Brevity by the Numbers Part 3: Hard Math and Harder Math

September 9, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 3 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. For the genesis of this research project, read Part 1: “How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” To discover Brevity’s most overused words and best-favored subjects, read Part 2: “Word clouds and other squishy results.” This final installment is where a non-analyst tries her hand at hard math.

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Before narrative, before voice, before tense and point of view, before even paragraph and sentence, there was a word. The word that birthed every other word, brought them all forth stacked and tumbling. Hieroglyphs slick with meaning that, when we’re lucky, conjure a universe in a few scratches of ink.

Flash essays are made of very few and specific words. But it’s difficult to conjure worlds in less than 750: fewer than half the essays I read achieve a sub-650 count, and only 11% contain less than 400 words. A grand total two essays limbo under the 150 threshold. It’s hard to write small. More than a third of Brevity’s accepted submissions from 2017 to 2021 clock in at 700-749 words.

Zooming outward to the rooms the words built: sentences and paragraphs. There appear to be three categories of flash essay: the nearly-if-not-exactly-single-sentence, the balanced essay, and the choppy essay. But to prove this theory, I’ll have to analyze sentences and paragraphs simultaneously, and I need to work myself up to that level of math.

Instead let’s examine the building’s aesthetic: essay type, point of view and tense. 58% of the pieces are best understood as personal essays: personal experiences told using literary techniques. Essays like Megan Pillow Davis’ “Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling,” which cleverly lulls me into forgetting the title by the end of her 708 words, such that I read her bared teeth as a snarl. Like Donna Steiner’s gleeful “Lick”—though that anecdote begins with a short list. Speaking of, more than half of the hermit crabs (themselves 13% of Brevity’s essays) are lists. The rest tend toward the lyric, the fragmented, the braided—all arguably subsets of the personal essay. Only 8 of the 228 essays analyzed could be considered literary journalism. The gravitational tug of the personal helps writers to create a strong connection in such a brief space. 

This logic also explains why 85% of the essays are in the first person singular. I. Me. Point of view perspective from my eyes, staring at my chapped fingers tapping these words onto my MacBook keyboard. Distant second of second person, you netting only 9% of the essays in my data set. You that can invite a reader in, you that can put difficult events at a distance, you that sometimes requires acrobatics for exposition that you should already know since you are, well, you. First person plural and third person the remaining 6%, handfuls of essays managing these tricky points of view.

Tense, too, tends personal: 64% using present—the immediacy of running, jumping, climbing trees. 35% went reflective, those that ran, jumped, and climbed in some sepia-tone past. Only 1% thought forward: one day, when my back doesn’t ache from slouching in front of this computer, I will run and jump and climb.

Narrative time period is a different beast. In The Best of Brevity, Dinty W. Moore commended the “inventive writers” who quickly disproved his preliminary hypothesis that successful flash must focus on “the smallest period of time possible” (x). My graph verifies Moore’s realization: there are no narrative limitations to a flash essay.

Which brings me to scary big “M” Math.

Removing Jill Kolongowski’s “160 Things That Scare Me”—a true outlier with 199 sentences across 97 paragraphs—I pivot my table, nest sentences beneath paragraphs, and command Excel to create a scatterplot. Setting the background to black, I sit and stare. I like to see the flash this way, a swarm of lighting bugs, a constellation of stars.

I am happy to disprove my tidy theory of three essay types: in place of distinct groupings, a continuum. Most essays fall within a rough parallelogram below 20 paragraphs and 55 sentences. As paraphs increase, so do sentences—it would be difficult to read an essay that broke sentences across the backs of paragraphs (though successful in Irina Dumitrescu’s “Line,” and Kristine Langley Mahler’s “A Knot on the Finger,” among others). The bands of yellow dots seem to slope upward at the same rate, hinting at a golden ratio. When I limit the data to the concentrated area of light and insert a trendline (I impress even myself with this bit of Excel wizardry), I get the following Math:

y = 0.9497x + 22.595

R² = 0.2122

It doesn’t feel all that actionable, and a quick Google search confirms my coefficient of determination (R²) is probably weak. I talk up my coefficient, try to give it the determination to succeed, but it replies that I should brew another mug of peppermint tea and look elsewhere for answers.

I’m drawn to the graph’s brightness in the low paragraph counts. It signals those single sentence essays I expected to see—true one sentencers like Elena Passarello’s “Death Sentence” and close-enough-ers like David L. Ulin’s “Rite of Passage”—but also a second category: the stream-of-consciousness essay. These essays are one paragraph because it evokes the rush of a breath, words punctuated by sentences mostly for flair. Francis Walsh’s “I Can Shrink to Perfection” (22 sentences), Joe Plicka’s “But Whyyy?” (32 sentences), and even Allegra Hyde’s “Misinformation” (45 sentences) could be categorized stream-of-consciousness.

Digging further, I diagram the words per sentence of three stream-of-consciousness essays: “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” “Twenty Minutes,” and “Anniversary Disease.” Here we see the melody, pitch, and rhythm of the flash.

“If You Find a Mouse…” and “Anniversary Disease” meander along gentle turns. In contrast, “Twenty Minutes” is a high-speed chase—all peaks and valleys, especially the build and drop between Sabrina Hick’s first four sentences.

Performing the same work on five more essays, chosen because they reside in the average band of the scatterplot and because I like them:

The turn from short to lyrical sentences halfway through “WANTED: Biological Father” is obvious. The rapid fire of “Known Killers” unceasing. The lyricism of “Conduction,” the devastating finale of “Women These Days,” the evenhandedness of “When a 17-Year-Old Checkout Clerk in Small Town Michigan Hits on Me, I Think about the Girl I Loved at 17,” all appear in the graph.

Viewing flash as sentences per paragraph simplifies the drama into soft, undulating waves, the same way ocean breaking over coral turns to rumpled velvet when viewed from an airplane.

Is this a useful way to think about writing flash? Or writing generally? Perhaps a tool for revision, to ensure musicality matches content and voice. To bend and crack sentences until they shine like glowsticks. Will this data land you a Brevity byline? Against the odds, it got me one, so who knows!

Please comment with your insights. Perhaps together we can feed our addiction and tame the beast of flash.
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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 2: Word Clouds and Other Squishy Results

September 8, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. If you want to learn why I began this research, how I built my data set, and what qualifies me to write about it (spoiler alert, not much beyond chutzpah!), go back and read Part 1: How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” In this installment, I make pretty word clouds and sad discoveries.

Piling up five years of Brevity essays and titles into one long document, I find a total of 138,991 words, of which 23,678 are distinct, according to FreeWordCloudGenerator.com. 210 writers published between 2017 and 2021 agree on this top five: “the” (7,907 instances), “and” (3,811 instances), “to” (3,271 instances), “of” (2,839 instances), and “in” (2,390 instances). “My,” “on,” “you,” “that,” and “is” round out the top ten. Onward down the list: it, he, with, for, her, was, his, she, we, as, at, but, when, from, your, like, not, me—all solid, functional words. Utilitarian. Common words that till the fields to present bushels of barley to their liege terms, those canorous locutions.

But I do not seek royalty, the kind of words I must gossip about with a dictionary to get the inside scoop. I seek, instead, middle-class words, words you see on a Sunday, wearing a yellow hat on the way to the flower market. Removing special characters and stopwords, FreeWordCloudGenerator drops the distinct count across every essay in this census to 15,375.

One. Back. Know. Time. Say. Day. Just. Even. Says. Man with 162 mentions, body 158, want 156, home tying think with 153. Freud may have been right—our Oedipal complexes apparent in mother besting father by 119 uses. We’re obsessed with love, and something, and everything. We have eyes and faces and red hair and old skin. We want. Feel. Need. A hand to hold. A dog at the door. A little something. Maybe nothing. Words that make a world.

Former The New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris would be appalled by this analysis. In a 2011 article for Neiman Lab titled “Word clouds considered harmful,” he cautions that word clouds “can be wildly misleading,” warning amateur researchers like myself not to “confuse signifiers with what they signify.” He then gets needlessly hurtful, writing, “Every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.”

I wouldn’t want to kill your insides, Mr. Harris formerly of The New York Times. I’ll try to do better. After segmenting the essays into 55 categories (from “illness – COVID” to “nature”), I find the most popular subjects are parent-child and romantic relationships (22 and 19 essays respectively). Slotting the 55 categories into overarching themes, 20% of the essays cover illness; 20% relationships; 14% death; 6% racism; 6% crime, rape or abuse; 6% gender or sexuality; 4% mental health; 4% infidelity, divorce, or contraception; 1% disability; and the remaining 19% a hodgepodge of self, religion, language, travel, news, food and the like.

Does the subject need to be universal to work in a space so small? Most of the Brevity essays are about entirely human experiences. The minds in flash do not float in antiseptic tanks, waxing philosophical on whether thinking is being. These minds are muddy, messy with bodily fluids, and suffering a panic attack, or Alzheimer’s, or dysmorphia. So few of the bodies in Brevity are joyful that I found myself celebrating each one in Excel marginalia, jotting “happy! how lovely” by Scott Loring Sanders’ “Bee Man,” “a celebration!” beside Amie Whittemore’s “This Abortion is an Act of Love,” and “more joy! now at the end” next to Brenda Miller’s “Typos.”

I wonder at Jack Pendarvis’ “Shana’s Father Wins a Monkey.” Who is the speaker? Who are they speaking to? I turn this essay over like a stone in the mouth, loamy on the tongue. Though I am exactly half the narrator’s 70 years in “Solving for X,” I see myself in her questions. How many more words will I write? How many chances will I get? How do I make them count?

The last lines of Jeff Newberry’s “Butchering,” echo in my head: “Like Michelangelo before a stone, I sometimes think the story exists buried in language. I forget that before I take up my knife, I have to invent the creature who roams the woods alone.” Have I invented that solitary animal here, or am I carving up nothing into smaller pieces of nothingness?

Data is the opposite of nothingness. I still believe the data can save me. I pivot my unwieldy table once, twice, three times, and ask the numbers to talk dirty to me. 

Data about titles

86% of titles contain fewer than five words. Though in theory it is possible to have a title longer than the flash it crowns, I have yet to see one. Single word titles are nouns (or rather, 79% of them are). A trinket to clutch to your chest. Hold close. Real. Though the strategy is growing in poetry, only five of the 228 essay titles stand in for the start of the first sentence. Beware of trends, for they may not get you published.

Data about contrast

42% of essays sport a 26 to 75-word difference between their longest and shortest sentences. Only 7% stretch that difference to more than 300 words. Short is quick. Long takes a whole lungful of air. Every single essay breathing thin atmosphere at this altitude achieved such heights by containing a sentence less than four words in length.

Data about dialogue and scene

If you have scene, you have dialogue exchange. If you have not scene, you have not dialogue exchange. This rule, like all rules, is not exact enough to be tattooed onto one’s body.

Data about you

You need not be a creative nonfiction writer (though it probably helps). 46% of Brevity’s writers are poets and fictioneers. You need not be traditionally published. 39% of Brevity’s writers had not a single book to their byline at the time of publication. You will probably get one shot. 92% of Brevity’s writers were featured only once in the journal during this five-year sample.

But this is all just foreplay. Stay tuned for part 3 of “Brevity by the numbers,” where I try my hand at the kind of hard math that could unlock the true form of the flash essay. 
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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 1: How I Cheated My Way into a Brevity Byline

September 7, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

It was a simple enough idea: Read five years of Brevity, log each piece in an Excel database, then tickle the data until it tells me something useful about the common features of flash nonfiction essays. As a writer new to flash, I wanted to understand the rules of the genre, so I could be deliberate about breaking them. When I couldn’t find much literature to guide me, I decided to make my own. A secret, shameful part of me wondered if graphs and statistics could help me crack the code to getting my own Brevity byline.

Apparently, the real cheat code to a Brevity byline (see it? right there? below the title?) is spelunking wildly beyond my depth and soliciting an interview with editor Dinty W. Moore, who then invited me to transform my research into a series of craft essays for the Brevity Blog.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a professor, or especially well published. Though I supervise (and am supervised by) people who know Python, I cannot speak the language of the snakes, don’t know how to programmatically scrape the web, can’t write to an Azure instance, or arrange SELECTs and semicolons into a SQL statement. I have carved a niche for myself, professionally, wherein I transform research done by others into compelling stories. None of the very smart people I work with were involved in this project.

What I am is curious. Like many creative nonfiction writers, I style myself a scientist, poking at the world and myself to test hypotheses, as eager to be proven wrong as right. So I set this curiosity to work, reading flash after flash in the precious hours after the baby happily curled into his sleep sack and the toddler unhappily lay down in her big-kid bed (but only after I completed the correct number of kisses to specific body parts, both of which varied nightly).

My process was simple, studious, and a skosh error prone. As I read every Brevity essay published between 2017-2021, I logged the numbers associated with each in an Excel database with the help of WordCounter.net. I arbitrarily decided upon the site after a search for free word counting tools, but over time gained great affection for its soothing blue color scheme, its motto “Every Word Counts,” and its bold exhortation to “Bookmark this page now.” With WordCounter.net’s aid, every Brevity essay transformed, alchemy-like, into an Excel row of numbers: longest and shortest sentences, word and paragraph counts, essay type, point of view—34 columns in all.

From there, the steps were simple, and therefore confounding:

  1. Find and correct errors. Worry about the errors that remain unfound.
  2. Pivot the table. Pivot my thinking. Pivot 360 degrees in a circle.
  3. Make graphs. Tell the graphs how pretty they look. Find the graphs uncaring.
  4. Worry the reason this has never been done before is that it is a colossal waste of time.

Brevity should come with a warning label—flash is an addictive substance. The magazine is brimming with tiny worlds, or as managing editor Zoë Bossiere calls them in her introduction to The Best of Brevity (published in honor of the magazine’s 20th anniversary) “beacon[s] of small truths” (xvii). The essays went down easy—like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Milk & Cookies—but were similarly heavier in the belly than they were on the tongue.

Nightly, I made myself sick. Long after I closed my laptop, I wondered about the non-pandemic version of Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Me vs. Slugs: Pandemic Edition.” Wrote “breathtaking” next to Carrie Jade Williams’ “When I Speak Why Do I Become More Invisible?” Tried to recall where I’d read Laurie Easter’s “Kindness and Sorrow” before. Spun out for hours on 333 words, 68.8% of them unique, all of them bitterly laughing at the cancer risk underlying Anne Panning’s hermit crab “Intro to BRCA1+ Quiz.

Like the not-quite scientist I am, I started formulating a theory long before the data set was complete. Flash essays seemed not quite a big thing shrunk small, but rather, a fun house mirror reflection of a larger essay. Short sentences just as short. Long just as long. But also, just as much emotion, reflection, action, scene, dialogue, all of it stuffed into a wee package. The tone tended sadder. Brighter. Sharper.

Early conclusion: subtlety is not for the small. Economy leaves no room for buildup, no mild arc to a restrained-yet-satisfying conclusion. In his introduction to The Best of Brevity, Moore writes, “In such a small allotment of words, there is no time to clear one’s throat, to gently introduce the story before moving leisurely along to the point of tension, the moment the reader’s curiosity is piqued” (x). In a flash essay you best immediately punch me in the eye, offer me a raw steak to sooth the hurt, then tell a joke so I’ll laugh through the pain.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? A life, contained in a thimble, built with a stranger’s words.

After inhaling five years of flash, I became convinced that I will never write as well as all of you. That I will never bend the creativity to the metrics, or the metrics to the creativity, to unlock the spell of this particular magic. That there is some spark Brevity authors have, something I see in myself only occasionally, such that I read your work and wonder how some squishy gray matter could have pulled these words, an average of 4.5 characters in length, from the dictionary and placed them just so.

With my Brevity database complete, I gazed across a sea of numbers, unable to quiet my internal critic. After all this time, had I discovered anything at all? I’d rather read another five years of Brevity than figure out what to say about it.

So I’m not going to. At least, not in this craft essay.

See, I really shouldn’t be here—I’m cheating even now, splitting my findings across three essays (at Dinty’s suggestion no less), thereby neatly avoiding the recommended word limit. Stay tuned for part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers”: Word clouds and other squishy results.

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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

What’s the Big Idea?

September 6, 2022 § 11 Comments

How arguing with yourself can sell your book.

By Allison K Williams

One key way to sell a memoir? From a “hot essay”:

  • a well-argued, passionate, strongly written essay or OpEd
  • published in a major media outlet
  • that garners attention online and off.

Simple, right? Just write your piece and go viral! But first, let me tell you what the Powerball numbers will be this week…

Nobody can guarantee virality (not even people with millions of fans already!) Fortunately, your work doesn’t have to go viral for your hot essay to increase your audience and help sell your book. This contest has two first prizes: either hundreds of thousands of people engage with your work, or the right person does—the agent or publisher who loves your idea, or their friend/cousin/intern who brings your work to their attention. And the process of writing the essay itself will make your book-to-be even better.

What’s the difference between an OpEd and an essay?

“OpEd” comes from “opposite the editorial page,” and it’s how newspapers traditionally distinguished guest opinions from in-house, often unattributed pieces that represented the official position of the paper. Essays, in this context, are usually straightforward, first-person accounts of a significant happening or the evolution of a life around one main theme.

Essays ask questions. OpEds pose answers.

Essay titles are evocative. OpEd titles summarize the problem or the hook.

Essays start in scene. OpEds start with a lede—a single sentence that sums up the problem and your position on it.

Essays show your personal experience. OpEds show you’re an expert or have deep knowledge about your topic.

Essays use literary techniques to create emotional resonance and ask the reader to reflect. Opeds use rhetoric, supporting information & thesis/antithesis to make clear, logical arguments and call the reader to action.

Publishing a wave-making OpEd or a highly visible essay usually happens in intelligent-but-commercial media with a strong online presence rather than a strictly literary outlet. Places like Vox, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post or the New York Times.

Find your ideal essay or OpEd topic by looking at the themes in your memoir.

Rather than encapsulating your plot, think about how you explain your book. There’s the plot, and then there’s the part where you tell your fellow writer, “But what it’s really about is…” Mother-daughter relationships. Overcoming addiction. Loneliness. Whatever the larger element of your book is, the thing that will make a reader say to a friend, “Reading this will help with your problem, even though your story is different.” You might have overarching themes, and themes within scenes or chapters or subplots. They’re all fair game.

Pick one of your themes. Then articulate both the most extreme position you could take on that theme and its opposite. Something like, Alcoholics shouldn’t have children/Alcoholics should have children. Center your nuanced essay or powerful OpEd on the conflict between those two ideas.

Maids aren’t people/Maids are people.

Joining the Army is a secular choice/Joining the Army is joining a cult.

Falling in love is an unpredictable, organic process/You can fall in love using a formula.

Each of these essays sold a memoir that expanded on the essay’s theme. The process of writing the short piece also helped the author solidify and define the central conflict of their book. By thoroughly examining the view opposing their own and showing their fight against it, their struggle or journey gains more tension and uncertainty for the reader.

OpEds are more likely to build your audience and platform than nail an immediate book deal—but publishing an OpEd helps answer “why me?” in your memoir proposal. Why should your book be published? Because you’re the expert in this topic. How do we know you’re an expert? The New York Times thought so, so we’ll take their word for it. Getting your opinion into the world on a smaller scale paves the way for your full-length opinion to be taken seriously, as well as helping establish the importance of what you have to say.

Whether or not you write an essay or OpEd, and whether or not it goes viral, it’s worth examining your themes and your central premise, identifying their opposites, and exploring those opposites as fully as possible. As a memoirist, you already know what happened, and there’s a tendency to support our own view (and our eventual destination) from the beginning of the book. Your work as a whole will be stronger if you reflect the constant conflict between two opposing and strongly held (not necessarily equally valid, just strongly held) ideas. Every scene will be more immediate, more visceral. Because practicing arguing both sides brings you back to when you were in conflict with yourself—when the future genuinely was in doubt.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. As a freelance editor, her clients’ work has appeared in The Sun, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The Ethel, and many more. She’ll be teaching how to pitch and publish essays and OpEds, from idea to publication, in Pitch, Publish and Get Paid Sept. 14th (yes, there’s a replay!) Find out more and register here.

The Other Side of the River

September 5, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Morgan Baker

I’m at an impasse. I’ve carved out time to write in a beautiful setting with a pond and ocean before me. Just me and my two dogs. I walk them almost every morning on the beach before towels and coolers cover the sand and people run in and out of the sea.

I walk watching the ground under my feet as we traverse the curve of the cove. Is there anything there that is going to trip me and send me flailing and falling? What I discover however, as I gaze at the ground, is that I often miss what’s in the distance—the shoreline I can walk towards, the birds protected in the sand, the dogs running in circles and jumping in and out of the water, or the other side of the creek that flows from the pond to the beach.

I find a piece of seaglass, harder and harder to find in a world of plastics, that reminds me to keep putting the words down. Don’t stop. Keep going. 

The dogs bolt up the dune to the path home, as I huff my way behind them. The puppy leaps in and out of the tall grass that looks like wheat waving in the wind. If she stops for a minute, I can’t find her. She’s hidden from view.

I return to the cottage, lay sheets on the sofa and futon to absorb the water and sand from the dogs, and open my computer. The dogs will nap. I eye them with envy. Napping is one of my joys. 

I have exactly what I’ve been waiting for and wanting—time and a new location in which to write. My own private writing retreat.

But, it’s not working. What’s wrong? I want to scream to the field of tall grass in front of me. 

I know what I want to write about. I know what I want the next project to be, but I can’t seem to connect what’s in my head to the words on the page. Like wading across a great river rushing by, I’m afraid I’ll be dragged down the rapids. It’s safer to stay on one side or the other.

Maybe I’m afraid of what’s in those rapids, of what memories are churning around in there that I need to reach in and pull out. 

I am easily distracted—text messages from my family bounce all over about scheduling meals for when they join me and the dogs. My writing time, alone, is coming to an end and I haven’t done what I planned to, but a family vacation I have been dreaming of is about to ensue. 

Sometimes writing plans get derailed, but other opportunities present. A potential client reached out to me the second week about helping him write some of his story. Didn’t see that coming.

I remind myself that I’ve read five memoirs during these two weeks. I don’t have that kind of time during the school year as I juggle my in-person classes and online workshops. 

I’ve even written several magazine assignments on this retreat. For pay, I might add.

And riding on top of all this, I must decide whether to sign with a small independent publisher for the memoir that took ten years to write, edit, stick away, edit again and now set free. 

More fear rises in my gut. I’ve wanted to write and publish my memoir for a long time, but now that it might happen, I want to hide in this cottage forever. What if it’s not good, what if no one reads it, what if I can’t finish the next one. What If?  What if?

Time, I’m reminded, is not on my side either. I’m in my mid 60s. 

So, I return to my writing. I know I have to start every essay with tenderness. I need to be kind to myself as I barf all over the page and pretend someone is holding my hair back, but the words won’t come out. Like the last toothpaste at the end of the tube, no matter how much I squeeze, the words are just not going to move. 

Writing is often about facing my fear—of stepping into that rushing water and realizing I will get to the other side. 

I don’t have to be fearless to move forward with my writing. Bravery doesn’t mean I’m not afraid, it just means I’ll keep going looking to my right and left to make sure I’m not going to trip on a rock or branch floating in the water.

I climb out of the rapids, I start to write. I bark at the fear the way my dog barks at rain and wind.  

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Morgan Baker’s work can be found in The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, Under the Gum Tree, Expression, The Brevity Blog, and The Bark, among other publications. She teaches at Emerson College and privately online. She was the managing editor for Thebucket.com. She is excited that her debut memoir will be out in Spring 2023 from Ten16 Press. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA. For more information on workshops visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

A Review of Jody Keisner’s Under My Bed and Other Essays

September 2, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Jeannine Ouellette

When I was ten years old, my mother’s boyfriend, Spider took my sister and me to the Rialto Theater in downtown Casper, Wyoming. My mother had recently divorced for the second time, life was bleak and increasingly violent, and I was in it for the popcorn. I could never have known—and to be fair, neither could Spider have known—that John Carpenter’s Halloween would gain notoriety as the most boundary-breaking horror film of its time for, among other firsts, the fact that the killer Michael Myers never dies. I could also never have known that I would, for months and months to come, arm myself with a giant kitchen knife during the latch-key hours before and after school, during evenings alone when my mom was at class or out with Spider, and sometimes in the dark of night, when I found myself wakefully alone in a sleep-hushed house. During this era of my mom’s second divorce, I was gripped by terrors I couldn’t possibly name or understand, but Michael Myers gave them a grotesque and unmistakable masked face from which to run—or wield a knife against.

Jody Keisner understands both the power and danger of giving outlines and heft to our otherwise amorphous fears. In her luminous new collection, Under My Bed and Other Essays, Keisner interrogates fear—personal and collective—from one sharp angle after the next, with a special acuity for the fears known best by women and mothers. As Keisner’s essays build through the book’s three parts—Origins, Under the Skin, and Risings—their themes reflect and refract elements of one another, creating a prismatic experience of how it feels and what it truly means to be afraid, as well as the impossible yet necessary quest for resolution.

Keisner shares my history of an arguably too-early introduction to horror—in her case, the “chest chomp” scene in the classic horror movie, The Thing—and she analyzes the horror genre itself as she traces her path forward toward the point, during young adulthood, when she develops an urgent and years-long compulsion to check under her bed each night. Both the protagonist and the narrator seek, through facts and figures, to simultaneously assuage and validate the persistently frightening reality of being female in the United States:

I understand statistics. The probability of a serial killer breaking into my home and murdering me is exceptionally low, currently 0.00039 percent…. Serial killers, though, are cagey. According to the algorithms produced by members of the Murder Accountability Project (map), the number of serial killers walking around the nation on any given day is likely in the thousands (if a serial killer is defined as someone who murders two or more people in ‘separate events’).

But Keisner does not limit her excavation of fear to intruders, attackers, monsters, or even the degradations of the human body, such as the chronic illness she eventually endures. Rather, she looks unflinchingly at her own roots—starting with the working-class Midwestern family into which she was adopted, with a loving but volatile and hot-tempered father: “After my eighteenth birthday, I moved away for college. I never lived full-time in my parents’ home again. If it wasn’t a holiday, I didn’t make any effort to see or speak to my father. I ran like hell.” Through both the storms and the silences, Keisner’s mother, caring but willfully passive, stands by.  

Keisner also attends to an array of more subtle yet profound fears, including the shadow of trauma from previous generations, the impact of words both spoken and withheld, and the worries that commonly emerge during the course of a long relationship, such as, do I still love this person the way I once did, and, if not, will I ever again? That’s essentially the question, in the inverse, that Keisner’s husband poses to her one day in her stunning essay, “The Neural Pathways to Love,” in which Keisner plumbs the depths of neuroscience to better understand the transformations in her decade-long relationship:

[W]hy, late at night, do I sometimes sink to my knees in the kitchen and put my face into my hands and weep silently so that Jon and Lily won’t hear? It has taken me a while to recognize these moments on the kitchen floor for what they are. Expressions of grief. Of loss. Of fear. Our relationship is changing. The ‘true love’ stage is over and I mourn it. I hope for something else in its place, but what? And when? How long should I wait? I don’t have answers to these questions.

When I first read “Neural Pathways” in 2019 in The Normal School, I was so wowed by its intelligence, honesty, and grace that I reached out to Keisner directly to tell her so. In Under My Bed, Keisner’s writing about motherhood is similarly dazzling—from the intense anxiety that plagued her after the birth of her first daughter to the resurfacing of her own unresolved adoption grief upon the adoption of her second daughter:

There is a deep, wide space inside of me where a birth mother’s love, reassurance, shelter, and genetic likeness should be—the in-between space where closed meets adoption. After this realization, I am determined to allow my child-self to grieve these feelings of loss, not just for what for I’ve lost, but for what Amelia has lost, too.

Ultimately, the most mesmerizing quality of this probing collection was the way in which the essays and passages, no matter their ostensible subjects, gathered luminously round the single dramatic question of Keisner’s love for and fear of her father, and the heartache spanning the divide between those poles. Like moths in the glow of a flickering porchlight, Keisner’s essays flutter stubbornly toward the origin of their own existence. In “Runaway Daughter,” the book’s penultimate chapter, Keisner and her family attend a railroad event with her now retired parents. She writes with wrenching precision about the reality of truces, of compromises, of imperfect forgiveness:

And I’m here with my husband, six- year-old daughter Lily, and infant daughter Amelia, standing next to my father in a rail yard that I don’t think is much to look at, because I’m trying. I’m trying in the way people do when a relationship is damaged, yet still meaningful, in the way that finding meaning isn’t always a straight path or pretty once you get there.

Later in the same essay, Keisner points to an old photograph of her family taken during her father’s railroad years:

In the picture, the railroad ties my father uses to prevent yard erosion are visible behind us, but only because I look for them. The coal tar creosote on the railroad ties melts, smelling of burnt rubber. Years later, I will read that the creosote is toxic, silently seeping into the soil and water, causing cancer in the bodies of railroaders who frequently handle the railroad ties. But on this day, bad news is not yet something I’ve grown accustomed to and we smile like people do in photos, like this is who we are.

Keisner no longer checks under her bed at night (and I no longer wield a kitchen knife), but her relationship with fear is not over. After all, life without fear is not only impossible, but ill-advised. Yet, her relationship to fear is undeniably transformed, in the way all relationships must transform to survive. In the way we ourselves must also transform to survive, in a continual process both delicate and harsh. As Keisner aptly observes, “It’s dangerous work to love another human being. But we love anyway, knowing that we will fear for our children, parents, loved ones, and for ourselves. Knowing that, as it is with all fears, this one too, burns.”

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Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.  Her work appears widely in literary journals such as NarrativeMasters ReviewNorth American ReviewCalyx, and more, and in many anthologies such as Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men; Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives; and Feminist Parenting. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Catapult, and Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel.

Welcome to Heidi Croot

September 1, 2022 § 26 Comments

The Brevity Blog keeps expanding, growing in readership and fielding an increasing number of quality submission, so we’re expanding our team. A hearty welcome to Andrea Firth and Heidi Croot who join us as Blog Editors, alongside Allison and Dinty who are still on the job, looking for fresh voices and fresh perspectives. Andrea introduced herself yesterday, and Heidi does so today. We are thrilled to have them on the team.

Heidi Croot

Brevity Blog is that place writers dream of.

The writers’ café.

Worn pine floors, rickety round tables crowded together, fragrance of coffee and cinnamon—the place where writers meet for fellowship and deep dives into the kind of craft talk many of us can’t access at home. The place where we get to share our despair with protagonists who refuse to “arc” and rejection letters that missed the point. The place where we exult in our successes knowing others understand what it took.

I love it here as a reader and a writer, and I’m going to love it even more as an editor. Words have been my solace and surprise since I wrote my first (okay, only) novel at 10 and, later, turned in weekly columns about secondary school life to the village newspaper, edited by my mother.

From there it was on to an Honours BA in English at London Ontario’s Western University with no thought to the future other than I wanted to read books and write essays. Happily, I landed a decades-long career in corporate communication that involved writing strategic plans, speeches, trade press articles, and annual reports for both the private and public sectors. Being edited and editing others was just part of the job.

In 2006, I went freelance, and a few years later, feeling edgy and unfulfilled, eased out the screen door and into the garden. I wanted to be a creative writer. 

Writers’ groups were my way in—three at last count—resulting in several shelves of “how-to-edit” books. I was terrified. I knew how to edit for business, but poetry? YA science fiction? Speculative fiction?

What powered me through was the joy in learning that comes with editing and applying those new skills to my own writing, including my memoir, now in its final edit (excerpt here). More joy from admiring what sparkles, noticing where a bridge needs repair, and helping writers add their voice to the buzz in the writers’ café and beyond.

Thank you, Dinty and Allison, editors extraordinaire, for the opportunity to join the Brevity Blog team.

And to the 87,000 Brevity Blog subscribers, those burning with ideas and those rocking the fence: Read the guidelines and submit. This is your time. We are eager to embrace your words. 

Welcome to Andrea Firth

August 31, 2022 § 35 Comments

The Brevity Blog keeps expanding, growing in readership and fielding an increasing number of quality submission, so we’re expanding our team. A hearty welcome to Andrea Firth and Heidi Croot who join us as Blog Editors, alongside Allison and Dinty who are still on the job, looking for fresh voices and fresh perspectives. Andrea introduces herself below (and Heidi will do the same tomorrow). We are thrilled to have them on the team.

Andrea Firth

Hi! I’m a writer, editor and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and I publish personal essays, literary journalism, and hybrid writing. (Read more of Andrea’s work here.) Five years ago, I co-founded Diablo Writers’ Workshop, which provides writing classes, editorial services, and a vibrant writing community for adults—it’s a big, wonderful part of my life.

Like you, I’m a writer trying to create my best work and get it published. I’ve been reading the Brevity Blog for years (usually with my morning cup of tea and my cat). Starting my day with another writer’s insight into the world of creative nonfiction has taught me a lot about the craft of writing, the ins and outs of the publishing world, and new ways manage this thing we call a literary life. Let’s face it—writing is a solo venture. (My loyal cat keeps me company through my writing days, but she doesn’t say much.) Having a network of writers that I can tap into, who I can support, and who can support me, is essential. In an eight-minute morning read, the Blog gives me that.

At the onboarding Zoom call with our newly expanded editorial team, Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore described the Blog as a conversation, which has been ongoing more than fifteen years now. And I thought, yes, that’s it! We are a community of writers and friends having a regular, intelligent, thoughtful conversation about what we do and how we do it.

I’m excited and honored to be an editor of the Brevity Blog and hope you will consider submitting a post. Join the conversation. The Blog’s guidelines outline what we’re looking for, but just like literary magazines, the best way to understand what we’re all about is to read it.

What am I interested to see more of? I love when personal narrative and technique demonstrate the craft point, or the story underlying the story—get meta! The Blog is focused on CNF, but genres lines are blurring—what can we CNF writers learn from autofiction, hybrid memoir, and experimental prose? And, of course, surprise us.

Byline

August 30, 2022 § 23 Comments

By Melissa Ballard

“What’s that?”

“It’s a magazine that published one of my essays. See, you can read this.”

I pointed, and Adah read, “By Melissa Ballard.”

My almost six-year-old granddaughter is not easily impressed, but her eyes opened wide.

She looked at me and said, “Woah!”

Truth be told, I was excited, too. Most of my essays these days are published online, but in this case, there was also a print edition. It arrived on my birthday, while Adah was visiting, and both were a gift.

During her quiet time after lunch, I noticed Adah had borrowed my latest writing journal. Instead of the pencils I use, she had found a pen.

I glanced as I walked by. She had printed, laboriously, in the same font used for the title of my essay, “by” and her first and last name.  

After her bath that night, Adah clutched the journal while I read Judy Moody Predicts the Future to her. She interrupted me and asked, “Can we look at your newspaper again?” I realized she meant the magazine, so I grabbed it, and we opened it to my essay.

She waved her hand across the pages. “How did you think of all these words?”

 My first thought was black coffee in the morning and red wine at night, but even I knew that was not age appropriate. “There are lots of ways to get started,” I said. “Sometimes I write about my best thing of the day. Today you rode the bunny at the carousel five times. So, if I were you, I might write about that”.

Before long, I heard her sigh and say, “I messed up.”

“You can’t mess up in a journal. It’s the perfect place to make mistakes.” I showed her the messy writing and the cross-outs in the pages I’d written. I told her about multiple revisions (some experts say “seven”), peer readers, and editors. I turned to the inside front of the magazine and showed her the photo of the editor.

Thinking Adah had tuned me out a long time ago, I was surprised when she said, “Show me the mistakes she found in your words.”

I laughed and pointed to a section at the end. “The editor had to cut two thirds of it, because the article was too long, but she let me read it before it went to print.”

Adah asked me how to spell “rabbit” and continued writing. Before she went to sleep, she placed the journal and the pen on the table next to her bed. “I want to write as soon as I get up in the morning,” she said.

As I turned out the lights and left the room, I tried to remember the first time I met a writer; I could not, but I know I was an adult. I thought of all the books I’d read over the years, how I gradually learned the writing process, which was never explicitly taught, not even in college. I thought of my ongoing struggles with perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and drafts that refuse to gestate. I also thought about the absolute joy of writing when something clicks. I thought about the days, which occur with stunning regularity, when I can’t face my own writing, not even for a minute. Instead, I send a note to a writer whose essay I’ve enjoyed. I came to writing so late; Adah’s story will be different.

By seven a.m. Adah was ready to search the yard for real rabbits, and the journal sat dormant for the rest of her visit.

Five days later, as Adah and her parents packed last minute items before they left for the airport, I picked up the journal, grabbed a fat, triangle pencil, and slipped both into her backpack.

__________________

Melissa Ballard has written essays for Appalachian Review, the Brevity blog, Full-Grown People and other publications. Her work is forthcoming in Berea College Magazine.

Starting the Next Chapter

August 29, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Meg McGovern

In my sixty-one years of life, most have revolved around a school calendar. Unlike people in the business world whose fiscal year is January to December, a student-who-has-become-a-teacher’s new year begins at the end of August. 

When the school year culminates in June, teachers are exhausted and have a lengthy to-do list for summer vacation; clean the basement, organize pictures, shred old receipts and bank statements, get the carpets cleaned, tend to the gardens, schedule physical and dental appointments for all family members including the dog. The list goes on. For me, a buzz of new energy kicks in that first week of break, and I begin tackling my list. Summer gives me the luxury of swimming laps in the morning, having coffee with friends or playing pickle ball, spending time writing, and then getting to the list. By the second week of summer vacation, fatigue from the school year creates a fog so dense I can’t see straight. The list becomes less important. Instead, a book and a chaise lounge entice me to the porch. There’s always tomorrow, I tell myself. When my husband, Brian, gets home from work, he pops his head out the porch door and says happily, “My summer wife has landed.”

Brian and I spend July visiting our sons, other family members, and friends, or exploring a new destination. This year was no different, except for when the calendar went from July to August. I sat on my beach chair overlooking Lake Champlain, coffee in hand, and Gia—our yellow lab—at my feet. The early morning water was smooth like glass. The Vermont mountains, in various hues of greens and blues, rose above the lake. Sailboats looked like toys in the distance. With no work worries, I felt at ease and immersed myself into the quietness. August has always signaled the time to wrap up my to-do list until next summer and get my mind back to teaching. August, when the back-to-school commercials begin, the month of perpetual Sundays, has always given me a mix of excitement and agita. 

The excitement is for a fresh start. Teachers, unlike most professionals, begin each new year with a clean slate, a new roster of students, new supplies of paper, notebooks, sharp pencils, highlighters that work, glue sticks, and a sparkling, uncluttered classroom. I redo the bulletin board backgrounds, set up a writer’s workshop center with filled staplers, sharp pencils in a container for borrowing, and lined paper. On my desk are empty baskets for the piles that will soon build up, a new calendar, and a gradebook. The first few days of school are spent catching up with colleagues, getting to know students, remembering 115 new names, setting up rules and expectations, and creating a positive learning environment. The agita is for the knowing, the knowing that after the honeymoon weeks, the hard work begins, and it is all consuming for the next ten months. 

I officially retired from teaching Language Arts in the public schools on June 30th of this year. July 1st began a new journey which comes with mixed emotions. I will miss those beautiful moments when a student writes from their heart about his dog that died and cries the tears that needed to be shed, when a student tells me I am her trusted adult because I listen, when a parent thanks me for having faith in their child when no one else does. Other days when I can sit at my desk and write for five hours at a time working on my memoir, I know this was the right decision. Some question if I will be bored—a word I dislike by the way. When a parent would suggest their child was bored in school, I’d suggest reading a classic, writing a story from a different angle, going beyond what is being expected from the teacher. So, when people ask me if I will be bored, I say, “Heck no. There are not enough years left in my life to read every book and write every story and accomplish everything I still want to do.” 

When school starts on August 31st, I will head to Staples and buy myself a few composition notebooks and fine tip pens for my own writing. I will embrace this next chapter, open to its path, wherever it may lead.
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Meg McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker. She is the author of We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg recently retired from teaching middle school Language Arts. She is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has written several essays for their blog. Meg earned an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut and is currently working on a memoir. She and her husband live in Trumbull, Connecticut with their yellow Labrador, Gia. Together they enjoy skiing and hiking with their two adult sons.

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