed. Each was a tool I needed to hone my brain into a different instrument: no longer a scalpel to cut straight to the facts, rather a scanning electron microscope getting close to the surface of the theme, then penetrating it. 

The sentence is more complicated than a scalpel slice, more nuanced than a surgical knot. Its mastery requires a more subtle training, with no diploma to announce when I’d arrived. But I keep at it. Because it turns out that writing, like medicine, is a practice, one you show up to routinely, striving for continual improvement. 

I will need persistence and determination to keep showing up on the page and to keep submitting—hoping to increase my skill and to find readers, but also reveling in the joy of ideas and words. 

At the start, I tried to look down both roads as far as I could, but as way led onto way, the road took me to places I never expected, and I dealt with the life in front of me. As Frost says, “I kept the first for another day,” and here I am, back at the beginning.

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Sandra Eliason is a retired physician who is now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine Arts Edition writing contest in 2016 for her piece “The Vacation,” which began her transition to full-time writing. She has had essays published in Bluestem magazine, West Trade Review, the Brevity Blog, and upcoming in The Linden Review. Her work has been anthologized in the e-book Tales from Six Feet Apart, and in Pure Slush: Cow Volume 23. She is a book reviewer for Hippocampus Magazine and is currently querying publishers for her memoir Heal Me: Becoming a Doctor for all the Wrong Reasons (and Finding Myself Anyway). Eliason has had reviews published in the Brevity Blog and pending at Rain Taxi. To find her reviews of books that you won’t likely find on the New York Times best sellers list, but should, check out dreliasonwriter.com. Eliason resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, where she tends a garden in the summer and creates a lap for her cat to warm in the winter.

Happy Birthday Seven Drafts

September 20, 2022 § 6 Comments

There’s a logic (and some magic) to the number 7.

By Andrea A. Firth

When you take a class from Brevity Blog’s editor Allison K Williams, she starts by sharing her hashtag, #FirehoseMe. Why firehose? Because she packs more information (and laughs) into a class than almost humanly possible. She’s literally a blast.

Last Fall, not long after the launch of Seven DraftsSelf-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, I interviewed Allison for Catapult Magazine. She presents the same way in an interview as she does when she leads a class. By the end of our hour-long conversation, I was soaking wet. (You can read the interview here.) I couldn’t fit all of the great information and lol moments into that 1,500-word Q&A. So, on the eve of Seven Drafts’ one-year publication anniversary, I asked Allison to revisit what didn’t make the cut and answer a couple more questions.

What inspired you to write Seven Drafts

I really like money and one of the ways to make money is to have a product that you don’t have to keep delivering in person. I know that sounds mercenary! But writing and editing is how I make my living, and there’s no shame in wanting to be paid for what you do, even when you love doing it. Plus, having a traditionally published book is a huge resume-booster for a writing teacher, and I was so happy Woodhall Press was willing to team up to make it happen (Thanks Matt & Colin!).

Seven drafts to a complete book—why 7?

Because if I called it 17 Drafts, no one would buy the book! But really there’s a logic (and some magic) to the number 7. Each draft plays a specific and important role, and I first wrote about that for Brevity in 2015. The short version:

Vomit Draft:  This is awesome!

Story Draft:   This makes no sense.

Character Draft:  Who are these people? I hate them.

Technical Draft:  Thought made writing but me wrong was.

Personal Copy Edit: Sprinkle commas like confetti!

Friend Read:  If you love me, you’ll tell me what sucks.

Editor Read:  I paid big bucks to confirm what I kind of knew. Can I at least query while revising?

Circus arts, like lying on a bed of nails and fire eating, are among your other talents. You worked as a street performer for many years and often draw on that experience when you write and teach? How do the two connect?

Honestly, the hard part is not lying on a bed of nails. The hard part is taking a big, deep breath and holding it while a big audience volunteer guy is standing on you, because once you exhale, you can’t inhale again. But the key to lying on a bed of nails is in the numbers. Lying on one nail will pierce right through you. Lying on a hundred nails isn’t so bad. It’s like submitting to literary journals. One submission, you’re on the edge of your seat every time the inbox pings. A hundred submissions, you won’t even remember what essay you sent them when the rejection comes in.

Fire-eating’s a lot like writing, too—and I’ll be talking more about that in this month’s newsletter. (Sign up here!)

You say writers are seldom original, but we can always be rare. Can you expand on this?

Early-career writers often worry that somebody’s going to steal their idea, or else they aren’t moving fast enough, and someone else will write it first. But an agent doesn’t need to steal your idea. The agent got six other books today with that same idea. So little is original. And even if someone else tells “your” story, you haven’t lost your chance. Our voice, our bravery in telling the story, whether that’s a personal story or one in which we have carefully created beautiful characters and bravely sent them into the world to tell their story—that is almost always unique. No one else can tell our particular, unique story. As I wrote in Seven Drafts, that’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.

What have you learned about yourself, the book, or process over the past year?

It was powerfully moving to hold my book in my hands for the first time. And I’m delighted every time people Tweet and email me to say how much Seven Drafts is helping them get through their own books! But because it’s a writing craft book, part of me still feels like an imposter—like it’s not a “real” book like a memoir or a novel. So I’m working hard to finish a YA novel that is very much the book of my heart.

You’re organizing a dinner party to celebrate the first anniversary of Seven Drafts. Which three writers, alive or dead, do you invite? And what kind of cake do you serve?

Hilary Mantel, William Shakespeare and Kate Atkinson. Three powerful wordsmiths who I think would also enjoy each other’s company. We’ll have Lemon Lush cupcakes from Lancaster Cupcakes, please and thank you!

I’m a terrible gift receiver—so I think the very best way to celebrate is presents for other people! For all the Brevity readers who support, sustain and challenge my work, I’m offering two free chapters of Seven Drafts, and my Self-Editing Checklist. Get them here.

Happy Birthday!

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Andrea A. Firth recently joined the Brevity Blog editorial team. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. Andrea has a new class Let’s Try: Essay, A Space to Tell Your Story starting in November. Learn more here.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and the author of Seven Drafts. She’ll be leading three sessions of Memoir Bootcamp starting October 19. Learn more here.

Close Encounters in Nonfiction

September 16, 2022 § 1 Comment

Rebecca McClanahan, in our newest issue of Brevity, uses a scale devised by an astronomer to describe three levels of UFO encounters to encourage encounters of the deepest kind in our memoir and creative nonfiction.

Here is an excerpt of her fascinating Craft essay:

 Indeed, how does any writer make contact with their subject and experience communion? First, by acknowledging the subject as an animated force, a life form with a language and structure different from ours but from which we can learn. This requires listening closely during the writing process, watching for clues. For me, this meant discovering a structure I’d never used before in my writing.

Here’s how it felt: I’m traveling with my ancestors in a space/time vehicle I’ll call the narrative. Sometimes they’re in the driver’s seat, talking through their letters and documents, and I’m in the backseat listening, recording their words. But sometimes I climb into the passenger seat and strike up a conversation on the page—sympathizing, talking back, arguing, questioning, speculating, expanding their stories through what I’m discovering through research, and even imagining their lives from the inside out: “Is this how it felt?” I might ask before entering the landscape of interior thought.

And sometimes, because by now I’ve allowed myself to be abducted by these creatures, they have claimed me as their own. Go ahead, they say, take the wheel.

Read Rebecca’s full essay here to learn more about abduction and achieving depth in your storytelling.

Brevity by the Numbers Part 3: Hard Math and Harder Math

September 9, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 3 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. For the genesis of this research project, read Part 1: “How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” To discover Brevity’s most overused words and best-favored subjects, read Part 2: “Word clouds and other squishy results.” This final installment is where a non-analyst tries her hand at hard math.

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Before narrative, before voice, before tense and point of view, before even paragraph and sentence, there was a word. The word that birthed every other word, brought them all forth stacked and tumbling. Hieroglyphs slick with meaning that, when we’re lucky, conjure a universe in a few scratches of ink.

Flash essays are made of very few and specific words. But it’s difficult to conjure worlds in less than 750: fewer than half the essays I read achieve a sub-650 count, and only 11% contain less than 400 words. A grand total two essays limbo under the 150 threshold. It’s hard to write small. More than a third of Brevity’s accepted submissions from 2017 to 2021 clock in at 700-749 words.

Zooming outward to the rooms the words built: sentences and paragraphs. There appear to be three categories of flash essay: the nearly-if-not-exactly-single-sentence, the balanced essay, and the choppy essay. But to prove this theory, I’ll have to analyze sentences and paragraphs simultaneously, and I need to work myself up to that level of math.

Instead let’s examine the building’s aesthetic: essay type, point of view and tense. 58% of the pieces are best understood as personal essays: personal experiences told using literary techniques. Essays like Megan Pillow Davis’ “Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling,” which cleverly lulls me into forgetting the title by the end of her 708 words, such that I read her bared teeth as a snarl. Like Donna Steiner’s gleeful “Lick”—though that anecdote begins with a short list. Speaking of, more than half of the hermit crabs (themselves 13% of Brevity’s essays) are lists. The rest tend toward the lyric, the fragmented, the braided—all arguably subsets of the personal essay. Only 8 of the 228 essays analyzed could be considered literary journalism. The gravitational tug of the personal helps writers to create a strong connection in such a brief space. 

This logic also explains why 85% of the essays are in the first person singular. I. Me. Point of view perspective from my eyes, staring at my chapped fingers tapping these words onto my MacBook keyboard. Distant second of second person, you netting only 9% of the essays in my data set. You that can invite a reader in, you that can put difficult events at a distance, you that sometimes requires acrobatics for exposition that you should already know since you are, well, you. First person plural and third person the remaining 6%, handfuls of essays managing these tricky points of view.

Tense, too, tends personal: 64% using present—the immediacy of running, jumping, climbing trees. 35% went reflective, those that ran, jumped, and climbed in some sepia-tone past. Only 1% thought forward: one day, when my back doesn’t ache from slouching in front of this computer, I will run and jump and climb.

Narrative time period is a different beast. In The Best of Brevity, Dinty W. Moore commended the “inventive writers” who quickly disproved his preliminary hypothesis that successful flash must focus on “the smallest period of time possible” (x). My graph verifies Moore’s realization: there are no narrative limitations to a flash essay.

Which brings me to scary big “M” Math.

Removing Jill Kolongowski’s “160 Things That Scare Me”—a true outlier with 199 sentences across 97 paragraphs—I pivot my table, nest sentences beneath paragraphs, and command Excel to create a scatterplot. Setting the background to black, I sit and stare. I like to see the flash this way, a swarm of lighting bugs, a constellation of stars.

I am happy to disprove my tidy theory of three essay types: in place of distinct groupings, a continuum. Most essays fall within a rough parallelogram below 20 paragraphs and 55 sentences. As paraphs increase, so do sentences—it would be difficult to read an essay that broke sentences across the backs of paragraphs (though successful in Irina Dumitrescu’s “Line,” and Kristine Langley Mahler’s “A Knot on the Finger,” among others). The bands of yellow dots seem to slope upward at the same rate, hinting at a golden ratio. When I limit the data to the concentrated area of light and insert a trendline (I impress even myself with this bit of Excel wizardry), I get the following Math:

y = 0.9497x + 22.595

R² = 0.2122

It doesn’t feel all that actionable, and a quick Google search confirms my coefficient of determination (R²) is probably weak. I talk up my coefficient, try to give it the determination to succeed, but it replies that I should brew another mug of peppermint tea and look elsewhere for answers.

I’m drawn to the graph’s brightness in the low paragraph counts. It signals those single sentence essays I expected to see—true one sentencers like Elena Passarello’s “Death Sentence” and close-enough-ers like David L. Ulin’s “Rite of Passage”—but also a second category: the stream-of-consciousness essay. These essays are one paragraph because it evokes the rush of a breath, words punctuated by sentences mostly for flair. Francis Walsh’s “I Can Shrink to Perfection” (22 sentences), Joe Plicka’s “But Whyyy?” (32 sentences), and even Allegra Hyde’s “Misinformation” (45 sentences) could be categorized stream-of-consciousness.

Digging further, I diagram the words per sentence of three stream-of-consciousness essays: “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” “Twenty Minutes,” and “Anniversary Disease.” Here we see the melody, pitch, and rhythm of the flash.

“If You Find a Mouse…” and “Anniversary Disease” meander along gentle turns. In contrast, “Twenty Minutes” is a high-speed chase—all peaks and valleys, especially the build and drop between Sabrina Hick’s first four sentences.

Performing the same work on five more essays, chosen because they reside in the average band of the scatterplot and because I like them:

The turn from short to lyrical sentences halfway through “WANTED: Biological Father” is obvious. The rapid fire of “Known Killers” unceasing. The lyricism of “Conduction,” the devastating finale of “Women These Days,” the evenhandedness of “When a 17-Year-Old Checkout Clerk in Small Town Michigan Hits on Me, I Think about the Girl I Loved at 17,” all appear in the graph.

Viewing flash as sentences per paragraph simplifies the drama into soft, undulating waves, the same way ocean breaking over coral turns to rumpled velvet when viewed from an airplane.

Is this a useful way to think about writing flash? Or writing generally? Perhaps a tool for revision, to ensure musicality matches content and voice. To bend and crack sentences until they shine like glowsticks. Will this data land you a Brevity byline? Against the odds, it got me one, so who knows!

Please comment with your insights. Perhaps together we can feed our addiction and tame the beast of flash.
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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 2: Word Clouds and Other Squishy Results

September 8, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. If you want to learn why I began this research, how I built my data set, and what qualifies me to write about it (spoiler alert, not much beyond chutzpah!), go back and read Part 1: How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” In this installment, I make pretty word clouds and sad discoveries.

Piling up five years of Brevity essays and titles into one long document, I find a total of 138,991 words, of which 23,678 are distinct, according to FreeWordCloudGenerator.com. 210 writers published between 2017 and 2021 agree on this top five: “the” (7,907 instances), “and” (3,811 instances), “to” (3,271 instances), “of” (2,839 instances), and “in” (2,390 instances). “My,” “on,” “you,” “that,” and “is” round out the top ten. Onward down the list: it, he, with, for, her, was, his, she, we, as, at, but, when, from, your, like, not, me—all solid, functional words. Utilitarian. Common words that till the fields to present bushels of barley to their liege terms, those canorous locutions.

But I do not seek royalty, the kind of words I must gossip about with a dictionary to get the inside scoop. I seek, instead, middle-class words, words you see on a Sunday, wearing a yellow hat on the way to the flower market. Removing special characters and stopwords, FreeWordCloudGenerator drops the distinct count across every essay in this census to 15,375.

One. Back. Know. Time. Say. Day. Just. Even. Says. Man with 162 mentions, body 158, want 156, home tying think with 153. Freud may have been right—our Oedipal complexes apparent in mother besting father by 119 uses. We’re obsessed with love, and something, and everything. We have eyes and faces and red hair and old skin. We want. Feel. Need. A hand to hold. A dog at the door. A little something. Maybe nothing. Words that make a world.

Former The New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris would be appalled by this analysis. In a 2011 article for Neiman Lab titled “Word clouds considered harmful,” he cautions that word clouds “can be wildly misleading,” warning amateur researchers like myself not to “confuse signifiers with what they signify.” He then gets needlessly hurtful, writing, “Every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.”

I wouldn’t want to kill your insides, Mr. Harris formerly of The New York Times. I’ll try to do better. After segmenting the essays into 55 categories (from “illness – COVID” to “nature”), I find the most popular subjects are parent-child and romantic relationships (22 and 19 essays respectively). Slotting the 55 categories into overarching themes, 20% of the essays cover illness; 20% relationships; 14% death; 6% racism; 6% crime, rape or abuse; 6% gender or sexuality; 4% mental health; 4% infidelity, divorce, or contraception; 1% disability; and the remaining 19% a hodgepodge of self, religion, language, travel, news, food and the like.

Does the subject need to be universal to work in a space so small? Most of the Brevity essays are about entirely human experiences. The minds in flash do not float in antiseptic tanks, waxing philosophical on whether thinking is being. These minds are muddy, messy with bodily fluids, and suffering a panic attack, or Alzheimer’s, or dysmorphia. So few of the bodies in Brevity are joyful that I found myself celebrating each one in Excel marginalia, jotting “happy! how lovely” by Scott Loring Sanders’ “Bee Man,” “a celebration!” beside Amie Whittemore’s “This Abortion is an Act of Love,” and “more joy! now at the end” next to Brenda Miller’s “Typos.”

I wonder at Jack Pendarvis’ “Shana’s Father Wins a Monkey.” Who is the speaker? Who are they speaking to? I turn this essay over like a stone in the mouth, loamy on the tongue. Though I am exactly half the narrator’s 70 years in “Solving for X,” I see myself in her questions. How many more words will I write? How many chances will I get? How do I make them count?

The last lines of Jeff Newberry’s “Butchering,” echo in my head: “Like Michelangelo before a stone, I sometimes think the story exists buried in language. I forget that before I take up my knife, I have to invent the creature who roams the woods alone.” Have I invented that solitary animal here, or am I carving up nothing into smaller pieces of nothingness?

Data is the opposite of nothingness. I still believe the data can save me. I pivot my unwieldy table once, twice, three times, and ask the numbers to talk dirty to me. 

Data about titles

86% of titles contain fewer than five words. Though in theory it is possible to have a title longer than the flash it crowns, I have yet to see one. Single word titles are nouns (or rather, 79% of them are). A trinket to clutch to your chest. Hold close. Real. Though the strategy is growing in poetry, only five of the 228 essay titles stand in for the start of the first sentence. Beware of trends, for they may not get you published.

Data about contrast

42% of essays sport a 26 to 75-word difference between their longest and shortest sentences. Only 7% stretch that difference to more than 300 words. Short is quick. Long takes a whole lungful of air. Every single essay breathing thin atmosphere at this altitude achieved such heights by containing a sentence less than four words in length.

Data about dialogue and scene

If you have scene, you have dialogue exchange. If you have not scene, you have not dialogue exchange. This rule, like all rules, is not exact enough to be tattooed onto one’s body.

Data about you

You need not be a creative nonfiction writer (though it probably helps). 46% of Brevity’s writers are poets and fictioneers. You need not be traditionally published. 39% of Brevity’s writers had not a single book to their byline at the time of publication. You will probably get one shot. 92% of Brevity’s writers were featured only once in the journal during this five-year sample.

But this is all just foreplay. Stay tuned for part 3 of “Brevity by the numbers,” where I try my hand at the kind of hard math that could unlock the true form of the flash essay. 
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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 1: How I Cheated My Way into a Brevity Byline

September 7, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

It was a simple enough idea: Read five years of Brevity, log each piece in an Excel database, then tickle the data until it tells me something useful about the common features of flash nonfiction essays. As a writer new to flash, I wanted to understand the rules of the genre, so I could be deliberate about breaking them. When I couldn’t find much literature to guide me, I decided to make my own. A secret, shameful part of me wondered if graphs and statistics could help me crack the code to getting my own Brevity byline.

Apparently, the real cheat code to a Brevity byline (see it? right there? below the title?) is spelunking wildly beyond my depth and soliciting an interview with editor Dinty W. Moore, who then invited me to transform my research into a series of craft essays for the Brevity Blog.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a professor, or especially well published. Though I supervise (and am supervised by) people who know Python, I cannot speak the language of the snakes, don’t know how to programmatically scrape the web, can’t write to an Azure instance, or arrange SELECTs and semicolons into a SQL statement. I have carved a niche for myself, professionally, wherein I transform research done by others into compelling stories. None of the very smart people I work with were involved in this project.

What I am is curious. Like many creative nonfiction writers, I style myself a scientist, poking at the world and myself to test hypotheses, as eager to be proven wrong as right. So I set this curiosity to work, reading flash after flash in the precious hours after the baby happily curled into his sleep sack and the toddler unhappily lay down in her big-kid bed (but only after I completed the correct number of kisses to specific body parts, both of which varied nightly).

My process was simple, studious, and a skosh error prone. As I read every Brevity essay published between 2017-2021, I logged the numbers associated with each in an Excel database with the help of WordCounter.net. I arbitrarily decided upon the site after a search for free word counting tools, but over time gained great affection for its soothing blue color scheme, its motto “Every Word Counts,” and its bold exhortation to “Bookmark this page now.” With WordCounter.net’s aid, every Brevity essay transformed, alchemy-like, into an Excel row of numbers: longest and shortest sentences, word and paragraph counts, essay type, point of view—34 columns in all.

From there, the steps were simple, and therefore confounding:

  1. Find and correct errors. Worry about the errors that remain unfound.
  2. Pivot the table. Pivot my thinking. Pivot 360 degrees in a circle.
  3. Make graphs. Tell the graphs how pretty they look. Find the graphs uncaring.
  4. Worry the reason this has never been done before is that it is a colossal waste of time.

Brevity should come with a warning label—flash is an addictive substance. The magazine is brimming with tiny worlds, or as managing editor Zoë Bossiere calls them in her introduction to The Best of Brevity (published in honor of the magazine’s 20th anniversary) “beacon[s] of small truths” (xvii). The essays went down easy—like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Milk & Cookies—but were similarly heavier in the belly than they were on the tongue.

Nightly, I made myself sick. Long after I closed my laptop, I wondered about the non-pandemic version of Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Me vs. Slugs: Pandemic Edition.” Wrote “breathtaking” next to Carrie Jade Williams’ “When I Speak Why Do I Become More Invisible?” Tried to recall where I’d read Laurie Easter’s “Kindness and Sorrow” before. Spun out for hours on 333 words, 68.8% of them unique, all of them bitterly laughing at the cancer risk underlying Anne Panning’s hermit crab “Intro to BRCA1+ Quiz.

Like the not-quite scientist I am, I started formulating a theory long before the data set was complete. Flash essays seemed not quite a big thing shrunk small, but rather, a fun house mirror reflection of a larger essay. Short sentences just as short. Long just as long. But also, just as much emotion, reflection, action, scene, dialogue, all of it stuffed into a wee package. The tone tended sadder. Brighter. Sharper.

Early conclusion: subtlety is not for the small. Economy leaves no room for buildup, no mild arc to a restrained-yet-satisfying conclusion. In his introduction to The Best of Brevity, Moore writes, “In such a small allotment of words, there is no time to clear one’s throat, to gently introduce the story before moving leisurely along to the point of tension, the moment the reader’s curiosity is piqued” (x). In a flash essay you best immediately punch me in the eye, offer me a raw steak to sooth the hurt, then tell a joke so I’ll laugh through the pain.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? A life, contained in a thimble, built with a stranger’s words.

After inhaling five years of flash, I became convinced that I will never write as well as all of you. That I will never bend the creativity to the metrics, or the metrics to the creativity, to unlock the spell of this particular magic. That there is some spark Brevity authors have, something I see in myself only occasionally, such that I read your work and wonder how some squishy gray matter could have pulled these words, an average of 4.5 characters in length, from the dictionary and placed them just so.

With my Brevity database complete, I gazed across a sea of numbers, unable to quiet my internal critic. After all this time, had I discovered anything at all? I’d rather read another five years of Brevity than figure out what to say about it.

So I’m not going to. At least, not in this craft essay.

See, I really shouldn’t be here—I’m cheating even now, splitting my findings across three essays (at Dinty’s suggestion no less), thereby neatly avoiding the recommended word limit. Stay tuned for part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers”: Word clouds and other squishy results.

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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Starting the Next Chapter

August 29, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Meg McGovern

In my sixty-one years of life, most have revolved around a school calendar. Unlike people in the business world whose fiscal year is January to December, a student-who-has-become-a-teacher’s new year begins at the end of August. 

When the school year culminates in June, teachers are exhausted and have a lengthy to-do list for summer vacation; clean the basement, organize pictures, shred old receipts and bank statements, get the carpets cleaned, tend to the gardens, schedule physical and dental appointments for all family members including the dog. The list goes on. For me, a buzz of new energy kicks in that first week of break, and I begin tackling my list. Summer gives me the luxury of swimming laps in the morning, having coffee with friends or playing pickle ball, spending time writing, and then getting to the list. By the second week of summer vacation, fatigue from the school year creates a fog so dense I can’t see straight. The list becomes less important. Instead, a book and a chaise lounge entice me to the porch. There’s always tomorrow, I tell myself. When my husband, Brian, gets home from work, he pops his head out the porch door and says happily, “My summer wife has landed.”

Brian and I spend July visiting our sons, other family members, and friends, or exploring a new destination. This year was no different, except for when the calendar went from July to August. I sat on my beach chair overlooking Lake Champlain, coffee in hand, and Gia—our yellow lab—at my feet. The early morning water was smooth like glass. The Vermont mountains, in various hues of greens and blues, rose above the lake. Sailboats looked like toys in the distance. With no work worries, I felt at ease and immersed myself into the quietness. August has always signaled the time to wrap up my to-do list until next summer and get my mind back to teaching. August, when the back-to-school commercials begin, the month of perpetual Sundays, has always given me a mix of excitement and agita. 

The excitement is for a fresh start. Teachers, unlike most professionals, begin each new year with a clean slate, a new roster of students, new supplies of paper, notebooks, sharp pencils, highlighters that work, glue sticks, and a sparkling, uncluttered classroom. I redo the bulletin board backgrounds, set up a writer’s workshop center with filled staplers, sharp pencils in a container for borrowing, and lined paper. On my desk are empty baskets for the piles that will soon build up, a new calendar, and a gradebook. The first few days of school are spent catching up with colleagues, getting to know students, remembering 115 new names, setting up rules and expectations, and creating a positive learning environment. The agita is for the knowing, the knowing that after the honeymoon weeks, the hard work begins, and it is all consuming for the next ten months. 

I officially retired from teaching Language Arts in the public schools on June 30th of this year. July 1st began a new journey which comes with mixed emotions. I will miss those beautiful moments when a student writes from their heart about his dog that died and cries the tears that needed to be shed, when a student tells me I am her trusted adult because I listen, when a parent thanks me for having faith in their child when no one else does. Other days when I can sit at my desk and write for five hours at a time working on my memoir, I know this was the right decision. Some question if I will be bored—a word I dislike by the way. When a parent would suggest their child was bored in school, I’d suggest reading a classic, writing a story from a different angle, going beyond what is being expected from the teacher. So, when people ask me if I will be bored, I say, “Heck no. There are not enough years left in my life to read every book and write every story and accomplish everything I still want to do.” 

When school starts on August 31st, I will head to Staples and buy myself a few composition notebooks and fine tip pens for my own writing. I will embrace this next chapter, open to its path, wherever it may lead.
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Meg McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker. She is the author of We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg recently retired from teaching middle school Language Arts. She is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has written several essays for their blog. Meg earned an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut and is currently working on a memoir. She and her husband live in Trumbull, Connecticut with their yellow Labrador, Gia. Together they enjoy skiing and hiking with their two adult sons.

Get Thee to a Writers’ Conference… and S T R E T C H

August 26, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Michèle Dawson Haber

Three weeks away from the terrifying milestone of putting my draft memoir in the hands of a developmental editor, I started to question the wisdom of registering for Hippocamp, the annual conference for creative nonfiction writers sponsored by Hippocampus magazine. I was in the final stretch of getting the manuscript in as good a shape as possible and attending the conference would mean five days off task at a time when I could least afford to get sidetracked. 

But I was stuck in a self-hating rut, weary of chapters and sentences that led nowhere, scenes dark and serious, and reflections so shallow not even a snorkel was required. The few remaining “[xxx]”s where more research was needed only paralyzed me further. I needed a break—I needed to stand on my tippy toes, reach my hands to the sky, wriggle my fingers, and lift my face to the warmth of the sun. 

To draw up (one’s body) from a cramped or stooping position

And so, I left the house, boarded a plane, and took myself to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once at the hotel, I wandered the maze of halls, weaving between wedding parties, bodybuilders, and young parents attempting to lift the spirits of travel-weary children. Revolving glass doors, four fluffy white pillows, endless escalators, mac and cheese with pepper jam, phantom elevator bells, herb and flower market scents, and giving in-person hugs for the first time to all my zoom writer friends—how good it was to get away from my keyboard!

But changing scenery by itself wasn’t going to alleviate the guilt I felt about not working on my revisions. Would the content of the conference sessions help me overcome my inertia?

To reach out (extend)

Opening the conference menu of deliverances, I scanned the options, my subconscious looking for comfort and safety—sessions that would affirm I was on the right path. What was I thinking? This was a writers’ conference, hadn’t I come to challenge myself? The session choices were all a stretch, each representing an alternative approach to my well-worn perspective: Second person POV, writing about religion, writing like a musician, the art of the interview, writing about trauma, recognizing implicit bias, adding humor to your writing, choosing your voice, or structuring your memoir like a novel. They all excited me, I wanted to attend all these and more. The offerings promised to extend my writerly comfort zone and that was exactly what I needed. 

Over the next two days I knocked off as many sessions as my attention and energy allowed. The presenters of these sessions gave me fact-checking and research tips to help me fill in knowledge gaps, awareness of implicit biases that may worm themselves into my writing, strategies to lighten up my more serious chapters, and ideas on employing different voices to heighten the realism of my narrative. Other sessions provided me tips on querying, networking, editing, and getting my essays into literary magazines. There was such a variety in the presentations that no emerging writer’s questions went unanswered. 

To go as far as or past the usual limit of something

Attending a writing conference involves a kind of stretching—I reached beyond my comfort zone and opened myself up to new ways of thinking, learning, and doing. Supported by the friendliness and generosity of the presenters and my fellow attendees, I was reminded that progress and growth are possible. Nothing underscored that conclusion better than the keynote address by Carmen Maria Machado. I didn’t expect that hearing this brilliant writer’s experience of writing her memoir, In the Dream House might increase my confidence, but when she talked about her struggles with processing, structuring, and revising, I felt I could make peace with my own floundering. All writers wrestle with similar things—struggle does not equal failure. As she said to a rapt audience, “Writing a memoir isn’t simply recording what happened—that’s called a diary—writing a memoir is fundamentally an act of shaping real life into a meaningful, beautiful, interesting story. And that is fucking hard.” In the moment I needed it most, Carmen Maria Machado validated my effort and my art.

I could have stayed home and had five days more with my manuscript (well, maybe a bit more if you add the time it took to write this essay), but I’m certain it wouldn’t have had the same impact as attending the Hippocamp conference. It wasn’t just the acquisition of knowledge that I gained—being and learning in a community of writers gave me the clarity and inspiration to come back home and attack my work-in-progress with fresh vigor. I have new strategies to call upon now and clearer insight into what needs fixing. Will I finish revising by my deadline? Who knows—but I’m more ready than ever to work hard and lean into that stretch called writing. 

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Michèle Dawson Haber is a writer, potter, and proud Canadian who currently resides in Toronto. She is working on a memoir about step-adoption, family secrets, and identity. Her writing has appeared in Salon.com and The New York Times. More at www.micheledhaber.com.

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