Exploring the Possibilities of Artificial Intelligence in Creative Nonfiction Writing

February 1, 2023 § 32 Comments

A Q&A WITH OPENAI’S CHATGPT

By Andrea A. Firth

Discussion of OpenAI’s artificial intelligence program, ChatGPT, and its impact on writing, editing, and teaching has been creating quite a buzz. Brevity Blog editor Andrea A. Firth recently had a virtual conversation with ChatGPT about how creative nonfiction writers might use AI.

The conversation has been condensed, because ChatGPT has a penchant for repetition and tends to go on a bit.

Andrea A. Firth: First, thanks for the help with the title for this post. How do you prefer to be addressed?

ChatGPT: You’re welcome! As a language model, I don’t have personal preferences or feelings. You can simply refer to me as “ChatGPT” or “the model.”

AAF: Ok let’s put you to work. Describe a personal story by a creative nonfiction writer named Andrea that can be used to write an essay for Brevity Blog.

ChatGPT: The essay, entitled “The Art of Losing,” explores Andrea’s experience of losing her mother to cancer and how writing helped her process her grief. Andrea had always been hesitant to write about such a personal and painful topic, but she found that using ChatGPT made the process less intimidating. The essay’s atmosphere is one of sadness and loss, but also one of hope and healing.

AAF: Interesting. My mother didn’t die of cancer but peacefully in her sleep at 81. Do you think it’s important for creative nonfiction to be true?

ChatGPT: As a language model, I do not have personal experiences or beliefs. However, it is generally considered important for creative nonfiction to be truthful and accurate.

AAF: OK, got it. You don’t have preferences, feelings, beliefs or experiences. Writers often get asked about their writing process. Where they like to write, what time of day, with a computer or longhand. Can you describe your process?

ChatGPT: I am always ready to generate text when prompted. The process of generating text with me involves inputting a prompt, which can be a sentence or a set of sentences, into my system and I will generate text based on the patterns and associations [I] learned during training.

AAF: What metaphor can be used for the idea of a writer using AI to draft an essay?

ChatGPT: One metaphor is that of a chef using a recipe. A chef uses a recipe as a guide to create a dish but may make adjustments or additions based on their own preferences and creativity. Similarly, a writer may use AI as a tool to assist with the drafting of an essay but may make adjustments and additions based on their own ideas and writing style.

AAF: Mmmm, that feels like a stretch but let’s keep going. What are the advantages and disadvantages to using AI to write an essay? Please present this as a list.

ChatGPT: Advantages: Efficiency. Unique and Diverse Content. Assistance with the creative process. Exploration of new storytelling forms.

Disadvantages: Lack of originality. Lack of creativity. Transparency and Attribution. Quality. Ethical Concerns.

AAF: Is it unethical to use AI to write a creative work?

ChatGPT: Some argue that using AI to write a creative work is unethical because it is not an original and authentic creation of a human. Others argue that using AI as a tool to aid in the creative process is not unethical, as long as the work is properly attributed and the use of AI is transparent. It’s important to be aware of the ethical implications of using AI-generated text, such as the potential for bias, and to be transparent about the limitations of the model and how the data it was trained on might affect the generated text.

AAF: How will AI impact the future of creative nonfiction?

ChatGPT: It could bring new opportunities for innovation and efficiency but also ethical concerns. It will depend on how it is used and the context in which it is used.

AAF: I find some of your responses repetitive, sterile, sanitized. What do you think?

ChatGPT: It’s important to keep in mind that the text generated by AI models like me is not always perfect and may require human editing for clarity and accuracy. Additionally, the text generated by AI models may lack the personal touch, emotions, or nuances that human writing may have.

AAF: When I asked you to create a title for this conversation about using ChatGPT to write creative nonfiction, your initial response was: Crafting Reality with ChatGPT: The Future of Creative Nonfiction Writing.

Given our conversation, I don’t think reality, my personal reality, is a strength of ChatGPT. But I do think writers of nonfiction may be able to use the model in their writing. I find the revised title, which you suggested, more accurate.

ChatGPT: [The revised] title acknowledges that while ChatGPT may have limitations in capturing personal reality, it can still be a valuable tool for creative nonfiction writers in generating ideas and phrases, and in helping them to structure and organize their stories in a more engaging way.

AAF: Ok we’ll see.

ChatGPT: Of course, I’ll be here to assist you with any questions or information you may need. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need anything.

__________

ChatGPT is a large language model developed by OpenAI. ChatGPT is trained on a diverse range of internet text and used for a variety of natural language processing tasks such as translation, summarization and text completion.

Andrea A. Firth writes creative nonfiction, literary journalism, and hybrid work. She may explore using AI in the creation of her next essay, but she will be sure to acknowledge that fact and to share a byline as appropriate.

Finding the Words

January 30, 2023 § 9 Comments

By Leslie Doyle

In eighth grade, our science teacher assigned the classic “drop an egg from the second floor without it breaking” assignment. I was pretty excited about this—I had ideas about Styrofoam or cushions or other large, bouncing materials. My father, a brilliant man who adored puzzles and math and read Scientific American religiously, suggested something else: Jell-O. I liked the weirdness of this and decided to give it a try. We prepared a batch of grape flavor—I can still see the wiggly purple chunks–and made a nest in a plastic food container. I gently placed an egg in the middle and piled in more Jell-O. Then he dropped the whole thing from a second floor window in a test run. I can still picture myself standing on the front sidewalk below the window, opening the translucent carton, and pulling the egg from its gloppy, violet packing. Intact.

In a recent New Yorker article, “How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking?,” Joshua Rothman recalls doing the egg drop challenge in school. His egg also stayed whole. He tells this story as part of an exploration of the ways we think—verbally, visually, something else entirely? Rothman describes himself as a non-visual thinker, but despite that, he was able to come up with an egg plan that worked. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, partly because the way brains work has always fascinated me, but also in my identity as a writer, someone who pulls ideas out of my mind and turns them into words. And the ways I struggle to do that.

The topic of thinking in words or not has been popular lately. Countless Twitter threads convey amazement upon learning that some people “do not think in words,” the commentors agreeing that they internally narrate everything—”doesn’t everyone?!” I do think in words at times—mostly when I silently address a specific audience about something I want to explain, whether it’s someone I disagree with online, someone I know, or a totally made up listener, to help me clarify an idea. But I know that underneath, there’s thinking going on that has not been yet put into words. My real thinking.

Rothman discusses this. When he discovers a researcher who suggests that some people think in “unsymbolized thought,” he recognizes himself. And that resonates with me–that most of the time, my thoughts are wordless ideas, not sentences, not narration. Unsymbolized thoughts.

At the same time, I am also a visual thinker, and can recall small details of long-ago memories with granular detail. The colors of the tiled floor in the room I played in as a small child (gray background with a white, black, yellow and red splatter design), the pattern in the vinyl seats in our first car (small dark blue alternating isosceles trapezoids), the lobby of the grocery store where we shopped, including a large fountain in one corner with a huge, fake stone leaning against the wall, water trickling down the mottled gray slab, different colored lights illuminating its crevices, surrounded by a low wall on which I’d sit and watch the water pooling while I waited for my father, sharing some talk, and a drink,  with whoever he found in the liquor store that connected to the supermarket. I can still draw the layout accurately, in case anyone needs it.

Towards the end of the piece, Rothman says, “[s]tories aren’t real, and yet they’re meaningful; we tell different stories about our minds, as we should, because our minds are different. The story I tell myself about my own thinking is useful to me.” I wrestle with my mind to find the story—I’m one of those people who often don’t speak up because it takes so long to get the thoughts in order, long after the conversation has moved on.

Here’s another thing about the day I made the egg contraption: that morning, the teacher announced that there were no second floor classrooms available to drop our eggs from. Instead, we went to a high hill far behind the school, and he had a couple boys from class heave each egg holder as hard as they could, because the hill sloped and he wanted them to reach the level ground below.

Well, physics took over. The eggs wrapped in cushion foam barely made it down to the bottom and remained unscathed. My elegant, compact little Jell-O contraption, small and heavy, sailed halfway to the school, landing with a thump many, many feet farther than any other entry.

My egg didn’t stand a chance.

I might have been a little angry with my father for talking me into this odd choice, but I was much angrier with the teacher for changing the rules mid-game. Dropped from a window, all the eggs would fall with the same force. Heaved by eighth grade boys showing off, mine hit with a different, lethal, momentum. I was angry; I knew I’d been cheated, but I didn’t know how to say it.  So I said nothing.

I think about my brain because I want to figure things out. I think about words because I want to communicate, to share what I see, what I remember, and because I always, always, want to be able to speak out, even when it’s difficult, even when I’m holding a plastic box of Jell-O and a cracked, leaky egg, far from the bottom of the hill.

___
Leslie Doyle’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Fourth River, The Forge, Gigantic Sequins, Electric Literature, Rougerou (flash fiction contest first place), Tupelo Quarterly Review (BAE Notable), Propeller, The New York Times, Cutleaf, The Sunlight Press, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey, writing full-time after teaching college writing for many years.

Grey Ladies and Gymnastics: On Ageism at Writing Conferences

January 16, 2023 § 74 Comments

By Julie Ushio

In November, I hopped on a plane and took the forty-minute flight from Honolulu to Lihue to attend the Kauai Writers Conference. It was my third time at the conference and I looked forward to a week of Master Classes and the Conference.

As usual, women of a certain age filled the chairs. Not all had grey hair, but it was easy to see that demographics were heavily female and well over the age of fifty. I was not surprised. After all, this was Kauai and the cost of a plane ticket and the luxury hotel rooms (though heavily discounted for the conference), excluded those who could not afford the trip.

Of the fourteen people in my afternoon workshop, there was a man in his seventies and two women who might have been under forty, but most of were female and sixty plus. One afternoon, Dee, a white-haired firecracker of seventy, told me about her recent pitch to an agent.

“I asked him,” Dee said, “about ageism in writing.”

Dee said the agent had responded, “Well, it’s not as bad as gymnastics.”

Her comment took me back to a column I read years ago in a leading writing magazine. A well-known male author said he felt ambivalent about encouraging older women writers he met at writing conferences. He didn’t state why, but much was implied. Was it their shortened time horizon? The diminished possibility of finding an agent or selling their book when the publishing world embraces new voices under 30? What I do remember clearly, is that the writer did not say “older writers” but “older WOMEN writers.”

Over the past thirty years, I have been to conferences and retreats across the mainland and Hawaii. I often go alone and the night before the conference begins, I am filled with anxiety and doubt. What am I doing here? Why spend all this money, this time, away from work, from family, chasing this futile dream of writing a book. The next morning, I walk in and find a chair and sit down. I turn to the person sitting next to me and introduce myself and tell them where I am from. Then I ask them what they are writing.

And the door opens.

It could be memoir, mystery, romance, or poetry, but when they start to talk, I feel an instant connection. When they talk about their writing, I know it is something they hold close to their heart. They ask what I am writing, and in a few moments, we have peeled away our veneers. Over the next several days when we pass, I often do not remember their names, but I do not forget their stories. A wispy blonde, writing about the baby she lost while living in Samoa with her husband’s family. A veterinarian volunteering in Africa, who finds herself operating on the chief’s son, the chief wondering why a doctor tries to save cats. Memoirs of adoptees, of abandonment, divorce, and illness. Survivors all.

In sharing our writing, we connect with others, on a deep, intimate level. So rare in today’s world of short tweets and social media connections.

I have noticed over years of attending conferences here in Hawaii that many writers and agents return, year after year. I see their connections. An agent who reps a featured speaker, as well as the top editor at the publishing house that publishes the writer. Writer friends who speak on the same panel or give the same workshop, year after year. They blurb each other’s books, appear in acknowledgments.

We newbie wannabe writers are not the only ones making connections at conferences.

And I think, for those agents, editors, and authors, flying in and spending some time on Kauai or Maui in the middle of winter, is a welcome respite from the grey cold of the East Coast. I don’t begrudge them the sun and ocean, of mingling with their industry peers but wish they cut back on the sarcasm and show a little more “Aloha Spirit.” Maybe the agent talking to Dee thought he was being witty, but at whose expense? Dee paid money to talk to him. For fifteen minutes.

Our conference fees and Master Class expenses paid for his hotel room.

We Grey Ladies buy the books of the writers he represents. But we are buying less.  

A January 10, 2022 Gallup poll states that, “Americans Reading Fewer Books Than in the Past.” “Reading appears to be in decline as a favorite way for American to spend their free time…The changes are especially pronounced among the most voracious book readers, namely, college graduates, women and older Americans.” It might be we Grey Ladies are buying less, because we are writing our own books.

Four years ago, at a workshop at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer, Alaska, we participants shared what we were writing and why we wrote. One of the last to speak was a white-haired woman who owned a remote lodge across the bay.

Tough and independent, she simply said, “I write to give me a reason to go on living.”

We Grey Ladies have been around for a long time. Throughout our lives, we have planted flowers interlaced in our vegetable gardens, cooked a favorite family recipe, pieced together a quilt. Writing, like other creative pursuits, is a part of our lives. Some of us may or may not have a goal of publishing a book. Writing itself is the journey. Because within creativity is timelessness.

So, to the agent who talked to my friend Dee. Yes, we Grey Ladies do not do gymnastics. You do not have to give us false encouragement about our publishing prospects. Just sit and listen to what we have to say, then send us gently on our way.

And we will continue to write.

___

Julie Ushio has been published in Bamboo Ridge Journal, permafrost, and Noyo River Review. She is currently querying a novel based on her Japanese grandmother’s life in Nebraska. The first chapter of the novel won first prize at the 2019 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is also writing a series of essays about growing up Japanese in the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @JulieUshio, and Instagram @julieushio.

Conditions of Artistic Safety

December 27, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Tommie Ann Bower

My predators were winning. A debris field of drafts and reset strategies surrounded the couch where I watched tiny house videos over a bowl of potato chips for breakfast. This was a surprise because I can name my trauma triggers in three notes. But this time, a kudzu-like growth was smothering the hilly lobes of my prefrontal cortex. I couldn’t think my way out of stuck.

The latest science on trauma suggests running towards the disturbance in the force. But until I noticed that I was metaphor bombing in every sentence, I didn’t get that the writing was too painful to approach. Bluntly speaking, I was not safe.

Think OSHA—when you cross into a construction site, you wear the hard hat. When writing, we leave Content Warnings for the reader. But I needed a Content Warning for myself so that I could bridge the gap between my desire to be the Zen-like resilient survivor sashaying into horror, and the vulnerability that is perfectly reasonable.

The solution was to articulate a general process that would lead to specific Conditions of Artistic Safety. What follows is a tidied-up version of what I found useful.

1. Start at a distance and circle the experiences, situations, or feelings you have elected to address. Prompt: Study the project risks in its most abstracted geography—a printed map versus a Google street view. This increases a sense of control by putting an X on the easy-to-spot alligators.

2. After staring down the project, convert the dangers into numbers rather than feelings, words or diagnoses. Think simplistic PG-13 movie ratings or a Personal Intolerable Number, a PIN. Prompt: The writer is responsible for researching and defining personal categories of risk. Size, intensity, and duration are all potential data points. Is it bigger than a bread box?

3. Next, place your critics and nagging scolders in suspended animation on the dark side of the moon. List how this project is likely to impact you. Prompt: Subtle avoidance strategies are often the best clues to identify a need for safety interventions. Do you belittle vulnerable feelings, soldier on, stand with fist, go all crabby-faced into the kitchen, or invite those critics to comment?

4. Revise your PIN number with new data, as needed.

5. Access your innate wise guru, or transcendental maniac, to create a list of things that have helped in other situations. Prompt: What strategies have you used? There is a time for idealized self-care and a time for Oreos or chopping down zombies. Conditions of Artistic Safety may include inanimate, furry, real or imaginary adoring humans.

6. Plan for intermittent, high-value rewards to recognize the challenges. Prompt: How will you take responsibility for rewarding your accomplishments? Are the rewards consistent with the degree of difficulty? Consider including time to play or visit your favorite tree.

7. Name a kindness that might be worth a try. Aim for at least three. Prompt: you are a creative. Use your omnipotent, compassionate narrator voice to throw a little kindness at this valiant writer.

8. Ground your Conditions of Artistic Safety with an elegant or pithy mission statement for this work. Prompt: What are your ideal intentions and hopes? Sign, date, print, read it more than once, amend as needed.

Some days, even with a clear reckoning of the difficulties, I am sidelined. But predicting and preparing for my safety allows me to throw words at those predators. We are both the writer and the caretaker of the writer; as such, we are charged with the responsibility to decide how to leap into the deep pool of honest writing.

___

Tommie Ann Bower, M.A., writes at the intersection of addiction and trauma, a core part of her memoir, now under construction. She is a consultant devoted to improving the quality of treatment for those individuals with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders, whether in private, public, or correctional facilities.

Writing in My Ninth Decade 

October 26, 2022 § 75 Comments

By Sarah Barnett

I need a word. The first letter is p. Out-of-focus, it floats above my head. I want to grab it, but it hovers just out of reach like the wine glasses on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. 

No big deal, right? My friends boast about having senior moments as if they deserve a prize for their failing, flailing memories. But I don’t have time for memory lapses. Midway through an essay I’m stuck trying to remember the name of a flower that starts with p.

Is my writing life over because I can’t recall words? Because my mind can no longer plot a direct path from beginning to end? Because recently I was so careless as to turn eighty? 

My worries became an essay—”Adventures in Forgetfulness”—in which I catalogued my concerns over misplaced keys, a family history of dementia, my fear of finding my purse in the microwave or other wildly inappropriate place. But guess what? While I’d been worrying, I’d been finding alternate routes around my memory issues. 

I explored my handwritten journals and stockpile of one-liners, scribbles and short takes written in response to prompts in weekly free writes. I found recollections of dreams, incidents, insights, none of which I remembered recording. One day, I surprised myself as I happened upon this handwritten line: “I am all of the seven dwarfs except Happy.”

My stash covered my Brooklyn childhood, a difficult relationship with my mother, my experiences when I became a mother, a divorce after a 30-year marriage. I’d covered almost everything in my memoir universe. Now, when I can’t produce the right words, I recycle, repurpose, and cut-and-paste from older work as if piecing together a mosaic from broken cups and plates. 

Mining older pieces helped me produce new work. But did it count as writing? In “Adventures” I declared, “I’m not writing. I’m Scarlett O’Hara making a dress out of draperies.” Or, I wondered, “Am I Carol Burnett imitating Scarlett producing a dress from drapes, but neglecting to remove the curtain rod?”

In my ninth decade, my writing style reflects the haphazard way my brain works. I jump back and forth, pinball from past to present, and swivel from serious discussion to flippant remark in the same way I desert the half-emptied dishwasher to do a load of laundry or rummage in the freezer for something to defrost for dinner. 

In another essay, I explored the concept of home. What draws us to certain places? Where do we feel most at home? Over several months my piece evolved into a collage of the places I’d lived, the places I’d dreamed about living, quotes from TV shows, movies, and literature all juxtaposed against the lifelong search of the hermit crab for the perfect home.

Was this better than the traditional beginning-middle-end method? I can’t say. Maybe I’m learning to write the way dementia sufferers say, “The thing on the wall with numbers,” when they can’t think of the word clock. Still, I recall that as I played with the pieces of my collage, arranging and rearranging to produce a readable flow, I felt like an abstract painter adding a splash of yellow here, a black triangle there. The design, the mosaic itself, felt as essential to the essay as the words, sentences and paragraphs. 

My brain had misplaced the word for those flowers you plant in the shade, with blossoms in brilliant white, cheery pink and lipstick red. First letter p. I tried petunia, pansy, portulaca—astonished I could remember these, but not the word for those—the ones I planted every year until I tired of them. Though how could you tire of the way they zoomed from sparse seedlings to bountiful rounded bouquets? 

It took a full day before the name returned to me. Impatiens, the p not where I remembered it, the name so like impatient, the temperament I wish I didn’t have.

Growing old is not like catching a cold. The possibility of losing myself along with my memory has become a constant concern. But I’m excited to have found detours around the roadblocks in my brain. Now, I focus on the seemingly endless possibilities as I assemble fragments, repurpose older work and rearrange sentences and paragraphs to discover fresh insights. 

__________________

Before retiring and discovering the joys of creative writing, Sarah Barnett had careers as a teacher, a librarian and a lawyer. Her work has appeared in Brevity Blog, Hippocampus, Delmarva Review, and other publications. She lives in Rehoboth Beach Delaware, where she is vice president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild. 

Watch Out for the Unexpected    

October 14, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

I walked out the doors of the tiny airport in Fayetteville into the blazing afternoon sun. At the curb I was greeted by Shari, my ride to The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs where I was doing a residency. My plan for the week was to complete drafts of two essays and start a third. 

When I got in the car, Shari asked me where I was from. 

Northern California, I said.

She told me that she was a transplant from the Pacific Northwest and that she hadn’t known what to expect when she moved to the area. Then she countered with a laugh,

You know, not everyone has a banjo and a gun.

I smiled and wondered if hillbilly jokes were considered PC. I’d never visited this part of the rural South. I thought about the preconceived notions I might be carrying. What came to mind when I thought of Arkansas was Johnny Cash, Bill Clinton, Walmart, and the fourth season of Jason Bateman’s crime drama Ozark that I had just finished watching. Information easily found through a Google search and Netflix.

I didn’t know what to expect of the area either. 

Around five p.m., we arrived at “The Colony,” a cottage nestled in a woodland on the outskirts of town. The question buzzing around the dinner table that first night was who had seen the statue—Christ of the Ozarks. At seven stories tall, you would think it would be hard to miss, but Eureka Springs is surrounded by dense forest. I’m not religious, but I was intrigued by the idea of a monumental sculpture that none of us, three poets, two fiction writers, and me the lone CNF-er, had yet to witness. 

The next morning, I started on essay one: a braid of two events, one natural, one unnatural, one remarkable, one despicable. Both had entered my orbit on the same day the previous week. I got the first braid down fast, then I started the second braid and got stuck, like two hours stuck. I knew there was a connection, but the essay fragments were scattered like fly away hair. I couldn’t tame the strands into a cohesive whole. On day two I moved on to a new essay that poured out steady and slow, which is how I write, like honey one day and molasses the next. The first essay was still rumbling around in my head.

That night we climbed a steep hill to the historic (and supposedly haunted) Crescent Hotel. From there we could see the outstretched arms of the Ozark Jesus, a 65-foot span, hovering above the treeline in the distance, as if he was reaching out to give us a big hug. The mega-statue sparkled in the setting sun, and I was surprised by how he felt like a protective presence.

Each day I’d take a couple walks and explore. Eureka Springs is a quirky tourist town full of contrasts. A blue dot in a red sea. A welcoming space for the LGTBQ community with all the trimmings of a conservative, small-town. American flags hang near Gay Pride flags. A town with at least six churches steeped in ghost stories and tales of the healing powers of the natural springs. Brightly painted Victorian homes with gardens full of angels, gnomes and sprites. An herbacy next to a tobacco shop. Kitschy souvenir stores next to high-end art galleries. A counter-culture hippie vibe on display alongside leather-clad bikers and middle-Americans on vacation. Contradictions abound but everything fits together, like a weird 3-D jigsaw puzzle.

Shari’s comment about the banjo and gun echoed in my mind. In the few days since I’d arrived, I had come to expect and accept the split nature of the area too. What we don’t see is as illuminating as what we do, but you have to dig below the surface to understand how and why it works. Like subtext in writing, what isn’t said says as much as what is. 

One evening I stopped to admire the eclectic assortment of furnishings on the front porch of one Victorian home. A couple of inviting chairs, a dog’s water bowl, a campy painting of Napoleon, and a mannequin in a lacy skirt with a rabbit’s head holding a placard that said I’m Not Giving Up. Me either, I thought. Strange. Oddly creative. Anomalous décor. Idiosyncrasy that I took as inspiration. 

Over the week, I finished essay two, started essay three, and essay one, the braided one, came into focus. The weird front porch motivated me to take a less conventional approach. I began to see how the two disparate things I was writing about could lie on the page and intertwine and intersect in new ways. I was able to grasp the strands of the braid and weave the story together.

You don’t always know what will help you move forward in your writing. Here in an eccentric small town, known for its tradition of coexistence, I grew to better understand the magic of juxtaposition. A new setting can be revealing. When you first arrive, you might feel out of sorts, and that’s the generative beauty of it. Your mind will set off in new directions, different neurons will fire. Have a plan but be flexible. Explore your surroundings. Wander. Observe. Give it time. Think on.

__

Andrea A. Firth is a member of the Brevity Blog editorial team. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. Andrea has two classes coming up: Let’s Try: Essay starting on November 2nd and The World of Literary Journals: How to Get Published on October 22nd. Details here.

Creative Nonfiction: Sensory Self-Revelation 

August 18, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Mary Ann McSweeny

Recently I came across this description for creative nonfiction: “sensual journalism.” It was one of those double-take moments. I was good with the “sensual” part of the phrase—as in the use of sensory details to create evocative scenes. The heady, cinnamon scent of a robust bed of petunias. The first sip of strong Ceylon tea just poured from the gently steaming round brown teapot. The blood on your iPhone after a dog lunges, breaks its chain, and hurtles fifty yards to sink its fangs into your upper arm. 

But… journalism?

Literary journalism has been considered a form of creative nonfiction. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is an example. For a general, complete description for creative nonfiction, though, I think one that includes “journalism” comes up short.

Journalism is the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event. It deals with facts. Creative nonfiction is also truth, but it’s not a recital of facts or events. Creative nonfiction comes from the heart of compassionate awareness of the writer’s own truth. For example, you can verify by the police report that a dog—a black boxer mix—bit me back in August 2013 when I was preparing for my mother’s funeral. However, there is no evidence that the dog bite was a farewell message from my mother, although that was my assumption based on my relationship with her. With creative nonfiction, you have to trust the writer is using the written word to reveal truth personal to that writer at that time.

A creative nonfiction piece may be jump-started by the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event, but the purpose of the written work that subsequently emerges is to go beyond the facts to find the human essence within the experience. With the final draft, the writer may even abandon the stimulus that first provoked the essay’s journey. 

A workshop teacher offered this writing prompt: “Describe your childhood bedroom.” As I listed details of the room, I remembered the heating register in the floor. It was about a foot square, black metal, positioned directly over the kitchen to draw the heat of the stove before the central heating had been installed. As a four-year-old, I liked to squat next to the register and push its rectangular knob back and forth to open and shut the louvers. When the register’s louvers were open, I enjoyed peeking through at the scrap of the kitchen they revealed. But I hated the register when my parents fought in the kitchen. They saved their most acrimonious battles for after we kids were tucked in for the night. The sound of their anger—shrill and hysterical, cold and cutting—carried through the register whether it was open or closed. Their bitter arguments broke open my sleep and dreams, and turned me into someone with a lifelong dread of falling asleep. The memories of the metal register, the feelings it evoked, and the family dynamic would become the substance of my essay, not the report of the contents of my childhood bedroom.

In my personal contemplative way, I consider creative nonfiction to be my effort to reveal a bit of who I am through the written word. My outer life is rather ordinary and easily reportable. Feed the cat, clean the cat box, pet the cat, deadhead the petunias, bake cookies for teatime. Anyone could witness one of my typical days, write a piece about what the writer noticed, and throw in a few scenes to tickle the senses. The cat’s whiskers quivering in time with her purr. The stickiness of shriveled petunia blossoms. Hot tea melting chocolate chips sweetly against the tongue.

My inner self, on the other hand, can’t be observed or verified or revealed except by me. This interior existence often descends into a spiritually suffocating slot canyon whose sheer walls offer only elusive memories as handholds. The climb back to hope is an inelegant process where I sweat out poisons absorbed from the family disease of alcoholism and its attendant aggressions, inconsistencies, depression, and isolation. How these poisons affected, and still affect, me is a part of my inner truth as I understand and decide to reveal it today. My sense of truth will no doubt change as I grow in compassionate awareness of myself, those I grew up with, the nature of suffering, and the courage it takes anyone to be human.

“Infinite becoming” is how Richard Rohr describes the human journey. Facts may frame this odyssey, but they are not the truth that beckons me to find my way from what I have been to what I am becoming. To write this “becoming” with audible, touchable, sniffable, tastable, viewable details and scenes that allow others to be right there on the pilgrimage with me is the power of sensory self-revelation that, for me, describes creative nonfiction. 

__

Mary Ann McSweeny’s work has appeared in a variety of online and print journals, including DoveTales, The MacGuffin, Months to Years, So It Goes, The Baltimore Review, and Highlights for Children. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.

The Brevity Blog: Should We Rebrand?

July 27, 2022 § 60 Comments

As both Brevity (the magazine of original essays) and The Brevity Blog (discussions of craft and the writing life) both grow and expand their audience, we see more and more folks confusing the two. That’s not a huge problem, and mainly we are just happy you are here, but maybe some folks don’t realize we have twice the flavor.

So a small thought for a late July Wednesday: should we rebrand The Brevity Blog as The BrevityBlog, or maybe just BrevityBLOG to make the distinction more apparent?

Vote in the comments, and thanks in advance:

Trolls Can Be Teachers, Too

July 25, 2022 § 25 Comments

By Candace Cahill

I scrolled. 

Past the title, the social media share icons, and the “listen to this article now” button. I slipped by the newsletter sign-up prompt, a “Read More Like This” section, advertisements for Covid Vaccinations, and a notice for a Van Gogh exhibit in Anchorage. 

And there, just beyond the sponsored content and the “Popular in the Community” segment, I came to my destination: the conversation. 

More commonly known as the comments. 

I’d been warned. Chat rooms, writer’s circles, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds offered clear instructions: if you have an essay published, do not read the comments. But this wasn’t just any essay; this was my first essay in a top-tier publication.

In the days following publication, I received numerous emails and direct messages. I responded personally to each one: I owed it to those who reached out from a place of vulnerability to honor their bravery and willingness to engage. 

But the comments section of the online magazine was different. 

The morning the essay came out, my partner suggested I not read the comments. He wanted to protect me, which I understand and appreciate. However, I’d already read a few: I couldn’t stop myself. But when I came across the first statement to call me out – to label me an abandoner – I broke out in a cold sweat and stopped. I’d written about a topic that elicits a range of emotions depending upon the reader’s frame of reference: adoption relinquishment. 

I never intended to reply to the remarks or add “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” but I knew that reading the comments, no matter how “hard,” would be a unique opportunity to sit with my reaction without having to respond. Although I’ve spent most of my life avoiding confrontation and pushing away uncomfortable feelings, I’ve finally learned that what I resist persists, and what I feel I can heal.  Emotions are temporary if I can create space for them. The capability – and capacity – to process what my reactions would be to any inappropriate or unpleasant comments is a valuable tool I was unwilling to forgo using.

My spouse continued to dissuade me as the days passed, so I agreed to wait until the sting of exposure eased.

And after a week, I scrolled down to the comments.

There were posts with the clear intent of inflicting pain, like being charged with using my dead son as a money-making tool. Initially, that felt like a punch in the gut, but after sitting with the discomfort, I could reflect on my true purpose in sharing this story. My goal is to encourage dialogue—I believe that is my role in this convoluted, painful life experience called relinquishment, and to do so without feeling the need to explain my circumstances. I want to acknowledge the myriad ways each person in the adoption constellation is hurt while recognizing that there also can be joy and beauty. One does not negate the other – both can, and are, true.

The built-in anonymity of the comments section frees commentators up to speak their minds without engaging further but this also provides space for reflection on my part, and the opportunity to respond, if desired, with intention.

I think some people labeled trolls are merely responding from their own place of pain and vulnerability. I remember a time I, too, reacted in knee-jerk ways to comments and suggestions, especially regarding my status as a birth mother. 

By reading the comments, I allow myself the time I need to find the equilibrium to respond with kindness and compassion. That’s who I want to be – the person who listens and acknowledges other perspectives and feelings.

No matter what, I want to see that they are not trolls but complex human beings.

*

Candace Cahill’s memoir Goodbye Again, about losing her son twice, is scheduled for release in November ’22 from Legacy Book Press. You can find out more about her work at candacecahill.com or follow her on Twitter @candace_cahill_. The Newsweek article referenced in this essay can be found here.

Memoir Teacher as People Pleaser

July 21, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Beth Kephart

“How to tell if you’re a people pleaser: the 8 signs you’re too nice and why it’s impacting your wellbeing, (Amy Beecham, The Stylist)” the headline reads. I text the link to my son with a note: I’m afraid that if I look too closely, I might check all the boxes.

The phone rings. He wants to talk, to go through the signs in their order. I’m in a bruise mood. It’s the teaching. I have memoir-teaching rules: Love every student. Fall into the uprise of their stories. Find the right lines in the right books, the right prompts for the right hours, the right praise for the right words and assiduously share them, paying keen attention to the white-froth spaces. Push hard because you believe, and because these are your students, paying, and because if you don’t, you will lie awake remembering the clamor of what you failed to say, to wish, to propound. Be the reason they sometimes give when they do not snag their own ambitions. Accept their frustration as your own. Relay your sorrow. Receive their battering words because writing memoir is never easy and someone needs to take the blame, the fall, the knock for the hardness of the explicit hardness.

Sign Number One, my son says, reading from the People Pleaser’s List: “You will drop what you’re doing to help another person, even if it means sacrificing something important to you.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says.

No need to talk it through.

“Okay,” he says, reading: “‘Being ‘nice’ is part of your identity, and you fear you must constantly be this way or you will be labelled as ‘fake’.”

“Hmmm,” I say.

“Let’s talk about it?” he says.

Could we not, I think, ruing my latest texting decision.

Now he’s up to Sign Number Three: “You feel overly responsible for others’ feelings, and will go to any length to not cause pain even if that means not standing up for yourself.”

“Let’s talk ‘nice,’” I say, reverting to Sign Number Two, which seems suddenly more considerate than Three. “I’m not worried about being labeled fake,” I say. “But I am worried about ‘nice’.” Nice sounds like just another word for boring. Nice is tepid, perhaps defenseless, perhaps even without value. My students, I repeat, are paying. Plus, I love them. Am I nice?

“Kind,” my son says, “is better than nice.”

I ask for a differentiating definition.

“The difference in my mind,” he says, “is ‘nice’ is often about doing good things for the sake of winning people over but ‘kindness’ is about doing good things simply because they’re the right thing to do.”

“Wow,” I say. 

Then consider.

Teaching memoir is to set a ramble into motion. You urge the writer from behind. You walk along beside them. You run ahead with the jostle of your flashlight in anticipation of the next brazen, barren, brilliant juncture. (Rats to your left, cracks to your right, swerve in the hill up ahead.) You bear witness to the writer’s joy. You are proximate to their terror. I’m not trying to win the writers over. I just don’t want to harm them.

“You often ‘forgive’ easily and allow people to remain in your life with repeat harmful patterns,” my son reads, and I think of the times that I’ve been told that, just because I am a teacher, I am just a teacher, and how I’ve sat there, saying nothing. Tell the truth. Why didn’t I tell the truth? I teach because I write, because by writing I have learned what is worth teaching, I have empathy for the process, I understand the deflation of the fizzle and the exhilaration of the miracle, and how the hell does teaching make you nanoscopic? I should have said. I didn’t say.

“You have a history of being ‘nice’ to avoid harm, and this has become a survival skill,” my son reads aloud, and I think of the man who arrived at a workshop long ago, declaring, within minutes, that he was a memoirist without memory. I sat with him, I worked with him, I watched as he remembered, raved as he wrote, celebrated his emerging story. He left the workshop early and wrote to me to tell me that I was, hands down, the most uncherishable teacher ever. Thank you, I said. Be well, I said. Blessings on your journey.

“You tell people ‘it’s OK’ and comfort them after they hurt you, even though it really isn’t,” my son reads from the list, and I think of the writers who tell me they are better writers now because they are among the privileged students of wiser, cuter, brighter, younger, more svelte, better dressed, never-a-hang-nail teachers. I’ve over-the-mooned for these writers I once called mine, dangerously sloppy in my choice of pronouns. I’ve exulted with them, replied with exclamation points, wondered later why I’d felt the need to bludgeon punctuation. Because there are many, many exquisite teachers, and the writer grows through new perspectives, and I want the best for every student, and I’d hoped to be a privilege.

My son moves through the list; he tells his stories. He asks me to be honest, and he listens. He worries for me and he offers his suggestions, sideways style and neatly unassuming. He’s kind, he says, because kind is right. He respects himself so as to earn respect from others. When he’s hurt he lets the hurter know he’s hurt. He forgives when the hurt was not intended. 

He talks, he soothes, I close my eyes. I see the jostle of his flashlight. I conjure him ahead of me, waiting in the distance. I hear the sound of my feet on the pavement.

***

Beth Kephart is a writer, a teacher, and a book artist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays,  We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class, and A Room of Your Own: A Story Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Famous Essay (with illustrator Julia Breckenreid). More at bethkephartbooks.com

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