Audio Immersion

April 7, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Sarah Boon

A few weeks ago I was sick – not with COVID, but with an illness that left me dizzy and headache-y. Lying down was preferable to sitting up, and I couldn’t read a book or look at a computer screen because it made my eyes hurt.

So I turned to podcasts about writing to entertain me when I wasn’t trying to sleep. And I realized that, during my solo forays into writing during the closed-off time of the pandemic, I’d been missing a writing community.

I listened to Sarah Broom talk about THE YELLOW HOUSE, a home that carried so much of her life but was destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. I listened to Charlotte McConaghey talk about her two books, MIGRATIONS and ONCE THERE WERE WOLVES, and articulate her idea that climate fiction isn’t really a genre but a theme that is worked into books of many genres. I listened to Vivian Gornick, Ferdinand Mount, and Kathryn Harrison discuss memoir, and the fact that memoir writers carefully curate what they do and don’t include in their text. I listened to Ruby McConnell, author of GROUND TRUTH, talk about her writing process. She ruminates on a piece of writing for weeks, then sits down and puts the whole thing on paper fully formed, as though she is a conduit for the words that have been swirling around in her head all that time. I listened to Helen Humphries talk about the structure of her books, that she puts herself in the same situation as her characters to better understand how to write about them. Like the time she went up in a biplane to see what it was like, then recreated the cramped quarters with a chair and various accessories in her writing room. I listened to JB MacKinnon talk about THE DAY THE WORLD STOPPED SHOPPING, and the process he uses to structure his books.

I listened to all of these recordings lying in bed with my eyes closed, and I felt my soul transformed. I had found my tribe, all of these people talking about writing and the writing life. I felt as though I had been immersed in a world that I had been missing for some time.

I used to take writing workshops, way back when I was in graduate school. I particularly remember the Women’s Words writing workshop, a supportive week of creative writing with only women participants. More recently, I’ve attended the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society’s annual meetings occasionally, and felt inspired by that community of writers to work on my own book.

But this was the first time I immersed myself in recording after recording about writing, hours of being with writers and sharing their lives.

Now I’ve recovered and only listen to podcasts when I’m knitting. But I long to go back to those few days when all I did was think about and listen to authors talking about writing. To keep up the momentum, I’ve signed up for a few webinars and online readings that I hope will draw me in as thoroughly as those podcasts did. These podcasts re-energized my writing, giving me courage and support in my quest to test new ideas of how to approach the structure and content of my work-in-progress book, and to try new essay ideas.

What are your favourite writing podcasts? Please share them in the comments.

Sarah Boon, PhD, is a writer based on Vancouver Island, Canada. She has written for The Rumpus, Hippocampus, Catapult, Narratively, and other venues. She is currently at work on a book about her field experiences as a scientist, and how those experiences affected her love of writing.

Brevity’s January 2022 Issue Available Now

January 18, 2022 § 3 Comments

We had to chip away at the ice to make it happen, but our newest issue is live, featuring exceptional flash essays from Beth Kephart, Kerry Neville, Aracelis González Asendorf, B.J. Hollars, Grace Bauer, Sarah M. Wells, Keema Waterfield, Caitlin Scarano, Deb Werrlein, Troy Pancake, Hannah Grieco, and Nels P. Highberg.

Also, three useful and brilliant craft essays: Sonja Livingston reflects on trauma and the writing of actress Meg Tilly, Emilio Williams offers “Queering the Fragment,” and Lesh Karan reviews the importance of form in writing lyric essay.

Thanks to our writers, and to those who have generously donated to make it possible

BREVITY 69 / January 2022

She Flees to Structure: A Screenwriter’s Refuge when Writing Prose

January 11, 2022 § 11 Comments

by M. Tamara Cutler

I’m printing draft six of a “based on a true story” screenplay and wrapping my head around notes from my producers for an act three rewrite. It sounds daunting, but third act problems are usually the result of hidden flaws in act one. Now that everyone is happy with the first eighty-five pages of the script, the final thirty should be easily resolved.

My story with this script began in 2016. I read a ‘where are they now’ article in the New York Times written by Susan Antilla, the journalist who first covered the landmark sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by women against a major brokerage house on Wall Street in the 1990s. When we discussed adapting Antilla’s book, Tales from the Boom-Boom Room, into a screenplay, I knew she should be the protagonist. But her story wasn’t written. Thus began a year-long interview process to track her story with the one she reported so I could braid the two narratives into a film.

Transposing fact into fictional landscapes like film or television is similar to writing creative nonfiction. We start with the truth, as far as we can research or remember it, and shape it into a structure that keeps the audience emotionally and intellectually invested until the theatre lights go up. This requires a cultural deep dive into the era, editorial decisions like combining characters, compressing time, and cutting anything that impedes the trajectory of the main character’s journey. We don’t, however, divert so far from the truth that the story loses its credibility and becomes fiction (or libelous!).

Because the screenwriter’s job is to leave herself off the page, absolutely nowhere do we write about our feelings, impressions, memories, beliefs or intangible states. It’s maddening, but it’s a useful tool for mastering the omniscient point of view, allowing the viewer to make her own conclusions from what is presented on screen. This emotional remove was a huge hurdle for me to overcome when writing first person prose. I didn’t feel right expressing myself in my own voice and was often urged by readers to put myself more into the story.  

During my year-long creative writing course at Cambridge, a tutor remarked that my dialogue read as bodiless, appearing on the page without a gesture or a voice. In a screenplay, there is no “she said” following a set of quotation marks. It’s introduced simply with the name of the character. The actor’s spoken dialogue reveals the character’s internal wants and fears without a narrative saying what they want or fear.

A screen story also has no past. The industry standard for verb tense, and my go-to, is present active (“she flees to safety”), which permits little to no reflection, what Sue William Silverman defined as The Voice of Experience in her 2005 Brevity craft essay. I allow myself to free write in active present tense but follow up with a pass for the past tense. These are tricks I’ve had to learn so that I can write the way I do in cinematic and dramatic mediums, then transpose it into a literary form.  

Structure, the screenplay’s greatest strength, is my refuge. I wrote the storyline for my book on index cards, as I do with a film story, and posted them on a cork wall. I built tension through act breaks knowing I would flesh out the scenes once I wrote them in prose. When I hit what would be act three, I realized the story was running out of gas. I knew act three’s problems are often rooted in act one, and I played with various opening scenes instead of having to discover the issue after months of composing on my laptop.

Writing myself, my aunt, and my mother’s characters into dramatic scenes freed me from overthinking on the sentence level. I could see the scope of my story with me in it and still be true to the facts. The result is a memoir-driven narrative infused with investigative research and tangential, sometimes surrealistic, thematic interstitials. I believe this classifies as an experimental hybrid form, which is true to my way of processing experiences and telling stories, but with a narrative arc that tracks for the reader.

There are many how-to screenwriting books and blogs about structure and the hero’s journey. I learned by first analyzing movies that had a profound impact on me.

If you want to try:

  • Pick a film you love in its original language, ideally the one you write in.
  • Read the production or shooting draft (not the transcript).
  • Press pause every five minutes during a second viewing to write down the action.

You will begin to notice a formula, but the best films feel organic and surprising even once the structure is understood. They unhinge from plot points and come to life—which is where I want to be when writing creative non-fiction.

Give it a try with your favorite film and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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M. Tamara Cutler is a narrative screenwriter and executive producer writing from a rural village in southern Spain. She works on feature length film projects in Los Angeles, New York and London and is currently writing her first book of creative non-fiction, Brilliant Miami Sunset. She has an MFA in film from New York University/Tisch School for the Arts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Constructing Stories

March 23, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Julie Flattery

I started writing for a building and construction magazine recently. My first assignment was to interview a painting and drywall contracting company. I can feel you yawning right now! It’s okay, I yawned too. I also rolled my eyes—a lot—and considered backing out. But I had been wanting to turn many years of ghostwriting and publishing articles for architects who couldn’t write into publishing articles with my own byline. I had to start somewhere.

I took the job…and ultimately fell in love with the assignment. Not just because I had the privilege of getting to know a small, personable firm full of people who love what they do and have held on through many ups and downs in order to continue doing it (something writers know a lot about) but because it taught me two valuable lessons that I could use for my other byline aspiration: writing and publishing creative nonfiction. I will share these lessons with you now, and if you’re reading them here on the Brevity Blog, I guess they worked!

Lesson One: Find the nugget.

Lately, everything in my own life that I had been excited to write about—things that had truly seemed like fun and interesting stories—had started to sound boring and trite. How many more stories about cancer or a kooky aunt or the death of a relative could the world handle? Hadn’t we heard it all before? And yet, there those stories were every time I picked up a literary journal. Why? Because the writer found the nugget—the small speck of gold that instead made the cancer story about a mild-mannered person finding gumption after being diagnosed, or the aunt’s kooky habits as a way to avoid her deep fear of sadness. Because in the end, the cancer or the kookiness were just the catalysts for much more interesting stories.

Likewise, no one would have wanted to read my article about the painting and drywall company if I had written about painting and drywall. As I prepped to interview them, wise words from past CNF workshops fluttered around my brain like helpful fairies.

Why would anyone care about this story?

What is this story about?

What’s interesting about the characters?

I jotted down some questions to ask the owners at the interview, but more importantly I armed myself with the best tool of all: my ears. We all have ears and they’re free. Even if, as writers, we sometimes only have our own voices to listen to, the same rules apply.

Lesson Two: Listen. Listening is how you find the nugget in the first place.

I do actually have a kooky aunt, kooky in a good way and one of the funniest people I know. What I love most about her is her knack for brilliant storytelling. She can come home from the grocery store or the doctor’s office or my grandmother’s house with a story that will bring you to your knees laughing. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if she wanted to, she could have had her own version of Prairie Home Companion or given David Sedaris a run for his money. She is able to do this because she listens. Intently. To everything around her. Then she latches onto the tiniest but most interesting detail and that becomes her story.

I took that lesson to the interview, and a common thread emerged about this tiny company’s ability to survive for the past 18 years. By remaining nimble and flexible, they’d kept the company afloat in changing times. I gathered up their best anecdotes and most interesting quotes and wrote “Small but Mighty.” The company was thrilled with the article and the editors were too. I quickly received three more assignments before the magazine finished out the season: a story about a road safety and traffic signage business, one about a construction company, and finally, one about an awning manufacturer that I titled, “The Creative, Colorful World of Awnings”—because when the owner told me his story, beaming with enthusiasm for the work he did, I discovered it truly was such a world.

We all have creative colorful stories to tell, despite the ruts we sometimes encounter. So, the next time you’re thinking that you’ve got nothing interesting to say, stop yawning and remember lessons one and two. When you listen, you find the nugget—and even painting, drywall and the awning guy become fascinating stories to tell.

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Julie Flattery is a playwright, filmmaker, and author of creative nonfiction essays. Her story, “Mighty Mouse” was recently accepted for publication in Meat for Tea and six of her plays have been performed at the iDiOM Theater in Bellingham, WA. She writes professionally about architecture and building design.

Take the Giveaway4Good Challenge

December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments

By Lisa Ellison

During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.

One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.

But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.

After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”

A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.

Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
Agoraphobia.

At ten, I absorbed her lesson.

It took several decades to unlearn it.

Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.

A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
Economic turmoil.
Increasing inequity.
Tragic deaths.
Health crises.
Election drama.
More COVID cases.

And yet, even now, I have desires.

I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.

I want to send it to agents.

I want to believe this story will help someone.

When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.

While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.

Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.

In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.

During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.

It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.

As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.

I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.  

My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.

Here are the details for this week’s challenge:

  1. Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
  2. Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
    1. Subscribe to Brevity’s blog (If you’re reading online, the subscribe button is in the sidebar on the right)
    2. Read and share any Brevity blog post on social media
    3. Follow Brevity on Instagram @Brevitymag
  3. Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.

The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn. 

This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class

You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.

To participate in this challenge, send an email to lisa.cooper.ellison@gmail.com. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.

If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.

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Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary MagazineKenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison. 

The Peace of Observation

July 31, 2018 § 9 Comments

A guest post from Marcia Krause Bilyk:

Morning light floods the Infusion Center’s waiting room through the fourteenth-floor windows that overlook Manhattan. It’s 9:30 and nearly all the room’s chairs and benches are occupied. My husband Ed and I stand online at the registration desk behind a man in his twenties whose half-shaved head bears an angry scar.

It’s likely most people are waiting for chemotherapy. I see hats, lots and lots of hats, headwraps, and scarves. An Orthodox Jew with an oxygen cannula pulls a portable tank behind him. A surgical mask covers an African American woman’s nose and mouth. Diversity abounds. Indian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and bi-racial couples sit side-by-side. Caregivers, in agency scrubs, tend to elderly clients in wheelchairs.

Infusees, and those who wait with them, are engrossed in books, magazines, newspapers, cell phone and iPad screens. Others listen through earbuds, doze, or stare into space, arms crossed, legs or feet restless. It’s remarkably quiet until a nurse or patient advocate wanders through, calling out names. No one looks you in the eye.

Ed is here for an Ocrevus infusion, a new drug treatment for MS. He and I have sat in so many waiting rooms since he was first diagnosed, I’ve learned to come equipped: with a book, Kindle, or cell phone, just like the men and women seated around me. Today I’ve brought along Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. I use the blank pages that appear—mercifully—between the glossary and back cover to document what I see as I sit and wait. It keeps me centered, in the moment.

Paying attention, gathering data, recording yields the raw material necessary for our task as writers. It also offers peace amidst the emotionally charged environment in which we observe. As long as I stay focused on such physical details as the tiny library nook (where I once scored a publisher’s copy of an engaging novel), the artwork drawn by children hospitalized next door, or the spinner luggage, plastic carry-out bags, and canes placed at people’s feet, I won’t be envisioning metastasizing cells, or wondering if the man with a damaged liver’s yellow coloring is in his final months, or worrying about how much our insurance will pay toward Ed’s bi-annual, $65,000 infusion. It can get messy and maudlin inside my head. It can also be a waste of time.

When Ed’s name is called, we’re buzzed through a set of metal doors to the treatment area. We follow a hallway that dead-ends into Area D, a cluster of seven curtained cubicles around a nurses’ desk. We know from previous visits that each cubicle contains a window, an infusion chair, a pole for IV bags, a plasma TV, and a chair. A built-in cupboard contains a pillow, blanket, and space to hang outerwear. Restrooms are nearby. There are sixty treatment cubicles on this floor.

A ginger-haired nurse with an Irish accent introduces herself and administers steroids and Benadryl as a precautionary measure before starting Ed’s IV. The infusion will take about six hours. Once the Ocrevus begins to flow, I’ll step out and head for the nearby Starbucks where I’ll fetch a medium, iced caramel macchiato for Ed. Little, tangible things like that make a difference.

Writing creative nonfiction can involve digging deep into our memory, our journals, our past. But it also requires being open to the details of life as it presents itself, in the here and now, in moments we miss if we’re daydreaming or have our noses in a book.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you enter deeply into the moment, you see the nature of reality, and this insight liberates you from suffering and confusion. Peace is already there.”

The desire to be a writer, to write about the reality of my everyday life experiences, has opened me to the peace of observation, and the details of waiting.

______________________________________________

Marcia Krause Bilyk works part-time as spiritual director at a long-term residential treatment center for substance abusers in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Compose Journal, The Upper Room, Wanderlust Journal, Drunken Monkeys, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. She and her 125 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog Wally visit local hospitals and schools.

Do It Now

January 23, 2018 § 21 Comments

Years ago, my mother was a beauty queen. Not metaphorically–she was Miss Niagara Falls and Miss Ottawa and twice runner-up to Miss Canada. As a kid, I spent hours leafing through her scrapbook, marveling at the full-coverage swimsuits of early-1960s Ontario and thinking how much young Mom looked like Grace Kelly. But my favorite of her titles was a small, local affair–not even really a pageant.

Winter 1965, the Ottawa Jaycees, a businessmen’s club (like Kiwanis or Rotary), wanted to combat seasonal unemployment by encouraging people to fix up their homes now. Instead of waiting for spring and better weather, get out there, buy some lumber, hire a contractor and get going! In the Ottawa newspaper, my mother wears snowpants and a parka, one foot on a shovel, surrounded by workmen. There’s a construction helmet perched on her beehive hairdo. The caption? “She’s Miss Do-It-Now.”

I’m pretty sure the kids of 1965 found her title as giggly as I did in 1985.

But the message is clear. Don’t cross items off the to-do list–write now.

Don’t wait for better weather, or a better mood.

Skip the easy satisfaction of running errands, prepping dinner, running laundry, returning calls. Shut down the internet and put your phone face-down. Don’t check the news–it’s just going to make you mad or sad. You don’t need a perfect coffee shop or the right table or the right moment. Put your kid in the playpen with plenty of toys (or, depending on age, give them unfettered screen time for an hour or two, saying firmly that time will be cut short if any questions are asked or interruptions made).

If you’re stuck on the next scene, write the scene after that.

If you sit down and the words won’t come, write about what you’re going to write:

Scene with Sandy and me in the kitchen, when I realized she was dating my ex and it made me really uncomfortable. She had just dyed her hair blonde and I was alphabetizing the spice rack so I wouldn’t say she looked awful. She said…

And before you know it, you’re writing the thing instead of about the thing. Or at least getting down the first draft, the one where you tell the story to yourself. The one you can fix in the second draft.

It’ll feel weird and awkward and not like your normal happy routine of writing when circumstances are just right (rarely!). It’ll feel precarious like a helmet perched on big 1950’s hair, and vaguely off-color like a beauty title that sounds a little dirty.

Do it anyway.

Don’t wait for spring, or springtime in your heart.

Do it now.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Today she’s writing through the flu, which sucks but is still words.

A Poem, A Keyhole

October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments

By Nicole Piasecki

I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.

I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.

My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.

I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.

A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.

During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.

I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.

I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.

As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”

Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:

I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.

Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.

Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.

When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.

But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
__________________________________________

Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.

Brevity Podcast Episode #6 Donna Talarico-Beerman

August 31, 2017 § 6 Comments

I hope it’s a podcast!

Surprise! It’s a podcast! We’ve got a few episodes packed and ready from a whirlwind summer of interviews, so we hope you’ll be enjoying (slightly) more frequent listening. Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Episode #6 features an interview with Donna Talarico-Beerman on the process of becoming a small press, running a conference, and balancing her own writing time in there, too. We’re also talking all things writing conference over the next few episodes, and we’ve got brief on-the-spot interviews from Lee Martin, Sue William Silverman, and some lovely writer-participants from the Postgraduate Writing Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Kristen Arnett about her new book, Felt in the Jaw.

Show Notes: Episode #6 People and Books

Find out more about Donna Talarico-Beerman at her website.

Hippocampus magazine, with links to Hippocampus Books and the Hippocamp conference. You can also follow the conference hashtag on Twitter, and many of the sessions will be live-tweeted.

Today’s the last day to submit to Remember in November

High Ed Web

AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)

Mary Karr

Photographer Dave Pidgeon

Donna’s essay in the Los Angeles Review, Things That Aren’t Theirs

Questions to ask of a character:

What do I wish for?
What do I hope for?
What is my greatest dream?
What is my greatest fear?

The Moth

Lancaster Story Slam

VCFA (many writing programs/conferences)
Kenyon Review Writers Workshop
New York Pitch Conference

Lee Martin

Miller Williams

Sue William Silverman

Amy Braun’s Attic Discovery Project

David Jauss

Manual typewriter thanks to theshaggyfreak via freesound.org
Additional music, Later Fruits, thanks to Axletree via freemusicarchive.org

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Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast. She’ll also be appearing at Hippocamp for an intensive workshop on Self-Editing and consultations on your pages.

In Their Shoes

May 16, 2017 § 12 Comments

No seriously, get in or we’ll be late for the next scene. (Photo: Nick Brocklebank/PhotoAcacia Ltd)

In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”

That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.

Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.

I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”

That was my dad talking.

That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.

Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.

That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.

There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?

Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

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