Happy Birthday Assay

April 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here at the Brevity blog, we like to boast that we are the single best resource for all things nonfiction, but we are boasting a lot more softly these days, sort of whispering actually, because the new website Assay — a magazine, blog, pedagogical resource, research hub — is doing such a stellar job.  Assay just completed its first year and has published an Annual Report outlining what has been accomplished and great plans for the coming year.

Hint: Blog reports from NonfictioNOW, an exploration of Best American Essays (both critical and statistical), more syllabi and topic lists for classroom use.

Someone’s breathing down our neck. And we couldn’t be happier.

Embracing the Painfully Impossible in the Human Heart

April 21, 2015 § 5 Comments

A guest post from Kelly Morse, examining the work of Claudia Rankine, one of the anchor authors for our forthcoming Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization:

When the world all around is calling for clear distinctions, loyalties to Self and hatred of others . . . . —smooth narratives—what greater threat exists than that voice which rejects such easy orthodoxies with their readily understood rhetoric and urges, instead, the most difficult readings, those that embrace the painfully impossible in the human heart?”

 – Maria Rosa Menocal, from Shards of Love: Exile and Origins of the Lyric

nbcccitizenrankineLyrical writing, like the lyre it originally accompanied, holds its heart in song and in the address of another. It is an observation shared with someone else, when the ‘I’ of the singer births a ‘you’ in the form of an audience, or a writer a reader. However, there’s a funny trick that happens with lyric: a blurring begins. The pronouns get mixed up. It occurs every time you sing your favorite song – the ‘I’ of another enters your mouth. You temporarily share someone’s else’s identity, their turn of phrase, and you want this moment, because this ‘I’ has captured something that feels true to you, even if the story being told is outside the scope of your regular life.

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and the mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.

Recently, Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was nominated for both the poetry and nonfiction categories of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. This has never happened before in the award’s forty-year history. Thought it eventually won the Poetry Award, the dual-genre nod was the only one appropriate to the hybrid nature of the collection. ‘Collection’ works doubly hard here: Rankine gathered anecdotes of racist moments people of color have experienced when they felt most safe, amassed quotes from CNN reporting on Hurricane Katrina, collected World Cup audience transcripts, curated images of art that speak to the experience of being black in America. As she explains to an interviewer:

The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.

Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ approach to short prose pieces (most log in at a page or less), to my mind inhabits the world of lyrical flash nonfiction. At the heart there is an elasticity of experience. As Marcia Aldrich writes, “The lyric essay does not narrate a story so much as express a condition – often named, sometimes called human, but still to us unknown. It reverses foreground and background, cultivating leaps and juxtaposition, tensing between the presentational and the representational.” Rankine seeks to understand, a word that in its etymology means ‘to stand between, among; to be close to’. Rankine tries to make the reader ‘understand’ her pieces by narrating micro-aggressions from the intimate, close place of ‘you’.

The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so.

With lyric, you may be suddenly seeing with multiple sets of eyes. In Rankine’s case, pronouns become a transitional space for a reader, especially if he is white; through his imagination he inhabits this racialized ‘you’, but at the same time the very foreignness of this experience serves to highlight the fact that he as a white person has never been treated this way. The blurring of ‘you’ and ‘I’ is disorienting; this painful impossibility echoes in the narrator’s refrain of What did you say?

A condensed layering of the self is what lyric flash holds in its heart. “The lyric essay doesn’t care about figuring out why papa lost the farm or why mama took to drink,” writes Sue William Silverman. “It’s more interested in replicating the feeling of that experience . . . the reader accepts the emotion of the piece itself as the essential ‘fact’.” Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ asks a reader to explore what it means to have a black body in this world. She actively destabilizes her own text, asking her reader to cross lyric’s transitional space over and over again. Rankine: “I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image.”

This trembling and doubling and wandering between what each small ‘I’ knows to be real and the possibility of what each ‘you’ suggests, this lyric nonfiction, is more important than ever. Smooth narratives are dangerous ones, if not deadly. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” How can we express our griefs, our outrages, our complicated hearts, if not by breaking silence, breaking into song? When the verdict of ‘not guilty’ was announced in the Michael Brown case, over and over I saw a line from Rankine’s book being shared on Twitter:

And where is the safest place when that place

must be someplace other than in the body?

The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.


Kelly Morse is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Quarter After Eight, Linebreak, Flyway and elsewhere. Her translations and reviews of Vietnamese poetry appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, and she recently won Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize for Translation. Kelly has had work nominated for Best of the Net, is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient.

Filling Blank Pages

April 14, 2015 § 29 Comments


Kate Parrish

A guest post from Kate Parrish:

Sometimes (every week) I sit down to write and I stare at the blank page and wonder in terror how the words in my head that I haven’t thought of yet will make it onto the page. Where will they come from? What will they look like? But most importantly, will they appear at all? And at some point each week, without fail, there comes a moment when I think, Nope, I don’t have it in me this week. I have nothing to say about anything. I should just quit and eat some snacks instead. 

But also each week, without fail, I think, Oh, stop being so dramatic and just write something. I’ll give you a snack if you just finish something. And never one to turn down food, I return to the blank page one more time.

The words appear; they always do. They aren’t always the words I like, the words I expect, or the words I want, but something always shows up to fill the blank page. Sentences and paragraphs I never knew existed find a home outside my head on the page.

What I’ve learned, too, in writing each week is that I’m a terrible judge of my own work. Many times the articles I love, the ones that get me super fired up when I’m writing them might get little or no response, and the ones where I feel like maybe I said too much or didn’t say enough or didn’t even make sense will really resonate with people. But I forget all this when I sit down to face the blank page each week. I forget that I don’t really know what is or isn’t going to connect with people, that where I am in my life might align perfectly with some and not at all with others, and that no matter what, it really is all okay. What I have to remember though is that I’ll never find out what works and what doesn’t, who connects and who doesn’t, what helps me and what helps others if I write nothing at all.

You don’t have to be a writer to know the ache of a “blank page.” Everyone has their own blank page, the thing they’re terrified won’t get filled. It’s the parent unsure of how he’ll entertain his kids all day, until lunch even (but he does); it’s the unemployed person who can’t submit one more resume (but she does); or it’s the runner who can’t see the mile marker around the bend (until he does). We don’t know what we’re made of, who we’ll connect with, or what we’ll achieve until we show up.

Embrace the blank page. Roll around in it. Fill up the lines and margins with effort; with trial and error; with excitement and joy some days and fear and disgust the next. Just don’t leave it blank. Be glad for blank pages. They mean there is still more good work to be done.

Kate Parrish is an MFA candidate at The University of the South located in Sewanee, Tenn. When she’s not in school, Kate lives in Nashville, where she writes a weekly blog, Aiming for Okay at www.aimingforokay.com.



Out of Bounds: The Origin of An Essay

April 6, 2015 § 9 Comments

Randon Billings Noble

Randon Billings Noble

Randon Billings Noble discusses the origins of her Brevity essay, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle””

Sometimes when people read an essay or a memoir they think they know more about the writer’s life than they actually do. They might speculate or wonder, or, if given the chance, ask the writer something that falls outside the boundaries of what was written and shared. But there’s a firm line between what is written and what is lived. Sometimes the best response to these speculations is to tell another story.

When my NYT Modern Love piece “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” came out (an essay about how hard it was to tell my most significant ex-boyfriend that I had married someone else), a family member confronted my husband at a dinner party: “How do you feel about this?” she asked — but it was more of a disapproving challenge than a legitimate question. I was standing next to him, blushing hotly, ready to say something about boundaries (see above) when my husband, a prince among men, said, “Did you read the essay? Because she married me.”

Reader, I did marry him. And I am perpetually happily grateful I did.  Even when writing – or living – a piece like “The Heart as a Torn Muscle.”  Here’s a bit about how it came to be:

One hour into a ten-day residency at the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts I pulled my back.  I was trying to move a gigantic desk closer to the window and just as that little voice inside my head was saying, This is a bad idea – you should ask for help, some small junction of nerves and tendons and muscles in my lower back torqued out of their usual groove and left me bent over at a 45-degree angle for two days.  I was barely able to make eye contact with my fellow residents at meals and was supremely grateful to an artist who not only gave me Advil but also drove to a drugstore four miles away to procure a heating pad.  By day three I was better – still sore but fairly upright – and after another 24 hours I was back to my usual self.

I had been sketching an essay about temptation and heartbreak and was thinking of structuring it as a timeline: How long does it take to get over a crush, especially a forbidden one?  What stages does one go through, what milestones does one pass?  Then I started to think about my back and how long it took to heal.  Could a heart heal in the same time span?  After doing some seemingly unrelated, very practical and non-literary research about ice packs and anti-inflammatories, I realized that the heart, too, a muscle.  And much of what I was reading about an actual torn muscle started to feel relevant to treating a metaphorically torn heart.  I took the structure from various medical advice sites and wrote from there.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Millions; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; The Los Angeles Review of Books; Fourth Genre and elsewhere.  She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

What Lucky Looks Like

March 27, 2015 § 25 Comments

Tawni Waters, in a less cranky mood

Tawni Waters, in a less cranky mood

Writer, actor, and rock-n-roll gypsy Tawni Waters unleashes her inner crankiness on one of those boorish men who explain things to “the ladies”:

A few weeks ago, a man approached me at a social event, congratulated me on my recent book sales, then proceeded to tell me how “lucky” I am. He pointed out that there are thousands of talented writers out there, but most of them aren’t as “lucky” as me. His tone was condescending and judgmental, as if I’d won the lottery and was being flippant about poverty.

He was about the zillionth person to say something like this since I got my first book deal. For the record, I’d like to explain what “lucky” looks like if you’re Tawni. I sold my first story when I was 18. I sold my first novel when I was 42. Between the ages of 18 and 42, I wrote constantly. The book I sold was one of five I’d completed. I got rejected literally thousands of times. I went to classes and conferences and retreats regularly to hone my craft. I got a BA in English with and emphasis on creative writing and graduated with an almost perfect GPA. I then got an MFA in fiction writing. I graduated with a 4.0 and distinction. I lived below the poverty line for much of this time because I loved my art form so much, I wasn’t willing to give it up even though it looked like I was a failure. I was embarrassed most of the time when people asked me what I did for a living, because if you are a writer who hasn’t sold books, many people think you’re a slacker no matter how hard you work. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I fought off utter despair and found the courage to keep trying in the face of nearly impossible odds. I met the agent who sold my book at a conference at which I was teaching, which means I’d sold enough short work and won enough awards to get hired to teach at a conference. In short, I sacrificed for many years and worked my ass off so I could get “lucky.” Every other writer I know who has managed to make a career of it has the same story. Very, very few of us are just talented and lucky.

One out of every ten-thousand books written sells to a mainstream publisher, so walking up to a writer who has done this and lecturing her on how “lucky” she is is kinda like walking up to a surgeon and telling him how lucky he is because lots of other people have an interest in science but were never lucky enough to become surgeons. He wasn’t lucky. He worked his ass off. So did I.

The moral of this rant: Next person who gives me a condescending lecture on how lucky I am gets punched in the junk.

Tawni Waters is an writer, actor, teacher, and gypsy.Her first YA novel, Beauty of the Broken, was published by Simon Pulse in 2014 and was named an Exceptional Book of 2015 by the Children’s Book Council. Her first poetry book, Siren Song, was published by Burlesque Press in the same year.  Her work has been seen in myriad magazines, journals, newspapers, and anthologies, including Best Travel Writing 2010 and Bridal Guide Magazine.  She teaches creative writing in Phoenix, Arizona. In her spare time, she talks to angels, humanely evicts spiders from her floorboards, and plays Magdalene to a minor rock god.



Best. Syllabus. Ever.

March 19, 2015 § 6 Comments

tumblr_ngzqkl2VPm1t3i99fo4_1280In a recent residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts (great place, check it out!), our workshop leader had us do a daily exercise from cartoonist Lynda Barry: Divide the paper into four sections, label them Did, Saw, Heard and leave one open for a picture. In each quadrant, note down things we did, saw, and heard – and draw a picture.

It’s an exercise in observation, it’s fun, it’s a good free-write to get started on the page, and after about day three I stopped worrying about the quality of my drawing.

The exercise comes from Lynda Barry’s actual syllabus for her class at the University of Wisconsin, a nonfiction-driven cartooning class. And Barry’s whole syllabus, in more or less the form in which she issued it to her students, is also available as a book. Check out some selections from Syllabus over at Open Culture – maybe there’s an exercise you’d like to do, with or without a class.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. 

Assay 1.2 Shakes the Stick of Brilliance

March 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

A Famous Essayist Shakes a Stick

A Famous Essayist Shakes a Stick

Assay, Karen Babine’s brilliant brainchild, a place to “test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality,” has birthed a second issue, and there is more good material than we can handle in one blog post. Meaning, you should go visit.

In addition to some of the highlights listed below, there’s a fascinating conversation between Paul Gruchow and Brian Turner on what happens when the Modernist essay goes Cubist, a mediation on aliased essayists from the uber-insightful Patrick Madden,  and an interview with the sassy and brilliant essayist Michael Martone. Plus pedagogical discussions, a data bank of syllabi, and more resources than you can shake a stick at.

If you had a stick, that is.

Here are links to some of the main articles, but the whole site is chock-full of valuable resources:

Then and Now: A Study of Time Control in Scott Russell Sanders’ “Under the Influence”
Kelly Harwood

Laces in the Corset: Structures of Poetry and Prose that Bind the Lyric Essay
Diana Wilson

A Taste for Chaos: Creative Nonfiction as Improvisation
Randy Fertel

Why the Worst Trips are the Best: The Comic Travel Travails of Geoffrey Wolff, and Jonathan Franzen
Lynn Z. Bloom

What Lies Beside Gold
Ingrid Sagor

Ego, Trip: On Self-Construction–and Destruction–in Creative Nonfiction
Catherine K. Buni

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