Wash Your Lyric (Essays): A Writing Prompt for a Strange Time

March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments

AML_Author_PhotoBy Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Maybe you’ve been able to get some writing done this past week, even focus. If so, I applaud you. I certainly haven’t. The situation, as we all know, changes by the hour, sometimes by the minute. What seemed unthinkable yesterday is the new normal; what seemed unthinkable last week—well, last week was a different era entirely.

I teach at Bowdoin College, which was and is on spring break, and which, when classes do resume next week, will switch to online-only for the remainder of the school year. With only a few necessary exceptions for those who don’t have anywhere else to go or have visa issues, students will not be returning to campus. I feel for them, especially the seniors whose college lives have evaporated with no chance at in-person goodbyes, and those whose home lives are unwelcoming or abusive. And I feel for them even more as they, and all of us, are subsumed into this whirl of uncertainty.

As an epidemiologist friend of mine put it, if the situation feels unprecedented in our lifetimes, it’s because it’s unprecedented in our lifetimes.

There is, in other words, plenty for us to think about. And so I will admit: I haven’t been thinking about writing.

When I emailed my students to check in, asking how they were and what I could do, I assumed they hadn’t been, either. But the responses came back: they’d like a writing prompt, please. A prompt like the kind I usually start each class with, a place for us to practice the making of art together, practice putting whatever is in our hearts and our minds and our memories to the page. And right now, a place for us to put all this uncertainty.

So for them, and for me, and all of us right now who could use a short assignment, a brief encouragement to acknowledge and feel this moment and turn it into art, here’s a writing exercise we can do together.

You’ve seen the handwashing diagrams, the ones intended to give us something—anything—else to sing beyond yet another rendition of Happy Birthday, many of them made through Wash Your Lyrics, a website created by 17-year-old William Gibson, using a poster from Britain’s National Health Service. Here’s one for Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” which I fully remember dancing to when I was my students’ age and 9/11 was still two years away, and we hadn’t yet had our worlds as disrupted as these kids just have:

handwash 1


Good, right? Makes you smile, keeps time while you keep safe. Gives you, in other words, a short assignment to keep your anxiety at bay.

Now try this:

handwash 2

I wish I knew whom to credit for turning Lucile Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” into a handwashing diagram—it was making the rounds on Twitter—but when I saw it, something unlocked. It made me wonder: what if we treated the handwashing diagram as inspiration for a hermit crab essay?

In Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell it Slant, they define a hermit crab essay as one in which the essayist borrows the form—the hard, hermit crab shell—from elsewhere in the world, and treats it as the container to shelter some deeply personal thing to be explored. “It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace,” they write. “[M]aterial that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.”

Soft, exposed, and tender—sound like anyone you know right now?

So for a prompt, try writing into the handwashing diagram, seeing what text you can pair with each step. (The Wash Your Lyrics website has a place for you to enter your own text.) What memories come up for you, as you write? What do the instructions suggest to your subconscious? And how can their orderly progression of steps shelter the disorderly progression of your thoughts in this time?

And—important, too—is there anywhere you want your essay to become less orderly? For the words to overspill the diagram? If that starts to happen, let it. Write into that uncertainty, and explore. What tension have you uncovered? What is at stake in your refusal, now, to be contained by the form? (For inspiration, here, try checking out Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing,” in which the narrator’s life and anxieties gradually overspill the hermit crab form of a syllabus.)

Then take it further, beyond handwashing. Are there other found or hermit crab forms you can see in the world around you, in its response to the virus? Other forms you might use as inspiration for an essay? Perhaps one of those ubiquitous sales emails from a company talking about its virus response; or a text chain as you try to convince your loved ones to stay inside; or even instructions for a Zoom cocktail hour?

Have fun with it. Explore. A different form—a different short assignment—for each day.

I hope it becomes something that shelters you, as art must for all of us.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is an assistant professor at Bowdoin College and the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir. Their most recent piece was “Body Language” in the December 2019 Harper’s.

Author Photo by Greta Rybus



A Review of Joan Frank’s Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place

March 9, 2020 § 6 Comments

trytogetlostBy Elizabeth Frank

I met Joan Frank (no relation) in person just once. We were in a café in Florence, eating bean soup, sharing insights about the publishing industry and our impressions of Florence: the ubiquitous selfie-taking college students on their junior year abroad (whom her husband, the playwright Bob Duxbury, was there to teach), the dense herds of tourists (not, of course, us), the necessity of purchasing things which came free at home, like potable water and disposable shopping bags, the fact that vital stores were closed all afternoon, and that the homeless wore flowing hoods and velvet skirts, like extras in an opera.

Many of these annoyances Frank includes in her essay collection Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place, which was the recent winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and published by the University of New Mexico Press. The essay “In Case of Firenze,” originally published by the TriQuarterly Review is the one which provides the title “try to get lost.”

Frank does get lost, and so will you. The foreign and the familiar are met with the same level of attention and insight. To Frank, “place becomes, finally, the only subject . . . obsession, raison d’etre, riddle.”

More than once, she refers to Shirley Hazzard and I felt, reading Frank, what I feel reading Hazzard, an inclination not to turn the pages to see what happens next but to dwell on the page, to linger in the evocation of scents, vistas, and emotions. Her observations are precise, witty, charming even at their crankiest. Always, she situates you in a specific world (place becomes riddle). In enumerating what France does poorly and what it does well, wine is obviously in the “well” column. Any traveler will tell you that in France, wine is inexpensive and everywhere. Frank tells you that wine is “delicious, kindly priced, wholesome and fundamental as milk.” With “kindly priced,” we are in Frank’s France, under the guardianship of benevolent caretakers. “To travel is to be a fool for awhile,” she declares, to give up control, to give up preoccupied oblivion to one’s surroundings. Travel demands that we pay attention, makes the obvious remarkable.

“North and south yield logical products of their geographical données,” she writes of France. “Butter above, olive oil below; white wines and champagne above, Bordeaux and varietal reds below (berries which have to work to exist) – for all of which we are, without question, better.”

Not everything is benevolent or makes us better. Luggage, that necessary evil, is both heavy and flimsy. Air travel, while admittedly a luxury, is a taxing ordeal. The sun, the entire point of traveling for some, can burn down without pity or relent. Her husband’s penchant for teaching semesters abroad and his visits to his native England, coupled with Frank’s own wanderlust (place becomes obsession), provides Frank with many landscapes to detail in her luminous prose, but she doesn’t require “exotic” inspiration to paint a compelling scene.

Her account of a visit to her childhood home in suburban Phoenix, the “dry, supine, block-on-blockness” of the squat houses of the old neighborhood, is the collection’s most heartbreaking essay, as popsicle-and-lawn-sprinkler, sun-drenched childhood bliss darkens into the interior of a shattering lifelong trauma.

The collection’s merriest piece concerns Frank’s ritual, with her husband, of setting up cocktails and snacks in their motel rooms on the road in order to watch HGTV, although they don’t fit the channel’s demographic of trendy young consumer in pursuit of gleaming surfaces. Their own home (the word “home” contains, she notes, “the meditative OM sound, a sustained vibration that seems to inject our bones with an irresistible promise—sanctuary, safety, peace, freedom”) is a “paid-off 1930s bungalow bought thirty years ago . . . shabby and worn.” (They prefer to spend their money on travel.) HGTV shows like Property Brothers and Fixer Upper follow a three-act narrative structure: the find, the renovation, the reveal of the new, the sparkling, the shiplap. Traveling, Frank studies homes she passes, wondering about the lives of those inside. In her rented room, she is absorbed by the redemption drama of HGTV, which “suggests it’s showing us exactly that: who lives there, and what kind of lives they—we—are having.”

Place becomes raison d’etre. Place is, in the end, the only subject. Joan Frank is a vastly compelling and lyrical guide.

Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes will be published by Stonehouse Publishing in November 2020.

A Review of Julia Koets’ The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays

December 19, 2019 § 2 Comments

rib jointBy Magin LaSov Gregg

At nineteen, Julia Koets falls in love with her best friend Kate, a college roommate, and a lover who denies her own desires. At the heart of this denial is a dominant cultural narrative that understands same sex attraction in what Koets terms “The queer creation myth (of ) born this way,” often considered “The only queer creation story.”

Ultimately, Kate cannot acknowledge her feelings for Koets because the former does not have a born this way origin story of same-sex attraction. The former lovers attempt a tenuous friendship but drift apart, and ultimately lose one another to a limbo “where queer lives are erased.”

In The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays, Koets artfully examines her own experiences of queer erasure alongside larger cultural erasures, at times symbolized by enduring figures such as astronaut Sally Ride or D.C. Comics’ Gay Ghost.

The lyric essay form, reliant on gaps and fragmentation, beautifully aligns with Koets’ own experience of compression and expansion, as her narrator moves from a closeted existence to one of self-acceptance and personal liberation. Her memoir demonstrates the profound costs of rejection, silencing, and exclusion within powerful social systems, where love and inclusion often hinge on self-denial.

The Rib Joint won the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Book Award judged by Mark Doty, and was released in November 2019. Natural elements of the coastal south—azaleas, the ocean, beaches, and even sharks’ teeth—offer organic entry points for storytelling. Nautical imagery reinforces the tension between self-liberation and self-submergence that drives Koets’ narrator.

Her memoir’s title chapter begins with the controlling image of an octopus who lacks a skeleton, and so “protects itself by hiding in plain sight.” Readers might recognize this essay, which first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Creative Nonfiction (Let’s Talk About Sex).

In order to survive, Kate and Koets hide their relationship at the small college where they meet, and where a stifling conservative Christian ethos pervades the student experience. Only years later, will Kate confess her true feelings, a moment in which the possibility of who the lovers may have been together expands to offer a new story of liberation.

“I felt our story bend, the way ribs curve to hold the lungs, the heart,” Koets writes. “In one story, we lived in a jar. In another story, we opened the lid and swam out into the darkness of the ocean.”

The rib signifies the power of origin stories to shape human experience and identity, and recalls one creation myth in Genesis, where Adam’s rib generates a subordinate Eve. However, Koets references an older and often overlooked companion myth, which envisions man and woman originating at the same time, neither owing existence or allegiance to the other.

“In the first myth, after the great whales, the cattle, every herb-bearing seed, God created Adam and Eve as equals, Eve’s body all her own,” Koets ruminates, demonstrating the power of interpreters, and not texts, to oppress or free.

Her memoir additionally interweaves experiences of sexuality with symbols associated with Christian worship, such as praise houses and pipe organs, to reveal the formative influences of religion. Koets’ resistance of heavy-handedness and refusal to condemn those Christians who ironically condemned her, are admirable.

I found myself equally struck by Koets’ choice to dedicate her book to her grandmother who died without knowing Koets was gay. The memoir, in a larger sense, voices an authentic selfhood Koets was unable to share with her grandmother, due to fears of judgment and rejection.

In her chapter “Spectrum,” Koets examines the linked etymology of “spectrum” and “spectre”—words she’d once conflated—to question binary categories of sexuality and reveal their limitations. “Spectrum” also includes a true ghost story, as ghosts are, perhaps, ultimate symbols of erasure.

“If there’s no record of a relationship, did it ever really exist?” Koets asks. “For a long time only Kate and I knew we had been together—and for years Kate said she wouldn’t name it that way—being together.”

The character of Kate becomes a living ghost who haunts Koets’ narrator. Yet, a later-in-life reconnection between the former couple offers greater friendship and a healing perspective on the past.

Perhaps to echo the hopeful promise of new possibilities, The Rib Joint ends with a stunning image of regeneration—a mature tooth growing in the place of a lost baby tooth—reminding readers of our lifelong capacity to recreate our stories and ourselves.

Magin LaSov Gregg’s essays have appeared in The RumpusFull Grown PeopleSolstice Literary MagazineBellingham ReviewHippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s working on a memoir about love, loss, and going forth.


Writing Personal Essays Together

November 15, 2019 § 7 Comments

x ellen scolnic (left) and joyce eisenbergBy Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic

We’ve been writing personal essays – together – for 10 years. Yes, this is an oxymoron. Personal means unique, individual, one’s own, yet we often find ourselves writing about “our children” or “the time we burned our dinner.”

How do we present our joint point of view without the reader assuming we’re polygamists with five children between us? While we don’t share husbands, we’ve shared paychecks, bylines, and the microphone at our speaking engagements ever since we wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words in 2001. We write, blog, tweet and post as one – but we really are two people.

We are partners but that not kind. We’re married to different men, but they both thought we were talking about him when we wrote that “our husband” wanted to leave the wedding before dessert. Likewise, when we described our husband as the nicest man in the world, they both said, “Thanks, sweetie.”

When we write together, we meld our point of view for the sake of the essay. So as not to embarrass a particular child, we disguise their identity. We use pronouns instead of names, add up all their ages, grade point averages and incomes, and divide by five. Still, the kids recognize themselves and accuse us of exaggerating:

“Everyone gets detention; it’s not big deal.”

“They gave archery ribbons to everyone. You don’t have to brag about it.”

We don’t want to be outed by Oprah for faking our autobiography, so we’ve never totally invented a child. Our own give us plenty of material. But we have created an imaginary uncle for a holiday column about rude dinner guests.

Like a personal trainer, a writing partner provides motivation. On our own, we wouldn’t make time to write, just like we wouldn’t make time to lift weights. Together, we commit to writing once a week. We sit in front of one computer. Joyce types; Ellen talks.

As the date approaches, the wheels start turning. We scan the news, look at the calendar, and examine what’s going on in our lives for inspiration. We’ve written about our children’s interests in “Different Paths to Diplomas,” favorite foods in “The Great Knaidel Konundrum,” and the rush to purchase presents for the winter holidays in “Calendar Confusion.”

Sometimes our inspiration is mundane. Joyce reached for a coffee mug and realized that her mug collection was snapshot of her life – the Mother’s Day cup with the faded photo of her toddlers, the college logo mug. When Ellen confirmed she was sentimental about her mug collection, too – the souvenir mug from the trip to Chicago, the one her son made at Paint-a-Pot – we knew we had enough material for a column.

Our writing skills are complementary. Ellen is imaginative; she’s known to exaggerate to get a bigger laugh. Joyce is an editor by background; she likes to Google everything and find out the facts. “Ellen, you are making that up. Those gourmet chocolates didn’t cost $39.99. We need to look it up.”

We are a writer’s workshop of two. While we write together, we check in: “Do you think that’s funny?” “Is that the best word?” After years of working together, we don’t hold back our opinions. We don’t feel compelled to give positive feedback before we say, “That needs some work.” We’d don’t get our feelings hurt when one of us points out, “That sentence doesn’t make any sense.”

In the time that we’ve been writing together, our children have gone from kindergarten to college, our phones have gone from our kitchen counters to our pockets, and our hair needs a touch-up every few weeks now. Together we’ve written 119 blog posts, dozens of published op-ed essays, 751 tweets, 1,400 definitions of Jewish words, and spent hours and hours together driving to book talks. But we still look forward to writing together. We long ago got rid of our personal trainers because we thought we could exercise on our own — but we know better when it comes to writing.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are the authors of the Dictionary of Jewish Words, and The Whole Spiel: Funny essays about digital nudniks, seder selies and chicken soup memories. Find their books on Amazon and visit TheWordMavens.com. Follow them on Twitter @TheWordMavens


A Review of Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life

October 8, 2018 § 1 Comment

41PkHEBUsnL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_by Randon Billings Noble

Jenny Boully’s collection of essays on the writing life, Betwixt-and-Between, is indeed betwixt-and-between. It’s certainly a collection of essays, but it’s also something of a craft book, and it’s also wonderfully something … else.

It’s the same way I have felt – as a woman but really more of a person, a person but really more of a writer, a writer but really someone for whom living and language are so intertwined it can often be hard to tell the two apart. It appears to be much the same way for Boully.

“Betwixt” is an archaic term for between, so from the very beginning the book’s title signals a kind of fluidity. The first essay, “the future imagined, the past imagined,” uses verb tenses to explore the shifting nature of time and desire: “we write in the past imagined when we write about old love affairs, because nothing is as unreal, as dreamy as love. And nothing is as confusing, as cryptic, as encoded as what occurs, as what is said, when we leave a love affair and suddenly have to live outside of that dream, the dream where something could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, would have occurred.

Much of Boully’s writing occupies this liminal space between reality and dream, is and could, did and could have. “Forecast Essay” takes on the predictive, musing on preservation and destruction and how we can keep what we have – or had. “On the Voyager Golden Records” speculates how far into space that “snapshot of the world” will travel, and how far Boully’s own writing will reach in her lifetime. And “Between Cassiopeia and Perseus” mourns the end of a love affair at the end of summer, when both the heat and the clouds conspire against seeing both the Perseid meteor shower as well as one’s new place in the world.

Some of the essays that have more straightforward titles and headings, like “How to Write on Grand Themes,” still surprise the reader with their unexpected leaps into imagery and metaphor.  Expected writerly advice like the section “Pay attention to detail” also urges, “Don’t close, do close your eyes. You will wish, it will never happen again. The aforesaid moment already acting as artifact – the teacup so lonely, so empty.”

But Boully doesn’t always take the unexpected route. She can also be brilliantly direct, as she is in “The Page as Artifact” when she claims, “If you’re spending too much time on the page and not enough time outside the page, then you’ll need to find more time to find poetry.” And in “On the EEO Genre Sheet” Boully pointedly states, “The term ‘other’ … immediately connotes an agenda: If you don’t fit into one of our predetermined categories, well, you aren’t playing the game correctly.”

But who wants to play this particular game – and correctly?  From the beginning, in her preface, Boully tells us that she has become attached to “hesitations, refusals, yearnings, oscillating and uncertain desires.” She describes her writing life as “a place where writing that isn’t quite this or that exists, writing that strives or serves to make manifest the inner workings of a life that isn’t quite about writing nor quite about living.” Like Peter Pan, both Boully and her work draw us to a threshold where we are “not wholly living in make-believe nor wholly living in the consequential world.”

Shifting and resisting, Boully has given us a collection of essays that also functions as a craft book in motion – not a set of directives but evidence of a writing life lived. It is everything we could want, but not as we expect. As Boully says herself of her own work, “I may look like an essay, but I don’t act like one. I may look like prose, but I don’t speak like it. Or, conversely, I may move like a poem, but I don’t look like one.”

And how glad we are for that.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017, and her full-length collection Be with Me Always is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press on March 1, 2019. Other work has appeared in The New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere.

Lately, There Have Been No Essays

July 23, 2018 § 9 Comments

Brame BW 300dpiBy Chelsey Clammer

Lately, I’ve been writing sentences that begin or end with “lately.” (Now with both, apparently.) Perhaps it’s my way of welcoming the reader to my words, to my present-day life, like I’m giving her a status update. Though the number of people who have read these “lately” essays is roughly zero because I have yet to finish any of them.

Lately, I’ve had a hard time final-drafting my essays. I got close to finishing “June Bugs” (opening line: “I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”), but then I ran into the problem of elocution. Within “June Bugs” is an entire narrative thread that discusses my relationship with my ex-husband by using the word “elocution” to define how we can’t resist one another, even post-divorce. But as I worked on what I thought was a close-to-final draft, I found out that I had the definition of “elocution” all wrong. This, of course, relocated my essay’s meaning from the land of This Is Brilliant to the wasteland of FML This No Longer Makes Sense.

I first came across “elocution” when it was Dictionary.com’s word of the day—a nifty notification I receive on my phone through the company’s app. This ensures that I learn a new word every morning, 8 am. When I first read elocution’s definition, I thought it was a term that meant being able to speak in a controlled and elegant way—something that doesn’t happen when I’m around my ex-husband/current boyfriend. (Yes, we’re dating because that’s just how we roll. Also, interesting side note: the morning after our first sex-rendezvous, that day’s word of the day was elocution). So I wrote a whole essay about love and how when I feel the rush of a crush brewing into something more, that mutual desire sizzling into something else, I lose my sense of elocution. That is, there isn’t anything controlled or elegant about the ways in which I love. Elocution’s actual definition, though, is that it’s simply the way in which a person controls/delivers her own speaking patterns—elegance isn’t necessarily a part of this.

Lately, especially during that last paragraph, I’ve been wondering if this essay is interesting to people who aren’t me.

I’ve also been wondering that if I were to actually finish this essay, would the reader make it to its last sentence. This is about interest. About how I’m still interested in dating my ex-husband, regardless.

I have come to realize that finishing these essays has been difficult for me because I’m writing stories I haven’t yet finished living. That is, I start essays about my narcissistic ex-husband and how terrible he was and how invisible, disrespected, and abandoned I felt in our marriage and then, during mid-essay-revisions, he and I hook up in real life and I lose my sense of elocution around him and so then my essay no longer feels totally true or fair because I guess I have my own zest of narcissism (I am, after all, an essayist), so of course I have to do revisions and explore how our marriage always felt like a battle, like we were forever competing for the top position on the priorities totem pole, and how we were both victims of disrespect. Revisions then begin to feel overwhelming, like a solid run-on sentence.

Though lately, my ex-husband has been pissing me off because he’s a self-involved ass-hat who said he has better things to do than listen to me bitch about frustrating things like roundabouts and essays that are based off of incorrect definitions. Also, when I tell him that I can tell that he’s not listening to me, he then mocks me because that’s helpful, and I’m back into that invisible space, and back to revising the essay I just revised because my ex-husband is a narcissist and terrible, and I, of course, have nothing to do with that.

Lately, things keep changing.

Or maybe things aren’t changing but I’m just questioning the true definitions and descriptions of my life’s main relationship.

Though I do have a few lines stuck in my head that stand true, regardless:

“I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”

“I lose my sense of elocution when I’m around him.”

“_________, regardless.”

Re: “_________, regardless.”

How I’ve been ending sentences with the word “regardless” because to me it sounds like that one word holds a lot of complex narrative power, regardless. Like how our love for one another is powerful and super-complex, regardless.

How I begin sentences with “lately” and am now starting to end them with “regardless.” How these are my writing patterns. How I also begin sentences with “how” if “lately” is not already in that sentence’s lead-off position. How I’ve witnessed other writers begin their sentences with “How.” How I don’t know if this irritates me or not.

Lately, as I’ve been writing this essay, I have been considering the structure of my sentences and therefore wondering about redundancy. Time and again, same thing over and over. Like all of those “lately”s. Like all those attempts to date my ex-husband.

Though I guess repetitive sentence structure is better than no sentence structure because lately I have had a hard time with not only finishing essays, but with getting past that first sentence, too. It has something to do with performance anxiety or maybe just the innate knowledge that I’ll never finish writing the essay because I won’t be done living the story for a while. Things change. Flux. Ex-husbands become boyfriends. That said, I did get myself to begin this current essay. I think it’s all about that first “lately.” How my repetitive sentence structure is my fallback when I don’t know what else to write and maybe that’s okay, like how we always return to love, regardless. At least right now I’m writing, which is perhaps only because I know that my relationship with my ex-husband can’t mess up this essay because I am now writing an essay that knows how to exist without him.


I’ve been using the word “finally” as its own sentence lately because I need to convince myself that one day, when I write an essay about my ex-husband, that last “finally” will remain fact. How our relationship will have to eventually come to a conclusion, for better or for worse, together or apart. Either way, there will be a “finally.”

Lately, I have stopped wondering about why I begin my sentences with “lately,” and have instead been wondering about how things will end. How it is that I know I’ll eventually have to reach that final “finally” in both word and meaning, regardless.

Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome, and won the Inaugural Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing.


A Review of David Lazar’s I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays & Aphorisms

June 8, 2018 § 2 Comments

9781496202062By Vivian Wagner

David Lazar’s new collection of essays and aphorisms, I’ll Be Your Mirror is, in fact, all about mirroring. Mirroring each other. Mirroring parents. Mirroring loved ones. Mirroring readers. Mirroring writers. Mirroring ourselves.

It has a kind of Lacanian mirror-stage complex, this book, concerned as it is with how we find our identity in the eyes and desire of another. And at the same time, it’s about how utterly, completely alone we are—and the solace to be found in that aloneness.

As someone whose only real social life is reading books, like Lazar’s, I loved spending time with him while reading this collection. It felt like hanging out with a dear friend—a friend who hums to himself, often digresses, and occasionally shouts frenetic revelations into the early-morning insomniac darkness, but dear nonetheless.

The collection’s first essay, “Ann; Death and the Maiden,” is about an ex-girlfriend’s suicide, and the ways that the essayist-narrator Lazar—who, as these essays demonstrate, might or might not be the “real” Lazar—is learning to come to terms with it. This suicide is threaded throughout the book, and it could arguably be seen as the book’s primary, though not always explicit, focus.

The essay starts with a story about Lazar telling his brother about his new girlfriend:

I was a young professor, thirty-seven, and she was an older doctoral student, thirty-four, and we had fallen for each other, and I thought it was going to be a big deal, in the way you know that someone is going to come into your life and the tectonics are going to change.

We learn, quickly, that she commits suicide a year and a half before this essay’s writing, so we know this is not going to be a story with anything like a happy ending. It doesn’t even have a particularly happy beginning or middle, what with the wild drinking and parties and cruelty rivaling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that we hear about in this essay and others. The maiden, we learn, is bipolar and only sometimes medicated. We also learn that there is a hopeless, desperate love between her and our essayist—a love that’s long unraveled but is still there, in some way, even after her death.

It’s a fitting way to begin this collection, since it’s an essay, at least in part, about the ways relationships serve as a mirror for both our best and worst selves, our capacity for infinite compassion and our endlessly strangling neuroses. And as the essayist Lazar delves into questions surrounding this particular relationship, he uncovers similar questions about our relationships with all manner of others—mothers and friends, celebrities and fans, texts and readers.

Here’s the thing: Lazar is flirtatious in these essays. Flirtation, after all, is one of the ways we engage with others, simultaneously offering connection and protecting ourselves. In “To the Reader, Sincerely,” for instance, he begins with the line, “Come here often?” He continues by saying that “I want something from you, and you want something from me, and I’m not just trying to be chivalrous when I say I know I owe you a good time, in the broadest sense.”

It’s a sweet Montaigne-esque moment of direct address, and it draws the reader into a kind of startling intimacy with the essayist. Near the end of the essay, the voice grows increasingly solicitous, with the essayist arguing that the reader has a central role to play in the essay’s creation:

So, reader. Reader. Darling reader. There’s something I want to tell you. It’s a story, but it’s more than a story. It’s what I think about what’s happened to me. To us. And where I might be headed. We might be headed. It involves movies, books, walking around if it’s not miserably cold, and your occasional willingness to laugh at my jokes. Together, we might be able to cobble together an essay.

It’s an essay about assaying, about trying to make a connection with a reader, and about the way that an essay is only complete when someone reads it.

From a defense of bowling alone to an analysis of going through Pandora’s boxes full of old photos, from a dialectical essay in the form of an interview between Lazar and Mary Cappello to a collection of aphorisms about mythical mothers accompanied by eerie, haunting illustrations by Heather Frise, I’ll Be Your Mirror is a wild and strangely endearing ride through Lazar’s life, mind, and relationships. Endearing, perhaps, because we understand that the theoretical bravado and accounts of emotional pyrotechnics are, in the end, engaging but necessarily imperfect reflections of a caring son, a kind father, and a brilliant introvert who likes to walk through cities making up songs.

Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Musica poetry collectionThe Village; and a micro-chapbook, Making.


Apply the (Perhaps) Most Famous Fiction Exercise of All Time to Your Essays

March 28, 2018 § 11 Comments

zz Michael Noll headshotBy Michael Noll

A few years ago, I talked my way into teaching a magazine writing course at a major university despite having almost no magazine experience. I focused on very short essays like the ones published by Brevity and introduced what seemed to me to be the major elements of the form, pointing to them in published work and asking students to include them in their own: a particular incident, context and backstory, one or two short scenes, and a short passage conveying the emotional importance of it all.

Anyone who’s taught or written a short essay knows the problems they encountered: finding a good incident, understanding the difference between scene and summary, and condensing backstory and context into a short paragraph.

But the biggest challenge they had was conveying the emotional importance of the story: why readers should care. I had expected this to be the easy part since I’ve always considered Whitman’s credo (“what I assume, you shall assume”) to mean that a story that is meaningful to one person will naturally connect with others as well. But that wasn’t the case. My students’ experiences were not only quotidian (everyone will experience love and loss) but also couched in the dull language of general experience. How do you tell someone their intense experience comes off as generic?

I didn’t.

Instead, I showed them writing that conveyed emotion without naming it. A good example of this can be found in the recent Brevity essay “Meanness” by Beverly Donofrio. It begins with the writer remembering her mother crying over unpaid bills, tears that rise in intensity until she had worked “herself up like an opera singer.” And then we get this:

“…when her weeping petered out, I listened to the quiet of the ticking clock, watched her skirt swing as she stepped to the stove, and thought her beautiful as I hoped my brother Eddie wouldn’t wake up so I could be alone, like that, with her for a while.”

It’s a lovely image that actually creates an emotional response better than any statement of emotion could ever manage.

This advice may sound familiar. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, suggests this exercise: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, or death. Do not mention the man who does the seeing.” In other words, don’t state the emotion. Convey it. This is what Donofrio does with “petered out” and the quiet of the ticking clock and swinging skirt: the silence after the aria.

Fiction writers do this all of the time. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan enters a room where the wind is whipping the curtains and the women’s dresses; then, when he shuts the door, everything sinks to the floor. We haven’t even seen the guy yet, and yet we feel his presence.

Justin Torres does something similar in We the Animals, a book that is ostensibly a work of fiction but shares many qualities with the essay form. In an early scene, the narrator and his two brothers sit at the kitchen table, hammering tomatoes:

“We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.”

As with Donofrio’s clock and skirt, images do the heavy lifting in this passage. But there is also a plain statement: “We aimed to smile like that.” It doesn’t name an emotion, but it gets awfully close, instead naming an intention to feel.

This is what I wanted my students to learn. In nonfiction, just as in fiction, specific details will put readers into the skin of characters on the page. But because essays are so brief, you cannot wait for readers to sink into the world you describe. You need a sentence like “We aimed to smile like that” or “I could be alone, like that, with her for a while” to pin the feeling you’ve created to a reader’s brain. Make readers ache, yes, but then tell them they need to remember that sensation long after they’ve left the essay behind.

Michael Noll is the author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fictionthe Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, and the editor of Read to Write Storieswhere he posts writing exercises based on published work and interviews authors about the craft behind their novels, stories, and essays. His short stories have been published widely, including in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology.


A Review of Chelsea Martin’s, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life

December 8, 2017 § 2 Comments

cacaBy Lizzie Klaesges

“What was I doing!?” I shrieked, shielding my face with my hands. I was flipping through old photo albums with my mom and stumbled upon a particularly embarrassing photo of my preteen self.

In the photo, I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Genuine Girl, only I put masking tape over Girl and wrote Alien in black marker. Genuine Alien. I wore this to a Mardi Gras themed fundraiser at my middle school. I was also wearing butterfly face paint.

Of course, I knew what I was doing in the picture. I didn’t have to ask. It was the time in my life when I was obsessed with aliens. Not pictured were my little alien dolls, each with full life stories of my own invention. I was a strange child.

I thought of that picture while reading Chelsea Martin’s recent collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life.  The collection contains the essential stories of her childhood into young adulthood, in which she describes her younger self as a delightful concoction of strangeness. In one essay, “The Meaning of Life,” Martin reveals how she too was preoccupied by aliens. She describes her attempts to summon aliens, believing they had special knowledge far beyond human understanding. She hoped they would reward her belief in their existence and share secrets with her, most importantly the meaning of life.

The strangeness of a child normally doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but Martin finds a way to present her childhood curiosities logically and with deadpan delivery.  She is honest and self-deprecating while maintaining a certain aloofness to her humor that keeps readers unflinchingly by her side. Better still, she captures not only the absurdities of the young mind but also the discomfort. A large part of growing up is the discomfort of an evolving mind, a mind which eventually recognizes former childhood notions for what they are. In the essay, “A Year Without Spoons,” Martin describes choosing to give up spoons for seemingly no reason at all, even though a part of her realizes this is an unusual choice:

I stopped using spoons one day. I was becoming weird, I knew. And it didn’t seem like the good kind of weird, like the eccentric arty weird that could be appreciated by other people. It seemed like the bad, dark kind that could unravel a person if it got out of hand.

Many of Martin’s essays unfold to reveal more tender and complex undertones. The spoons, for example, become a coping mechanism for the lack of control Martin had over her life during a time when she switched schools a lot and had no real friends. Her choice of utensil became a way to practice control and restraint and, in a way, it felt like an achievement.

Some of the many topics of Martin’s “Lowbrow Life” include her sheltered small town, troubled relationship with her stepfather, living with mild Tourette’s syndrome or OCD, meeting her biological father for the first time, attending art school, and various romantic endeavors. Martin often manages to capture the essence of her quirky former selves in just a few words. As I breezed through the pages, I was often left thinking, how did she do that?

In the essay, “Ceramic Busts,” we observe teen-Martin’s attempts at flirting with a boy named Sandy at driving school:

“My favorite Beck song is ‘Thunder Peel,’” I said. ‘The one that’s like, Now I’m rolling in sweat with a loaf of cold bread and a taco in my jeans.

I had practiced the lyrics over the weekend, perfecting my falsetto delivery. I’d hoped that it would make him smile.

“Oh,” Sandy said.

I giggled.

After finishing driving school and leaving that town behind, having had no meaningful interactions with Sandy, Martin goes on to create many artistic renderings of him, mostly ceramic busts.  She eventually submits these for her application to art school and gets accepted.

In an essay titled, “Goth Ryan,” Martin attempts to communicate through facial expression:

Before he disappeared, I tried to give him a look that said I don’t care what you do, and Like at all, and Anyway Zach is here and we are in love, we are going to tell each other how in love we are and soon you will be merely a distant foggy memory that rarely occurs to me, and when I’m older I will conflate you with someone else I knew around this time and you will become a half-person, so unimportant on your own that I couldn’t be bothered to remember you as one being, so utterly useless in my memory that you barely exist, and But in all seriousness, I really don’t care.

Martin’s subject matter becomes more serious towards the middle of the book as she describes meeting her father for the first time at age sixteen, which she says is “an age that is known for being awkward and unbearable and confusing.” It’s already clear to readers that Martin has a difficult relationship with her stepfather, Seth, and it’s apparent early on that Martin’s relationship with her father will also be flawed to say the least. Martin strikes the perfect balance between funny and fraught while talking about her father’s relentless disapproval of her. He criticized her for everything from how much sour cream she eats with dinner to her acne.

I tried to understand what the problem was. My dad wanted to change what I did and said, and also the ways in which I did and said them, implying that possibly everything about me was, if not outright wrong, somehow off, in need of correction.

As writers, we are naturally wondering about the potential repercussions that can come from writing about people we know, especially those related to us. This, Martin addresses in her final essay, “The Man Who Famously Inspired This Essay,” in which she expresses her decision to take a break from her relationship with her dad and eventually choosing to write about him:

“You’re going to thank me one day for giving you all this material for your writing,” [My dad] said when I stopped crying.

I avoided eye contact and silently promised to never write a damned thing about him.

I love the irony here, how Martin writes about never writing about her father. She concludes the essay, and thus her collection, with: “And though I’m comforted by the fact that this past self seemed to know that it was always her story to tell or not tell, I have to admit that what she didn’t yet know is I never keep promises to myself.”  I can’t help but think that this was Martin’s pre-emptive response to our pressing question: it was always her story.

Although I love Martin’s detailing of her poorer, less cultured hometown and lifestyle, this collection gives us more than simply “Essays from a Lowbrow Life,” as the subtitle suggests. These essays are also about the common rites of passage that face most of today’s young people. This book is about leaving home and coming to terms with flawed relationships. It’s about being friendless and making weird fashion choices. It’s about learning to bullshit. It’s about becoming be self-reliant and making countless mistakes along the way.

Like looking at childhood photos, this book is as uncomfortable as it is humorous. It reads like a memory we might have been a part of in another life and reminds us of our shared humanity through even the most painful times of self-discovery.


Lizzie Klaesges is a Minneapolis-based writer and marketer with recent publications in Rain Taxi, The Critical Flame, and Allegory Ridge. She definitely does not still think about aliens.

A Brief Guide to Essays

August 1, 2017 § 28 Comments

We’re ready for our prose poem!

The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”

Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!

It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:


They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.


Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.


Not this one.


Prose Poem

Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.



Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.


I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?


In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.


The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”


In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.


The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.


Braided Essay

You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.


Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.


As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.

The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writer’s voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.


Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.


Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.


Some nice braided essays:

The Search for Marvin Gardens by John McPhee

Buzzards by Lee Zacharias


Seriously. The strands have to repeat.


Hermit Crab

It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.

1) Choose an existing form, such as guidebook, grocery list, rejection letter or recipe.

2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.

3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.

4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.

5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.

6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.


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