How Not to Write a Book

July 12, 2022 § 15 Comments

By Cheryl Boyer

Procrastinate – Find anything else to do, especially tasks you’ve put off because they’re unpleasant. Scrub the toilet. File the stack of papers on the corner of your desk. Schedule the appointments you keep forgetting about. Top off the bird feeders (even if they don’t need it), and while you’re at it, take inventory of available bird seed and calculate how soon you’ll need to order more, then check prices online where you’ll get distracted by ads for products you didn’t know you needed.

Socialize – Accept any and all invitations offered or even hinted at. Attend the special Christmas service at church, and the baby shower, and the ladies luncheon, along with the budget meeting. See your neighbor’s cousin’s kid in a school play. Have a girl’s night out and come home late, too tired to even think about writing. Go out for coffee (even though you only drink tea) with friends you haven’t seen in months and the ones you saw last week. Invite your mother along, who will see friends she wants to introduce you to, who will invite you and your mother out for coffee tomorrow.

Learn – Take up a new craft, basket weaving for instance, or even editing (which could help you with your manuscript in the end but isn’t technically writing your own book). Or finally buckle down and learn Spanish. Research the best program to use, sign up for classes at the library, order a self-paced program. Decide between South American Spanish or Spanish from Spain, which makes you think of all the places you want to visit in order to practice and hear an authentic accent.

Travel – Investigate a trip to Spain or Chile or Argentina (remember, you’ve been practicing your Spanish), even if you know you’ll never take it. Make lists of interesting sites and locations. Determine how much time and money each trip will take and how long you’ll have to save before you can afford to go anywhere other than your backyard. Then remember all the activities your own town has to offer and spend time plotting the most efficient order to do them in, and you might as well grab your unwilling family and start. No time like the present.

Reorganize – Try on everything in your closet, just to make sure you still love that cozy sweater and those pants you bought on sale that you can zip up but not sit down in but are too cheap to get rid of. Inventory cleaning supplies under the bathroom sink and in the laundry room, and if all you have is a laundry closet, sketch out your dream laundry room. Spend quality time clearing out your kitchen cabinets or pantry, making sure to check expiration dates, and discover a container of some spice you don’t often use, say coriander seeds. Flip through your cook books for recipes using coriander, which you won’t likely find in the index, so settle down with a cup of tea because this may take a while.

Read – Spend hours studying writing craft books and articles. Search the internet for instructions on writing a book proposal. Read novels and how-books, noting use of metaphor, how themes are weaved throughout, what techniques you don’t want to use. Make lists of authors, books, and resource materials mentioned in the books you’re reading and put them on hold at your library or order them online, and if you still have one, check your local bookstore, spending hours learning instead of actually composing your own manuscript.

Prepare – Go to the office supply store and fill your cart with pens and highlighters (even though you already own every color imaginable), sticky notes, index cards, binders, folders, a calendar to plan writing days, a notepad to keep with you to jot down ideas when away from your desk. Find a timer app with neat literary alarms to signal moving from one prompt to another, and to remind you to stretch those stiff muscles from all the focused, undistracted writing you’ll be doing. At home, line up your supplies alongside your craft books you’ve been reading. Then, notice your desk space needs to be dusted, and you might as well vacuum too.

Write – Sit at your newly stocked desk and write about how not to write. Make lists of topics to actually write about, being very careful not to make any accidental progress on your manuscript. And if you find yourself jotting down possible chapter titles, making lists of what your character wants or says or thinks, or if you begin composing a table of contents, by all means, remember your purpose, return to the top of this page, and begin again.

Cheryl Boyer is married to her college sweetheart, who has yet to bore her, and she has two amazing children who keep her on her toes and make her laugh often. Her poetry collection, Counting Colors: a journey through infertility, was born out of her need to work through her own grief, and her hope is that it will encourage women traveling their own journey and offer perspective to those who love them. Before she developed parosmia, she ate a bit of dark chocolate daily (sadly, there is no adequate substitute). She loves jigsaw puzzles and doesn’t like to lose sight of land. She’s also a home-schooling mama, a former foster mom, a writer, photographer, and a toilet-bowl-cleaner procrastinator.

Find Cheryl and more of her work at

On Essaying the Violence Against “Women These Days”

May 21, 2018 § 2 Comments

authorphoto-4Amy Butcher’s essayWomen These Days,” in the Brevity issue launched last week, was constructed from a series of Google news story searches using the keyword “women” combined with various common verbs ( “dating,” “walking,” “running,” “shopping,” “cooking”) We asked the author to reveal more about the origins of the powerful, difficult essay that resulted:

For years, I’ve taught Torrey Peters’ heartbreaking found essay, “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay,” which first appeared in Brevity‘s May 2015 issue, and recently I’ve begun to teach it alongside her “On ‘Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay’” which appeared in Wave-Form: Twenty-First-Century Essays By Women. That initial essay is so profound and deeply moving and unflinching in its approach, but I understand, too, the hesitation and uncertainty she felt which led to the addendum.

As an essayist, I believe very deeply in the value of complication, and in essays that are provocative in their approach. I think, in many ways, this is the most effective way we have as essayists to shake readers into being perhaps a little less accepting of any number of current situations—the state of violence against women in this country being only one of them. I understand Peters’ conflict intimately, as my first book is one for which I often feel very conflicting truths. I think of Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender,” a rumination on writing his memoir Firebird, and how he ends the essay with a moving back-and-forth interior monologue about whether or not he’d make the same artistic decisions if he could make them all over again. The best essays I’ve ever read occupy this space.

For me, writing “Women These Days” was deeply cathartic, and unlike Peters’ essay, which is uncomfortably (and brilliantly) objective, I allowed myself to become present in the piece because so much of what these deaths represent—beyond their abhorrent and inherent horror—is an ongoing and daily threat against my person and half the people around me. Why do we not care more? I’m working now on a book about women and fear and danger, and one of the hardest parts of writing it is grappling with the fact that male intimate partners—husbands, boyfriends, fiancés, lovers—take the lives of three American women on average daily. That’s more than death by car accident, death by suicide, death by cancer. We think of war and imagine combat in desert places, suicide vests, IEDS. But while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saw the deaths of 6,488 American troops between 2001 and 2012, those same eleven years yielded the death of 11,766 American women, murdered by current or former male partners in their backyards and their bedrooms, their living rooms and cars. The risks are greater if you’re a woman of color, greater if you are gay, greater still if you’re transgender. Why does it not unsettle us more? These deaths exceed the causalities of 9/11 every three years, and yet no one dares declare war on this uniquely particular, domestic terror, not foreign or distant at all but in the very same spaces where we throw birthday parties, flip pancakes, string Christmas lights, grill ballpark franks. I’m grateful this essay has had the reception it has, and I’m grateful to Brevity for publishing it.

Amy Butcher is an essayist with recent work in Granta Magazine, Harper’s, The New York Times, Lit Hub, and others. Her first book, Visiting Hours, earned starred reviews and praise from The New York Times Sunday Review of Books, NPR, The Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and others. She teaches writing at Ohio Wesleyan University and annually for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Essay as Terrarium

October 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

imagesGretchen VanWormer discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Extinctions:”

My geology professor used to be a ballerina.  A ballerina.  So she had sympathy for us—we “non majors including non-scientists” taking her course to check off a distribution requirement.  She herself had only become entranced by strata after hanging up her pointe shoes.  “It will be fine,” she said, “if you’re not that into rocks.”

Her story was like a Greek myth.  Apparently you could wake up a ballerina and fall asleep a geologist.  Surprise!  “Bedding” means something far nerdier to you now.

My writing process is similar to this in that:

1.  I want to learn stuff, and

2.  I want to be surprised.

In the case of “Extinctions,” while the emotional origin of the essay is Theresa’s death, I really didn’t have anything until I’d read Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us.  It was more of a recreational read:  a science-laden thought experiment about what would happen to the Earth if the entire human race decamped.  I was guessing she’d say, Phew.  I was mostly right, but it was more complex than that.

Chapter 5, “The Lost Menagerie,” covers a mass extinction, and that’s where I saw Theresa’s mother—a woman I hadn’t given much thought to as a child or an adult.  I asked my own mom what she remembered, and she said she’d never seen anything as sad in her life as Theresa’s mother crossing the street, carrying those stuffed animals.  So that turned into the first line, and the essay itself became a lot about mothers.

I sometimes picture an essay as a terrarium, and will sit there for a while, trying to figure out which species of words to plant together.  The World Without Us helped with that as well, because now I wanted the language of creatures and a bit of a hunting vibe.  Before reading the book, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to populate an essay about Theresa with those words.

Weisman’s acknowledgments end with the line:  “Without us, Earth will abide and endure; without her, however, we could not even be.”  It seems obvious now that a book about mother Earth would spin me away from my own experience of Theresa’s death and point me toward her mom, but it surprised me, and I learned stuff.

Gretchen VanWormer’s chapbook of essays, How I See The Humans, is forthcoming from CutBank Books.  She teaches writing at American University.

It’s Never Just Me: Jill Talbot on “All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven”

October 2, 2014 § 10 Comments

An informative, fascinating inside look at Jill Talbot’s writing process:

JillTalbot-243x366According to my laptop, my first draft of this essay was saved on March 12, 2013, when I was teaching an Advanced course on the flash essay at St. Lawrence University.  On the first day of that class in January, I challenged my students to avoid the established themes, the easy-groove patterns, and the go-to predilections we had all come to know of each other’s in the beginning workshop. I even told them I’d do it, too, because I write what I ask my students to write (I’ve read Brenda Miller describe how one of her essays came from a writing exercise she did with her students.) So I told them I’d do it, too, and that meant one thing:  no Kenny. Their eyes widened.

I said, no, really, he won’t be in any essay.  When I said it, I felt as if I were standing out on some essayistic ledge.  Then I knew:  I could write about my twenties in Texas to find out who I was in the years before meeting him. What choices did that girl make that led her to love a man who would end up leaving?  So I started a series of flash essays about my dusty, self-destructive twenties in Texas. In fact, one of those essays, “Stranded,” appears in the Fall 2013 Issue of Brevity.

All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven began with Hemingway.  I was flipping through The Garden of Eden and came across one of my underlines: “When you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.”  And I thought, yes, it is, so I decided to try to write an essay about how I was doing that back then.  I included the Hemingway line as an epigraph and started the essay: “Because you’re Jill Talbot, it’s all empty beer cans and skinny dipping.”

That semester was one of experiments, so not only did I write with my students, I also signed up for a workshop date, and I submitted a draft of this essay titled “Self-Portrait.” One student said about the opening line: “We’re tossed out of the essay if we’re NOT Jill Talbot.”  That allowed me to see I was not using the 2nd person as direct address. I was writing to myself (and as essayists, we have to make connections with our readers).  When it came my time to speak in workshop, I mentioned what the bearded man said that night—about there being a “little Jill Talbot in all of us,” and they suggested I put that into the essay.  I’m glad they did.

The next draft was titled “Scattered,” and it was.  It wasn’t clear I was addressing a younger self or even writing about the past because the draft was in present tense. At one point, it was in the past tense, but that implies distance and reflection, and this girl of the essay had neither. I was trying to capture a phase of my life from a collection of moments—like photographs—and those are always in present tense. I did try a draft in the first person, but I decided “Jill Talbot” needed to be different from the name at the top of the essay, and I had to make clear that this was the twenty-seven year old version. I let the title do that.

The guitar player, the lover, the PhD student in geology, and the Texas/Mexico border were always there, though not as united in form.  Initially, the only parenthetical in the piece was “(this one a PhD student in Geology),” but when I was still revising the draft in early 2014 (when I had the privilege to be teaching with David Lazar and asking him at the Panera on the corner of State Street and Congress about his parentheticals), I realized I needed to be stylistically consistent, so I added one in each section.

One major change that didn’t come until an entire year of revisions?  The diction. The third section, the Geology section, always had “surveying her neck” and my favorite word in the essay that came from my then neighbor, Dr. John Huntley, a paleontologist in the Geology department at St. Lawrence—who is now rocking it (sorry) at the University of Missouri.  But back in New York in 2013, I called him one day and explained, “I want a geology-related word like erosion but something more sudden, destructive, aggressive.”  And that’s how I got “corrade empty streets.” Only after looking at the draft for a year did I realize each section needed such precision.  So I tuned the guitar section, let the bearded man “[play] the same chord” and “[strum]” the water; I added the bob and weave between me and my lover’s wife, the “sheets taut as a boxing canvas,” and the phone throwing rings like punches. And I slowed down the Texas border scene by pushing the lyricism—all those “s”s and “t”s—which in my mind whispers the beginning of a certain word. Because I still wish I could tell that twenty-seven year old woman standing on a rock to stop so she will no longer feel that “desert inside.”

[Side note on considerations when submitting to a particular journal: There was a line, a line I really loved:  “In the back bedroom, where you thought he would be fucking you by now, the phone throws its high-pitched rings like punches.”  But I hoped to place the essay in Brevity, and I couldn’t recall one “fuck” in the archives—beyond Lee Martin’s “Talk Big” and William Bradley’s “Julio at Large”—and neither Martin nor Bradley were using the word the way I was, so I took out that phrase after deciding Brevity wasn’t a “fucking” journal.]

As for Hemingway? I held on to him for dear life, worried the reader wouldn’t get “danger” unless I held it at the top of my essay like a flashlight guiding the way. But one afternoon, I tweeted: “To epigraph or not to epigraph this flash essay is my question.” And while a few of my followers suggested “Yes!” Ryan Van Meter replied, “My vote is no.”  And that’s all it took—I admire and envy his writing so much I immediately deleted the Hemingway. Only then did I understand that the epigraph wasn’t a flashlight, it was a weight, because it’s my job to show the reader the danger. I added “All or Nothing” to the title in a private nod to Hemingway (not to mention Sinatra) and to hint that with all the “Alls” I had going on back then, I had nothing.

In the end, the most problematic portions of the essay turned out to be those one-liners. In fact, the second major revision began: “It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.”  It didn’t take long for me to see I couldn’t begin with the abstract—I had to begin with “empty beer cans and skinny dipping.” After all, the essay is about emptiness and baring myself.

I’ll end here with the progression and revisions of what ended up being the final five lines. By the way, thanks to Steve Edwards who showed me that “82 west out of Lubbock” was the only way for the essay to end. With “Jill Talbot” trying to leave herself behind.

It was lightning storms in the distance. 

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

It was “Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

Letters you now wish you’d kept.

It was all Marlboro Lights in a soft pack.

Pay phones outside gas stations.

82 west out of Lubbock


It’s all notes in the margin. 

A tired story.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

“Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.

82 west out of Lubbock.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

It’s the Hemingway professor. 

And it’s dangerous.


It’s all underlining words in used novels.

And hole-in-the-wall bars.

It’s letting the machine get it.

Pay phones near exits.

It’s all the hard mornings in the same black skirt.

America’s Greatest Hits.

82 west out of Lubbock.

Gold drinks from a silver bar.

It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do. 

It’s dangerous.


It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.

Blinking lights on the answering machine.

A pay phone on the corner.

It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.

82 west out of Lubbock.


Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.


Tension, Juxtaposition, and the Origin of Apocalypse City

February 11, 2014 § 5 Comments


Craig Reinbold

Craig Reinbold discusses the quandary of gun ownership and the origin of his recent Brevity essay Apocalypse City:

Some situations announce themselves pretty loudly as essays, or potential essays, or stories, or whatever. Think of all the anecdotes we carry around just waiting for a break in the conversation. But then an anecdote isn’t really an essay, and although I wrote down this party conversation as soon as I got home, it was another year before I had an idea of how to turn this scene into something more than yet another arbitrary example of Arizona crazy.

I’d been working on another essay, a massive collage of similar scenes and situations, but the thing refused to meld. One of those situations involved me creeping around the house in the middle of the night in my underwear—with a stick in my hand, because the dog had barked and I thought someone might have snuck in our back door—and ended with my wife and I walking along the dirt roads north of where were living at the time, and she was laughing at me, laughing at these irrational fears of mine. And I was laughing too. Eventually I stuck these two scenes together, and sure enough, in the juxtaposition, in the tension between those two situations—the tension between that crazy PhD going off about his guns, and this other situation in which I was terrified my family was under attack and all I had was a stick to defend us—the real story emerged. That juxtaposition added a greater ambivalence, and with that layer of doubt, that hesitation, that muddle, these anecdotes, finally, came to resemble an essay. So I like to think.

More months passed. Somehow the superfluous was chipped away, and by way of some lucky grace, boom, 732 words, there it is, Apocalypse City.

This here is more interesting though, I think, not so much how this essay came to be, but how the story is still changing: There’s often a long lag between writing something and seeing that something published. That friend’s birthday I wrote about was two years ago, and since then I’ve told the story of this AZ nutcase a lot, mostly to friends, but also family, colleagues, occasional strangers, and I’ve discovered my reason for telling it has somehow changed, in kind of a big way.

At first I told the story out sheer wonderment, akin to, whoa, did you know the universe is not only expanding, but that it’s actually expanding faster than ever!? Crazy. Then I was mostly just amused, having a good laugh at the poor gun-loving caricature of crazy. Then I started telling this story as possibly an actual sign of trouble ahead. Those on society’s fringes are sometimes calibrated to see what’s really happening even as the rest of us are obliviously checking our email. Maybe, I started thinking, this guy is some kind of Cassandra. Which is to say, my thinking about this simple story has gotten even more complicated.

In the weeks after Sandy Hook, I read a New York Times op-ed (which unfortunately I can’t re-find, c’est la vie) by a writer who had more or less discovered guns only when he set out to play with an array of them as research for a novel that apparently involved a lot of shooting. This was weird for him. He’d always been pro-gun control in the sort of unthinking way many of us are for or against so many things. But the experience got him thinking. Later, amidst some city-wide disaster, he realized he wouldn’t be able to evacuate his family, and they had to hole up where they were for a few days. He realized how volatile the world we live in is, really, how fragile civilization is when there’s no electricity, or water from the tap, and food is running low. He now keeps a handgun at home. This writer knows the statistics: this gun is more likely to kill one of his children than an intruder. But his was not a decision based on reason. It was a gut-check. The sum of so much testosterone + fear. Both of which I know well.

Don’t get me wrong. I have zero desire to go all Charlton Heston. Truthfully—though I’ve recently taken up hunting, and have developed an appreciation for a good rifle—firearms in general frighten me, or they don’t, but the fearmongers so proudly toting them do. I still think that AZ nut who’s been doing all kinds of weapons work at Raytheon for the last two years is crazy. But maybe the writer of that NY Times op-ed is on to something.

Writing this essay, I knew my wife was laughing at the absurdity of my being afraid of some hapless stranger who happened to be out for an evening walk—as we were—in the beautiful desert. She was laughing at how ridiculous this fear of mine is. Obviously.

But then, just as I was proofing this essay, here, online, in this altered context, I read that last scene differently. It suddenly occurred to me that she could have been laughing not at the fact that I was needlessly afraid and comically defensive, but rather at the absurdity that I thought I was going to protect anyone with a 2-inch blade cum pliers.

It’s like I just hit myself over the head: This is a drastically different interpretation of my own writing, an interpretation that had never occurred to me before. One way of reading this essay suggests I’d be a fool for giving into this absurd fear by carrying a gun. Another way of reading this essay suggests I’m a fool for not carrying a gun. Maybe the laughter I invite by reaching for my Leatherman as that unsavory character strolls by doesn’t come from the fact that my paranoia is absurd. Maybe the laughter comes from the fact that a Leatherman is a toothpick, and I should be carrying a Glock.

Writing, writing essays, can help us wade through an issue, a problem, a thought. The act of writing can help us figure something out. Sometimes it just mires us deeper in the mud.

I struggle. I want to live in a world that doesn’t turn on a constant threat of violence, but I don’t want to bury my head in the caliche either. I want to believe in nonviolence, but I also want my family to be safe. I dislike guns, but I’m proud to be a pretty good shot with a .30-.30. I am a contradiction. Am I a contradiction? What does crazy even mean? What’s right? I have no idea. Shit.

Of Unexpected Juxtapositions and Writing “Valentine”

February 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

townsendAlison Townsend on the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Valentine”:

I am constantly intrigued by the way the past is alive in the present, weaving itself into a kind of tapestry that at times feels seamless.  The moments when I am able, in my writing, to capture that seamlessness, that sense of everything being connected to everything else are among my happiest.  This was my experience in writing “Valentine.”   As described in the opening of the essay, I was making dinner with my husband one Wisconsin night in the dead of winter.  When I broke open the Boston lettuce I was washing for salad, I suddenly remembered my mother’s words, uttered in my early childhood, about the heart being “the best part.” I never knew exactly what she meant by that, but because she died when I was nine, her words, tinted by loss, have always seemed to contain some deep and mythic truth.   I’ve held them to my own heart for decades.

Listening to the echo of her words in my head, the entire piece unfolded from there.  I’d wanted to write about the heart for years (and had attempted to do so in numerous failed pieces).  I’m not sure what confluence of events (or, perhaps, my simply being ready to write the piece) conspired to be present that winter night.  But I do know that the fact that I was engaged in a simple domestic task, while my thoughts flew free, had much to do with it.  The experience reminds me of something I seem to need to learn over and over in my work; namely, to attend to what’s happening on the seeming periphery.  For this is where, released into musing, the heart of things often really lies.  It’s really an exercise in alert receptivity, in mindfully attending to the stream of one’s own consciousness, noticing images and picking one to follow.  It’s the “thread” poet William Stafford describes pursuing.  One holds on to it, walking quietly behind it to a pause somewhere, and then dips a net into the stream of whatever one images one pulls up, gathered together in artful conjugation by the unconscious.  Trained as poet, my impulse in essays is always governed by the lyric.  So I followed the images and was led by sound. All the different kinds of hearts that exist in the world piled up in my head up, as they do in the second paragraph of the piece, in turn releasing other memories.

Adapting this experience for my students in creative nonfiction, I showed them the essay and then asked them keep an eye on their own peripheral images and involuntary memories, things that seemed to be happening at the edge of things, then picking either one image or word to follow or listing a series of them to pack associatively into a flash-length piece.  I suggested that they jump off from whatever they were doing in the present and encouraged them to remain open to seemingly unexpected juxtapositions and relationships, ones that, in the writing, might reveal themselves to be as intentional as those in Joseph Cornell’s boxes.

“Valentine” was also a lesson to me about how many times we must sometimes attempt to write a piece before all those attempts coalesce, powered by a muscle strong enough to push them free.  “Valentine” came in a whoosh for me, fluid as a fish swimming beneath the ice in the middle of winter.  It was one of those rare examples of completely pleasurable writing, where I followed what Anais Nin once described as “a thread of wonder.”  But I know, too, that all the failed pieces I had written were also what made it possible, what contributed to developing the muscle the piece became.  The title came last.  I didn’t realize it was a valentine to all the hearts, all the plenty, and all the losses in my life until some days after I had written the piece.

“My Work is to Explain My Heart” – A. Papatya Bucak on Her Brevity Essay

January 31, 2014 § 5 Comments


Photo by Jennifer Podis

A. Papatya Bucak on the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “An Address to My Fellow Faculty Who Have Asked Me to Speak About My Work.”

At the university where I teach, I am one of seven creative writing faculty.  This is a wealth.  Add to that the fact that many of my scholarly colleagues also write creatively, that my dean is a pianist, that I have other colleagues who are painters and sculptors and so on.  You’d think I’d never have to explain myself.  But I do.  I have been repeatedly turned down for college research grants; one of my colleagues, far far more accomplished than I am, has, in the past, been prevented from teaching graduate courses because she does not hold a terminal degree.  So last spring when I was asked to participate in what my college calls a Faculty Accomplishment Festival, in which various professors speak on their “research,” I decided I would do exactly that.  I took the time to write a sincere and honest explanation of what I do.  And nobody showed up.  The only people at this so-called festival were the other presenters and the various department chairs and deans and eventually the provost, though she came late.

So I read my sincere and honest explanation of what I do in a kind of fury, which I have not yet let go of.  People were nice about it.  One guy recently said, “That was intimidating.”  But again, soon after, I was turned down for another research grant (maybe I just don’t write a good application, who knows).

So what do I do?  Stop explaining?  I live in a state where the governor wants students to be charged more for taking humanities courses; I’m not sure I have the luxury.

I published this essay in  Brevity because I knew the magazine would provide a good home for it.  But honestly you all already know what I do.  You do it, too.  This essay has rung true for writers because they know it to be true before they read it.

My graduate fiction workshop recently had a conversation about representations of fiction writers in popular culture.  All you ever see is writer’s block, one of them said.  I think he’s right. The most common representation of writers is our inability to do our job.  Even within the short stories we looked at, writer-characters were caught saying things like, I hope I don’t ever have to get a real job.  I wonder: is this how we truly perceive ourselves?

I’m a big fan of the documentary “The Rough South of Larry Brown” because in it you see a writer who treats writing like work.  (I was pretty crushed when I read a biography of Brown and it said the only time he stopped writing was when he started teaching.)  I think sometimes we writers hold onto the romantic notion that writing is such hard work that we can’t actually do it, while simultaneously holding onto the practical notion that writing is not paying work so we should not spend quite so much time at it.  And so we don’t always treat our work like work, and so others don’t either.  I don’t really know what else to say other than, sometimes the best way to explain yourself is to stop talking and start doing.  Or rather to keep doing. So let’s.

Faulkner’s Vietnam: Kelly Morse on the “The Saigon Kiss”

January 29, 2014 § 2 Comments

morseKelly Morse discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “The Saigon Kiss“:

It took me almost two years to find the format and pacing for this piece. The original draft was a prose poem, containing only the story of the man in the wheelchair with the boy. At the end, some impulse pushed me to add the line about the Saigon kiss, a bitter joke among expats, even though I didn’t understand what it was doing in the piece. Quite frankly, I was uncertain about lots of aspects of my life. I’d just returned to the US after living in Vietnam for two years, and I floundered in my re-entry, angry and grieving because I’d experienced a culture so markedly different from my own that now there were jagged canyons in my heretofore smooth understanding of the world. I was mad at Vietnam for exposing my ignorance to myself while never letting me integrate into the culture, and mad at the comfortable incomprehension my contemporaries maintained (through no fault of their own) that made it difficult to talk about the new terrain in which I found myself. Over and over again, I ended up in conversations about either the war or the current popularity of Vietnamese cuisine. Burning babies or bánh mì sandwiches. Neither is an accurate depiction of contemporary Vietnamese life – two-thirds of the current population were born after the conflict ended, and a lunch snack does not a people make.

Strangely enough, the place where I found the most kinship with my Hanoi life was in a Faulkner class taught by scholar James T. Matthews. Like Gabriel García Márquez, who in an interview said that Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet “was the best South American novel ever written,” I too in those pages found myself recognizing situations, gestures, and relationships I’d witnessed on another continent. Faulkner’s descriptions of an agrarian South being forced to reckon with economic subordination to an urban, industrialized North especially mirrored life in Vietnam’s two metropolises. Vietnam was re-entering global capitalism through sweatshops and startups, even as a recent census noted that 80% of the population held jobs related to farming, and over 90% lived in rural areas. The new brutality of Hanoi’s main streets was in opposition to traditions of interdependence holding together the dense neighborhoods and rural villages. It was through Faulkner that I figured out how to write about Vietnam.

When we read The Wild Palms, Matthews related that, after completing the first storyline of the novel, Faulkner found it oddly flat. He realized that he “needed something to lift it, like counterpoint in music”, and so interspersed the original narrative with another that dealt with similar themes from different angles. This idea came back to me months later when I found my own piece was missing something. The story of the man in the wheelchair was interesting, but it alone didn’t explain why I found in the situation a reflection of myself that gnawed at me. It also only showed one side of a particular aspect of Vietnamese culture, and a negative one at that. I had to draw out the complexity of the situation somehow, even (and maybe especially) if it revealed how I manipulated the social hierarchy when it suited me.  At the same time, I wanted to show how this complicated idea of relationships could be wonderfully intimate and friendly.

In the end, I printed out the three experiences and cut each up into paragraphs, arranging and rearranging them on the table until together they formed a greater narrative. Only then, with all the pieces together, did I understand why I’d originally included that line about the Saigon Kiss.

Thaddeus Gunn on Anger, Abuse, and “Slapstick”

January 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

gunn 2 Thaddeus Gunn on the origins of his recent Brevity essay, “Slapstick“:

I was less surprised than I should have been when my grandmother told me that she had “crowned” my mother with a milk bottle when my mother was a child. She offered it as an example of how much better kids had it in the modern time than when my mother was a child in the 1930s.

I was in junior high school at the time my grandmother told me this. It was the 1970s. Corporal punishment was still legal in public schools. In addition to swats with a wooden paddle in the principal’s office—something I’d only ever heard of—I saw children pulled from their seats by their hair and ears in the classroom. Slapped across the face. Kids kneed in the stomach, or kicked in the kidneys as they sat on the floor. Once a student had his tongue nipped by the teacher with a pair of scissors for talking too much. It drew blood. Once the principal in my junior high grabbed a boy by his belt buckle and yanked him right up off the ground.

This was simply the way things were done, at school and at home. The most strict teachers and principals were lauded by parents and the school board alike as exemplary disciplinarians.

Add to this that it was the Vietnam Era. No amount of violence perpetrated at home or at school could match a photo spread from My Lai. Nothing could exceed the violence of the three assassinations in a single decade, the four dead in Ohio, the five dead before the riot at Pontiac Central High in our neighborhood, or the bombing of ten of our school buses in August, 1971, by the Ku Klux Klan. The external violence seemed to ameliorate if not normalize the local.

Abuse is a bewildering and over-simplified subject on both ends: The abused are viewed as helpless and pitiful (or worse, potentially violent), and the perpetrators as one-dimensional, soulless monsters. Abusers are many times among those you love the most and that you are the most eager to forgive.

My mother is not a monster. Nor were we her victims. If we were victims of anything, it was of an immense, faceless anger of unknown origin that rolled down through the generations, one that none of us could either escape or comprehend—except perhaps only as harsh laughter at our own predicament and violent compassion for each other: perhaps only as slapstick.

On the Making of Electricity : Ravi Shankar

January 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ravi Shankar discusses the origins of his recent Brevity essay “Electricity“:

shankarThough born in Washington DC, the son of Indian immigrants, I always have had a particular affinity to India, which I still consider my spiritual and ancestral homeland. I try to return to see family every few years and these experiences were utterly transformative when I was a young boy, a sort of existential suspension of the person—an American, an athlete, and cool (whatever that meant)—I was trying desperately to become. In India, I could eat with my hands off banana leafs, bathe in rivers, and have my head shaved at temples.

I was simultaneously an insider and an outsider there, someone who looked like the teeming others who surrounded me, but knew little of the language and none of the cultural idioms or social mores, a fact that became more and more apparent to me as I grew older. As I settled into a painful adolescence, buffeted by hormones, I grew particularly intrigued by the gender relations that seemed to exist in India, the paradoxical place that sexuality had in Indian society.

Sex was taboo; in Bollywood movies, on-screen kisses were forbidden, let alone showing a little skin.

Sex was celebrated; some of the most ornate erotic art lit up the friezes of temples with deities intertwined in carnal, polygamous embraces.

Sita, who, though kidnapped by lecherous demons in the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana, remained undefiled by them. Rama, her betrothed hero and the “perfect man”, doesn’t quite believe this and makes her pass the agni-pariksha, or fire-test, literally having her walk through a flame to prove her purity. When she passes through unscathed, she becomes the paragon of female virtue, purity and loyalty. The quintessential good wife.

Yet on trains and buses, in villages and the city, women are sexually assaulted on a daily basis, subjugated to furtive touches and rubbed up against by too horny males who seem to have no healthy outlet for their sexual energy. And if a woman is raped, it was probably her fault.

This was context that my piece “Electricity” was written in and it speaks to me both of the aspirational and hypocritically quality of Indian society as I experienced as a young man. Eve-teasing is an euphemism that is still used for public sexual harassment and molestation of women; the connotation of the term comes from the Bible, Eve being the temptress who makes Adam stray from the path of rectitude in the Garden of Eden, and the teasing, being to allure a man, sometimes just by moving one’s hips or showing a bare neck or arm, with no intention of satisfying the desire that such behavior elicits.  The woman is to blame, according to the quasi fun-loving term, much the way in Arab cultures females are asked to cover their heads and bodies, lest they inflame a man with lust.

I had heard and ever read about this but to experience this first-hand, with my own flesh-and-blood relation, my first cousin, doing the molestation was shocking and yet, to my great shame, so was my reaction to it. I was incensed, but didn’t say much in response.  I kept my distance after that episode, and ostracized the fellow, though I wish in retrospect I had been vociferous in intervening.  But if I am to be totally honest with myself, while the largest part of me was repulsed and irate, there was a smaller part that was genuinely captivated at the courage it took to actually make contact with another female.

Being desperate for a girlfriend myself, shy and painfully unsure of how to even speak to a girl, let alone touch her, I fear I mistook his cowardice as a form of bravery. And on the way home, I spun out a fantasy, that I had been this woman’s savior, her Rama, saving her from my cretinous cousin and as a reward, she had clasped me to her bosom and taught me all about bodily pleasures of which I could only dream.

On my way home, leaving behind one skin to slip into another, thinking again about how I would integrate into American school, be accepted and admired by my peers, I decided I would invent just such a story and brag that my summer vacation with my weird Indian parents was not so bad. That I had been a hit with the ladies and even had a summer fling.

In order to produce a simple electric current, you need three things: a source of voltage, like a battery; a conductive path, such as a wire; and a resistor that converts the energy into work, like a light bulb. In the triangulation between my cousin, Bilji, and myself, all three elements were at play, each of us playing our role to create a closed circuit. In the end, I was just as complicit and just as guilty as my cousin in what eventually happened, both in the flesh and in the eventual transmutation of the entire episode into a story.

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