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

Try This at Home: Tips to Starting Your Own Reading Series

March 3, 2015 § 7 Comments

A guest post by V. Hansmann:

V. Hansman

V. Hansmann

Vladimir Nabokov suggests a writer’s imagination transforms him into a storyteller, a teacher, or an enchanter and the best practitioners embody all three. One element the three roles share is in the speaking. Reading in front of people can feel onerous at best and potentially fatal at worst. Performance anxiety is the iceberg tip.

At every MFA residency I claimed my four minutes at the Student Readings and we held some impromptu readings in the common rooms of the dorms, but nothing prepared me for the concentrated attention aimed at me by my peers.

I kinda liked it. It didn’t feel so bad to have an audience, to display the ideas I had painstakingly assembled. To communicate directly. When could I do it again? What if I took this feeling on the road? How about a reading series in my hometown, New York City? In Greenwich Village? In a smoky basement bar?

I graduated in June of 2011 and in late August, I hosted the first of what has become a monthly series at the Cornelia Street Café. There are no cigarettes. I miss that, because the basement room at Cornelia Street truly is a throwback to the days when the Village was the Village.

I started the reading series with no experience, but I’m a middle-aged guy with the commensurate amount of common sense. Here are some points you would be well served to consider if you wish to start your own reading series.

This is not a step-by-step guide.

  • Suss out the spoken word scene in your neighborhood, town, or city
  • Investigate promising venues – online, in person, word-of-mouth
  • Address these questions –

1)  Where would you draw your readers from?

2)  How much are you willing to put into the effort? Time, Money, Goodwill

3)  What frequency? Monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, random

4)  Format – How much time will the venue give you? How much is useable? For example, if you have a two-hour slot, only ninety minutes of that may be useable, between waiting for stragglers and allowing time for the next event to load in. How many readers? For example: Featured Reader & three readers with unequal time, or four / five readers with the same allotment?

5)  Perhaps most important – Am I temperamentally suited to this?

  • If you’re an MFA grad and the answer to #1 is your alma mater, then/li>

1) Consider students, graduates, faculty, staff, and friends as potential readers

2) Plot out a Zone your readers can get to and fro easily (without an overnight)

3) Ask the program for a list of students/graduates within that radius

  • Useful Zone Lists for curating purposes

-MFA Master List: You build this from the list the program sends and student directories

-MFA Genre List & MFA Class List: You build these from the first list

  •  Promotion

-Introduce yourself and the project to your MFA Master List

-Send regular upcoming reading announcements to this list

-Email blast – MFAs in Zone, un-MFA writers in Zone

-FaceBook – make a page

-Poets &Writers online Calendar

-Personal or series website

-Connect with the powers that be at the MFA program

-Pursue any free event listing anywhere

-Include a reference to reading series in your bio

  •   The Reading Itself

-Start time – ten minutes after posted start

-Printed program and/or oral intros – your choice

-Break after the first three readers – length up to host

-After-party – your choice

-Death by conviviality

-Good for book signing

 Exemplum Gratis

This month’s reading had been lined up for ages. Then, not that long ago, a fellow grad wrote me, saying in effect – I’m flying in and would love read on the 23rd of February. What could I say but ‘yes’? Now, I would have to shoehorn an additional fifteen minutes into the format. Ack. I fretted. Experience has taught me that evenings tend to run short and not long. So, based on that assessment, I procrastinated. One solution might be to fix – “Hey, listen, everybody needs to lose five minutes from the piece they’ll be reading.” Another might be to simply wait – And this morning, one of the other readers withdrew, restoring equilibrium to the evening.

The lesson, I guess, is to trust in the cosmos. Husbanding my equanimity has been my greatest resource in this cat-herding enterprise.
V. Hansmann was raised in suburban New Jersey; growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. His publishing credits consist of an anecdote in the The New York Times, essays in The Common online, BLOOM, Post Road, and Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10, as well as poems in Structo and Subtropics.

Other People’s Secrets: An Interview with Kerry Cohen

February 26, 2015 § 4 Comments

Paul Zakrzewski interviews Kerry Cohen:

Kerry Cohen

Kerry Cohen

For memoirists, no challenge feels quite as fraught as publishing work that touches on the lives of others. Successful memoirists appear to write honestly about friends, family members, spouses, lovers, others—but how do they do it, exactly?

Where’s the line between my story and that of family members I may choose to write about? Do I have a right to ‘other people’s secrets’—to use Patricia Hampl’s famous formulation? When should that stop me from publishing?

These are just of the questions explored in Kerry Cohen’s  terrific and thought-provoking book, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity (Writer’s Digest Books). A longtime fan of her memoir Loose Girl, I used the excuse of Kerry’s new book to ask lots of questions about how and why our writing has the potential to set other people off—and when we have the right to ignore that.

Kerry is also psychotherapist and the author of two other books Dirty Little Secrets and Seeing Ezra.

The topic of how to navigate the pitfalls of disclosure in publishing memoirs has been covered before. There’s not only Patricia Hampl’s excellent essay, but also resources like Sari Botton’s “Writers Braver Than Me” interview series at The Rumpus, or Slate’s Memoir Week roundup. Why a book-length treatment?

Because it continued to be the number one question for most of the people who came to see me read or for the people I taught. It was the thing they were most curious about, surely because they were most curious about it for themselves.

You named a couple of works, but they aren’t as accessible as needed. What I wanted to do is what so many people would love to have the opportunity to do, which is to sit in a room and listen to a whole bunch of memoirists answer that question as they did.

There’s such a range of responses in your book—everything from those by authors like Alison Bechdel, who acknowledges that “there’s something inherently hostile” in writing about others, to Sue William Silverman, who says it isn’t the task of the memoirist to worry about protecting others. “I firmly believe in my right to tell my own narrative, which is exactly what I did,” writes Silverman.

Yeah, it’s quite a range.

truth memWere you expecting that when you began the book?

I didn’t know what to expect when I started. Part of why I wrote this is because I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed in my introduction: is the art more important than the feelings of people I care about?

I’ve always felt like, well, yes it is, because the art is not for me. It’s not some narcissistic act. It’s about being human, about all of us connecting as humans and feeling seen. Memoir does such a positive thing for its reader, so it did feel more important. Also, I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I think that’s the main thing I got out of doing this book. If you’re not trying to hurt anyone – and you work your best to not hurt anyone, but to also tell your truth – then that’s really the answer.

What rules do you think memoirists should follow in terms of showing their work? Should you show your memoir to people involved in manuscript form? Wait for galleys or an advanced reader’s copy?

One of the things I learned in writing the book is that there are no hard and fast rules. I do think there’s a basic rule in this case, which is that it’s really not a good idea to show anybody that you’re writing about in the book until it’s done. At least done in draft form.

I mean, memoir is a story of your memories, not the other person’s. So it’s important to get it down the way you remember it. Then, if you decide to share it with people who had a different experience, then they can argue or grapple with how they’re portrayed. Or maybe make a few changes.

In my case, it’s a little different. Not to sound conceited, but I’m an experienced memoirist, so I really feel solid when I’m writing. (That said, every memoir is a completely new challenge, especially around form. But that’s a whole separate issue).

looseHere’s a case where I broke my own rule. My husband is a writer, so I share a lot of my work with him the way I would in a writer’s group. We share writing a lot as we’re working. In my current memoir I did share a chapter about him that’s potentially incriminating, and he told me that he didn’t like it. It made him feel really awkward that other people would be reading about this thing. Also, my agent told me the section had too much about our relationship and not enough about what the memoir’s about.

In the end, I took out almost all of that material, and it’s better because of that. Now it’s much more about me in relationship to the thing I’m writing about.

I want to ask you a bit about the format of your book. You’ve interspersed your own reflections with many, many quotes and over 20 stand-alone short essays by other writers on their experiences. There are even assignments/questions you give out. How did you arrive at this format?

Well, like any book one writes, or any creative process, I learned along the way. I sold it on proposal. All I had at that point were chapters based on the different types of people one might write about (i.e. “Writing about Family” or “Writing about Children”) and that I was going to interview as many memoirists as I could.

I didn’t know that I was going to have a chapter on ‘what memoir is’ (“Are You Ready to Write a Memoir?”). That didn’t really work in the original chapter, and then I realized it should be expanded upon because it’s a really important question when writing about other people.

Some of it was that I had some back and forth with my editor at Writer’s Digest. Some of it we just brainstormed together. I came up with this idea of having other memoirists write actual essays. My hope had been that the book wouldn’t all be in my voice by having various interviews. Then I thought, what if we have a whole bunch of specific stories? That’s how I came up with the idea for the essays. Same thing with the exercises.

I liked those writing exercises! Have you heard back from anyone else who’s tried them?

I used the book in one of my MFA classes at The Red Earth Low Residency program in Oklahoma City. It was amazing what came of it. I had everyone do the first exercise in the entire book. (See Below). Then I gave them a second exercise, which was to find the chapter in the book that spoke to the kind of memoir they’re writing and pick an exercise from that chapter.

The most meaningful example—I don’t want to say too much because it was private and [this student] may write a book about it. But this one student picked an exercise from the “Writing About Spouses, Friends, and Exes” chapter.

He wrote a scene about a woman who he had been in love with 17 years earlier and who had died of leukemia. He was in love with her while she was dying. After she died he met his wife and got married. He wrote about the first time they had sex—actually just the part where they got back to his apartment and they both knew what was going to happen. She tells him, “We don’t need birth control because the chemo kills everything.” It was incredible—so good. I mean, everyone was crying. He wound up with this amazing scene.

#          #          #

Kerry Cohen Exercises

  1. Why do you want to write a memoir? Include your personal, interpersonal, and any larger societal motivations for your writing.
  2. Write down your top concerns about your memoir. What are you fears? How might you and others benefit from your memoir?
  3. Make a list of memories and events that you think are vital to your story. What makes each of these memories and events important to you and your narrative?
  4. What aspects of your story do you think would resonate with others? Is there a larger social dialogue or universal experience that your memoir would be a part of?

—from Chapter 1, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity. Copyright © 2014 by Kerry Cohen.


Paul Zakrzewski is a writer and teacher based in Santa Barbara, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at







Stop Looking for Validation

February 10, 2015 § 21 Comments

ski-1A guest post from Eliana Osborn:

In fourth grade at Sand Lake Elementary School, I wrote an essay for a contest.  I won.  My prize was a month of ski lessons plus equipment rental at a resort an hour away.  I’d ride an early morning bus on Saturdays, sharing the bench seat with an older girl who’d let me listen to her Bon Jovi tape on her Walkman.  It was the only bright spot on freezing, dark Alaska winter days.

The next year I entered the same contest, confident I could refine my downhill technique.  The principal called me into her office for a chat.  I was certain I’d won again.  Instead she suggested it wasn’t really fair if I got the prize a second time.

That early boost of confidence planted the idea of success deep in my mind. I inscribed all my paperbacks with “Eliana the Great” in shaky cursive letters.  I sat with my fellow literary dreamer friend Annemarie in a tree fort behind her home.  We’d talk of the dedications we’d put at the front of our novels.

In ninth grade I entered and won another essay contest.  I put little thought into school writing assignments, always getting A’s, and dashed off the ones for college applications.  These stories of hiring someone to write for you, people who stressed about the AP English test, made no sense to me at all.


The real life standard for writing is far different from the k-12 one.  I worked all semester in ENG 292, Intro to Creative Writing, on pieces that won acclaim from teacher and fellow students.  So I was shocked when my prized essay, one from the heart that had been through many drafts, didn’t even place in a university contest.

I shut down my creative side then, spending the next ten years writing only the facts with no adornment.  Boring, dry, well organized professional pieces that were functional but unfulfilling.

In 2008, with one small child and a new embryo growing in my belly, I got a call from a national magazine.  The winner of a contest couldn’t go through with her assignment—a travel piece by a reader.  Was I interested as their second choice?  I didn’t notice the implicit rejection, just said yes, and jumped at the opportunity.

My first draft about a trip to Louisiana with my best friend was completely amateur.  When the editor sent the kindest possible email requesting revisions, I was embarrassed and devastated.  How could I have thought I could possibly do this?  Clearly I had no talent, was nothing more than a wannabe hack.


I did my best to improve, stressing myself out.  I tried to muster enough confidence to pitch other magazines but my efforts were frantic rather than well thought out.  Over the next year I did progress, using my postpartum depression to fuel the non-mom part of my brain.  Assignments came, few and far between, but enough to keep me on the path.

I stopped writing commercially again after agreeing with an editor that a large story should be killed.  Her criticism broke me.  I couldn’t imagine being able to get the piece where she wanted it so I gave up, closing off a major doorway forever.

I hated myself for thinking I could do this writing thing, commercial or literary.  I’d place a few pieces in journals by then but decided to stop submitting anything anywhere.

I cut back on rejection of course but I still wasn’t happy.  Not until I kept writing, just not sending out my work.  I stopped looking for validation, for the gold star of approval from a stranger.

That of course is how I finally found my voice.

Eliana Osborn is a writer, English professor, wife and mother living in the desert.  Commercially she writes mostly about family and education issues.  You can follow her @ElianaOEliana if you wish.


Arrrrrgggh! I’ve Forgotten How to Write

February 6, 2015 § 5 Comments

sonyaFrom the brilliant and funny Sonya Huber:

Setting the Bar Low

I haven’t been able to write lately due to disrupted mornings, which has thrown me off and made me rusty. I have spoken and written about the hour-a-day writing routine, and I want to admit here in the privacy of the Internet that the bar is super low for that hour. Here’s a chronicle of real writing as it just happened:


8:30 reply to 2 urgent emails.

8:31: Oh my god this morning pissed me off so much. The battle with my son over his iPod. The freaking diabetic cat. The illnesses. The …whatever. Arrrrrgggh. I haven’t had time to write in days and I think I have forgotten how. Arrrrrrgggghghg.

8:32: Send an essay to be read by one of my writing groups. Stare at my folder of stuff in progress and nothing looks interesting. Resign myself to starting this document. Hating everything including writing.

8:34: Move two folders from “in progress” to published to clean up a bit. Then move one more. Then add a pub to the file of my list of publications.

Read the whole post (and the full hour of writing time) here.

A Review of Daniel Menaker’s My Mistake

January 31, 2015 § 1 Comment

A guest review from Emilie Haertsch:

Z_mistakePerhaps it’s the ideal pairing of human characteristic and profession: the anxiety-ridden who becomes editor. In My Mistake, former New Yorker fiction editor and Random House’s executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker explores the life that led him to become one of the country’s most reputable editors. The book’s title is a sly reference to the editor’s plight, constantly combing for errors. Here an anxious mind comes in handy. Like Menaker, I work as a writer and editor and wrestle with anxiety. I, too, have found that the very fears that plague me evolve into superpowers when it comes to editing. The need to repeatedly review a draft for the tiniest error and the desire to bring a piece to perfection might not be healthy—or what some people might say is obsessive—in the end leads to better prose.

In some ways, Menaker credits his generalized anxiety disorder to his success at the New Yorker, where he began as a fact checker. “It’s no wonder that with Valium always on my person and the need to lose myself in something that would take my mind off this dread, I throw my energy into fact-checking so violently,” Menaker writes. Working furiously—he called himself a “demon Fact Checker”—calmed and focused him, and as a result of his efforts, he received in just a few years a sought-after promotion to copy editor.

His success at coping with his anxiety, aided by the many years of therapy, is revealed in his ability to now reflect on his life without editing out his “mistakes.” He looks upon them wryly and writes from the point of view of acceptance—mistakes and all. However, always the editor, he cannot refrain from pointing them out—often humorously. He writes of an incident involving formidable New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford at a party: “I go to remove what I think is a piece of thread from Mr. Botsford’s lapel. My mistake. I’m right—it is thread, red thread—but somebody deflects my hand, thank God, and tells me that that thread is the insignia of France’s Legion of Honor.”

Menaker is surrounded by true characters, not just at the New Yorker, but elsewhere in his life. He sometimes writes as if he’s only as interesting as the list of people he’s known, which includes famous and unfamiliar individuals. Menaker pays tribute to his Uncle Enge (“rhymes with mange”), a Marxist square dance caller who owned a camp in Massachusetts; William Maxwell, his elegant mentor at the New Yorker; and his older brother Mike, a father figure who died tragically young during a routine surgery to fix an injury for which Menaker himself felt responsible. At times, like a Dickens protagonist, Menaker allows this supporting cast to command the reader’s attention. But Menaker is such a good editor—and writer—that the subtlety of his style characterizes him more beautifully than if he had simply focused on himself.

If Menaker had not spent decades at the New Yorker, and could not illuminate the inner workings of that fascinating office, his memoir would still resonate. Yes, it is riveting reading about William Shawn’s peculiarities as the New Yorker’s long-standing editor (he abhors the words “gadget” and “teddy”), or what Truman Capote sounds like on the phone (“just tell him Twuman called”), or the Random House decision to keep the author of Primary Colors anonymous. (Menaker advocated for this outcome.) But Menaker’s writing is most striking in his brief frankness about his struggles: his secret feeling throughout his editorial career that he is a fraud; his guilt about his brother’s death; and his struggles with mental health.

Menaker’s literary career is the way into his writing. The details he includes about the behind-the-scenes life of the publishing world are incredibly compelling—and funny. But Menaker’s thoughtful, subtle prose about his life, including the many mistakes for which prompted this title, is the true meat of the story. As a man in his later years and in remission from cancer, he reflects honestly about his complex history with critical distance. And despite the vivaciousness of the many characters—people and publications alike—who grace this book, Menaker is the one worth knowing.


Emilie Haertsch works as a writer and editor in the Philadelphia region. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, and her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Apiary, Raleigh Quarterly, and WBUR Public Radio.


On the Art and Craft of Literary Nonfiction

January 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

hairskirtOur newest issue of Brevity, released just last week, features four fresh craft essays, and we wanted to bring them to your attention.

If you haven’t visited our Craft section lately, you should.  We have a rich resource of craft pieces from past issues, plus the quartet of newcomers:

  • Brenda Miller writes on creating a “shared space” between reader and writer,
  • Nancy Geyer examines how Lydia Davis’ language wonderfully mimics her subject matter,
  • Dylan Landis argues for allowing the reader to construct the emotional response in fiction and memoir,
  • and Katlyn Stechschulte discusses useful (and not so useful) workshop critiques.

Drop on by.

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