Only So Much Air: A Flash Metaphor

January 16, 2015 § 4 Comments

BalloonAs we count down to Brevity‘s upcoming January 2015 issue, here’s a brilliant new metaphor for flash prose from Brevity contributor Jill Talbot:

Think of the flash essay like a balloon.  At the essay’s first line, that balloon begins to deflate and there’s only so much air, so we read with that movement, follow the elastic energy of escaping air until it runs out.

The air should move in one whooshing direction so that we feel the push down the page.

The flash can only hold so much—too many people crowd it, too much complexity weighs it down—and we’re left with that sad, half-inflated balloon limping along the floor. And if we alter the direction with a distraction, the balloon reverses its momentum and re-inflates. Too much air and the balloon pops, and we’re startled from our suspension.

[Experimental flash essayists let their deflating balloons go—creating a frenzy of zigzag, a mid-air dance of defiance.]

In the collapse—the last line—we want to be left with the echo of sudden air.


Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.

Jill Talbot on the Pleasure of Syntax

December 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is not only one of Brevity‘s favorite essayists but she is lately making her mark as one of our most astute essayists on the essay, helping reveal the inner working of what we do and how we do it well.  Her latest effort, in The Essay Review, studies syntax at ground level, reminding us that the art is in the sentences.

“When I am reading an essay infused with lyrical, lilting, and elongated syntax, I get lost in the wonder, the wander through the language as if I’ve stepped through the door of an unfamiliar house, and I move from room to room, not understanding how I got there or why this room opens to this other one, and I forget to worry where I am or where the door is that will lead me out,” she writes, illustrating her sentence-level wanderings with fascinating examples from Maggie Nelson, Bernard Cooper, Dagoberto Gilb, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and a host of other authors (including some Brevity essays we are proud of, from Meg Rains, Ander Monson, Roxane Gay, Brenda Miller, and Steven Church.)

You should read Talbot’s essay most definitely, and probably, really, the whole issue.

Facts Don’t Get in the Way of the Truth

December 8, 2014 § 11 Comments

A guest post from Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

As someone who writes nonfiction exclusively, it’s no surprise that my favorite movie genre is the documentary. Give me a two-hour film about anyone, anything, from anytime, and I’m mesmerized. For several years now, I’ve taught an introductory mass media class in which I show one documentary a week. Even after the 20th or so viewing, Bowling for Columbine and The Tillman Story captivate me just like they did the first time I watched them.

My love of the actual extends to the documentary’s close relative, the docudrama. We still get a true story, but with the plot, narrative arc, scene, and character development found in fictional films.

Sound familiar? Creative nonfiction writers are also told to use those foundations of classic storytelling. The docudrama is the filmic equivalent of creative nonfiction. What can docudrama directors tell creative nonfiction writers about crafting stories from the true? Filmmakers who work exclusively with true stories continually find ways to explore the boundaries of the actual.

I was reminded of this while reading a Q&A in the Minneapolis StarTribune with Bennett Miller, the director of films such as Capote, Moneyball, and the critically acclaimed new movie, Foxcatcher. Reading the Q&A makes the parallels between writing and directing nonfiction apparent. How Miller works with the facts to make a film is a good reminder for the nonfiction writer. There’s what we see, and then there’s what’s hidden behind that public front. Miller uses his films to discover what’s hidden, just as we nonfiction writers should do in our essays and books.

Miller tells the StarTribune’s film reviewer Colin Covert how he approaches a film: “… looking and wondering what is the public face and what is the private truth and what might be guarded in the moment. … And so taking a story that’s real affords you the opportunity to make discoveries that are beyond what we might make in ordinary life.”

Covert poses questions perennially asked of creative nonfiction writers: But what about the facts? Do the facts ever get in the way of telling a true story? The unasked question here might as well be: Are you ever tempted to make up things in order to tell a better story?

I wish I could have thought of Bennett’s response: “Sometimes the facts can get in the way of telling a good story. But they don’t get in the way of the truth.”

Bennett further discerns the difference between facts and truth. He describes facts as the foundation from which the story arises. He says he doesn’t consider his films biographies; he prefers the term “portraits.” As such, he’s not concerned with documenting the entirety of a person’s life. Instead he’s more interested in “aspects of a person, aspects of a story.”

The interview couldn’t have been published at a better time for me. I banged out a first draft of a biography (er, I mean, portrait) over the summer. The draft is mostly a compilation of facts just so I could get a clear sense of important events and the timeline of my subject’s life. But now that I have all these facts, I have to figure out how to craft the narrative.

Using Bennett’s perspective is helpful. What truth comes from the facts? What story emerges from between the lines of known events? What’s the metaphor? Bennett says he’s interested in the allegorical. “…it’s especially interesting when you can find a story that has truths that when unearthed yield new insights into something that becomes allegorical.”

Reading well-crafted nonfiction always provides me a muse and has been known to help me emerge from writer’s block. But Bennett’s interview inspires me to take more breaks to watch his films and others like them. When I’m nestled into a movie theater seat to watch Foxcatcher, I won’t feel the least bit guilty. I’m working.

Read Covert’s entire Q&A here.


Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for children. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughteris her first book for adults.

About Getting Good: The Many Paths to Literary Mastery

December 7, 2014 § 10 Comments

A guest post from Melissa Frederick:

It has never been easier to get published (many authors do so themselves), while it has never been harder to have your work read, and even more, to make a living off of what you write. ~ E. Stephens, “The Vanishing Apprenticeship

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

I’ve been thinking a lot about Allison K. Williams’s blog post from Monday. I know the frustration she describes, the Torment of the Unknown Writer, floundering in a sea of publication options, rejections, and fellow writers armed with little or no guidance on how to navigate toward a successful career. In my darker hours, I do a lot of bewailing: about my outsider status, my long hours of effort for little return, my willingness to do whatever it takes for someone to notice me, and my bewilderment when the Powers that Be continue to ignore me while they usher dozens of authors through the Gates of Literary Greatness. The hell? I mutter to myself. Why not me?

I’ve also been thinking about the essay on Medium, written by E. Stevens, that has caused Williams so much concern—the one that bewails dwindling career opportunities in journalism, a field in which a single editor can provide direct feedback to young writers and give them a salary in the process. Sounds like a good system, doesn’t it? Earn money to get successful. Who wouldn’t want that?

Well, me for starters. Apprenticeship was a system originally structured to benefit society’s most privileged members. During the Italian Renaissance, which Stevens touches on in his argument, artistic apprenticeships produced uber-masters like Michelangelo and da Vinci. But what else did the Renaissance produce? How about societies in which only prosperous, urban white men and a few scattered white women from wealthy families learned to read? And what kind of writers might be chosen in a modern form of the apprenticeship system? Stevens’s essay gives us a clue. Throughout the piece, he mentions 38 authors and artists by name. Several are cited in a long block quote from one of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures in the 1910s. Only three of the artists and authors mentioned are women. (Four, if Quiller-Couch is talking about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and five, if he’s talking about Christina Rosetti. Which he almost certainly isn’t.) In addition, the only person on the list who comes close to being non-white is Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges, although his family was largely descended from European immigrants, and he himself spent a good chunk of his youth traveling through Europe. Would readers today want to invest in a system that supported such a narrow, elite demographic group?

The truth is, there are many paths to literary mastery, and often those paths are as painstaking as they are idiosyncratic. Borges is an interesting example. In an article from the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín discusses the publication of Borges’s first book of fiction, which he began writing while working at a daily newspaper. His book, A Universal History of Infamy, sold only 37 copies in a year. According to Tóibín, Borges didn’t care: he “had placed himself in what was for him a fortunate position of having no world to describe, except an invented one, and no audience to speak of, allowing him the luxury to address his fictions to one or two of his friends.” A couple of years later, Borges lost his job.

Like it or not, we writers have to accept that the only way to get good at writing is to write and share that writing with others. If the only space we have to hone our skills is a blog, so be it. (Don’t forget that Stevens published his critique of self-publishing on Medium, a mass incarnation of the blog.) Why do we care so much about gatekeepers telling us we’re not good enough, anyway? Do we really need a corporation giving us money to validate our talent, when many of our greatest writers worked as maids, airline reservation clerks, and ad copywriters? What is literary fame except a vast, uncontrollable, century-spanning social media network? Or is our obsession with success (like bewailing) just another trick we use to avoid doing the grueling work of getting good?


Melissa Frederick is a writer and blogger from suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including the Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, The Cream City Review, Kalliope, Strange Horizons, Frogpond, SmokeLong Quarterly, and the Mid-American Review and is forthcoming in Helen: A Literary Magazine. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @msficklereader.


Brenda Miller’s “Ordinary Shoes” Video

November 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

Brenda Miller, author of the graceful “Ordinary Shoes” in the Fall 2014 issue of Brevity, has transformed her work into a video essay as well.  Fans of Brenda’s work, or of roller rinks, or of beautiful writing, can view it here:

Ordinary Shoes from Brenda Miller on Vimeo.

On Dropping Babies and Mistaken Assumptions

November 12, 2014 § 2 Comments


Renée E. D’Aoust

In the “My Favorite Essay to Teach” section of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Renée D’Aoust explains why she loves introducing students to J.D. Schraffenberger’s “Dropping Babies” from Brevity 39.  Yes, we’re biased.  Still, it’s a great discussion of teaching a controversial essay and how mistaken assumptions can interfere with close reading.  Here’s an excerpt followed by a link to Assay:

I love teaching J.D. Schraffenberger’s “Dropping Babies” because it thrills me to receive reading response papers that insist Schraffenberger should be arrested. Immediately. Often half the students insist that “the authorities” should be called: the students are concerned, stating, “The mother is crazy.” I interpret “the authorities” to be some kind of nebulous parental enforcement panel, though a few students do name Child Protective Services as the agency to phone. These students miss what I consider deeply nuanced honesty in the essay. To my relief, the other half of students attest to how Schraffenberger’s reflection resonates, recognizing those times when we are all questionable. One student wrote that she had “done this, too” while another wrote, “Schraffenberger is human. I wish I had those words when I was frustrated with my baby at three a.m.”

Read Renée D’Aoust full essay at Assay.


Don’t Be Brave

November 3, 2014 § 18 Comments

self-confidenceWe’ve all been at that reading. The one where our fellow memoirist clears her throat, steps to the podium, and shares with us the graphic details of her sex life. Or molestation. Or domestic abuse.

We’ve all cringed that cringe. We’ve all felt I’m so sorry this happened to you, but maybe a roomful of strangers about to go eat dubious cheese cubes together is not the place. We’ve all thought, Can’t I just read this in your book, you know…later? We’ve all walked up after the reading and said, “Wow, that was so brave!”

And sometimes we’ve been that author. Possibly oblivious, possibly aware that suddenly the room has gone quiet in a not-good way and only our workshop leader is making supportive, professional eye contact.

But sometimes, that’s the piece you’ve gotta read.

So how can an author approach “difficult material” in a public reading, in a way that engenders applause and a wine-fueled craft discussion instead of people hugging you and offering their therapist’s number? Because “You were so brave!” is nice, but “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!” is better.

1) Make sure your piece deals with drama in the moment and not just drama of situation. The Holocaust is drama of situation. It was terrible, sane people agree. The Diary of Anne Frank is about a group of people who don’t like each other very much trying to live in a small space, plus something horrible outside makes them keep doing it. Pick an essay or section that shows an action or a choice, not just the existence of a terrible situation.

2) Even if your piece is very sad, try to include a moment of humor. It can be black humor or wry humor or cynical humor, but even a single reasonably-funny sentence lets the audience breathe and reminds them that you’re in charge, you’ve processed  this experience, you’ve crafted it into words and you can handle it.

3) Practice your intro along with your reading. Don’t thank everyone or you’ve effectively un-thanked the people you didn’t mention. Stay calm and positive in your intro to give the message, Don’t worry, I’ve got this.

4) Drill your reading until it’s a performance. Deliver it with power, with confidence, with eye contact. A vocally-weak or teary reading feels like a therapeutic confession. A strong reading–even with glistening eyes–ushers the listeners through your experience and surprises them on the other side with passion, joy, tragedy or enlightenment. Plan where to breathe and mark those places on your page. If you know there are parts where you choke up or tear up, plan to breathe right before them. If necessary, arrange with another writer in the audience that they will nod reassuringly when you look at them, for a mid-reading confidence boost.

5) End with power, not self-erasure. Choose a stopping point that shows your character making a choice or having taken an action that will lead (the listener hopes) to a positive outcome. Smile and say thank-you. Leave the audience with the message, I survived this and a lot more, to be here today–isn’t that amazing?

Writing our trauma can indeed be cathartic. Crafting our trauma lets us share it with strangers. And performing it with confidence and purpose helps us own it.

Don’t be ‘brave.’

Be amazing.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and a ruthless marketer of her own personal trauma.

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