The Lovely Bones: Structure In Memoir

October 29, 2015 § 17 Comments

A Halloween-themed blog post from Janice Gary:

GHOSTSYou could say I’m a ghostwriter. All memoirists are. We commune with the spirits of the past, inhabit old haunts, sift through the bones of the people we once were (and once knew) in an attempt to reanimate what was and illuminate what is.

Our ghosts are real. Or at least as real as we remember them. One thing we cannot do is make stuff up. And we don’t need to. We have more than enough material to conjure life on the page. But that’s part of the problem. What do you do with it all – all that experience, all that emotion?  What spooks those of us who write from life the most is this dilemma: how to wrangle this vast, unwieldy life of ours into a well-shaped story.

Fiction writers have the old tried and true (and yes, trite) basic plot triangle to turn to for structure. Conflict leads to a crisis/climax point which forces the protagonist to confront something (either themselves or a foe). The outcome of this changes everything and leads to resolution.

While narrative nonfiction writers can borrow from fiction and use some of the same techniques, the very nature of the material we are working with dictates we approach storytelling in a different way. Fiction writers start with nothing and create a world. Memoirists start with an entire universe that already exists. We are more like sculptors than painters, relying on the advice of Michelangelo, who supposedly said he made the statue of David by taking away everything in the stone that was not David. We create story by carving and cutting to the bone.

Janice Gary

Janice Gary

That means deciding who and what we want to pull out of the block of stone. When I sit down to tell a story, I have to ask, whose story is it — the child who longed to be accepted? The young woman who stood up to her fears? And what is the heart, the very essence of the story I want to tell? The answer to that question leads to structure.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Just a slight shift in the emotional center of a story can influence not only the “how” (order, time, chapters, sections) but the “what” (the scenes, the dialogue, the people, the experiences) that will become the bones of the narrative.

I suggest my students answer the question “What is it about?” at least five times and keep asking it until they understand their core theme. There can be many answers to this question – and many things a story is about –but it’s essential to identify the overriding theme at the center of the story that connects everything.

Once we have a sense of this core, we start to impose limits, a backdrop for the play to play out against. We inhabit so many worlds in a lifetime. For the purposes of structure, we need to ask which one of these worlds contains the most dramatic instances of conflict and crisis, moments that would make good storytelling – and even more importantly, still call to be unpacked, laid out end to end and examined.

A good place to start is time and setting. Deciding on a fixed time or place does not mean you cannot write outside of that time or place. What is does do is provide an anchor for flashing forward and back. This is important because a memoir needs a structure that will support time travel. We live our days wandering back and forth between past, present and future. Life does not unfold in a neat triangle of conflict, climax and resolution but is more like a ragged ridge made of many triangles, with some crisis/climax points not occurring until years after the inciting incident. The challenge of memoir is to shape the fluid nature of existence.

We start by understanding what story out of the many stories of our life we want to tell. Then we assemble the skeleton, working outward from the spine, the very core of what our story is about. As the hip bone connects to the thigh bone, the connective tissue of memory and meaning begins to form. And the story takes shape.

Janice Gary is the author of the award-winning book Short Leash: a Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance. She teaches nonfiction for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Arts Program and conducts memoir workshops around the country.

Truth and Lies and the Heart of a Bull

October 7, 2015 § 6 Comments

Samantha Tucker

Samantha Tucker

A guest post from Samantha Tucker:

Though I am only eight I know instinctively my grandpa is full of shit. I am a logical child, and I devour Nancy Drew and Goosebumps and write my own stories about Big Foot, but I pride myself on knowing when something isn’t real, is made up, no matter my visceral desire to accept the bizarre as truth.

I am curious but cautious, and when my grandpa tells me, “Sam—I saw a man rip a bull’s heart out,” I want to ask: Does the bull fall over? What does the matador do with the heart? What movie have you stolen this from, Grandpa? Why do I imagine the matador takes a bite out of it, the blood dribbling down his chin like juice from the reddest apple?

Like juice from the reddest apple.

The way he tells it, he is there in the arena, so close he’s nearly the matador himself. The embroidered jacket hangs heavy on his shoulders, the beads glittering, swinging like pendulums at each nimble flick, swish, of the capote, the marooned matador cloak; his shoulders reach like monuments, the thickness of the fabric accentuating his swagger, his dance around the arena and out of reach of the snorting bull. The arena and the bull breathe as one, deep panting breaths moving in, out, a steady swelling tide of air, of need, of hunger.

But the matador does not breathe. He has stopped breathing. He waits. The bull scrapes the mud off his hoof, a threat, a promise, the ultimate truth, and charges the man, this jowled, scowling, matador-by-extension, sitting across the kitchen table from me. Just as the horns reach him, he drops to one knee and thrusts his gathered fingers, his clawed fist, right into the bull’s chest. Now the crowd, the bull, they stop breathing, and it’s the matador who is panting, all white rage and triumph as he rips the bull’s heart out and raises it, dripping, to the sky—a new red sun.

Except, of course, that’s not the way he tells it—the way he told it. My Grandpa grew up poor on the streets of Pittsburgh, was bald for as long as I knew him, and may have never been to Spain. He was loud and ungracious, a ruddy Vietnam vet sporting a Pin-up tattoo on his forearm, an incessant talker, so much so that my grandmother began talking to herself to maintain sanity, her dam against his relentless stream of chatter. He was blunt in demeanor, but sharp in mind—smart and well-read, always reaching past his working class life with gruff, appropriated ideas (often prejudiced, always grandiose), holding court at his kitchen table, pontificating over his weary, loyal family. A bull’s heart, he insists.

But he’s not the only one bullshitting. The new red sun, the flick, swish—my words stand in for his, add shine, the story all mine now. My version of his version of whatever it was—tall-tale, embellished truth, outright lie, lifted from some book or movie. My version is embellished, too. He never described what the matador wore, did he? What if the beads were just glittering fabric? Did he even mention a crowd? What if the arena was empty because the townsfolk turned their backs on the aging bullfighter, because they refuse to see their legend undone?

Perhaps the last metaphor was a step too far. But was it his doing, or mine?

“Now, Sam, in my day the bullfighting wasn’t protested by all these tree-hugging, liberal crybabies. This was a sport. I’m telling you now—raised hand for emphasis—this bull was big. He had these horns! And that bullfighter was just waiting for him to charge, just moving around and waiting for him to charge. And I tell you what, when that bull charged, the man fell to one knee and he thrust his hand in and pulled that heart right out. Like this—raised fist with fingers bunched together in a single point—and just reached in and pulled that heart right out. Put it in the air so we could all see.” He laid his hand flat on the table then, patted the table once, to emphasize the end of the story and the validity of it, too.

This, the trick of storytelling, of inheriting and recording family histories—uncovering where the emphasis lies. I mean both lies and lies, both untruths and where the intentions land in finality. I could spend too much of time sorting the reasons my grandpa claimed stories that may have not been his. The kind of hard-scrabble life he led was more pained than adventurous—is it so wrong he made his life anew? Magicked so many fictions into biography?

He told many stories, most of them repeated, but I am near certain he only told us about the bull’s heart once, at the kitchen table, with the sun coming through the flowered curtains, my grandma bustling from the oven to the sink to the fridge, my siblings and I sneaking incredulous glances. Told just once, but this is the story endured.

And what of my own need to record and add a final flourish? Did you notice that change in verb tense, the desperate, italicized told? Grandpa died in March 2014. I’ve lost the chance to interrogate him about the bull’s heart. I don’t know that I would, anyway. At his end, the biggest, loudest man I ever knew shrunk. His stomach flattened, and he got so damn quiet. Our last Christmas together, not long before his first stroke, he stood, his stomach still rounded over his spindly, eighty-year-old legs, and bellowed a polka song over the shreds of wrapping paper: “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun! Roll out the barrel! We’ve got the blues on the run!” We rolled our eyes as one, our family. Grandpa was a hard man to love, a man full of difficult love. He was telling us this was his last Christmas; he was antagonizing us. We didn’t correct him, though he dared us to. It turned out he’d been telling the truth all along.
Samantha Tucker is a Colorado native. She currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. Roxane Gay recently chose two of Sam’s essays to be among the first published on The Butter. Sam has also written for Guernica, has work forthcoming with Ecotone, and she recently graduated from the nonfiction MA program at Colorado State University. Sam’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is ready for a publisher.

How to Cure Writer’s Block in Two Simple Steps

September 28, 2015 § 10 Comments

Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

A post from Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg:

I was coming down from a year of successes, and every time someone asked me “how’s the book coming along?” I felt like a failure. What had my minor successes gotten me?

Writer’s block.

I’m a single mom, and most parents have the “hunger”—that urgency that precipitates twelve a.m. writing sessions and random, text-free, MS Word documents titled “Essay about Ghosts in Astoria, Oregon” that are then saved in a folder labeled “Ideas” and never opened again. The hunger is good. The hungrier the mom, the more she’ll write. Hungry=output.

But my hunger had been eclipsed by fatigue. In addition to solo parenting, I work a lot, which I wrote about here.

In August, I went to a writer’s retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico that was sponsored by the A Room of Her Own Foundation. I was the recipient of their Courage Fellowship, which is awarded to a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault, and AROHO’s generosity put me in the same place as 119 other women. My Meyer’s Brigg score has me at 51% extroversion and 49% introversion. This means that I’m the type of person who hides in her room for the first couple of days, then is dancing topless around a bonfire by the end. On the second day of the retreat, I texted my best friend “I’m not having the worst time of my life, but close.” By the end of the third evening, I was blissfully sitting in the middle of a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way and asking the heavens what I needed to know for my future.

Yes, my conversion was that quick.

Although I abandoned organized religion years ago, my first job was in a bookstore that had a little, stone fountain tinkling on the countertop, Tibetan wind chimes, and an entire section dedicated to natural healing. When I graduated high school, the women I worked with gave me a set of Runes, and twenty years later, those Runes still sit in a bowl in my living room next to a bundle of sage. I have a history of appropriating religions that I don’t fully understand, so was I using this labyrinth correctly? Probably not, but I’m no stranger to sitting in nature and asking the heavens to speak to me (I spend my summers working in the wilderness for the US Forest Service), and although the heavens have never responded, my subconscious is pretty good at piping up with something adequate.

This night, my subconscious said to me, “Kelly, you have to know that your value is more than whether or not you’re in a relationship.” Actually, my subconscious was simply repeating what my therapist had said to me a few days earlier (she’s good!), but I hadn’t been able to hear her then because I hadn’t yet had the quiet in my life to listen.

Those words were important to me as a person because I’m a survivor of domestic violence, but those words were important to me as a writer because I finally knew how my memoir needs to end. As much as I want it, my memoir doesn’t end with Ryan Gosling moving into the house next to mine, working shirtless on a barn that he’s converting into an art studio, then holding a boom box up outside my bedroom window and saying, “Hey girl, how about I turn this studio for one into a studio for two?”

Realizing how my memoir needs to end (with me alone, yay!) was the first step towards getting over my writer’s block, but there was another step; I also took a master class with Joy Castro where she gave us writing prompts. I didn’t think I needed writing prompts; I mean, I was already ¾ of the way done with my memoir. Then she gave me the prompt that finally broke through my block.  She said, “Write about the most hurtful thing that anyone has ever said to you.”

Immediately, one sentence stuck out. It was my father saying “I just don’t know what to believe” in the days after I left my ex-husband. I wrote that sentence down, and as I surreptitiously brushed away tears because I refused to be that woman who had come undone in workshop, I realized I couldn’t write my memoir without writing that sentence. It’s not easy writing about family, and I’ve avoided it, but if I want to write this book, I have no other choice.

As Joy might say, I have to write what scares me the most.

When I returned from the retreat, I talked to my agent, and to her great relief, I told her that my block had been rooted in my inability to write about my parents. She was sympathetic, but all she said was, “I could have told you that. Now let’s get to work.”

And we have.


So here are the two easy steps to getting over writer’s block:

  1. Sit in a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way.
  2. Take a master class with Joy Castro.

If those options aren’t available to you, I have two more:

  1. Find some time for quiet in your life.
  2. Write what scares you the most.


Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a PhD student at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.

How Many Drafts Must a Writer Draft?

September 21, 2015 § 29 Comments

I'm pretty sure you're supposed to be writing right now.

I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to be writing right now.

How many drafts must a writer draft

Before you call it a book?

How many times must you read the text

Before your editor looks?

Yes, how many times should it be revised

To get a reader hooked?

The answer my friend is seven.


Last week I was invited to speak to Wrimo India, a group of participants in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) who formed their own writing support group on Facebook and also do in-person meet-ups to write, talk writing, and write some more.

We met at a coffee shop in Mumbai and live-streamed the chat through Periscope so non-local writers could join in and ask questions. One of the best questions, though, was after the camera was turned off:

How many drafts do I need to write before hiring an editor?

First, let’s deconstruct. Not everybody needs an editor, so let’s look at this question as:

What kind of shape does my book need to be in before I spend money or use up favors to get outside feedback?

Many writers finishing a book for the first time don’t yet have a method of working their way through subsequent drafts. Where do you start? How can you tell what needs fixing? How do you know if the book is even worth another draft?

As a freelance editor, I see a lot of the same issues in everyone’s essays, stories, memoirs and novels. Technical issues like wrongly formatted or too many dialogue tags. Voice issues like inconsistent speech or characters who sound the same. Point-of-view issues like head-hopping or characters being able to see or understand things they don’t have access to. As an editor, I can note these issues for authors who want to fix them, or address them myself for authors who want to throw money. But most of these issues can be found and reworked by the author before they spend money on professional editing or use up a “please give me feedback on my manuscript” favor. It’s time-consuming and thinking-intensive, but it’s not a secret or a talent–it’s a skill anyone willing to go through seven drafts can acquire.

Here’s the seven-draft method:

The Vomit Draft: get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled right. Don’t worry about complete sentences because. Sure there’s a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, and in the second-last chapter you realized you really do have to put Aunt Nancy in this book. Just finish. If you hit a place where you don’t know what to write, put in a placeholder like “NEED SCENE WITH MOM HERE SOMETHING HUMOROUS,” or write about the scene that belongs there, like “That time I was in the kitchen and Steve touched the stove and I just knew we were going to break up because of the way his fist wrapped around the salt shaker.” Then let the manuscript sit for a week.

The Story Draft: take a look at the manuscript, and for each scene write one sentence about what happens in that scene.

While driving home from a wedding, I find a stray dog.

I take the dog home and keep her over my girlfriend’s objections.

My girlfriend demands I choose between her and the dog.

I go get a haircut.

During this process, you’ll discover any places that the plot doesn’t make sense, is missing a big event, has a random extra scene (why the haircut?) needs another character to show up, etc. This is also the time to fill in any placeholders from the first draft. Revise the manuscript accordingly and let it sit for a week.

The Character Draft: For each character, go through the book and read only their parts. If this is a memoir, this is the time to make sure the protagonist’s actions and reactions seem motivated and urgent. Make sure the characters only know what’s in their heads and only see what they can actually see. For example, four-year-old child-you can’t see the top of the kitchen counter. Adult-you can guess at other people’s thoughts but not omnisciently know them. This is also a chance to go through the dialogue, character by character, making sure that each person sounds like themselves, and that it would be pretty clear who is speaking even without dialogue tags. If you’re writing fiction, you may discover that a character needs more on-page time in the book. Revise, let sit.

The Technical Draft: Working chapter-by-chapter, does each chapter end with both satisfaction and forward motion? Does each chapter start with a compelling action or image? With each scene, have you gotten in as late as you can and still set the scene, and have you ended the scene as early as you can and still have it feel complete? Are there extra words? Sentences that don’t make sense? Refine your authorial voice in this draft. By now you should know what you want to say–this draft is about how to say it. It’s also useful at this stage to do a search-and-find for -ly and remove unnecessary adverbs; to eliminate as many “was verbing” constructions as you can, and check on words you know you overuse. Revise, let sit.

The Personal Copyedit: Not to be confused with an actual copyedit, this is an easy draft. Run spellcheck with the grammar turned on. Print out the manuscript and see what shows up when you’re turning a physical page. Read it out loud and catch errors that your eyes got used to on the screen. This is the be-kind-to-your-reader draft. Yes, it’s still a work in progress, but you want it to be a pleasant experience for the next step…

The Friend Read: Sometimes called a beta read. This is where you exchange manuscripts with a writer pal, or call in favors from the people who keep offering to read your book. It’s best to arm your friend with some specific questions: Did the story make sense? Where did your attention flag? Which character do you want to see more of? Was anything distracting from the main story? When you get their comments back, try to get them in writing, even if that’s you taking notes while they talk. Do not defend your book. Do not assume they missed something. Set the notes aside for a couple of days and then go back and see what rings true when your feelings have cooled down. Revise accordingly.

The Editor Read: This still doesn’t have to mean forking out cash. This can be the first time you send it to your agent, if you’re working with an agent. This can be exchanging manuscripts with someone you know to be harsher or more technically-demanding than the previous reader. And yes, it can also mean hiring a professional editor or writing coach. But this is the draft where it’s worth either spending money or calling in a big favor (and you’ve been reading for other people as much as you can this whole time, right?) Before you send it out, read it one more time yourself. Knowing that a big read is imminent, more issues will stick out to you.

These seven drafts are often more than one draft each. You might do three Story Drafts, or two rounds of Friend Reading. Some drafts take days, some take weeks or months. You might backtrack and revisit the Technical Draft after doing an on-paper Personal Copyedit. Let it sit for as long as you need to between drafts. And for at least a couple of drafts, print it out, edit the manuscript on sloppy, satisfying paper, and retype the whole thing so you can feel the flow.

I’ve found this method to work for everything from essays to full-length memoirs and novels. If you try it, let me know how it goes. And if you’ve got a different method or a variation, please tell us about it in the comments.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to watch the 25-minute Periscope video, we also talk about writing books set in cultures foreign to your own, common technical mistakes, how every book is a mystery, and what to do if your book gets banned. (We get started about 2 minutes in, and please note this was extemporaneous, taped on a phone, and in a coffee shop.)

On Travel Writing: Kevin Oderman and the “Trance of Culture”

September 14, 2015 § 3 Comments

Kevin Oderman’s book of literary travel essays, Cannot Stay: Essays on Travel, is a lyrical and meditative examination of place, culture, individuality, and community. Brevity Managing Editor Kelly Sundberg sat down with Oderman to talk about his travel essays, life abroad, and how travel both expands and contains his world.

Kelly Sundberg: You’re an essayist, but you’ve also published novels, as well as literary criticism. I’m always curious about people who switch back and forth between genres. I wonder if your writing in other genres informs or influences your literary essays?

Kevin Oderman

Kevin Oderman

Kevin Oderman: I don’t think so, not much, anyway. If anything, the influence has been in the other direction. I haven’t written literary criticism recently, but the criticism I wrote back then was already leaning towards the essay. I gave up on criticism not from lack of interest but because I found the language of criticism literally nauseating. I couldn’t read it, I didn’t want to write it. I began to grind my teeth. One day I realized I was done.

That said, most of my criticism addressed modern and objectivist poetry, and my interest in poetry profoundly influenced my practice in the essay. It trained my ear. It schooled me in structural strategies. And, in Cannot Stay, you’ll notice modern poets get a few quotations and allusions.

KS: What about your novels White Vespa and Going, which, like Cannot Stay, are about life abroad?

KO: Living abroad, traveling, both experiences simplify our lives. At home, the web of our social life, work life, of our responsibilities, even our amusements and pleasures, all conspire to complicate our experience. However good the life, it distracts us. Traveling we (can) leave much of that distraction behind. In the simpler world of traveling, experiences come to us one at a time. So they register more clearly. And there is more time to mull, to consider the kind of surprising connections that, for me at least, often lead to an essay or a story.  Occasionally even to a poem. I get back to first questions, questions about how meaning is made and sustained.

Oddly enough, perhaps, something similar happens in writing about travel or the expat life.  Much of the clutter of living disappears; it’s easier for me to arrive at clarity and, I probably shouldn’t say, to approach mystery.

KS: Many of these essays take place in non-Western countries. I’m always nervous to represent countries outside of my own experience. As an American writer, I worry about perceiving other cultures through an Imperialist lens, but you skillfully avoid that pitfall. How do you manage the balance between observer and participant?

KO: Well, not going to be possible for me, or you, to avoid being an American traveler, and traveling I’m reminded that I am American far more than at home, when it often slips my mind. But I don’t travel to judge other cultures; I’m there to learn, always to learn. And, frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine feeling superior about being American. Our culture, our popular culture at least, seems to have just floated away from the actual experience of living. I often think of what James Agee called, in his “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” “the mean goodness” of our living, as an expression of the very things we’re in danger of forgetting. It’s easier for me to recall such things traveling in cultures richer in “mean goodness” than our own.

KS: How would you define the word travel? What do you want your readers to take away from this book in regards to how they view travel?

Cannot_Stay_CoverKO: Travel can mean many things, many of them good, admirable. I hope in writing about how I travel I haven’t denigrated any of those good ways, anyone else’s good reason for going.  Which acknowledges, I guess, that not everyone travels for an admirable reason, as anyone knows who has seen a Western man, often an old man like me, with a local girl on his arm.

That said, I don’t think of travel as vacation. I feel vacant enough without taking a vacation. I travel hoping to get further in, to find in the world and myself a common humanity. I travel to awaken from the trance of our culture, the trance that leads us to assume that our ways are the ways. To travel is to know, to feel, that our ways are our ways and that’s all. I consider it a good trip if I suffer as much “culture shock” coming home as going.

And I travel for beauty, to be undone by beauty. Just for the oh of it. To be always alert would be to see beauty everywhere, I suppose, but, fallen as we are, the beauty that is always there is just more available traveling. And I want it.

What do I hope readers will take away from Cannot Stay? Encouragement.

KS: As much as Cannot Stay is a book about travel, it is also a book about home, and even on a more micro level, about the body as a kind of home that we carry with us at all times. I love the lines,

 “And I like to think that it’s as a metaphor for our life together that a field of fireflies appeals to us, a starry night, the twinkling of city lights out the window on a long flight home. What we feel then, I think, is nostalgia, not for a home lost, but for a living world.”

You’re also a solo traveler in many of these essays, yet there is always a sense of community, and of a search for community. I’m having a difficult time formulating an actual question here, but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on these subjects.

KO: Often, most often, my wife declines to travel. We have had good trips together but she generally prefers home to what for her is the anxiety of traveling, and if she’s not going, I prefer to travel alone. Traveling with a partner or a friend, though it’s counterintuitive, is often isolating. To attend to your companion you attend less to the world you’re traveling through, to the people you meet, and, just by being there, your companion fulfills social needs that would otherwise push you to make contact in what is to you a strange world, to find if not community what you have in common with people who might seem, at first, very different from the people you left behind at home. We all thrive and suffer. Easy to know this intellectually, but good to feel it down to the bone.

KS: What’s next? Writing project? Life? Travel?

KO: Although I’m still traveling, I don’t seem to be writing about it. Perhaps I’m only on hiatus and will one day return to travel writing, but recently, and slowly, I’ve been finding my way into what for me is a new kind of essay, meditative, quietly lyric, incorporating images (for instance, “Not Sleeping, Yet” in Green Mountains Review. And for years I’ve felt a swelling in my imagination that I hope will prove to be a novel and not an aneurysm. Do we ever really know where life is taking us?


Kevin Oderman‘s first literary book was a collection of essays, How Things Fit Together (winner of a Bakeless Prize in nonfiction). Subsequently, he published an expatriate novel, Going, set in Granada, and a second expatriate novel, White Vespa, set on the Greek island of Symi. Twice he has lived abroad as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught Modern American Poetry as a Senior Lecturer at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and then American literature to M.A. students at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a Professor of English at West Virginia University. Cannot Stay collects essays on travel written over the last fifteen years.

Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.


David Foster Wallace’s CNF Syllabus

September 4, 2015 § 2 Comments

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

Also a noted bandana-wearer.

Ah, David Foster Wallace. The teacher we either wish desperately we had or are heartily thankful we didn’t. And a kickass syllabus writer, too.  For instance:

…the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.

Check out the whole thing–and wonder what grade you might have gotten on the scale of “Mind-blowingly good” to “Downright bad”–over at Salon.

Oh Canada! More on the Origins of CNF

September 1, 2015 § 3 Comments

canadaBrevity editor Dinty W. Moore thought he was pretty clever when he traced the origins of the term “creative nonfiction” all the way back to 1969, but William Bradley and Christian Exoo are not only equally clever, they also (Exoo is a librarian, Bradley is just real smart) are better researchers, so they’ve traced the term all the way back to 1944 and wait for it: Canada.

You can and should read the nitty-gritty details over at the Creative Nonfiction site, but stay tuned.  We suspect someone is going to come along any day now and trace the term back to Ancient Greece.



Where Am I?

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