On Writing “Breathless”

January 27, 2014 § 4 Comments

author_photo_homeHeather Sellers discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay “Breathless“:

I began in my usual way.  I sit quietly for a period of time. Then, I rough out the scene with pencil—a kind of floor plan showing me who, what, when, where. I note in the margins of this diagram everything I see, smell, hear, taste. I try to feel what the air felt like on my skin. It’s mostly a listening practice and it’s the same kind of listening you do when you are with someone you value. You listen with the fiber of your being. I’m not sure what the fiber of my being is, exactly, but I know it’s real. Then, I followed this young part of myself as she walked across Orlando. I’ll never forget that day; I’ve written about it elsewhere. What haunts me from that day has, I think, the seeds of most of my work in it—the father-daughter relationship, the vulnerability of girls, seedy violence in an Edenic landscape, and desire.

I wrote the walk.  I got to the apartment and I got hung up at the fridge. A trusted reader helped me simplify the logistics of entering the apartment. I got to the bed. My favorite part is how the wave of the foot echoes my experimental, innocent, dangerous waves at men.  In the original diagram I did for the piece there was the death of a Florida girl in the news, and a dead Michigan girl, and two dead girls from my high school days .  Joyce Carol Oates’ portrayal of Arnold Friend was lurking around the edges, too. I remember reading that short story when I was in college and wanting to write my true story; Connie’s internal experience of the world of men led me to myself in a crucial way.

I began “Breathless” as a poem with a prosaic title, “Walking Across Orlando.” When I noticed all the lines went to the right hand margin and I’d filled a page, I re-formatted, and put the sentences in time order and when I read it aloud, I found my title.

Sarah Wells on Bearing Witness in Memoir

January 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

SarahWells_An excellent interview with poet and essayist Sarah Wells, Managing Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, touching on her essay work, including Field Guide to Resisting Temptation from Brevity 43.  Here is an excerpt, followed by the full link:

I prefer “bearing witness” over “brave” because revealing hard subject-matter in writing doesn’t seem brave to me. The definition of brave is “ready to face and endure danger or pain,” and in one instance, “without showing fear.” Maybe there are some stories that are both stories of bravery or stories told bravely, but in the specific instance of “Field Guide…,” I don’t think I was either brave in the season or brave in the telling.  I felt weak in the season and scared to death in the telling. And yet I still felt I had to tell it.  There are some stories that need to be told.  This happened.  I am bearing witness to it.

Read the full interview here on Motherhood & Words.

Words as Image: How “Thank You” Originated

January 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

girl w cameraSejal Shah discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay “Thank You” and offers up an intriguing writing prompt.

I have often relied on objects and images to help convey meaning in my stories, poems, and essays.  Perhaps over-relied.  However, I also felt that I had found a way in to a telling a story that worked.  In “Street Scene,” a lyric essay about a close friend who took her life, I found the image with resonance that knitted the essay together was that of the now-filled-in swimming pool of my childhood in my parents’ backyard.  “Street Scene” is about remembering and grieving this friend, whom I met when she was in her thirties; the present tense of the essay is a week-long trip to Paris some years later, and the childhood pool initially seemed like a random out-of-place image.  (She had never even seen the pool and we might never even have talked about it.)

My writing group pointed out that the pool and the associative memory of it that followed didn’t have anything to do with LeeAnne or the present-day of the narrator, who is walking around in Paris, but I felt stubborn about the pool, and refused to give it up.  I worked on this essay for over two years (I have a patient and kind writing group), and with the wise suggestions of the editor of the literary journal that published it, the image emerged and quietly grew to be the central image of childhood, the past, and my longing for LeeAnne’s return.  The image of the pool was the right one, but I had had to trust it and also, to learn to trust myself.  Writing and completing “Street Scene” gave me the confidence to trust myself.

My essay in the September 2013 issue of Brevity, “Thank You,” is unlike anything else I’ve ever written in that the two words themselves become what is usually an image in my writing—a touchstone, a repeated phrase, a symbol, a talisman, a warning, an entreaty, an objective correlative, a prayer, a plea, a longing, a wish.  Voice and imagery have traditionally driven my writing.  In both the fiction and nonfiction I’ve written, I have never used a lot of dialogue.  I think of writing assignments that ask students to overhear and record bits of dialogue in restaurants, in coffee shops, on trains, in line at stores, in line anywhere. As a teacher, I’ve given these assignments myself, but often haven’t taken the advice to listen closely, myself, and to write down what I hear.

When writing “Thank You,” (the whole first draft came out in one rush—it was a gift), I mused on how often the man in the essay and I said “thank you” to each other, but when I expected and wanted to hear thank you the most, the words never came.  The title of the essay and the essay itself would not have worked without the sentence from the young daughter.  The little girl’s father and I both thought it was an odd and funny thing for his daughter to say:  I love this book so much I’m not going to say thank you.  I am intrigued by the gap between what we say and what we feel or think we feel. When I showed an early draft to a few other writers, at least one was puzzled by the title.  Who is saying thank you?, she asked.  And what is she (the narrator/me) thankful about?   He is gone, I never met the daughter, but the words and story stayed with me.  I am thankful for that.

Writing Prompt:  Many essays, stories, and poems I’ve written are letters to people I have loved or people who haunt me—these are letters I am unable or unwilling to send.  “Thank You,” is one of those letters.  Write a letter that you can never send or will never send—to someone with whom you are not in touch, or who has passed, or to whom the ability to speak at a certain level or pitch has faded.  Who are the people who haunt you and what would you say that you never had a chance to say, if you could say it?  A brief essay in the form of a letter, a direct address, a wish.

Sejal Shah’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, The Literary Review, Web Conjunctions, and AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle. She lives and teaches in Upstate New York. Find her online at www.sejal-shah.com.

On Overheard Conversation and “Afternoon Affair”

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Sally Ashton discusses the classroom prompt that led her to write her recent Brevity essay “Afternoon Affair:”

This lyric essay comes out of an assignment I give my Introduction to Creative Writing students at San Jose State University. I ask them to listen for and write down interesting lines of dialog overheard in different settings: the cafeteria, the library, sitting on a bench. Not the whole conversation, just some intriguing snippet.

Their collected lines become fuel for a story or perhaps a poem, whether for themselves or another student when shared in class. The exercise also gives them practice in paying attention to the world around them.

As often happens, the assignment turned back on me.

The incident that became “Afternoon Affair” occurred later the day of the assignment when I was on my way home from campus. What seemed at first to be an opportunity to capture an interesting line of dialog to use in the next class meeting became instead an unforgettable personal encounter.

Would the encounter have occurred had I not been attentive, as I had encouraged my students to be? If you’ve ridden much public transportation, you know that the norm is to keep your head down. No talking. No eye contact. “Popeye” and I sat next to each other, but my usual wariness was displaced. He spoke first, and I was fortunate to engage and to write down the encounter soon after.

The exercise is simple and often provokes something completely unexpected. All it takes is the intention to pay attention.

For the assignment, I ask my students to record one overheard line each day for a week, more if something catches their ear. I’m hoping it will. For an example of how to use these fragments, I give them a line I once heard on my way to class, spoken by one student to another. “I feel sorry for her, but . . .”

I ask them to finish that sentence in their journals and then continue the dialog between 2-3 characters of their invention, creating a scenario that carries on to some conclusion. It always amazes me what diverse dramas and comedies come out of that one catty phrase.

Memorable stories swirl around us everyday. You just need to listen.

On “The Laws of Physics”

May 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

David J. Lawrence discusses the origins of his essay The Laws of Physics and Good Common Sense:

David J. Lawrence

David J. Lawrence

A few weeks after the accident, my son’s long-term prognosis good, a colleague stopped by my office.

“Well, you’ve got yourself some material.”

On some level, I suppose, I knew as much, though I didn’t know what to do with it. Nor was I eager. I had beaten myself up a lot in those weeks for having put our family in that situation. Armchair kite flying….

My “material” gestated for about 15 months, until I found myself sitting aboard a C-17 military transport plane headed from Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Once we were aboard, the crew introduced themselves. They were out of Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. I immediately thought of my sons, again. A week earlier—was it really only a week ago?—I’d put them on a plane in Denver and sent them to live with my parents in Charleston for the duration of my deployment. I deduced that this crew had a greater likelihood of seeing my boys at a Target or a McDonald’s or Folly Beach once their mission was complete than I would over the ensuing months. I envied them greatly.

I thought about the conversations I’d just had with my new acquaintances during what the Air Force calls, without irony, the “lockdown” period before boarding. I thought about how much I missed my family already. I recalled how close I’d come to missing my older boy for good 15 months earlier.

I had raced across the open field, the ambulance already having arrived. I ran out of my flipflops as I rushed to my gravely injured son being tended to by EMTs. I vaguely remember noticing my younger son, pacing and agitated, his hands atop his head on the fringe of the crowd trying to render aid to his older brother, whom he’d just seen plummet from the sky.

I’m staring at the seatback in front of me, and notice again the rapid, shallow breathing that invariably besets me when I think of that terrible moment. I shudder and try to shake the image from my mind. Too damn close a call. Please God—no close calls, on my parents’ watch, while I’m at war.

We rumble down the runway, the ice fog so thick outside you could see nothing from the little bubble windows of the cargo plane. I remove the green hardback GSA notebook I’d stashed in my pants pocket before boarding and began writing. “The Laws of Physics” became the first of about 75,000 words I’d write, long-hand, over the ensuing months.

It was good therapy.

David J Lawrence deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan from 2010-2011. He is delighted to be back in the classroom, doing the holy work of discussing great books with wonderful and engaging cadets at the US Air Force Academy. His essays have been published in War, Literature, and the ArtsThe Santa Barbara Independent, and Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. And if you attended the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (lucky you), you may have heard his voice on the Fanta soft drinks commercials airing before film screenings. He lives in Colorado and Santa Barbara, California.

On “With and Without Care”

April 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

deathLori May, author of  “With and Without Care” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay. merging experience, and the quotidian in nonfiction:

I grew up paying little attention to health care. Health insurance was something I took for granted, as many Canadians do, since it was a given part of my birthright, not unlike maple syrup and hockey.

Everything changed when I crossed the border with a fiancée visa in hand and married my American-born husband. Within days of my move, while cardboard boxes still scattered every room of our house, we were legally wed in a downtown Detroit courtroom. Romantic? Yes, in some ways. But our timely ceremony was a necessary step in my immigration. It also provided insurance. Or, rather, it provided my legal title as ‘spouse’ so that I would be covered immediately under my husband’s health insurance.

He was more concerned than I that bad timing and a lack of paperwork would leave us in a bind. I was not yet fully versed in how the system works here. He knew. My spouse grew up with the understanding that to receive medical care, one must be skilled in filing forms, have advanced knowledge in which professionals fall under in- and out-of-network coverage , and feel over-insured while also never fully being covered for everything. This was a strange adjustment for me and continues to be.

My experiences as a Canadian-American have aroused a number of questions, prompted cultural commentary from others (“you’re not really am immigrant; you’re just from Canada”), and, of course, inspired a number of essays. I enjoy exploring the differences in my two home countries, as well as the commonalities, yet when it comes to health care I still don’t know what’s better, what’s worse. Maybe I never will. But I like to ask questions.

In “With and Without Care,” I wanted to show health care concerns and experiences outside of my own. My first draft of this essay had a more linear narrative and was weighted with my own angle. Yet in working on a book-length collection of essays, an immigration memoir in shorts, I have discovered that merging my experiences with those of others is infinitely more interesting. It adds complexity. It allows me to explore what I see of myself in others, in connecting the dots across humanity.

In “Quotidian Nonfiction,” (Creative Nonfiction, Issue #44 Spring 2012), Patrick Madden shares his pleasure in uncovering those everyday moments that are, most often, lacking in shock value, yet still inspire him to write:

“Perhaps this is because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism. No matter. I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.”

In “With and Without Care,” and throughout my collection-in-progress, I’m using my personal experiences of culture adjustment as a prompt to connect those dots. Rather than plainly narrate what I see and experience as a newcomer, I’m reflecting on my migration and emergence to seek ways to identify with others—and, perhaps, new ways to identify myself.

Lori A. May is the author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook. Her essays and reviews may be found online with publications such as Passages North, The Iowa Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Connotation Press, and New Orleans Review. Canadian by birth and disposition, she now calls Michigan home. Visit her at www.loriamay.com.

The Dance of “Last Dance”

March 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

donna_summer_plumage_std-polaDana Tommasino, author of Last Dance”  in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and stories that seem to haunt you:

The story came to me in quirks and figments, over time.

The ladies, Flanders and Anna — known so briefly — sat with me for decades. Or, through them, a sense of a time did. They were bearers. I’d tried to write them before, had gotten only scraps, snippets.

Donna Summer’s death last year was all over my Twitter stream. I was taken by how much she moved people. Yet it also sparked my song-tinged memory, brought the ladies back, gave them, and the story, home.

And how much music, in general, scores my memory, my past.

My mother owned a hair salon in LA in the 60s. I grew up alongside her gay cohorts. There was the sheer beauty of these people making lives together in such isolation, with so much ranged against that possibility. They were, in their way, ghosted. I’ve felt a great gratefulness for them lately that I’ve poked around in, in recent writing.

Roles were more defined then, prescribed. Flanders & Anna, my age, were emblematic of a certain style of gayness to me, almost a throw-back to that time.

Growing up, I was neither femme nor butch. It intensified my — already outsider — oddness.

In gayliness there is a persistent story of well-meaning friends introducing you to someone you have no other thing in common with other than gayness. This story trades in that a bit. Only the random pairing was self-initiated.

I was not aiming for a gay story but a true one.

I would never want to be 20s again.

It started as sensation then I slowly added detail. The ghosts were there first. I wrote to fill in around them.

Although it becomes slightly surreal by the end, “Last Dance” is far more traditionally narrative than what I’ve been writing lately, as though it needed structure to hold its phantom/s.

Afterwards, I fretted the story wasn’t gracious enough, but what does that mean? In some way it was transcribed from the character of me twenty-five years ago. The voice of ‘me’ came to me. Am I her now?

It’s not like telling it cocooned it perfectly, or permanently, or even halted it.

It’s a haunted story. Yet not just by the obvious ghosts. It is me ghosted all the way through, trying to feel my selves against other (ghosts), and longing, as we all are in the story, for communion.

What story doesn’t have that?

Dana Tommasino is the chef/owner of Woodward’s Garden Restaurant in San Francisco, where she also curates and hosts readings. She has a master’s degree in literature from Mills College. Her work has also appeared in Narrative Magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her family and her crazed Norwich terrier, Chickpea

Instructions to Somebody You Love: A Prompt

March 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

rutabaga21Dinah Lenney, author of “Instructions, As If” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and what can happen when a teacher follows the classroom prompt:

So this is funny—at least I think it is—I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I wrote “Instructions…,” or why: though I do remember where— it was at my kitchen table on a Monday night: the Kitchen Table Workshop met once a week for a couple of years, so once a week I came up with a prompt, or three (sometimes even four—I’d get over-excited, see, about prompts). But did I keep track of them? No. No, I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t keep a journal; I don’t know what I served 12 people for dinner last month (some people, like my mother, for instance, record that sort of thing, but not I); my books are not alphabetized; my files, virtual and otherwise, are a mess; and I do not keep track of writing prompts. O I have them all here, of course I do, lists of them on scrap and file cards and post-its and occasionally typed out as if I mean business, stowed in a folder on the Parson’s table catty corner from the desk. I’m planning to sort through them one day, really I am, but I haven’t quite gotten around to that. So, you ask, are they dated? Did I happen to take notes after workshop about how and why one worked or didn’t? No—no again. Which is why I couldn’t remember about “Instructions”: not even with four versions in my computer. (That’s how I work, I keep copying a piece over and over, file upon file, trimming, adding, moving on to the next draft, but not wanting to let any of it go until I’m sure I’m finished. And even then).

So what can I tell you about the essay? Well, it was Brenda Miller who taught me, by example, to follow a prompt with everyone else. I figure if she got her beautiful essay, “Table of Figures,” from an exercise she did alongside her students, I have no business twiddling my thumbs when everyone else is writing. So, on a Monday evening last fall, I followed my own mysterious prompt. And, the next day, liked what I had well enough to dive back in—at which point I proceeded to overwrite. However—turns out some pieces are meant to be brief: some situations don’t need a whole lot of elaboration. Not that I knew that at first—in fact, I went on and on, as if I hadn’t said what needed to be said (for the time being anyway) about long-term marriage, and mid-life preoccupations, and memory, and acceptance, and love. But finally—this was days later—I got it. “Instructions, As If” wanted to come in at 671 words, period, the end.

As for how it was born—I was about to give up, when I realized (here’s the funny part): there I was searching for clues, racking my brain, emailing students—do you remember the prompts from last fall…? I’m trying to figure out how I came up with “Instructions, As If…”—when the answer had been there all along, embedded in the title: Instructions! See? Here it is on a file card from that fat manila folder: Give directions or instructions to somebody you know, somebody you love, about something that’s important to you…

Dinah Lenney wrote Bigger than Life: A Murder, A Memoir and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC. Her new memoir, The Object Parade, will be published by Counterpoint Press in 2014.

Alas. ǀ Alas!: On the Origins of “Variant Table”

March 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

moore.1Elizabeth Wade, author of “Variant Table”  in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and the possibilities of form:

Marianne Moore constantly revised throughout her lifetime, publishing poems only to republish them later in new—and often considerably different—forms. Heather Cass White’s books, A-Quiver with Significance and Adversity & Grace, compile those changes and revisions, offering critics a handy guide of all the variations of Moore’s poems published in specific time periods. During my graduate studies, White hired me to help with the books, and my primary job was to make the variant tables, which I then checked against White’s tables. The work was exacting, but I liked it—there’s something comforting in the methodical, in reviewing each letter and counting every space. The table formatting was fairly straightforward, with each variation noted by line number, abbreviated edition title, and presentations of the text. For example, the variant table for “Smooth Gnarled Crepe Myrtle!” shows the following shift between three different publications of the poem:

51 New, Sm Alas. ǀ POV Alas!

As I worked on compiling the tables for A-Quiver, I became interested in them not just as a guide to the poems but as an end to themselves, a window on possibility. I wondered about the meaning of the changes, free from the context of the poems. What happens when we substitute “agéd” for “English” (as Moore does in “Virginia Britannia”) or exchange statement (“Alas.”) for exclamation (“Alas!”)? At the time, I was experimenting with form—writing annotations, postscripts, a list of figures—and I wondered how I might compose a creative piece in the form of a table. I tried off and on for several years, always failing because I couldn’t find an appropriate content. Everything seemed gimmicky rather than organic, so finally I shelved the idea and moved to other projects.

In the fall of 2010, I spent about a week conducting research for Adversity & Grace at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Each day I’d spend hours reading through Moore’s letters—primarily those to her publisher, her mother, and her brother. Each evening, I’d sign out of the library, walk several blocks back to my hotel, finger a well-worn slip of paper, and dial the newly-familiar phone number of a hospital psychiatric ward in Alabama. I’d speak to my brother Austin, often briefly, and wonder if he knew who I was or would remember my call. After his death (it came two months later, after his stay in yet another institution) I returned often to our final conversation, wondering just how cognizant he’d been, how much I might have missed. I’ll never know, of course, and eventually I realized that the not-knowing had assumed an identity of its own, that our last conversation existed only as a text and its possible variants, and thus offered a content to fit the form I’d explored years earlier.

Elizabeth Wade holds degrees from Davidson College and the University of Alabama. She serves as Managing Editor of NANO Fiction, and her work has appeared in such journals as Kenyon Review OnlineAGNI, and others. She currently teaches literature and writing courses at the University of Mary Washington.

Of Mermaids and Seaweed: Writing “Rusalki”

March 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

mermaidEliza Fogel, author of “Rusalki” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and the power of prompts:

Write your grubbiest experience

This was the initial prompt that sent me chasing mermaids. Nearly a decade ago I was teaching English to children in a touristy town on the edge of the Baltic Sea. The summer camp was an awful concrete bunker with no hot water. No one bathed so we all reeked of sweat and suntan lotion. Our feet were filthy from barefoot runs in the grass and dusty walks on sharp gravel paths. Our fingers were sticky from nightly marshmallow and Nutella snacks. We were turning into wild creatures and the children felt that I should transpeciate into a proper mermaid. They had a ritual. All I had to do was show up on the shoreline at dusk.  I dressed the part in a gauzy cream gown that was so inappropriate for summer camp that this occasion seemed to merit its sole use. My “christening” was full of seaweed, sand in my ears, shells in my underwear, and the loamy dead fish smell of the part-living and the part-dead tucked amid the bobby pins in my hair.

Describe the textures of your childhood

This prompt allowed me to cover the ground between the previous recovered memory and one with much deeper roots. My grandmothers’ warnings about the demon mermaids, the Rusalki, were quickly resurfacing under the quiet stars in Gambier, Ohio. The sky resembled the midnight blue waters that had once rushed the shores of Ustka, Poland.  I kept thinking about the senses of home and found my imagination running to one of the many summer nights spent with my first friend, my sister. At our young age, under the myth-based truths of my grandmothers, we believed we could change into demons, angels, or any sort of magical being. We’d lost our father, in the fairy-tale tradition, so our lives were the stuff of magic and tragedy; and in fairy tales the sisters are always so very different, the true separation is to what degree they can escape their histories.

 Hat tip to the 2012 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop class for a wonderful experience; and special thanks to Kevin Kane, Cyn Vargas, and Christine Caya Koryta, who back home help me count words and write stars.


Eliza Fogel, a fellowship and Graduate Opportunity Award recipient, is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Annual Story Week Festival of Writers and the award-winning literary anthology Hair Trigger. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. All inquiries welcome: eliza@fogel.com.

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