Election 2016: On Experience vs. the Essay

October 19, 2016 § 6 Comments

headshot.pngBy Samantha Tucker

Lately, my only urge is to rant. It may take a decade of psychic distance from this election to accurately essay, to try and understand each experience: the saturated realities of Facebook feeds, the talking heads and the buttons on lapels, the chalk messages on campus. I’m not experiencing this time with any nuance; my emotions roll like sea surges, rising, abrupt, cruel, from miles away, crashing down, unfurling shock and horror though I stayed and waited, long observed the tide gathering strength. It is not so unlike the moments after the news of a loved-one’s death, this build, this unavoidable torrent. You stand through it, or you do not, and hopefully after it resides you can be found on the ground, mostly intact.

I’ll be voting in Ohio this year because I’m currently a student and instructor at The Ohio State University. I’ve kept “The” at the beginning of the school name because 1. I am a creative nonfiction writer and teacher, thus I relish insignificant truths, and 2. It’s not insignificant. That capital “The” is not only an official word in the school name, it also signifies an essential Ohioan-ness, a common, endearing exceptionalism. This is a state full of corn-fed, routine-Americans turned Astronauts; Buckeye Beloveds become National Leaders; everyday voters predicting the future of a nation.

We’ve been discussing essays vs. events in the Intermediate Nonfiction class I teach, though I failed my students as I was mistaken: the phrase is actually essays vs. experiences. I learned this from Stephanie G’Schwind, a dear mentor and friend of mine, the commander-in-chief of Colorado Review. In an article with Essay Daily, Stephanie wrote, “I see this frequently in submissions to Colorado Review: truly interesting things—sometimes amazing things—happening to people, that don’t translate into very interesting essays. As many of us nonfiction editors have said, writers sometimes confuse experience with essay, rather than finding the essay in the experience.” But I’m even farther away, confusing event with experience, and so how far am I from the point of essay? It is not enough to capture, vividly, the moments essential to our lives. We must push farther—how do these moments resonate? In time, place, history? How do experiences add up to self? To community? And can you convince your reader your version must be recorded? I watch the first debate in an indie Columbus theatre with too many people who agree with me. We boo and hiss at the big screen. We cover our eyes with our hands, our shirts, our foaming glasses of beer. It may be difficult to know which one you’re writing, experience or essay, without a certain amount of distance, I tell my students. I call my parents after the debate, and my stepdad is weary, my mother resigned, exhausted. She has been since 30APRIL2008. What denotes an experience? I ask my students. I walk home after the debates, sob in the dark, clutching my phone like a buoy. How do we move from event to experience to essay?

If I gave into lack of nuance and time and distance, I’d stop every passerby and whisper: My brother was killed in Iraq in 2008. His name is Ronnie. I’d put my arm around their shoulder and treat them like an old friend. This experience is not precisely related to your right to vote, I’d tell them, though my mother may promise it is. Don’t you feel sorry for us now? Aren’t you interested in how I’m voting? Shouldn’t my opinion hold more sway than your blowhard uncle using memes incorrectly? Shouldn’t my rage push you farther than your Socialist undergrad roomie from Northwestern, shouting “LIVE BERN OR DIE”? I’d grip them tighter, or pull them face to face, beg their attention rather than their retreating back. Do you know someone looking to publish my tangential Op-Ed? It’s about a series of personal experiences loosely if undeniably linked to current experiences. My brother is dead, I’d remind them. Someone hear my voice.

My students are brilliant. They are intuitive, absurdly-gifted. They speak of the “I” and the “Eye” in essay, they beg for scene when it’s needed, and seek narrative interiority, the writer at the desk, when the detailed showing is weak or inadequate. They dutifully read Tell it Slant and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Eula Biss and Rachel Toliver. They are generous with each other in workshop, in peer feedback, in class discussion. This, above all else: they are generous. I am grateful for these inspiring Ohioans. Generosity is relative to hope. Hope is just the promise of more time.

In June, I went to Kansas City. I scored hundreds of AP exams with several thousand other composition instructors for eight hours a day in a concrete-floored event center. A man sat by me at breakfast. He wore a ball cap and snapped the New York Times. He was a retired prof from a small, private university in California. “You say you’re an essayist?” He seemed astonished. “Well, can you tell me what essay means?” I set down my banana and said, “Yes, I can. Because, as I said, I’m an essayist. It means to try.” This retired prof from a small, private university in California was truly delighted. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, or that’s what I want, right now, to say he did—exclaimed, oh my’d. “No one’s ever known that before! Wonderful! Enjoy your test scoring!” As he sauntered away, all pep in his step, I muse at how many people have experienced his low-key interrogations.

A student of mine keeps deleting her work. She feels embarrassed, like she overshared in one instance, or as if she has nothing important to say. Our nonfiction class is voice-focused, both in considering word choice and cadence and craft-related causalities, but also in “What does one have to offer? How does your perspective inform the world?” I tell my students the personal is political. I tell them the personal, at its best rendered, is universal. They take this to heart; they are desperately generous. I ask my student to stop deleting her work. I ask her to set, what she is unsure of, aside. I ask her to wait. Wait it out, I say. Distance is trying.
Samantha Tucker is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for Guernica, The Toast, Bust Magazine, and has work forthcoming with Ecotone. Tucker’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Hereis ready for a publisher

To Be or Not To Be? Every. Single. Verb.

October 14, 2016 § 21 Comments

zz-gummereBy Rebecca Gummere

To clarify, I am not making an existential argument here. I am talking about the very survival of your darlings – those stories you pour yourself out for, at the keyboard or the typewriter. The ones you spill onto blue-lined notebook paper. You know, your heart on the page.

If your writing goes anything like mine, sometimes you create something that, no matter what you do, insists on lying there pale and wan, devoid of life. You dash water on its face, exhale powerfully into what you hope is its mouth, apply pressure to its heart, and still the danged thing refuses to thrive.

Case in point: I worked and worked for several months on an essay that read as sooooo boringggggg and flat, and it absolutely shouldn’t have, because it was about the amazing pilgrimage I made to Geneva to tour CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, where the God Particle (or Higgs boson) was discovered; where one hundred meters below ground particles hurtle toward each other at 99.999% of the speed of light, colliding and disintegrating into “generations” of other particles that thousands of scientists around the world track and study and then spin into ever more exotic theories about the universe and everything in it.

Really big stuff was happening! Why, then, was my writing so tepid?

I looked at the essay every way I knew, but I could not figure out what I was missing. I cut the pages into sections and taped the whole thing back together in several different forms. I wrote key sections on index cards, then shuffled and dealt them out onto the floor like a round of poker, trying to see if re-visioning the structure could give me a winning hand. I taped the entire essay up on my wall and used highlighters to color code scenes, characters, themes, taking careful notes as if I were a detective at the scene of a crime.

In desperation, I even broke up with it – “That’s it, you ass, we’re done” – only to come crawling back, lovesick and penitent.

But still the essay remained dull and lifeless and did not want to go anywhere. Apparently it just wanted to sit at home in its ratty underwear and never make anything of itself at all.

I finally had to admit, the essay was a bust. All writers know, hard as it is, sometimes you just have to let a thing go.


Then one day, after a long spell of “It’s not me, it’s you” distance, I picked up the piece again, began reading, and noticed something new, namely the embarrassing glut of “to be” verb forms on just the first page. The following pages revealed more of the same. How had I missed that?

Red-faced, I decided to sit down and make a list of every verb in the essay.




A total of 558, to be exact, out of ten pages of nearly 4,300 words. And of those 558 verbs, 112 were some form of “to be.” That means that for around 20% of the action I opted for a static verb that doesn’t really say anything more than something “is.”


I also noticed a number of verbs in the passive voice, a sure action killer, as well as several distancing phrases like “seem to” and “try to” and “began to,” words that elongate the action and invite one’s attention to wander elsewhere (like maybe I should make tacos for dinner, and also I can’t wait to get back to watching the last few episodes of Stranger Things).

Curious to see if the verbs would show the bare bones of the narrative, I read the list of them straight through, out loud, as if I were reading a completed story. I hoped to get a feel for the action, its rise and fall, the intensity and the ebb, where energy surged and where it pulled back. The pulse, if you will.

And guess what? To my surprise, in this big story I was trying to tell, of a trip I had wanted to make for years, that I had felt profound butterflies-in-the-stomach anticipation about, nothing actually happened. Instead I had indulged in a lot of interior pondering, which is really not much help to a reader hungering to be told about the next interesting thing and the important thing after that and the really earthshaking thing that follows, and how the story ends, and how the way it ends makes the reader’s life just a tad more bearable or puts the reader back in touch with necessary feelings long buried, or causes the reader’s heart to leap with a thing very much like delight.

That is when I had to acknowledge the story I had been holding at arm’s length that is about so much more than a trip to a world-class particle physics laboratory where world-changing experiments take place. The story about the big questions I had brought with me, the ones I take everywhere – about meaning and despair, about loss and deep grief, about the pain that lives in my marrow. I had to confess my overuse of the “to be” verb forms as my way of freezing the action, of not going deeper, of avoiding my own struggles with Death – that of my sister, my son, my father, my mother – and Life – my profound loneliness as a sixty-something single woman and my complex emotions with regard to my aging body – and Spirit – the hard, embarrassing truth that I’m a formerly ordained pastor who’s utterly lost her faith but still hungers for evidence of Something or Someone.

I took the easy way, the path of least resistance, and sidestepped the real story that took place so many layers down, where the wounds of loss are still raw and seeping, and where too many doubts rattle their chains in the dark.

I’ve since gone back – not to CERN but to the memory of my journey there – and am now letting the full saga unfold, telling the truth about what collided and what collapsed, and about what hope looks like now. In revision I’ve taken those verbs and pushed the throttle to maximum power. Moving from static to fully accelerated, a brand new thing now churns, boils, sparks, and leaps off the page.


Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Gettysburg Review, Alimentum, Crack the Spine, The Rumpus, and the New South Journal. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is currently at work on a book-length essay collection.

Finish Work: The Twenty-Year Memoir

October 12, 2016 § 31 Comments

By Marc Nieson

nieson - photo.JPGGrowing up, I delivered newspapers after school. Every day, for some ten years. And forty years later, I can still remember the front stoops and names of many of those customers. Some nights I’ll even dream about that paper route.

One spring afternoon, though, stands out above all the rest. I was biking down Jeanette Drive with my usual back rack piled high with Newsday when I came upon a man repairing a customer’s front brick steps. Unable to reach the mailbox, I set the paper down before the garage door, then paused to watch him work—his flicked troweling of cement, his gentle tamping of the bricks, his repositioning of string line . . . the thickness of his wrists, the worn knee pads wrapped round his dungarees. He worked with such precision and control, such utter grace. Not an ounce of fat on any of his movements. I could tell he knew exactly what he was doing, and how to do it. Maybe even the why.

I stood there for a good half hour, just watching him work. And I remember thinking if I could ever do something that well, anything really, I’d be a happy person.


SchoolhouseCover.jpgThis month, I’m publishing my memoir. Or, finally publishing, I should say, since it’s been twenty years in the making. Why so long, you ask? Questions of perfectionism, procrastination? Sure, in part. Admittedly I’m a writer who works and builds things slowly, who lives slowly. In great part, that’s what Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape concerns—a classic coming of age tale about young love and enduring landscapes, about life lessons that came slow-learned and hard-earned. A trail many memoirs traverse. Then again, some of us move slower than others. “Stumbling toward hindsight,” I call it in the book.

Still, 20 years?! How could that be? How does one sustain it?

I could try to claim extenuating circumstances. Other projects that took priority, like earning a wage, raising a child. But all writers contend with such conflicting responsibilities, if we’re lucky. After all, it’s what you build daily in life that truly matters. And, admittedly, I did not toil away at this manuscript day-in day-out for twenty solid years. There were many days when anything seemed easier than the heavy lifting, the utter tedium of showing up at the desk to write again. Many years when anything seemed preferable to facing the material of my life. Many drafts wherein I couldn’t even write the full name of a key character—using an initial was all I could muster.

Still, I stumbled on. Six years into the project I felt it was finished. Next followed the dance of hubris—my partnering with a NYC agent, the flood of publisher submissions, the trickle of rejection letters that were all kind and complimentary, but my memoir (set primarily on a remote Iowa hillside) was too quiet and removed for a wider readership. For a few months I believed that. Why should anyone care about my little schoolhouse story, my belly button lint? Deep inside, however, I knew the issue wasn’t the remoteness of the book’s location, but of its rendering. For a memoir, it wasn’t as forthcoming and vulnerable as it needed to be. It wasn’t done yet. Wasn’t plumb, or true.

And so I set aside the manuscript on a high shelf. For a good decade the box gathered dust. From time to time I’d scribble something on scraps of paper and slip them between its cardboard flaps. Meanwhile, I wrote other tales. Fictions, filmscripts, postcards. I got married and became a parent. I pushed strollers and park swings. Stacked Legos on the floor, words across a page.

And then a funny thing happened. Time moved on. Somehow I was older. Sometimes, all that’s needed is the practice of years. Time, not only for a writer, but for a person to grow into one’s words. To open a box.

The last drafts of Schoolhouse came in their due time. It’s still a quiet book, built brick by brick, I guess. Like Goethe once wrote, “Do not hurry; do not rest.” In retrospect, I suspect the book got done as quickly as it could. I’m fairly pleased with its level of craft, but more so with the solidness of its intents. I feel the story now offers a reader what I’d always hoped it could. Plus, I’m happy it’s found a home with a quiet independent Iowa press, located just down the road from where the schoolhouse once stood. If I could, I’d deliver one to each of your doorsteps.


I have no doubts that bricklayer doesn’t remember me, or that stairway he built on Jeanette Drive. It was just one of many he completed. In the end, it’s the work that matters, not the project. Each row of bricks or sentences, carefully placed. A structure to make true.

Writing, too, is a little like a stairway. Always another plateau to climb. Writing, an ongoing apprenticeship. We scribblers and stumblers, journeymen. And that’s OK. There’s always more work to be done.


Marc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus. His memoir, Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape is just released from Ice Cube Press. He’s won a Raymond Carver Short Story Award, Pushcart Prize nominations, and been noted in Best American Essays. He teaches at Chatham University, edits fiction for The Fourth River, and is at work on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.


On Writing Outside of Academia

September 30, 2016 § 13 Comments


Natalie Schneider Brooks

By Natalie Schneider Brooks

All my writing has taken place within a bubble. It is either trapped in the hard drive of my computer or resides in the piles of essays I have submitted for classes. Apart from a brief foray into the blogosphere during my last two years of high school and part of my freshmen year of college, none of my writing has left the brick walls of my academic institution.

There is something safe about writing for academia. In this protected environment it is like jumping off a cliff with a bungee cord; it may be terrifying but there is always something there to safely pull me back.  At times it feels like writing without consequences. Sure my writing impacts my grade and potentially my future, but I only have to worry about one audience: the instructor. Usually I can gauge what that audience is looking for after a couple of small assignments and predict what I need to include in my work. Combine that with the drafting process and a healthy dose of pestering during office hours and you’re pretty set when it comes to the results of the final project.

In college there is no rejection. Your writing is going to get accepted and read no matter what and as long as you are reasonably competent and put the work in, you can get the results you desire. This is the environment where I first discovered I could write. A freshmen composition class gave me the tools I needed and my first British literature class introduced me to the joys of literary analysis. This summer I was exposed to the world of creative nonfiction for the first time and I rediscovered my childhood love for creating stories. In the classroom, I still have control over my words and I don’t have to worry about setting them loose in the world to fend for themselves.

However, all of that is changing.  I have spent the last five years writing within the walled garden of academia, protected by rubrics and guidelines, inspired by prompts and assignments with a friendly face to guide me through every step of the process. But soon, I will graduate with my masters, step out into the real world, and confront the reality of whether or not I can write outside of classroom.

I sort of tried once. I took an undergraduate class about freelance writing. It was all online and I was expecting the same protected space as my past classes, with no external impacts. This was not the case. Part of our assignment was to write real articles that were going to real publishers. It was one of the most anxiety inducing classes I have taken. In the end, I got a good grade in the class and nothing I submitted got accepted for publication. I could remain safe in my isolated college space and ignore the risks of writing for an expanded audience.

It is ironic that I am so anxious about my own writing since I teach English composition as part of my graduate teaching assistantship. In class, we spend a lot of time focusing on audience and I regularly have to remind my students to keep in mind the hypothetical audience for their papers, attempting to manufacture an artificial representation of the real world they will enter after leaving my class. Many of the students I teach come to college hating writing. They feel bad about their ability and they don’t want to reveal their voices to the outside world for fear of rejections and ridicule. Even though several years and a diploma separate us, I see these same fears echoed in my own thoughts.

As a composition instructor, it is my job to coax students along, helping to grow their writing skills without silencing their individual voice. It is a beautiful sight to see them develop their skills over the course of the semester and some of them truly cultivate a beautiful voice as they write. However, to do that, they have to take that first step. They have to commit themselves to the page and open their identity up to be examined and critiqued. My Master’s program has forced me to do this more than my undergraduate classes did. I have had to challenge myself to do more than just write for the grade; coasting is no longer an option. But after the classes are finished and I walk across the stage at graduation once again, will I be able to push myself on my own? Or will I remain trapped, leaving my love of writing locked behind me once again? At this point I don’t know, but I hope that doesn’t happen. I want to continue along this path as a writer. Maybe simply committing these words to the page is the first step.


Natalie Schneider Brooks is a Master’s Student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha studying Rhetoric and Composition. She works as a Teaching Assistant and in her free time coaches for the MavForensics competitive speech team. She also writes fairly regularly on her personal blog Homeschool Alien.

Superman on the Roof: Michael Martone with Lex Williford

September 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

zz-superman200Here on the Brevity blog, we limit ourselves to the world of nonfiction, except when we don’t. One of the times that we don’t is when we discuss the art of flash, and here one of the masters of that flash prose genre, Michael Martone, discusses the form (as well as tricksterism, academic idiocy, and the Texas state legislature) with his friend Lex Williford, author of the new Rose Metal Press novella-in-flash, Superman on the Roof.

Michael MartoneAre you a follower of Hermes, the thief, as are your flash fictions?  That is to say: Do you regard flash fiction now as a genre or an anti-genre, a genre that resists, by design, generic description?  Hermes could not play the lyre he invented.  What he could do is see the category of dead animal parts—tortoise shell, sheep gut, horns of cattle—and transform them into a category of musical instruments, the lyre.  Is it important that flash fiction have a fixed form or is flash fluid?

Lex Williford: I suppose I’ve been a follower of Hermes at least since 2005, when I met Lewis Hyde at MacDowell Colony.

I’d taught Hyde’s The Gift in several graduate workshops, a book that raised questions I’ve puzzled over for years about gift cultures (like the Trobrian Islanders’) and the place of art in a commodity culture (like ours). So, when I met Hyde at MacDowell, I also bought his new book, Trickster Makes This World, at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, and read it cover to cover.[1]

zz lex.jpg

Lex Williford

The book—about the flip side of gift cultures (givers vs. takers)—is a fascinating treatise on tricksters, who cleverly steal back the power they probably should have never been denied in the first place.[2]

In the chapter “Hermes Slips the Trap,” Hyde writes,

I read the Homeric Hymn as the story of how an outsider penetrates a group, or how marginalized insiders might alter a hierarchy that confines them.  Hermes has a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action.  He knows how to slip the trap of culture. (204). . . . [With] his stealing . . . and other cunning wiles [Hermes] unravels a particular cultural artifice and weaves a new one in its stead. (205)

When I read this quotation about Hermes, the Prince of Thieves, I also think about another quotation—variously attributed to other trickster-thieves like T. S. Elliot, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, et al—which goes something like this:

“Good [or mediocre] [or immature] writers borrow, and great writers steal.”

When students hear this quotation[3], they tend to hear a moral judgment, not the kind of thing Hyde writes about.  Hyde’s concern with gift cultures—the notion that art comes from an impulse to give (or to keep the gift moving) rather than to take or hold on to or grasp or make a profit—runs into serious problems in societies like ours, when a huge chasm exists between those who have power and wealth and those who don’t.

To win, to get one’s power back, the loser must somehow trick the winner (rarely a giver), and in art that trick often involves stealing a form, “a particular cultural artifice,” as Hyde puts it, then unraveling it and weaving a new one to replace it.

In many ways, tricksters are born losers.  When I talk about the history of the short story to my students, I sometimes say that modern and contemporary short stories—and many ancient ones—are about losers who lose big time, characters living on the fringes, the borders, las fronteras, of society; and telling their stories is a kind of corrective to history (always written by the winners) that allows those who have lost their humanity and dignity to have a voice about their losses and in some way take back their power.

Hermes, illegitimate son of that serial philanderer Zeus, is a loser big time, but not for long.  A bastard child, a black sheep, an enfant terrible, he lives in a cave with dear old Mom, Maia, and his prospects aren’t good, but miraculously he turns his theft of Apollo’s (the “good” legitimate half-brother’s) cattle into an advantage that humiliates Zeus in front of all Olympus; then he plays the lyre he created to seduce Apollo.  (Actually, Hermes could play the instrument he’d made. In the Homeric Hymn, he plays beautifully—a liar with a lyre; more important, he plays Apollo with his lies and his lyre, then turns the tables on him, offering the lyre to him in a kind of gift exchange for the cattle he’s already stolen.)

Elsewhere, I’ve compared flash fiction to cherries or cherry bombs,[4] to safety pins or snakes swallowing their tails (tales)[5], to wound-up strings that lead us out of labyrinths, etc., but the metaphors, mythical or otherwise, always fizzle. The form is much more fluid than that, than any other contemporary form that I know of, at least in part because so many tricksters—like Hermes, like you, Michael Martone—use the form to thumb their noses at the “rules” or constraints of traditional fiction.

Flash fiction, at least for me, is an exploration of surprise, reversals in character, power, reader expectations, etc., but anyone who tries to codify the form misses the point.  The creators of the form and the form itself are tricksters, chameleons, shapeshifters, working in a vast valley between the lyric and narrative impulse, and the form has no secret set of rules except those that each writer must invent for each new piece of flash she writes.

If there’s a trick to flash, I suppose, it’s to become a trickster, to outwit the reader, to write about powerlessness, thereby taking one’s power back and giving it to others, but it’s also based upon the writer’s ability to pose impossible questions, worrying something one has stolen and obsessed over, often for years, until the stolen thing finally becomes one’s own, a gift to pass along.

zz mm.jpg

Michael Martone

Michael MartoneAll very interesting but so studious, Lex.  It is curious, isn’t it, that we live and work in this historical moment where many of us who are plying the trickster trade do so in the hyper-critical, genre obsessed, super-sorting machine that is the university or college—in a program within a department within a college within a school within a university.  How does the institution “count” the making of a flash fiction or a prose poem on its annual reports?  I am lucky enough to have an option of “other” on my pull down menu.  But can the work even be “seen” by the critics?  And is it fun to hang out at the crossroads being invisible in plain sight?

Lex Williford: Yeah, give me a tough question and I’ll get studious on you every time.

If we’re required to quantify everything—as the recent obsession with “metrics” at underfunded state universities like UTEP suggests—then I suppose flash writers could argue that we have a slight advantage, at least with the bean counters: We can write a lot of really short stories and count more of them in the vita.  (At UTEP, no kidding, we upload our pubs to something called Digital Measures; I just uploaded my fall semester syllabus there today.  It’s state law!)  When you have legislators who believe god put fossils in the ground to test our faith or think that burning fossil fuels in our cars has nothing to do with global climate change—a hoax!—it’s a bit hard to have a reasonable discussion about something as immeasurable and subjective as quality.  Better to focus on quantity, counting things—at least until the bean counters start counting pages.

Being invisible to state legislators and university administrators is something to aspire to, I think.  I’m a teaching writer and a writing teacher—both gigs equally important to me. As universities have become just one more “beast” of government to starve, pushing us toward the brink of the so-called for-profit university—increasing the price of books and tuition and student loan debt—all we can hope for is to teach something useful, and there’s no more practical skill than writing a clear, readable sentence.

As long as we feed our students with a rich and nourishing fare of words and craft and give them the time to write what burns most brightly in their bellies, we’re not just doing our jobs; as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing our small part to save the world.  Albert Camus writes, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”  That works for me. I can only remain such an idealist because of my students, who, year after year, decade after decade, continue to reveal their miraculous, original gifts.

As for critics: There’s not a stronger argument for the burgeoning and slippery flash fiction form than the hybrid writing being published by Rose Metal Press or Tara Masih’s wonderful new annual, The Best Small Fictions, 2016. I got my copy of the second edition, guest edited by Stuart Dybek, yesterday, and I’ve not been able to put it down.[6]

Michael Martone:: Here is something else to chew on.  I have never liked the category of “experimental” writing.  I like it even less when hooked up with the binary of “traditional” writing.  Often the experimental gets applied to my flash fiction work, another kind of other, I guess.  I am more comfortable with the notion of being a formalist, any form in a storm.  I saw John Barth in a reading once respond to the question, “What are you reading now?” That standard question really is asking what “good” things are you reading now so I can get a shortcut to “good”.  Barth responded by pulling out a cereal box, saying, “I read this this morning.” And then went on to produce letters and postcards; newspapers and magazines; student papers and stories; bills and adverts; freshman compositions; phonebooks; galleys and articles sent to him by his former students; ending with his own finished and published work as well as the writing he had written the day before.  He was saying, of course, that all manner of writing might be ripe for one’s writing.  Would you think about (now that we have destroyed the notion of ‘genre” when applied to flash fiction) the subspecies of the form and its application of all kinds of writing to the pliant template of the form, flash? Or to say it another way—flash fiction might be a corrosive form but is it also a formal chameleon, a voracious form that eats other forms for breakfast cereal?

Lex Williford: The category of “experimental” fiction mostly seems redundant to me. All writing is experimental—thought experiments with words—even “traditional” or “realist” fiction, which can be as innovative and as “experimental” as something more “post-modern.” I mostly ignore any impulse to quantify or categorize, but I do think that flash seems particularly amenable (amoeba-ble?) to “blended” or “hybrid” forms.  I teach a graduate course called the The Prose Poem and Short-Short Story, and when we study the varying, and sometimes contradictory, definitions and examples of both forms, we soon come to consider them as almost interchangeable, prose poems mostly written by poets, flash by fiction writers, even when poets sometimes write the most dramatic stories, and fiction writers the most lyrical.

I had two influential teachers in grad school, James Whitehead (a poet and a novelist) and William Harrison (a novelist, short story and scriptwriter).  They’re both gone now, but back in the mid-eighties, they were the Scylla and Charybdis of the writing program I went to.  Bill—Uncle Bill, we called him—said, “I don’t give a damn about language; just give me story.”  And Jim—we called him Big Jim—said, “I don’t give a damn about story; just give me language.”  Such prescriptions were common in the boot-camp workshops we had in those days, and though I tend toward a descriptive kind of critique in my own workshops, thanks to you, Michael Martone, I do think that trying to make both Jim and Bill happy on some level—they were both on my thesis committee—was an interesting experiment in finding a balance between the lyric and dramatic sensibilities.

To put it another way, some flash writers see the form as an intellectual experiment—like trying to solve a new kind of Rubik’s Cube of their own invention—while others see the form as experiments in earning emotion.  I’ve tried both, but for me writing is mostly about the latter: feeling along the edges of an intangible obsession in the dark until I can see its shape more clearly, then working hard to earn similar emotions for readers, who each may see a shape different from the one I saw, bringing the contents of their own inner lives to a completely different reading of the same story.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to write flash, only the way each of us can write it, some of it amoebic, swallowing and absorbing other forms, some of it corrosive, breaking the forms down into their component parts, then reconstructing something altogether new, a pastiche or a collage, like a story by Donald Barthelme. The point is, after all, to ring a bell in the reader’s head, right?

I’ll never forget the night you and I had dinner with John Barth at the Cypress Inn in Tuscaloosa, or the reading he gave later, bringing out a hotel clerk’s bell and ringing it whenever he’d reached a footnote in his fiction (some footnotes longer on the page than the actual story).  Who’d ever think of putting a footnote into a short story?  Dude, our students would say, can you even do that?  Of course!  Why the hell not?  David Foster Wallace certainly did in Infinite Jest; so did Junot Díaz in the Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, and it wouldn’t surprise me if reading Barth had given each of them—and you, Michael, since you were his student—all the permission they needed to do exactly what they wanted to do in the first place.

What was it Barth said that night, looking out over the Black Warrior River, just as it was reaching flood stage?  “Digress aggressively”?  Or was that you, Michael?

Tricksters, all of us, stealing each other’s stuff, always causing trouble.

[1] Hyde was as generous as his books: He gave me a signed British edition of The Gift and bought me a double-dip ice cream cone at our favorite nearby dessert spot in Keene, New Hampshire, the Piazza Ice Cream Parlor—two-hundred flavors of ice cream!  An August afternoon, eating ice cream and talking about tricksters.

[2] As he discusses Hermes’ thievery and cunning, Hyde also uses excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to illustrate Douglass’s “thievery” of literacy—and literature—from those who had enslaved him, using it as a gift to free himself and others.

[3] Clearly a plagiarized—or stolen—quotation since so many have claimed to say it first.

[4] https://medium.com/the-coil/cherries-or-cherry-bombs-balancing-risk-and-understatement-in-flash-fiction-lex-williford-9c26f4071a79#.4v7as3hxq

[5] “For the Tale to End . . .” Writers Ask, Glimmer Train Stories, Issue 73, 2016: 19.

[6] For readers: There’s a Michael Martone story in the anthology.  Read it.


Lex Williford, winner of the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Flash Fiction Chapbook Award for Superman on the Roof, has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University, the University of Alabama and the University of Missouri, St. Louis. His book, Macauley’s Thumb, was co-winner of the 1993 Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Literary Review, Fiction, Glimmer Train Stories, Hayen’s Ferry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Laurel Review, Natural Bridge, The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market 2002, Poets & Writers, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Smokelong Quarterly, Southern Review, Sou’wester, StoryQuarterly, Tameme, Virginia Quarterly Review and have been widely anthologized. Coeditor, with Michael Martone, of the popular Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, now in its second edition, and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction, he is the founding director of the online MFA program and the current chair of the on-campus bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Michael Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Little else is known of his life.

On Choosing How to Read

September 21, 2016 § 6 Comments

Brevity‘s editorial intern, Hannah Koerner, reflects on her summer in Brooklyn working for an indie publisher and other ways that ‘reading for work’ influences how she reads:


Hannah Koerner

A month ago I grabbed bagels with a friend somewhere just outside Central Park. He’d been working as a copy editor on a Buzzfeed-like website for about a year and writing on the side, rereading Moby Dick for something like the tenth time and finishing off the oeuvres of authors like Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante.

I assumed he was still trying to break into publishing, which was the initial vague goal he entered the city with and which I vaguely planned to follow.

By then I’d spent two months wading through fiction manuscripts and nonfiction proposals, crafting rejection letters and entering author corrections; I was in the middle of a summer internship with an indie press in Brooklyn. Having moved to the city with my own formidable pile of to-be-read Ferrantes and Junot Diazs and Maggie Nelsons, I found myself instead balancing printed manuscripts on my morning commute, making progress through the press’s thicket of submissions and acquainting myself with its back catalogue.

A lot of times it’s a matter of tone, not just quality, one of the editors had told me. So I read that press’s books and figured out what I needed to look for: a political slant, a surrealist twist, nonfiction just the exact degree of unexpected enough.

“Nah, I’m staying out of publishing. I figure I only have time to read so many books. And I want them to be the best things the English language has done,” my friend said over bagels.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, that working with literature means choosing what you want to read. But that often gets overlooked. It also means choosing how and why you want to read.

Moving from a university press to a literary magazine to an indie publisher has meant playing something like a prolonged game of dress up with my reading. To give it a professorial jacket and glasses for fact-checking detail, then stripping it down and tossing over a pared-down dress for grabbing rhythm in poetry: both of these different from the deep sea diving required for writing papers on Joyce, or the cozy lounge attire of cracking open a new young adult title.

Working at a book publisher meant reading with an eye to contemporary trends and questions and needs. To read for a readership, which is not the same as reading for beauty. Which only rarely means reading to discover the next great canonical name of my time.

I like to relax into my reading. I like to take it out on a low commitment date and see what happens, to play with whatever catches my eye about it. I think this lends itself to publishing; I am, after all, a contemporary reader. Being interested in why books interest me is useful.

But this is something I never thought to think of when I began college as an English undergraduate looking towards the publishing industry as a vague monolith on which to pin twin hopes of working with books and being able to pay rent. In weighing an MFA, or buckling down into Woolf for a PhD, or publishing, I never quite realized until that conversation with my friend that if I chose one and stuck with it, the act of reading—the activity that shaped my imagination and my free time since I first walked out of a kindergarten classroom knowing this letter meant this sound—will take a more definite, less malleable, shape. And that might be the most important thing to consider if you think you might want to read for a living: to decide with intention why and how you would like to do that reading.

Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!

Three Commandments for Writing About Race

September 14, 2016 § 3 Comments


Xu Xi

A Craft Essay by Xu Xi 許素細 to accompany our Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization: 

Race, unlike a monotheistic god, no longer has a singular ancestry. There are those who like to think it still has, but that paradigm shifted centuries ago.  Thus the first biblical commandment, about a god liberating people from bondage can apply to freedom from a singular notion of race, and, by extension, to writing about race, freeing yourself from the “problem” of race.

There’s a race problem we need to write about and it goes something like this: I’m better than you because I’m the superior race, regardless of how I live.  C.Y. Lee 黎錦揚 forgot about race (and even his natural language Chinese) when he first showed up in the U.S. in 1943 as an aspiring playwright.  When no one would stage his play with Chinese characters, he heeded advice to try a novel and wrote The Flower Drum Song, about people in San Francisco’s Chinatown, turning life as he witnessed it into art.  His book is funny, ironic, heartbreaking.  His early success with mainstream America did not endear him to perceived anti-Orientalist sentiments in subsequent years.  But in today’s global, hybrid world, Lee’s stories of Chinese life in the U.S., about people living a separate racial reality who somehow survived, endures.

So here’s my first commandment:

Stop writing about race and write about how people live instead.

By contrast, the multi-racial, transnational existence of many centers around race, which in the U.S. pings against religious and national identities. The third biblical commandment tells believers not to take their supreme deity’s name in vain.  When it comes to race, however, just what is supreme?  As a teenager, I loved The Supremes’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” because it pinged against the notion of barriers.

It’s simplistic to muddle race with religion and nation, even if muddled detractors insist on supreme deification.  Neela Vaswani’s memoir, You Have Given Me A Country, sublimates all three into a center through what a reviewer describes as her “big hearted” approach.  We are increasingly products of multiplicity arising from the racial muddle that is our world.  Vaswani particularizes her background of an Irish-Catholic mother and Sindhi-Indian father in a cross-genre memoir that is historical, factual, metaphorical.  My favorite sentence that opens the book — “I pledge allegiance to the in between.”

Which brings me to my second commandment:

In writing about race, never take the truth in vain.

And finally, the question of false witness against neighbors.  In writing creative nonfiction about race, we who care most about race are both observer and witness.  The human condition of the 21st century has made uneasy neighbors of many races who are still learning to speak to each other.  Writing about race is uncomfortable, especially if what we have to say about our “neighbors” is ugly, not pretty.  Yet if we don’t, we do a great disservice to our art.

Let’s consider a writer who crossed borders and wrote about another uncomfortable subject, sex.  In 1953, Vladimir Nabokov completed Lolita, his first English language novel.  He had difficulty publishing it, was even advised to use a pseudonym which he, happily, decided against.  One editor suggested he turn “Lolita into a twelve-year old lad” to be “seduced by Humbert, a farmer” and to write this in “short, strong, ‘realistic’ sentences (‘We all act crazy . . . I guess God acts crazy’)!

In his essay “On A Book Titled Lolita,” Nabokov says it took him “some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe” and that writing this novel was “the task of inventing America.”  But the story is also about a pedophile, a reason the book met resistance.  “My creature Humbert,” says Nabokov, “is a foreigner and an anarchist, and there are many things, besides nymphets, in which I disagree with him.”  Yet this did not prevent him from fully inhabiting Humbert’s skin.

“That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true.  But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions.”

Nabokov would not compromise, which is why Lolita remains one of the more important, perennially controversial, canonical works of literature.

My third and final commandment:

Never, ever bear false witness against yourself in what you observe of race, regardless.



Xu Xi  許素細 is author of ten books, most recently the novels That Man In Our Lives and Habit of a Foreign Sky, a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize; the story collection Access Thirteen Tales.  She has also edited four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English.


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