Writing to Give Shape to Our Lives

April 9, 2018 § 24 Comments

zz slavinBy Nancy Slavin

“I write because writing helps bring life into clearer focus and give shape to what I might otherwise experience as disconnected shards.”  – Joyce Thomas

I read the Joyce Thomas quote above in a 2011 issue of Poets & Writers and practically hummed out loud in my attraction to it. The urge to write for me is a primordial need to make sense of experiences that often happen in pieces. The way I make sense of the pieces is by creating the story, which hopefully turns out whole. Certainly in the case my daughter’s birth, the pieces of a fifty-four hour labor are disconnected, fragmenting more and more with each passing year, making me wonder which pieces are important enough to keep? And yet, long as the labor was and as bloody the outcome, I don’t use warfare metaphors to discuss that birth or write about my body as a battlefield, or even discuss the experience in sharp-termed images like shards. I have a choice in how to name that experience; I get to write my own story.

Being cut open crosswise below my belly button has made me feel at times like I have two parts of a body, and writing about that experience, even after therapy for post-partum depression, has actually been the best work I’ve done to connect the two parts, to make a new whole. As a former writing mentor once said, “if you write it down, it can’t own you.” For me, writing about the difficult parts helps me own that experience, rather than it owning me.

People often ask, when they hear I’m a writer, “what do you write?” I answer I write words. But I write in many forms – poetry, fiction, non-fiction. I’ve taught all of those genres, too, and love thinking about the different elements between each form because I’m a believer in form follows function. Each story demands its own structure, and each story, eventually, will tell you in what form to write it if you’re willing to listen.

I also believe: the greater the pain behind the experience, the greater the need for precision within the form. Joyce Thomas, in her Poets & Writers essay, tells us that after she was raped at gunpoint, she wrote her very first poem. She wonders why she turned to poetry at that moment, but I don’t wonder, I know: the greater the pain, the greater the need for poetry, the most precise of forms, to connect the shards. For the same reason, the first time I wrote about birthing my daughter, I wrote a poem in rhyming heroic couplets, an exacting form that helped me stitch together our dual experience.

The other question people ask when hearing I’m a writer is “what do you write about?” That question is quite a bit more complicated and I’m sure there’s not one answer any writer could give, although at least one famous writer claimed each writer writes the same story over and over. But finding out what you need to write about is important. Find your themes. When I teach writing classes, one of the first exercises I do with students is to have them write a one or two word “top ten” list of topics they think are important to write about, topics that would excite them and get their engines greased. They come up with weighty subjects like the environment, God, being a mother or father, daughter or son, and sometimes less weighty subjects like cars or video games. Still, every subject has potential for deeper exploration, and certainly can be crafted into a story. When I do that exercise, I often write “human relationships” as my number one topic, but I think the bigger truth is I write about “healing in human relationships.”

Writing, in the form of essays, fiction, and poems, has helped me figure out and heal disparate swatches of myself, swatches torn from the whole due to traumas or losses or disappointments. Writing literally helped me stitch together the initial frayed pieces of motherhood, and continues to do so as my child grows. I’ve also written about family, partners, therapists, and friends. All the writing allows me to connect pieces of my life and figure out my constant thread within my life. I’m grateful not only that I have this primordial need to write, but also that I have the wherewithal to abide to that need and act accordingly. I wish the same wherewithal for you, for we all have a need to express our “top ten” list. May the disconnected shards of your experiences be assembled into a whole.

Nancy Slavin is a freelance writer and editor. She was longtime community college writing and English literature instructor and a violence-prevention educator. Her work has been published in Oregon Humanities Magazine, The Manifest Station, Barrelhouse, Literary Mama, Hip Mama, among others. She’s the author of Moorings a novel, and Oregon Pacific, a collection of poems.

An Open Letter to Brian Arundel

April 4, 2018 § 8 Comments

arundelDear Brian,

In lieu of a Thank You note, I should be sending you a royalty check for all the times I have printed your essay The Things I’ve Lost published in Brevity 22. Perhaps writers should team up with musicians to claim monetary compensation for their intellectual property.

Brevity will also want a piece of the take, as will state and federal entities. I don’t know about you but, I am not feeling very generous toward the government these days. As I watch your imaginary check dwindle in size, it occurs to me that cutting a check is as antiquated as placing a stamp on a letter. I feel, however, that I should publicly give credit where credit is due and since I cannot find you elsewhere this is as good a place as any to connect with you.

I work as a nurse who works with patients receiving chemotherapy, and, thanks to a generous donation, I have access to a healthy supply of notebooks and journals. Some are jeweled and bedazzled, while others have faux leather covers. I delight in selecting just the right one for my patients. I imagine I am kin to Ollivander who selects the perfect wand for fledgling wizards.

There is time to talk in the space between lab work, pre-hydration fluids, and administering the poison that may be their salvation. Shelly was interested in alternative medicine options and I discussed a body of research demonstrating improved health outcomes for people who write about their illness. Shelly said she wanted to journal during her first cancer treatment, but the chemotherapy made it difficult to clear her mind enough to write a coherent sentence. Now, on her second time around, I suggested she make a list of the things she lost. Start with: I lost my hair. I lost my fear of hospitals, I lost my virginity…. Shelly and I talked about how writing helps take you out of the moment and allows the writer to look at the totality of their experiences. It is not illness that defines us but all the other things that make up the lost and found of a life.

Illness is the door most apparent when I write with my patients, but the illness is not who they are. It is a place to start. Shelly embraced the idea and held tight to the journal I gave her — a striped journal, reminiscent of Fruit Stripe chewing gum.

As I talked with Shelly, her mother-in-law sat quietly on the sofa. She later came out to the nurse’s station and asked if we could talk. The HIPPA alarm was raging in my head since there was nothing I could discuss with her about Shelly’s care. My brain said “No” but my lips said, “Of course.” As we stepped into an empty hallway she explained that she had been listening to the conversation.  She is a high school teacher and she wondered if I had heard about the shooting at her school. She said she hated going back to the school until today. She said, “For the first time, I can see a path forward. I can write with my students about what we have lost. I can help them through their grief” She thanked me and gave a sincere and tender hug.

Both the hug and thanks are yours to claim and do not belong to me.

I cannot begin to send you a royalty check to cover this exchange. Please know you are rich in good karma credits even if your 401(k) is feeling rather depleted.

With your permission, I will continue to use your essay for inspiration because even teenage boys show enthusiasm for a writing project that begins, “I lost a lot of blood.”

Your appreciative fan,

Joey Elizabeth is a mom, MFA student, and registered nurse who tries to insert biblio-therapy between rounds of chemo-therapy because healing is not the same as curing. A fellow nurse calls her an anecdotal artist. Her work can be found on the back of envelopes, via Blackboard posts, and in notebooks in the bottom desk drawer. You can find her in the kitchen making dinner or at joeyelizabeth@hotmail.com.

Finding Inspiration in Free Events at the Public Library

March 30, 2018 § 8 Comments

barbara krasnerBy Barbara Krasner

I drove to the Princeton Public Library through a heavy drip of snow for a lecture/workshop on writing about other people’s memories. The speaker was Ellen Friedman, author of The Seven: A Family Holocaust Story, a narrative based on oral interviews, travel, and archival research about her family’s migration east through the Soviet Union during World War II. I was prepared to take notes and participate in an interactive writing session.

But what I got, besides the $40 parking ticket since the meter I used apparently didn’t work, was a kick in the pants. As Dr. Friedman read from her first chapter, I was reminded of my great-uncle who also took a Soviet train east in 1939. He ended up in Uzbekistan-Bukhara and eventually, after the war, Palestine. Only he, and my maternal grandfather and one brother who came to America before the war, survived. I thought, too, about my paternal grandmother’s brother, Leib Zuckerkandel, who was sent to a Soviet labor camp from his home in Galicia, while his wife and daughters perished. Only Leib and my grandmother, who came to America in 1913, survived.

I took notes, but not about Dr. Friedman’s book. I made a list of actions to take: Contact Stan and Michael about the tenant registers—did they include my maternal grandfather’s shtetl? Contact Leib’s children to learn more about the labor camp and his memories. Contact anyone I’d been in touch with over the years who might have stories about our mutual ancestral Galician village. But could it also be that my reading of Noah Lederman’s The World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets, was reaching my brain at the same time?

I had insomnia. I spent hours combing Ancestry.com for my grandmother’s potential relatives. I had no idea Gustav Klimt painted a portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandel of Vienna. I knew from a conversation with Leib’s widow, Rose, that we were distantly related to these fin-de-siècle salon Zuckerkandels, originally from Hungary. A new vitality emerged about the memoir of my grandmother I’m writing, that is, the grandmother I never knew because she died years before I was born. Do I have events of my discovery in the right order?

I was in my hometown a day later, an hour north of where I currently live. I wanted desperately to drive to where my father and his family lived behind the corner mom-and-pop store just to count the number of stairs of the stoop on the side of the building.

Within a 48-hour period, I learned the following:

  1. Always use quarters and not your credit card in Princeton parking meters.
  2. Attend as many free workshops and readings as possible, especially those at local libraries. They will introduce you to more writers, more writing styles, and they offer inspiration.
  3. Develop your own action plan as a result of attending these sessions.

Next up, reading Dr. Friedman’s book, reading Mimi Schwartz’s When History Is Personal, reading a self-published memoir about a town close to my grandmother’s, and participating in a free, two-part memoir workshop at the Princeton Library. My quarters are all lined up.


Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a PhD candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Smart SetSouth 85Poor YorickJewish Literary JournalMinerva Rising, and other publications. She teaches creative writing, composition, and history in New Jersey.



Apply the (Perhaps) Most Famous Fiction Exercise of All Time to Your Essays

March 28, 2018 § 10 Comments

zz Michael Noll headshotBy Michael Noll

A few years ago, I talked my way into teaching a magazine writing course at a major university despite having almost no magazine experience. I focused on very short essays like the ones published by Brevity and introduced what seemed to me to be the major elements of the form, pointing to them in published work and asking students to include them in their own: a particular incident, context and backstory, one or two short scenes, and a short passage conveying the emotional importance of it all.

Anyone who’s taught or written a short essay knows the problems they encountered: finding a good incident, understanding the difference between scene and summary, and condensing backstory and context into a short paragraph.

But the biggest challenge they had was conveying the emotional importance of the story: why readers should care. I had expected this to be the easy part since I’ve always considered Whitman’s credo (“what I assume, you shall assume”) to mean that a story that is meaningful to one person will naturally connect with others as well. But that wasn’t the case. My students’ experiences were not only quotidian (everyone will experience love and loss) but also couched in the dull language of general experience. How do you tell someone their intense experience comes off as generic?

I didn’t.

Instead, I showed them writing that conveyed emotion without naming it. A good example of this can be found in the recent Brevity essay “Meanness” by Beverly Donofrio. It begins with the writer remembering her mother crying over unpaid bills, tears that rise in intensity until she had worked “herself up like an opera singer.” And then we get this:

“…when her weeping petered out, I listened to the quiet of the ticking clock, watched her skirt swing as she stepped to the stove, and thought her beautiful as I hoped my brother Eddie wouldn’t wake up so I could be alone, like that, with her for a while.”

It’s a lovely image that actually creates an emotional response better than any statement of emotion could ever manage.

This advice may sound familiar. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, suggests this exercise: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, or death. Do not mention the man who does the seeing.” In other words, don’t state the emotion. Convey it. This is what Donofrio does with “petered out” and the quiet of the ticking clock and swinging skirt: the silence after the aria.

Fiction writers do this all of the time. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan enters a room where the wind is whipping the curtains and the women’s dresses; then, when he shuts the door, everything sinks to the floor. We haven’t even seen the guy yet, and yet we feel his presence.

Justin Torres does something similar in We the Animals, a book that is ostensibly a work of fiction but shares many qualities with the essay form. In an early scene, the narrator and his two brothers sit at the kitchen table, hammering tomatoes:

“We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.”

As with Donofrio’s clock and skirt, images do the heavy lifting in this passage. But there is also a plain statement: “We aimed to smile like that.” It doesn’t name an emotion, but it gets awfully close, instead naming an intention to feel.

This is what I wanted my students to learn. In nonfiction, just as in fiction, specific details will put readers into the skin of characters on the page. But because essays are so brief, you cannot wait for readers to sink into the world you describe. You need a sentence like “We aimed to smile like that” or “I could be alone, like that, with her for a while” to pin the feeling you’ve created to a reader’s brain. Make readers ache, yes, but then tell them they need to remember that sensation long after they’ve left the essay behind.

Michael Noll is the author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fictionthe Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, and the editor of Read to Write Storieswhere he posts writing exercises based on published work and interviews authors about the craft behind their novels, stories, and essays. His short stories have been published widely, including in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology.


Staying Out Of The Headlights: On Finding My Own Writing Process

March 26, 2018 § 134 Comments

KDaly Author Photo.jpegBy Kara Daly

I’ve always hated writing prompts. They shine headlights on me and I freeze. On-the-spot writing exercises fill with me with fear, creating a barrier between myself and what I need to say. The pressure does the opposite for me what it does for others. I require inspiration and an open field in order to write, whether it’s poetry, prose, or music. But I don’t have to resign myself to a life of being a helpless “vessel.” I can comb my life for patterns, name them, and learn to create the conditions for inspiration to occur, and my field opens.

I had a teacher once, who I love and respect, and whose passion for writing inspires me to this day. But I remember something she said at the beginning of the course that, at the time, struck me deeply, but which seems contrary to how operate as a writer. She said, “When people tell me they’re a writer, I don’t ask them what they write. I ask them when they write.”

She was getting at the importance of writing everyday. Writers write. Right? I took that to heart and for a few years I wrote everyday; during that time I started publishing for the first time.

But several years later, I realize there’s more than one way to be a writer. Discipline is essential, I think, but the degree depends on the individual. I need a good dose of inspiration in order to write, as well, and writing everyday eventually starts to feel robotic and kills my inspiration. My path to success looks like naming how I operate as a creative, and then setting out to create the conditions for optimal function.

I’m more of a binge writer. I have to pull way back and let my creative pulse breathe. Then, at some point, I go in and I write and write and write. For so much of my life I’ve known this about myself, but I’ve resisted it because I didn’t see this trait in serious writers. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to respect the cyclic nature of my creative life. To know what stage I’m in and act in ways that are supportive.

When I’m in the writing stage, then I can push. I can cancel plans and stay home to produce. After the writing stage, I’m revising and reflecting and finding homes for my work. After that, I need to be out in the world, being social. I also need to be studying and reading regularly. That’s where I collect my material and eventually become inspired, and the process begins again.

Discipline, for me looks like reading and studying regularly, considering myself forever in school. Journaling almost every day and keeping a notebook to write down ideas, observations, to-do lists, quotes, etc. Being disciplined in my studies sometimes jumpstarts the writing process, or it leads me to other projects. This is how I amend my agony over my human-ness. I set my intention, I am machine-like in my studies, and I give myself permission to wait for inspiration.

The other concept that I’ve had to reckon with is audience. Any writer who’s been through academia knows that you have to know your audience, which implies you have to have one. But this is another headlight that freezes me in my place. It brings questions like “Where will this be published?” and “Is this word going to stop an editor from accepting this?” and the whole system shuts off.

I’ve learned that I write best, and sometimes write only if I write for myself. My new protocol is to aim to please me, and me only. Of course, we have to go back during the revision process and check ourselves, or reckon with the person who wrote that, especially if we’re privileged. But in draft one, I’m only comfortable saying what needs to be said if I’m writing to myself.

Sometimes in the revision process, my audience expands to others like me. I write for my generation, I write for other women, for example. But I can’t get there if I don’t first write for myself. Kind of like the old adage, you can’t love someone unless you love yourself first. I always have to come first in my writing.

Kara Daly is a poet and songwriter who, every two years, finds herself needing to relocate to a new city for no reason at all. She’s currently en route to Chicago, but you can find her at www.karadalypoetry.wordpress.com or hear her at www.soundcloud.com/karadaly. Her poetry has been published in The Pacifica Literary Journal, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Blue Monday Review, and Gloom Cupboard.



A Review of Lee Martin’s Telling Stories

March 19, 2018 § 4 Comments

9781496202024-Perfect.inddBy Debbie Hagan

Popular Mechanics was the only magazine my father ever read. In it were clever plans, such as turning a metal lunchbox into a radio, a VW Beetle into a travel trailer, and a coffee can into an electric doghouse heater. Actually, Dad made the latter, complete with a switch for turning the heater on and off from the house.

Like Dad, I was pretty good at following directions. I could bake just about anything in a cookbook, which gave me the idea that I could do anything—even write great short stories—if I just had the right directions. I was young and naïve when I began searching for good writing craft books. Most were disappointing, giving general advice, such as put your butt in the chair, write every day, read books, make the dictionary your friend, and so on. I really wanted specific directions.

I gave up searching for the writing cookbook, until I found Lee Martin’s Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life. It’s not really a writing cookbook. Actually, it’s better. In it are eighty brief chapters of solid advice for telling good stories—and some—not all—have step-by-step directions.

Martin begins with advice on how to create a great opener. He uses, as an example, the opening to Raymond Carver’s famous short story “Cathedral.” The narrator anxiously awaits the arrival of his wife’s former colleague who is blind. The narrator has never known anyone blind—only characters in movies. As his anxiety mounts, so does the reader’s, who’s worrying what will happen to this poor blind man when he finally arrives.

To create such a tension-filled beginning, Martin advises, “Write a line that’s already moving forward, that contains the story’s premise. Then establish the perspective of the main character so we know his or her position, as in: A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.” It’s simple, but powerful and strategic, as are the other lessons in this book.

While Martin gives some rather detailed step-by-step prompts, they don’t necessarily lead to a complete story soufflé. Mostly they’re short tricks and tips for building character, scene, detail, dialogue, and more. These exercises feel fresh and original, stemming, I assume, from Martin’s deep well of writing experience and literary knowledge. He is, of course, a premiere storyteller (Such a Life, Bright Forever), teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State University, and has been teaching writing for thirty-six years.

In this book, I’ve dog-eared several sections that I will revisit. One is “Using Photos in Memoir.” In my own writing classes, I ask students to bring in personal photographs to examine closely for details and deeper meaning. As Martin says, a photograph “not only immerses you in the time period; it also provides an emotional connection between you and the people about whom you’re writing.” He gives a five-step guide for not only looking deeper into the photo, but analyzing it for scene, emotion, and metaphor. His way of guiding writers through this exercise is far better than mine, and I hope to borrow some of his ideas the next time I lead students through this exercise.

Another section I’ve referred back to is “Connecting the Particulars.” I love lyric essays, but struggle to write them. Martin more or less pulls back the curtain, giving us a glimpse at the foundation beneath the poetry. He leads readers through a step-by-step exercise, guiding writers to pull together dissimilar objects and people and mix them with abstract ideas. Initially I found this exercise a bit daunting and didn’t expect anything would come of it. However, once I brought my object, person, and idea together, there was a palpable resonance on the page. I had something—just a start—but often that’s all a writer needs to get going. That’s why this is better than a cookbook.

Martin combines writing tips with examples from literature and his own life and teachings. It’s a clever, warm-hearted book for writers of fiction or creative nonfiction. It could be used in creative writing classes or kept on the desk for those days one needs a little shot of inspiration.

I’ve learned from Martin’s website, he’s a fan of this quote from Isak Dinesen: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” Throughout this handy, inspirational book, Martin gently urges writers forward and not to give up.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and many other publications. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Arse Poetica (Or, A Shitty Metaphor)

March 12, 2018 § 10 Comments

zz brandeisBy Gayle Brandeis

When I was a freshman at the University of Redlands, I took a seminar called “Construction and Deconstruction of the Self.”  The professor, Kevin O’Neill, was always asking provocative questions—how would life be different if we procreated with our hands?  What if our backs were our sex organs—how would clothing and furniture change?  What would we do if we woke up in a differently gendered body?  One morning, he asked us whether we look in the toilet after we poop.  Only one person in the class said no, claiming he had evolved to a more spiritual plane.  Kevin didn’t believe him.

“We ALL look in the toilet after we poop,” he said, “because it’s something we created.  Our bodies want to see what they have created.”

I like birth as a metaphor for the creative process, but it’s a bit of a cliché, plus it’s not accessible to everybody (make that every body). I can see how another bodily function could be an apt metaphor, too, one we all share. You may have heard of the children’s book Everyone Poops? It’s true, we do.

Think about it.  The creative process is a lot like the digestive process.  We take life into our bodies.  We let it travel through us.  We absorb what we can.  We express those things that need to come out.

Bear with me here.

Sometimes poems and stories come out in a messy, smelly, gush. Sometimes we are surprised by their colors, by the kernels of life embedded inside. Sometimes we strain and strain and all that comes out is a little pebble of language, maybe nothing at all.  Sometimes a piece of writing slides from our bodies and we feel cleansed and light.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

Shit does make people uncomfortable.

I amicably parted ways with my former agent, a woman I really like and respect, after she wanted me to remove any reference to Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, from my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis. While the memoir is centered around my mom’s suicide, it also explores my own complicated history with illness; this aspect of the story gets to the heart of my relationship with my mom unlike anything else, but my former agent was concerned the bodily chaos in the book would make people uneasy; it made her uneasy. I was similarly taken aback when, before my book was released, I read this passage in an essay about medical memoir:  “…inflammatory bowel disease, which threatens life as well as its sufferer’s sense of self and sexuality, has never found its way into a great memoir. It seems unlikely that no worthy writer has had these diagnoses. Maybe some conditions just aren’t inherently memoir-worthy.”

I can’t say whether my memoir is “great”, but I steadfastly believe we shouldn’t declare any material from our lives unworthy of memoir—we should be able to talk and write freely about every aspect of the human experience, even the most disagreeable, shitty, ones. If we don’t, we perpetuate silence and shame.

After I had surgery to remove a length of diseased small intestine, I devoured books by authors with Crohn’s disease— Meaty by Samantha Irby and The Man Who Couldnt Eat by Jon Reiner, which both mine our shared illness for great comic and dramatic value, as well as Matthew Siegel’s poetry collection, Blood Work, and Chris Kraus’ autobiographical novel, I Love Dick, which address the authors’ Crohn’s experience with tremendous honesty and craft. These books made me feel less alone; they helped give me courage to take that part of my own story out of the shadows.

Let us embrace all parts of our lives in our work, including the parts that are uncomfortable and gross, the parts we’re told to not discuss in polite company. Polite is overrated. Polite keeps us from our truth. Let us write words that still steam from the heat of our body. Let our lives become rich, dark, fertilizer; let us see what grows from the dirt.


Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. Her other books include the poetry collection, The Selfless Bliss of the Body, the craft book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and the novels My Life with the Lincolns, Delta Girls, Self Storage, and The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize of Fiction of Social Engagement. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Teaching Resources category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: