Teaching Brevity: Reading Short, Writing Short

September 29, 2017 § 12 Comments

kkf.jpgBy Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

I confess that I first turned to flash nonfiction because I needed a way to organize twenty undergraduate students, and I needed it in a week.

Based on the The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction,  and supplemental readings from Brevity, I devised this repeating course schedule: 1) Mondays and Wednesdays would consist of a combination of reading discussion, prompts, and craft lecture, while 2) Fridays would be for small group workshops of four, where I rotated through the groups.

Here was my thinking:

Short reading assignments would mean students actually read. Short essays for workshop eliminated the need for distributing work ahead of time. That everyone was up for workshop every week eliminated the need for a rotating schedule. Grading would be based on participation, which took care of attendance issues. So many logistical problems, solved!

This course structure helped me successfully navigate the usual undergraduate workshop obstacles, such as grandmother genocide, wayward printers, dastardly roommates, and even the dreaded “Thirsty Thursday.”  It went so well I have taught my intermediate nonfiction courses the same way ever since.  And while practical considerations are not to be minimized, given time to reflect, I’ve uncovered legitimate pedagogical benefits:

  1. Students establish the habit of reader and writer.
  2. Rapid turnaround means lower stakes. Students are freer to risk, and I am freer to risk different prompts.
  3. Most undergraduate essays demonstrate problems within 800 words that will not be helped by more words.
  4. Flash forces students to eliminate throat-clearing passages, pushes them to reach the point. (I generally notice a turn about the third or fourth essay in.)
  5. Over the semester, students get to experience a depth and breadth of creative nonfiction.
  6. By the end students have a stack of essays, which feels good.

Because I’m a Libra, I have also considered the negatives of this class structure:

  1. Lack of opportunity to write longer essays that include more preparation and/or in-depth reporting.
  2. A bias towards lyric writing over narrative (maybe).
  3. Inability to formulate workshop comments ahead of time.

To balance these negatives, I use the last two weeks of class for conferencing, geared towards revision strategies for the final portfolio. Students might realize that their flash essay is really a longer essay, or maybe they find a theme—pieces they could string together to create a narrative sequence. Maybe their flash piece needs to be cut even further. Maybe they’ve really written a poem or a short story. This is their chance to look back, reflect, to consider what they’ve created and where they would like to go from here.

A few publishable gems are a great find. A ream of hot mess—also fine. Either way, what I’m really hoping, is that after the course is completed, students have made a regular writing practice part of who they are, and if they are not writing, they have this weird feeling that something is wrong.
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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 46.
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Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself (Press 53). Her other work has previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, mental_floss magazine, and other publications. After moving from Southern Louisiana to Southern Ohio back to Southern Louisiana on to Southern Utah, she has settled into red rock country, where she teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University.

 

 

The 750 Project: WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide (Revisited)

September 27, 2017 § 2 Comments

750(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Ann Claycomb cut about 250 words from 2009 essay, “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by Ann’s reflections on the process.)

By Ann Claycomb

6:40 a.m. Sesame Street

Your son pads in, pats you on the head.  His hand is sticky, his patting gentle and inexorable.

You finally fell deeply asleep only after your third trip to the bathroom, at 5:00 a.m.  When you do not immediately get up, your son crawls into bed.  He smells like pee, enough to make your eyes water.

Sesame Street has been brought to today you by the number 8 and the letter P.  Your son turns over, managing to kick you and elbow you in one movement.

“Mommy,” he whispers, “pee starts with P.”

11:30 a.m. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

You watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when you were little.  When he said you should “just be you,” you would guiltily slip off your Snow White costume.

This morning you have been The Joker, Cat Woman, Wonder Woman, and a lost kitty’s mommy.  You have been mean and turned nice, been nice and turned mean, died and come back to life.  You eat cereal while you make your children’s lunch, scooping up spoonfuls between slicing cucumbers and pouring juice.  Your daughter wants to eat her cucumbers on the sofa. She rearranges the skirts of her best church dress, pushes her tiara higher on her head.

Mr. Rogers is visiting a cereal plant.  He dons a hard-hat, looks with amazement into a huge whirling vat of corn flakes.

Your son asks for cereal.  You tell him you don’t have the kind that Mr. Rogers has.  He suggests you go to the store and buy some.  You wonder if the trolley on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood still goes to the Land of Make-Believe.  That was always your favorite part.

5:00 p.m. The Joy of Painting

Your son wants you to sit with him on the floor to watch a man paint a picture of pine trees around a lake at sunset.  From your daughter’s room come the sounds of despair as she throws herself at the door.

“You’re bad!” she shrieked as you hauled her back there.

Your son took your hand, pulled you down the hall.  “I don’t think you’re bad, Mommy.”

You can achieve a gorgeous wash of pink across the canvas by applying the paint in a thin layer then sweeping a wet brush over it.  Your son wants to know if that man is a real painter.  You tell him yes, but not a good one.  The spaghetti water boils over, hissing, on the stove.

You go to your daughter’s room, push open the door she has wedged shut with stuffed animals.  She holds out her arms to be picked up.  You carry her to the sofa and adjust her on your lap so she is not pressing against your belly.  You rest your hand there instead.

“I want the baby to come soon,” your daughter says.

You kiss her head, careful of the tiara. On the t.v., the camera zooms in on a brush conjuring a dark green tree out of white space.  Your daughter thinks the man must be a very good painter, but your son turns around to assure her that he is not.

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CLAYCOMB0127 XXAnn Claycomb’s Thoughts:

The first hundred words went easily.  The baby who is pressing on the narrator’s bladder in the opening of “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” is now nearly eight years old.  Making that first pass over the essay felt like putting a hand in my son’s drawer and unearthing a tangle of mismatched toddler socks, the kind with the raised letters on the bottoms that act as scuffs under little feet.  There is nothing sentimental about that discovery, just exasperation—“what are these still doing in here?”—before they go into the trash.  So out went the explicit expressions of how the narrator felt at moments throughout the essay (“You are so tired.”  “You are exhausted.”)  Of course she is tired.  The readers don’t need her to tell them that.  And out went words big and small that had felt important eight years ago but now just—aren’t.  Singleton socks, every one of them, and too small to fit any feet in this house.

Then it got harder.  The initial version of the essay was clearly invested in repetition—men with scraggily beards, one in the morning, one at night—and in near-repetition.  But did we need both Wonder Woman and Supergirl?  And those bearded men didn’t matter so much as I’d thought they did.  Certainly their beards didn’t, not anymore.  In fact, the longer I looked at the word scraggily the more I hated it.  Yet still my finger hesitated over the “delete” key.  The repetition had felt clever.  Now it felt like a bad habit I had to quit.  It wasn’t until the man and his music and the dream of him were all gone from the opening section that the spell was broken.  (And isn’t that the way it is with all of the New Yorker articles taking up space in my head?)

But once the early morning was stripped of the narrator’s regrets about the night before, it felt too thin.  Rearranging and rewriting accomplished what more cutting wouldn’t have done.  Now, as in the original version, in each present-tense section the immediate past peers through (“You finally fell asleep,” “You have been the Joker,” “you hauled her back there.”)  The intrusions keep immediacy from winning out.  This day isn’t just these three moments, after all, any more than any day can be distilled into an hour-long t.v. show or a year into a day.  The past tells us how we got to where we are, here and now.

Neither the past nor the present, of course, tells us where we are headed, any more than this piece could have predicted what life would be like with three children in the house, how my daughter would fall madly in love with the baby, how her twin would grow sinewy and fierce inside his new roles: big brother, older son.  But then, programming guides only work when you consult them, which these days in our house, we rarely do.

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Ann Claycomb believes in the power of fairy tales, chocolate, and a good workout, in no particular order.  Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is the author of numerous pieces of published short fiction and creative nonfiction.  Her first novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, came out this year.  She lives with her husband, three children, and two cats in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is at work on her next novel.

The 750 Project: Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland

September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments

750(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Emily Franklin chose to lengthen her 2005 essay, “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland.” The results are below. )

By Emily Franklin

1) Where is D., my first love, first sex? Armed with vague notions of where I could find D. I type in his name with the same trepidation I had a decade prior when I’d called him at his hotel in London and we’d met for a curry and kissed like we were trying to rewind. Remnants of my teen aged heart aflutter, on the screen I weed out the genealogy sites, the porn. What am I looking for? Old love? Myself? No. Just to be able to picture D. as an adult, in his life now. White pages produce an address, but divulge no details. Ideally, I’d stumble onto his wedding announcement complete with photo of the bride (would she look like me? Have a familiar name, or fat thighs?).

2) Ponytailed and perky with her be-ribboned shirts and banana-seated bicycle, A. once called me a Kyke though later, after her father forced her, she apologized and admitted she didn’t know what the word meant.

8329-for web and email

I learn D. is married, that his sister is still childless, that his parents had relocated to North Carolina. All this I ascertain by way of his mother’s obituary, whose face I cannot recall. Just that she wrote to me after D. broke up with me (on the phone, the night before the SATs), that her sons called her Fred for no good reason, that she smelled of syrup, that she died young. In suburban Connecticut my first love lives without his mother, the funeral held on his birthday.

Locating A.’s whereabouts requires no filtration. Her unusual last name is highlighted on the screen on the first link. She is now a gossip/society writer for a glossy Hollywood magazine. With her head tilted to the right, her publicity photo is remarkably similar to the second grade school picture I unearthed in an old journal; Fair Isle sweater, hair straight and gleaming, eyes ahead; sure.

3) T.’s letters to me were crammed with confetti, fishing lures depronged, Hershey’s kisses with their paper inserts rewritten to reveal grotesque or funny fortunes. Our summer group of girls met for the last time in Atlanta in 1988, swapping jeans, smoking Camels, nursing one girl back to health after her hidden abortion. There was pot, beer, a drummer with long hair, some pizza place in Little Five Points where we clustered and hugged, already missing each other. T. stood off to the side, heavy-mouthed and forever pushing her eyebrows against the grain. “I want them to go the other way,” she explained when one of the girls nudged her.

Finding T. takes minimal effort. Her father, a well-known Canadian actor, has passed away and articles about his life and family are abundant. One grammatical error keeps showing, however: survived by son named T. When I locate the same misattributed pronoun in each piece, the truth clicks. Then, the website. T. is now an artist, and a male, and – in his words (and isn’t this what we hope to find of our search engine queries?) – happy.

4) What am I searching for  – photos, yes, background, my inner-investigator enjoying the private eye excitement? But maybe what I wonder is if people can change. Perhaps that’s the unsaid impetus – are you the same person you were when I knew you? Am I? Are you living the life I might have predicted? Am I?

And – here’s where the heart-racing-finger-hesitating-on-the-contact comes in – should we still know one another now?

5) Back when I wrote this, you got two, maybe four links. Sufficient. Now the same search is twelve pages, 3,120 results. Does this give a better sense? Maybe. But the reasons for searching haven’t changed, haven’t improved. If I search for D. it’s still because I want confirmation he’s alive. And, more honestly, I want to scratch the itch of wondering if I am still the best thing that ever happened to him, if he would regret dumping me over the phone the night before the SATs. If he remembers hooking up in a hotel room in London years later, if that remains sweet for him. But of course these are not items one can source. For the writer, it leaves me to narrate the spaces in between.

And spaces are important. People worry about forgetting. I worry about remembering. The soon-to-be-lost art of forgetting, the gentle receding of old flames and glorious trips and trauma in the rear view mirror.

When we log on, we are Jacques Cousteau, diving for vampire squid, blob fish, dumbo octopuses with their odd-cute faces and ear-placed fins. We are excavating other humans and our pasts. But what do we gain by knowing? Are we better for tethering each past (relationship, comment, job, moment, selfie, purchase, pain) to us as we navigate the now?

The mind was built to remember what it needs. Googleland prevents the natural discourse between now and then, holding on and letting go. We know we are losing – our ability to recall lyrics from that song you Frankenstein-style danced to in 8th grade, our knowledge of bird species or geography or how to get from one place to another without being told and directed. We hare shifted our lives from this land to Googeland.

6) The truth is that T. did not want to be in touch. Even though I wrote a heartfelt letter and wanted to know him as he is now. And D. dumped me and probably never looked back (or maybe his wife looked for me on-line just to see). And the anti-Semitic fashion-forward girl in the Fair Isle sweater? She’s nothing but kind, and happy to consider pieces for her hug glossy magazine.

Here is the truth: we think we want to know everything. Here is the other truth: we really only want to know some – and quite often, not even that. As the world opens up, we have to give ourselves permission to undo, to lose touch, to fade and to forget. To embrace the deep-sea darkness of the unknown.
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Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, as well as seventeen novels for young adults including Last Night at the Circle Cinema named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her work has been published in The New York Times, and numerous literary magazines, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.  She lives with her spouse and four children near Boston.

 

Teaching Brevity: Whetting the Appetite

September 25, 2017 § 7 Comments

DSC_1174-2By Frances Backhouse

Recently, while flipping through an Italian cookbook, it occurred to me that I’ve organized my third-year creative nonfiction workshop like an Italian meal. At twelve to thirteen weeks, with one three-hour class a week, it lasts longer than even the most leisurely Italian repast, but the structure is similar. During the first few classes, I serve up an array of bite-sized activities and assignments – the antipasto course, which both whets the students’ appetites and take the edge off their hunger while they’re busy writing first drafts of the pieces they’ll submit for workshopping. Once those drafts come to the table, we move onto the primo and secondo courses and spend the bulk of the term thoughtfully chewing our way through two essays per student. The last class is the dolce – a sweet, celebratory finale in which the students read excerpts from works they’ve written and polished over the term.

The part of this culinary metaphor that I want to expand on here is the antipasto course, specifically the ingredients provided by Brevity for the first assignment of the term. (But I’ll cease talking about food, so you don’t get hungry and wander off to the kitchen.) For this assignment, worth 10 percent of the course grade, each student chooses one essay from the collection of craft essays on the Brevity website and explores it through a short class presentation, plus a written reflection, due a few weeks after their presentation. Although both parts are mandatory, I grade only the written submission. I tell the students to think of the presentation as a preliminary articulation of their thoughts, with the class discussion offering ideas for refining them. My other instructions for the assignment are as follows:

The presentation should be about 15 minutes long: in the first 5 minutes you’ll tell us why you picked that essay and highlight what you consider to be the most interesting and important points; then you’ll lead us through a 10-minute discussion of the essay. Everyone is expected to read all of the essays in advance.

The written part of the assignment is a 750- to 900-word reflection. Begin with a brief overview or summary of your chosen essay (no more than one or two paragraphs). Then move on to a discussion of what you took away from reading this essay. For example: What questions did it answer for you? What questions did it raise? How did it inspire you? How did it challenge you? If you find the essay doesn’t offer you enough substance to feed 750 to 900 words of reflection, you may follow links in the essay or do your own research to expand on ideas raised by the essay. (If you go beyond the text of the original essay, include end-notes citing your additional sources.)

Typically, there are fifteen students in the course. I introduce the assignment during the first class and schedule five presentations for each of the next three classes.

The presentation sign-up is done online via CourseSpaces, my university’s learning management system. I give the students a couple of days to browse the Brevity website and then I open up a forum where they claim their preferred craft essay. Some of them leap in the moment the forum opens to ensure they get the piece they want, while others dither or procrastinate and finally settle on something just before the deadline. Banter often accompanies the choosing. “Damn you, Ellen! That was my first choice too,” one student wrote last year when someone else beat her to the essay “Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again” (a perennial favorite). “Sniffed this one out,” wrote another as she announced her choice: “The Nose Knows: How Smells Can Connect Us to the Past and Lead Us to the Page.”

The beauty of allowing the students to choose their essays is that it let’s them take ownership of the learning process and pursue the topics that are of most interest to them. In past years, those whose first literary love is poetry have picked “What Can Sonnets Teach Us About Essays” and “Line Breaks: They’re Not Just For Poets Anymore.” A student mourning the loss of her grandmother opted for “Writing the Sharp Edges of Grief.” Another, who knew that revision was his weak point, challenged himself by choosing “Becoming Your Own Best Critic.” And the beguilingly titled “And There’s Your Mother Calling Out to You: In Pursuit of Memory” always gets snapped up quickly.

The students generally deliver insightful presentations and turn in intelligent written reflections. The quality of both writing and analysis varies, of course, but there’s enough evidence of engagement overall that I can easily count the assignment as a pedagogical success. However, the greatest merit may be in the discussions that follow the formal presentations. These free-flowing, student-initiated conversations often exceed the prescribed ten minutes and take us in unexpected but worthwhile directions, such as the lively debate about muses that followed a presentation on the essay “My Muse – He’s Just Not That Into Me.”

The value of these conversations is (at least) twofold: they get students thinking about craft in new ways; and they start building the bonds that are critical to effective workshopping. One particularly powerful case was a series of overlapping discussions about stereotyping, stigma and gender politics within the literary world that was prompted by three self-identified queer students’ presentations on “Writing Trans Characters,” “Mapping Identity: Borich’s Body Geographic” and “The Craft of Writing Queer.” But all of the discussions help lay the foundation for the sensitive work of peer-critiquing because they get the students talking about creative nonfiction in universal terms before they zero in on each other’s personal offerings.

If you’re teaching CNF, you’re welcome to add this assignment to your teaching menu. I’m sure you’ll find that Brevity’s pantry of craft essays holds plenty of delicious fare.

Buon appetito!

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.
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Frances Backhouse teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is the author of six nonfiction books, including Women of the Klondike and Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. Her short-form CNF has appeared most recently in the Bellingham Review and The New Territory.

Teaching Brevity: A Little Bit of Brevity by My Side

September 22, 2017 § 16 Comments

lisa2bromeo2b2-2015by Lisa Romeo

Do I teach creative nonfiction by incorporating Brevity? You may as well ask if I teach writing that involves using words.

I teach across a range of models and levels – undergraduates  (on-campus CNF elective); MFA students (all-online program); CNF writers of all skill levels (In-person regional workshops and classes); private writing clients (in person and/or online). Brevity is included in all of those scenarios.

Often, as soon as I mention Brevity, I see heads nodding, or get Yes! Yes! on-screen messages. But just as often, I encounter blank stares or “Never read it” notes. Either way, I’m pleased. Those who already know Brevity will, I hope, be exposed to different pieces and other craft essays than they might have found on their own. And for those who have not yet explored Brevity, I get to play enthusiastic tour guide, pointing out not major current highlights and treasures from the archives.

I have my stand-bys of course, pieces I’ve loved since I first read them, those that to me are excellent, specific examples of craft, form, voice, tone, or structure. Every few months, however, I challenge myself to dig deeper into the archives and read more pieces I probably didn’t have time for the first time they appeared. Or, a student will ask me a question or be struggling with a draft, and I’ll dimly recall a Brevity piece that may perfectly illustrate a way forward.

When that happens, and I’m off in search of a piece, it may take me a few minutes or it may take me an hour or more, because I get lost, distracted by so many shiny things I haven’t yet read. I kind of like the latter better. What’s not to like about reading—again or for the first time—such good work? Finding gems I didn’t even know were there?

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of sending off a Brevity link to the student with a few notes about why I suggest the reading. But not too many notes; I want the student writer to read without too much expectation, and just see what happens.Often, I copy and paste a full piece (and link) over into WORD, make a pdf for future teaching use, sometimes as a reading assignment followed by discussion. Always, I add the new piece’s title and link into a running list I keep of pieces that illustrate great writing—and I include notes so I can easily remember why I tagged it: one basic major reason, and additional notes maybe on content, take-away, author, or any backstory I might know.

For example, the notes on Erika Dreifus’s “Before Sunrise” readSuperb example of second person. Raises race/privilege issues from white POV. City life/crime. Trauma, injury, assault. She’s pubbed other second-person & a first-person piece on the further events connected to this experience at (links). The “Before Sunrise” narrator is not a young adult, yet the piece always resonates with undergraduates who want to write about difficult life experiences, but are challenged by the exposure of an *I* narrator. Soon after we read and analyze this piece together in class, coupled with a craft lesson on second person, I begin to see second person pieces in which the students not only confront their difficult stories, but have stretched and developed their voices.

For Brenda Miller’s “Ordinary Shoes”—introduced to me by a writer friend (a great benefit of Brevity’s reach)—my note says: Strong example of moving back and forth in time. Object as memory trigger. Nicely done speculative/imaginary scenes between narrator and parent. Nostalgia without sentimentality. Recently, I’ve paired a close reading of this piece with an assignment to sort through old objects for one that elicits strong emotional memories tied to a friend or relative, and then write a reflective story the object spurs.

For “Devotion” by Sarah Lin, my notes say Sensitive writing about someone else w/a disability. Developing secondary character with good details. Narrator grappling w/past behavior—knowing & not wanting to know. An essay that tries to understand something from childhood/teen years. When I teach this, it opens a discussion on what stories we have the right to tell, considerations of how others appear in our nonfiction, and how to convey emotions not by explaining them, but via scene, dialogue, and description.

When possible I encourage students to print out, so that they can do the close reading on paper (though the undergraduates will fight this). I want writers to use highlighters, sticky notes, colored pens, and margin notes as we discuss issues of craft, structure, organization, pacing, rhythm, characters; I want them to put their mark on the page in ways that tie the piece to their own thinking and writerly understanding.

For online students, I will sometimes paste the piece directly into our private discussion forum, and use highlighting, underlining, bold, and my own notes (in a vivid color) to draw attention to what the author has done—and spur discussion about those choices.

One of my goals for CNF writing students is to have them not just read one or two things I’ve directed them to read at Brevity, but to establish their own relationship with the site, to start to think of it as something personal that offers them insight and endless lessons for developing their own craft. I want them to learn to follow their nose, to crawl through the Craft Essays section as well as the featured pieces archive, not just when we’re working together, but going forward, so they can look there to find guidance at various points in their future writing life.

Sometimes, I assign students to browse and locate any two or three craft essays that seem of interest; read them, and then explain: how they might use this newly acquired advice their own in-progress piece(s); what the craft essay brought up for them; whether they either agree or disagree with the craft essay’s points. Sometimes the “disagree” reasons provoke the best class discussions on the topic.

While Brevity is itself a deep, wide, and rich resource, I also want to show writers more of the literary world, using Brevity as a launching pad. So I will often recommend that writers read one particular featured piece at Brevity, then assign them to move from that piece away from Brevity to learn more and read more. How?  Begin with the writer’s bio at their Brevity piece. See where it leads. Visit the writer’s website or blog. Look up the writer’s books, find their other published short works. Then, read. Very often, when writers do this, they begin to talk about and perhaps  begin to understand how a singular piece fits into—or breaks out from—a writer’s larger body of work, typical style, tone, or voice.

I don’t encourage undergraduates to submit to Brevity, though I do hold it up as a future goal for those who seem interested (I give them a list of undergraduate-focused journals instead.) For MFA students and private editing/coaching writers, Brevity often turns up on their own lists of dream-to-be-published-in venues, as it should, and we talk about ways to get there. I encourage them to follow the Brevity blog, to get a glimpse of how CNF writers navigate projects, productivity, writing lives—and then to get more curious about those writers, and go find them in other places around the web or bookstore.

Since I was fortunate to be published in Brevity (“On the Near Side of the Tracks, in the September 2016 special issue on race), on occasion, I’ve taught from this piece, coupling it with the Brevity blog post I wrote which details my writing and submitting process. I do this as a way to break down for others any mystery surrounding how one might get published in a bucket list venue. (Key takeaway: write your brief piece for Brevity, rather than yanking a short section from a longer piece.)

I use my own work not because I think it’s fabulous (though of course I like it!), but because I can answer questions—about narrowing my idea, writing early drafts, revisions, submitting, working with an editor. I also use it to draw them to the other pieces in that special issue on race, as a timely and robust way to explore writing about difficult issues. Many students want to tackle personal experiences around explosive topics and need as many examples as possible of ways to approach them.

I’d need way more words—it wouldn’t be brief!—to talk about how Brevity infiltrates my own creative writing life. But one thing I will mention here—because I like to share it with my students, as an example of  the value of a developing one’s own writing community—is that when time permits, I like to let a Brevity writer know when I’ve read, admired, learned from (and/or taught from) their work. Reaching out this way (via email, Facebook, or Twitter) has led to a few lovely conversations with writers I might not have ordinarily “met,” and further demonstrates the power of a strong online journal like Brevity, to foster connection not only through the original writer’s words, but in ways beyond.

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6.
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Lisa Romeo teaches creative nonfiction in the Bay Path University MFA program, at Montclair State University, with The Writers Circle, and privately. Her nonfiction is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016, has been nominated for a Pushcart, and appeared in Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Sweet, Word Riot, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Harpur Palate, and many other places. Her memoir, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, will be published by University of Nevada Press in 2018.

The 750 Project: Julio at Large (Revisited)

September 21, 2017 § 4 Comments

750(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. William Bradley cut his 2010 essay, “Julio at Large” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by William’s reflections on the process.)

By William Bradley

One summer day my dad came home with the newspaper in his hand.  “Do you know this girl?”  We had been in the same homeroom when we were middle school students and had taken ninth grade history together the previous year. “She’s missing,” he said.  “Her parents think she was kidnapped.”

Of course, she hadn’t been. I imagine deep down, we all knew. So when we learned two weeks later that she and her companion—a boy who hadn’t been reported missing—had been charged with indecent exposure, having sex on a beach in Florida, I think many in the town sneered, called her a slut, thought she was damn lucky to not be prosecuted for her sinful behavior.

This was rural West Virginia in the early 90s. Conservative Baptist country. Most everybody knew—just knew—that girls like her were trouble.

I didn’t really “know” this though. I wasn’t a Baptist myself; nor was I a conservative. I was just me—weird, anxious me. I didn’t want to judge her, but I was kind of scared of her. Sex as a concept terrified me; sex on a beach seemed unthinkable.

I didn’t see much of her after she returned. We started our sophomore year in the high school, where the homerooms were not arranged by alphabet and she was no longer taking the same classes those of us who were college-bound were taking. And I moved away that November anyway. Decades later, I would try to look her up online—Facebook, Google, Twitter—but she was gone. Vanished again.

We were never really friends. Now, 25 years later, I just remember us as kids who sat near each other in sixth grade homeroom, kids who giggled sometimes. That, and the last time I recall seeing her, sophomore year when I usually didn’t see her at all. I was walking through the school parking lot one morning, and I saw her standing beside a car, smoking a cigarette, a behavior that was only recently banned. We made eye contact, and I almost said hi to her. But she frowned, narrowed her eyes. Ready, I think, for a fight over whatever I said to her. I just looked down and kept walking.

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wbradleyWilliam Bradley’s Thoughts:

It occurs to me only now, over seven years later, that when I wrote “Julio at Large,” I was really attracted to the idea of youthful rebellion, of refusing to follow the rules, of sneering and proclaiming one’s own status as both anti-Christ and anarchist, as Johnny Rotten shrieked (before he became a fan of conservative control once again called Lydon—and honestly, before a lot of parents of “kids these days” were even conceived). I was in my mid-30s and working at a private college that seemed to become more regressive and disdainful of its students on a weekly basis. I think on some level I had begun to romanticize the idea of fighting the power, raging against the machine, or in some other way telling clucking adults with sticks up their asses to mind their own damn business. I knew by then that I was a sell-out and a square, but I was still young enough to have a silent respect for kids who refused to do as they’re told. And in most ways, I still do.

But thinking about Julio all these years later, I wonder if I actually wrote the thing correctly. I mean, it did what I wanted it to do at the time, but when I think about that story as a middle aged man now, I’m struck not by Julio’s coolness, but the cruelty she must have endured. Why did she decide to run away from home? It might have been for fun or passion or something else we’d romanticize. It might also have been something darker—an abusive parent, maybe, or a manipulative older boyfriend who could drive when she couldn’t and must have had an interest in public sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend.

Of course, the goal was never to write her story. I lack the knowledge and the right to claim that I can. My hope was to write the story of my response to what I thought I knew. So in that sense, I know it succeeds. At least partially. Because the truth is, these days I don’t really think of Julio’s coolness—I think of the sadness I imagine she might have lived with. Again, I know very little about her, really. But the memory that comes to my mind now is that final scene in the parking lot. Her obvious anger when she saw me. Although we had never had a hostile exchange, it seemed like she had come to expect cruel confrontation after her return to our town. So rather than think about how cool I thought she was when I was a frightened 14 year old boy, I find myself reflecting more on how sad I think she was—or at least, might have been—now that I’m a 41-year-old man.
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William Bradley is the author of Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including SalonThe Mary SueUtne ReaderThe Bellevue Literary ReviewInside Higher EdThe Chronicle of Higher EducationCreative NonfictionBrevityFourth GenrePassages NorthCollege English, and The Missouri Review. William passed away in August 2017 and he is greatly missed.

Teaching Brevity: Joe Mackall’s The Little Girl at the Door

September 20, 2017 § 12 Comments

pgBy Penny Guisinger

My students are arguing. One of them points to a paragraph in the essay  we’ve just read and says, “No, this is reflection, not summary. The author is telling us how he feels.”

The passage reads, “I want nothing more in life at this moment than for this child to leave our home. I don’t want her to return, not ever. I don’t want to care for her. I don’t want to worry about her.”

Another student shakes her head. “No.  This is information he could have showed us in a scene, but he’s telling us instead, so it’s summary.” She runs her fingertip under the words and reads aloud, completely clear that she has this figured out.

I offer my best, most-practiced, most-teacherly nod at this exchange, but the truth is that I don’t care which of them is right, and that’s fortunate because I’m not sure  I even know which one is right because I think, in some ways, they might both be right. What I care about is that they’re having the conversation at all. Further, they’re taking sides and getting upset. While they parry and thrust, I rub my inner hands together in delight. We are here to learn about the building blocks of CNF, but also more.

We’ve just read Joe Mackall’s piece, “The Little Girl at the Door” from the September 2005 issue of Brevity. I’ve taught this essay many times in CNF courses because I love the way the sentences (mostly) break cleanly across the lines (when we can find them) between the tools of scene, summary, and reflection. These terms are abstract until we do a close reading of Mackall together.

Check out the four sentences that open the second paragraph:

Sure enough, it’s the girl from the next street asking if my granddaughter is over. The little shit seems to have a sixth sense about Ellie’s visits. What I hate admitting to myself or anybody else is that I fear this child. The house she lives in screams of too much activity and not enough care.

Four sentences serving up the three tools: scene, summary, reflection, plus one line-straddler, which is part of the lesson. The first sentence is clear action: scene.  The second doesn’t want to be categorized right away. The third? Such a clear example of the reflective voice that it makes the distinction impossible to miss. And the bit that glosses over about what the house screams is a fine example of summary.

It’s the moments when the sentences sit on those blurry lines that can often be squeezed for the pulpiest juice. When the students disagree, and have to mount a defense of their position, they have to get their mouths around these concepts and describe them. What makes something a scene? The verbs? The sensory information? I hold myself back from the fray here and let them argue.

I have a hidden agenda. Getting students’ heads around scene, summary, and reflection is important, yes, but this piece has more important lessons to teach. That sentence about the little shit? I tell them, “It might be some fourth category. It might be summary or scene, but thoroughly filtered through this narrator’s eyes. Just because it reveals something about the narrator doesn’t automatically categorize it solely as reflection.” I pause, watching foreheads crinkle around the table. “In some ways, really, every sentence can and should reflect on the ‘I’ that’s telling the story, right?”

Now, they’re kind of annoyed.

Over and over, students of writing have to confront this terrible reality about our craft: the answer to most questions is “it depends.”  Sentences defy categorization. Narrators are shifty. And – here’s the worst news – narrators and writers do not have the same goals and are, in certain important ways, not always the same people.

“Do you like this narrator?” I ask.

At first, universally, they do not. “He’s mean. He’s judgmental. You’re not supposed to say things like this.” His willingness to be so openly unlikable feels risqué.

This conversation unfolds predictably.  Some student with children or grandchildren puts together enough courage to say, “I understand him.”

Silence. For about ten seconds.

Then others creep onto that same platform, tentatively at first then more firmly. “He just wants to protect his granddaughter. He’s kind of right, you really can’t save everybody.” And, finally, we get to the truth: “I have felt like this, but I’m not proud of it.”

I ask, “Do you think Joe Mackall is proud of this?”

Nobody thinks that. Together, we zero in on this central line: In certain important ways, I’m much less of a person now. This line is the gravity around which the whole piece orbits. I talk about the narrative hand-tip. The pulling back of the curtain. The authorial back-flip required to get there.

At this point, all concerns about which sentences are which things have fallen away. Now we’re talking about the real issue on the table: we’ve moved into a discussion about situation and story, as defined by Gornick. We have moved beyond craft into questions about why we write CNF at all.

I reach for Philip Lopate’s Introduction to the impressive-looking anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay – an introduction I keep in my teacherly hip pocket for this moment. I read two sentences, heavily underlined:

(1) The harvesting of self-contradiction is an intrinsic part of the personal essay form.

(2) If some readers are repelled by a writer’s behavioral contradictions, this is quite all right, because the personal essayist is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being.

I have shared similar ideas from minute one of every class, but this is the moment when it sinks in: using the tools we have at hand, we make our work resonate by admitting our complicity in this flawed mess called humanity.

All around the classroom table, heads slowly nod and eyes roam across the printouts of Mackall’s piece.

Class ends, as all classes eventually do, and my students slide their copies of Mackall into backpacks, inside the covers of notebooks, or into computer bags. The course changes – every time – at this moment. Students leave this conversation less content with telling their stories as anecdotes. They want their stories to do that magic trick of lifting off the page, doing the half gainer, flipping inside out, and revealing something complicated about the “I” on the page. They’ve seen it. Deconstructed it. They get it.

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here (once they are posted) : 1, 3, 4, 5, 6.
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Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and an assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program.

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