October 21, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Kelly K. Ferguson
Last week I found myself wandering Ellis Hall in Ohio University. Back when I was a creative writing grad student, I lurked all the time, acting as if I had official business, but really on the lookout for company, which I usually found. But that was seven years ago, and we’re in the second year of a pandemic. Ellis Hall has since been renovated to resemble a Hampton Inn. The dusty hardback copies of Ivanhoe? Recycled. The bat under the trash can? Disposed. No sensible person would miss how the stairwells used to smell of baby diapers. The clank of an opening door echoed and I scurried out.
The above is what Brenda Miller would call a container scene. My scene is meant to demonstrate particular loneliness, the loneliness a writer feels for other writers. The German word for that feeling is Schrifstellersehnsucht.
Schrifsteller = writer
Sehnsucht = longing
In A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form, Brenda Miller weaves short essays of her writing life with craft lessons. The book is divided into three sections (of course!). The first centers around memoir of Miller’s writing life, the second on craft, and the third reflects on writing community.
Any follower of Brevity recognizes Brenda Miller as a good friend to creative nonfiction. Perhaps you’ve read her classic essay “Swerve,” or Miller writing about writing “Swerve.” Miller may not have invented the lyric essay, but she has made containers such as the hermit crab, collage, and braided essay accessible to instructors and writers.
If Miller’s Tell it Slant (co-authored with Suzanne Paola) is a chalkboard crammed with notes, A Braided Heart is a pot of perfectly steeped tea with two cups. The book is a testament to the tensile strength of essay. No matter how the form is bent, so long as the writer remains in conversation, the connection maintains, this friendship through words.
While I was a grad student at Ohio University, Brenda Miller was a visiting writer and I picked her up from the Columbus airport. I was nervous and excited and took a detour to Canal Winchester, the exit where strip malls and car dealerships go to thrive. Losing our visiting writer to the machinations of neoliberal industry would be bad. I rambled without pause to cover my anxiety until I figured out how to merge back onto the proper road.
Miller remained good company throughout.
Miller’s talent is to make the structure of her lyrical essays feel natural, as if they couldn’t read any other way. “Writing Inside the Web” connects a story about a Free Box at a lodge, to a writing retreat, to a list of internal brain machinations, to Simon and Garfunkel.
“…the mind, given the right conditions, will become a soft receiving ground, so full of inviting crannies that thoughts, images, ideas can drift there and settle like pollen.” (“On Thermostats”)
Last Friday, I sat down to finish this review, and wound up writing a hermit crab essay instead, which I credit to the juju provided from A Braided Heart.
When I taught the hermit crab essay as a graduate student, I would show this video of a pet hermit crab changing shells. Without their container, the hermit crab is vulnerable, disproportionate, a hunchback out of the belfry. At the end of the video, when the crab slips into their new home, a woman gasps, “Ooooh! There she goes!” This always made the students laugh.
That laughter was the sound of freedom from the five-paragraph essay.
Miller writes how concrete forms allow for “inadvertent revelations,” where the writer surrenders control. “Revelation, or discovery, emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer, rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.”
Confession: Schrifstellersehnsucht doesn’t exist. My partner is Austrian and finds this idea of a “German word” for everything perplexing. He explains that German has more compound words, so it’s easier to string words together, but that doesn’t mean the words are real.
“But what would the German word be, if you made one up?” I ask.
He knows I’ve been lonely for other writers.
The day after I’d visited Ellis Hall, I ran into my former creative nonfiction professor, Eric LeMay, in a market parking lot. Even as my chatter floated in the air, I wondered why I would go on about lurking for the smell of baby diapers, out of all the things I could say. Our exchange was over in a minute.
“Maybe see you somewhere, someday,” I said. I meant a reading or a gathering.
“Maybe,” he said through his mask.
The inside of my car was silent. I thought, this is a somewhere, someday.
“What I’m trying to say is the lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken,” Brenda Miller.
Two wide flat mossy rocks sit like invitations in front of my house. A father and his daughter walk by most days. The girl always runs up to the rocks, and leaps from one to the other.
“Whee!” she says, but only when she’s in the air.
Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Storysouth, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications. In the past ten years, she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio back to southern Louisiana on to southern Utah back to southern Ohio, where she has planted asparagus in the hopes of yielding a tender spear in three to five years.
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
An illustrated NonfictioNow round-up from Rebecca Fish Ewan:
“Stories are food!” Brian Doyle shouted right before we all broke for lunch. Stories are food. He said this throughout his keynote address with the urgency of a preacher in a revivalist tent. In fact, his message was not unlike a religious one.
“Nonfiction is everywhere!”
“Every part of your life is an essay!”
Can I get an Amen?
As he spoke, I thought back to the last NonfictioNow conference I attended and why. I had just gobbled up Reality Hunger by David Shields and had developed a huge crush on his brain, so I submitted to be a panelist at the conference just to hear him deliver the keynote. Not very spiritual of me. That was Melbourne, 2012.
Now the leaves shimmer golden in the brilliant light of Flagstaff, Arizona, and I can sense change in the air, specifically with regard to form. As I move from session to session, my own panel included, a clear thread begins to emerge, though it goes by varying names—visual memoir, blended genres, side-stepped boundaries, hybrid essays. Stories are food and while truth is still on the menu, the variety of dishes now expands beyond traditional bounds of language.
Amen to that.
Never one to feel at the center of anything, I love witnessing the erosion of borders—between poetry and prose, between word and image, sound and story itself. Story-telling is embracing a synesthetic sense of the world, something Shields hinted at three years ago, but that now feels deep in the DNA of nonfiction. Panels include: Music and Writing, Making (Radio) Waves, Performing the Essay, Of Visual Essayistics, Mix It Up, Adventures in Poetic Biography, CNF and the Hybrid Form, the Poessaytics of Form, and my own Mixed Media Memoir. “One art form can explain another,” said Harrison Candelaria Fletcher while using Cornell’s shadow boxes to illustrate his thoughts and experience with the hybrid essay. “Writing is a script that can only be heard in the ear,” Will Jennings said as he discussed his interests in the link between music and memory. “Food is a mode of storytelling,” said Samantha van Zweden of using the lyric essay to write on memory, food and mental illness.
Brenda Miller offered calming options in talking about her experiments with poetic forms applied to the essay. “I have always believed that rules and constraint can be liberating,” she explained as she presented her prose villanelle about two cats and pantoum on ectopic pregnancy and her college roommate Francisco. Another structured approach to genre bending comes through pairing. “The most interesting thing is the technique of juxtaposition,” said Michael Martone in the session on creative facting with Dave Madden, Tim Denevi and Maggie Nelson. Martone later illustrated the richness of juxtaposition in the keynote on keys he performed in duet fashion with Ander Monson. Juxtaposition is one way that a writer can apply what Madden called the “nonfictive imagination.” Nelson talked of “modes of assembly” as a way to reach into this species of imagination to find the story.
But what about truth? Is all this fuzziness a kind of magician’s slight of hand to enable the writer to lie? These questions circle back to Doyle’s story sermon where he implored us to use our gifts to “catch and share” the stories that are out in the world. “Witness is the greatest single thing you can do with your work,” he said. A witness is not a fabricator, but any witness perceives with his or her particular lens and recounts the story with his or her unique voice. I return as well to Kafka’s 63rd reflection on sin, suffering, hope, and the true way, where he reminds us that “our art is a way of being dazzled by truth.”
I was curious how the event affected a newcomer to the conference. My co-panelists, Amy Silverman and Deborah Sussman, both seasoned nonfictionalists, had never attended a NonfictioNow conference. “I was struck by how much experimenting is going on,” said Silverman, “I love seeing that visual art and poetry are making more appearances, even though my own work blends memoir with journalism. It was a nice time to get out of the writing cave and hear what others are working on.”
The collective wisdom and experience shared over these past three days has been astounding. The organizers, an army led by Robin Hemley, David Carlin and Nicole Walker, amassed a humbling assembly of authors. After reading through the speaker bios, I felt both honored and intimidated to be among such a group of writers. Nicole Walker senses the gladness of this entourage of talent that permeates the air in Flagstaff. “I thought I was doing this to bring people together for collaboration and conversation,” said Walker, “I didn’t know how much joy people would get from the conference and that makes me very happy.”
Amen to that.
Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She just finished her hybrid memoir (free verse + cartoon) on a childhood friendship cut short by murder and is launching a mixed form zine, GRAPH(feeties): true stories of walking. More on her work and submission info at: www.rebeccafishewan.com
February 25, 2014 § 2 Comments
At our first-ever AWP Bookfair table (A40), we will be selling our first-ever Brevity chapbooks, at $1.50 a pop, or five for $5. Brief essays from Brenda Miller, Heather Sellers, Joey Franklin, Kent Shaw, and Ira Sukrungruang. We’re pretty excited.
Plus, three of the authors will be in Seattle and will drop by to sign your copies, so stop in and buy a few while they last. Here’s the schedule:
4:15 Brenda Miller
11 am Ira Sukrungruang
2 pm Joey Franklin
January 20, 2014 § 2 Comments
Brevity’s managing editor and culinarista Sarah Einstein writes:
John Gravois’ “A Toast Story” at Pacific Standard has me unexpectedly craving artisanal cinnamon toast, and not because I particularly like cinnamon toast. (For the record, while I share Brenda Miller’s preoccupation with toast, I prefer mine made out of pumpernickel or rye.) Gravois’ first reaction to San Frans’ latest food craze was “How silly; how twee; how perfectly San Francisco.” But he digs a little deeper, and what he finds will surprise and amaze you.
This essay demonstrates why writers need to stay emotionally and intellectually open when they set out to explore a subject; why the essay needs always to remain an exploration. If Gravois had insisted on sticking with his original thesis—that artisanal toast is just another example of how the influx of rich techies is ruining San Francisco—we would never have had this lovely, thought-provoking piece.
February 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
Over at the Journal, Silas Hansen conducts an excellent brief interview with Brevity favorite Brenda Miller, including this nifty new definition of the flash:
I do a lot of my writing in timed segments in groups, and so that is why much of my work lately is coming out in short bursts that seem self-contained. It feels like a flash piece when I can come around full circle pretty quickly with an image that “rings the bell” at the end. I think flash nonfiction acts as a microcosm of experience, and as such it needs to contain all the elements of that experience, but it concentrates them. When I think of “concentrate” I think of those cans of frozen orange juice—“just add water.” If one were to “just add water” to a short-short essay, an entire memoir should gush forth.
August 29, 2011 § 18 Comments
An article from the Associated Press exploring the question of whether a former law clerk must “adhere to the same ethical and legal obligations as an attorney,” what constitutes confidentiality, and further, how these issues apply to a work of creative nonfiction published in the Bellingham Review. Brevity author and respected teacher Brenda Miller notes the dilemma faced by small magazines when embroiled in such issues:
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans law office specializing in death penalty cases is suing a former summer intern who wrote an essay about her work at the nonprofit group, accusing her of disclosing confidential information and undermining clients’ defenses.
The Louisiana Capital Assistance Center is seeking a court order blocking Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich from publishing any privileged information she obtained while working as a law clerk for the center for several weeks in 2003.
Her lawyer says she is writing a book that is part memoir and “part literary journalism” about the prosecution of Ricky Langley, one of the center’s clients. Langley, a sex offender, was convicted of strangling a 6-year-old boy to death near Lake Charles in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison in 2009.
Marzano-Lesnevich, a Harvard Law School graduate who is pursuing a writing career instead of practicing law, wrote an essay on the same subject that was published by the Bellingham Review. The literary journal, based in Bellingham, Wash., removed the piece from its website after the center complained.
Brenda Miller, editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review, said in an email that Marzano-Lesnevich’s essay is a “wonderful piece of creative nonfiction” that the journal was proud to publish last year. Although the edition in which the essay appeared is still for sale, Miller said the Bellingham Review complied with the center’s demand to remove the piece from its website.
“We are a small journal, with a mostly volunteer staff running the journal on a shoestring, and so could not afford the time or resources to get involved in a legal process,” Miller wrote.
November 8, 2010 § 1 Comment
Patrick Madden and his team of hooligans (including Michael Martone) staged a romp of a game show at last week’s NonfictioNow Conference in Iowa City.
Mere words cannot express the joy of watching essayists Ned Stuckey-French, David Lazar, and Brenda Miller diaper stuffed animals in the Japanese game show portion of the evening.
Or the goofiness of watching the Lopates face off against the Gutkinds in Family Feud.
But pictures can convey the madness, so GO HERE AND SEE THE ACTION.
Or, if you’d rather, change a diaper and get a job.
September 16, 2010 § 2 Comments
Brenda is also one of our favorite essayists, and she writes about burnt bread (and dogs, and love) in the latest Sweet. Here’s just a taste:
And even later, when I lived with one man and then another and then another, toast could allay even the most bitter arguments. When I lived with Francisco in our mildewed canvas tent at the edge of Lake Powell, we made toast on the iron skillet, a process that required patience and watchfulness and diligence. We spread it with cheap margarine, ate it in silence in the early morning cold. When I lived with Seth at Orr Springs, we made toast on a griddle pan, from loaves we made ourselves, big heavy wheat bread always a little too moist in the middle, studded with hard specks of millet. Toasting made it better, and we spread the slices with homemade apricot jam, made it something to linger over in the mornings before all the chores—wood to be chopped, leaks to be fixed, weeds to be plucked—crowded in to oppress us.
When I lived with Keith, we toasted bread at all hours of the day as we both wrote in our rooms in that little house in Green Lake. He would say, in passing, this is my life! and sometimes this cry meant: “I can’t believe my good fortune, eating toast with you in this house on the hill!,” and sometimes, if the writing weren’t going so well, it meant: “I can’t believe this is what my life has come to, eating toast with you in this house on the hill.” But in any case, we enjoyed the toast, made with grainy, slightly sweet bread bought at the co-op down the road. Eating toast made everything good enough, for a little while at least.
Finish the whole plate of toast right here Sweet – A Literary Confection of Poetry and Creative Nonfiction.
November 4, 2009 § 1 Comment
You can imagine our excitement when Brenda Miller, author of so many beautiful Brevity essays and craft pieces (see here and here and here and here) dropped by the Brevity corporate offices last week as part of her visit to Ohio University’s BA, MA, and PhD in Creative Writing Program. Brenda gave a wonderful reading from her newest collection, Blessing of the Animals.
Just today, we ran across a fine interview with Brenda in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Q: How much distance do you need from a topic to write elegantly and clearly about it?
A: It depends. For certain things, I still don’t have enough distance, even though the events may have happened thirty years ago. For others, I write about them as they’re happening. In either case, I don’t think it’s the literal time, but the mind’s perspective on the topic or event that creates enough breathing room for something literary to happen on the page. Also: form. If you find the right form, or voice, for a piece, it can provide just the “container” you need for whatever the topic might be. And some of my essays span quite a bit of time; so I might start off by writing about an image from my childhood, which leads me to something quite close in the present day; once I’m on that train I’m not going to jump off.
You can read the full interview here.