A Review of Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart

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.

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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. 

Click, Scroll, Select, and Drive: Navigating the Digital Essay

September 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

Eric LeMay’s new interactive collection Essays On The Essay And Other Essays asks readers to click, scroll, select, and “drive” through the first collection of its kind. “LeMay is the future of the essay,” says Ned Stuckey-French, “but fortunately he’s here now.” In this interview, Sarah Minor writes to LeMay about the tensions between the tradition of the essay and the space of the screen.

Brevity-Interview-Minor-LeMay

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Sarah Minor is a writer and designer and the editor of the Visual Essays series on Essay Daily. Her writing appears recently in places like Mid-American ReviewCreative Nonfiction and The Atlantic. In 2017 she will join the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Find her digitally at sarahceniaminor.com and @sarahceniaminor.

On the Road Again (with Sundog Lit)

September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

66Sundog Lit has a road-thumping, tire-biting, asphalt-meltingly wonderful new issue — (Letters from) the Road edited by Brevity contributor Jill Talbot.  We especially love the digital work by Eric LeMay (full disclosure, he’s on the Brevity Board of Directors) and the video essay by William Hoffacker, as well as work by Pam Houston, Marcia Aldrich, Lee Martin, Nicole Walker, William Bradley, B.J. Hollars … oh, cripes almighty, it would probably just be best to list the entire table of contents.  As for the theme, Here’s an excerpt from Jill’s marvelous intro, followed by a link to the issue itself:

A gas station in Beatty, Nevada in 1973. Twenty-two miles from here, off the U.S. 93, four cars with out-of-state plates laze in the parking lot of the Outlaw Motel. Who knows what’s really going on here? The blue sky looks so brilliant against the yellow sunflowers in a South Dakotan summer. A flock of blackbirds flies off a field somewhere near Columbus. And there on the side of the road, looking up and out at the surrounding emptiness, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine. The night train from Venice. Around the wide square driveway, down the hill and around the turnabout with the lit lantern beacon in the middle across the street from the red barn and the muddy yard. The road to Hana, the 68-mile highway that skimmed along beige cliffs, single-lane bridges. A road after a flash flood in San Angelo, Texas. The stacked stones of a roadside liquor sign in Ohio. We are half-way there. Speeding the curves of a road braced by the blue light of snow….  It is staggering to be here.

Read (Letters from) the Road

Why Don’t We Essay in the Road?

June 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

Jill Talbot discusses the ideas behind the upcoming special “road” issue of Sundog Lit, featuring “creative nonfiction and other works that blend genre, that bend and experiment, that rumble down new roads.” July 1 deadline. Full submission guidelines can be found at the end of the interview.

  1. What inspired the theme for this issue, (Letters from) the Road?

easyWhen Justin L. Daugherty, the editor of Sundog Lit, announced that Brian Oliu would guest edit the first theme issue, Games,  I e-mailed Justin to ask if I might guest edit at some point, and in keeping with the one-word theme, I suggested Roads.

I write overwhelmingly about the road and connect with essays that do.  It would appear your editors do as well. Roxane Gay’s “There Are Distances Between Us,” Brenda Miller’s “Swerve,” Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By A Song,” B.J. Hollars’s “On the Occurrence of March, 20, 1981 and on the Occurrences of Every Night After,” Sven Birket’s “anti-road” essay, “Green Light,” Sean Prentiss’s “Tonight (the Big Dipper, You Leaving,” Steven Church’s “Overpass Into Fog,” and my own, “Stranded,”  all appeared in Brevity.

Every chance I had in graduate school, I got on 84 west out of Lubbock. Yet the moment I discovered I was drawn to roads in literature happened while reading a road scene in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and if you’ve read that novel, you know it’s a road of destruction and drunkenness. Desperation.

In fact, the tag line on the Easy Rider film poster in 1969 read: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”   And Steinbeck, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, declares, “I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found,” as he acquires the Wolfean knowledge that You Can’t Go Home Again.

I like the way the road can be the catalyst for self-inquiry, how William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways discovers: “I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”

Road narratives are imbued with a search for what may not be found.  They’re a desire not to leave, but to leave something behind.  And because it’s a genre derived from the Western, a chord of violence or its threat trembles at least once within each narrative: Thelma and Louise. Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (or The Road). Don DeLillo’s Americana.  More recently, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.  Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California.

But it’s not all threat and edge. It’s also contemplative, ruminative. And for Virginia Woolf, a haunting—“For if we could stand there where we stood six months ago, should we not be again as we were then?”—just one of the questions she poses in “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.”   The road narrative offers side roads we never intended, but find.  For this reason, it is essayistic.

I worried announcing the special Sundog Lit issue as simply “Roads” would invite either clichés or Kerouac imitations, and I’m invested in the ways in which writers modify, innovate, and deconstruct conventions (essay and road).  So I wondered, “What would imply a voice of distance, of then/now, here/there, Wolfean/Woolfean wisdom?” And then I had it:  “(Letters from).”

  1. Some people claim every essay is an experiment, given the root word assay, or “to try.”  So what, in the current state of the literary essay, makes an essay experimental?  

The essay foregrounds thought, what Phillip Lopate refers to as “an intuitive, groping path” which, paradoxically, is carefully crafted by the writer.  The essay is a sleight of hand.

So in that way, the experiment is the reader’s—we start reading, and we don’t know where we’re going, and we hope to be taken aback by what we find. What did Eric LeMay say on this blog not long ago?  Oh, yes:  “An essay, by its very nature, isn’t finished by an essayist; it’s finished by a reader.”

But I also think an essay is an experiment when it expands our thinking about the possibilities of the essay (form).  Dinah Lenney. Marissa Landrigan. Ander Monson. Always, always, Marcia Aldrich.

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

As to the experiment of the “(Letters from) the Road” issue: I’m seeking essays, first person fiction, prose poems, photographs, and digital work in order to usurp genre with mode and create an essayistic issue.

For example, one of my favorite journals is Smokelong Quarterly because each story takes essayistic turns.  Some examples:  Kevin Sampsell’s “True Identity,” Jeff Landon’s “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace,” and Jennifer A. Howard’s “Amateur Trailmaking for $1600.”

I recently discovered Anders Carlson-Wee on a night when he read his poems to a hushed room, and I whispered out loud with awe: “Those are essays.”

So my aim for the issue is to expand and extend the idea of “essay” beyond the boundaries of genre.

  1. Which do you like better, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” or the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?”

I am more (“Whiskey River”) Willie than I ever will be Beatle, that’s for sure, but this is an excellent opportunity to highlight the tone of Sundog Lit, a journal that “publishes writing that scorches the earth.”

So if you’re not familiar with the “rusty-nail” writing Sundog Lit publishes, listen to Paul McCartney wail “Let’s Do It In the Road”—his voice a rage, a ruin, the last mile of a day-long, desert-heat drive.

FULL SUBMISSION GUIDELINES TO SUNDOG’S SPECIAL ROAD ISSUE.

Caveat Scriptor: On the Essay and its Reader

May 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

ECLEric LeMay’s inventive, playful new book, In Praise of Nothing, offers both conventional (as in, words and sentences) essays and playable essays. Here, Eric discusses what his experiments mean to him, and how they link all the way back to Montaigne:

Writers, beware! No matter how carefully we craft our work, no matter how dutifully we prepare it for publication, our reader remains a wild and wily creature, lurking in the margin like a ghostly snow leopard. Take John Stuart Mill. In his copy of Emerson’s Essays, he jotted his thoughts about our great American essayist: “fudge,” “nonsense,” “oh,” “pooh,” “sentimental,” “superficial,” “trash,” “stupid,” and “very stupid.”And here’s Twain, updating the title page of his translation of Plutarch’s Lives:

Image of marginalia by Twain

My favorite strikes from the margin aren’t those scribbled in printed books, but those drawn in medieval manuscripts.  I love the odd creatures and bizarre scenes that show up in the margins of breviaries and The Book of Hours. With these images, the anonymous scribe shows not only that he’s there, reading along with us, but also that he’s got a point of view. I’m not entirely sure what the scribe thought of this 14th-century copy of Romance of the Rose, but his harvest scene seems to me as rich a response to a work as a writer might—or might not—want.

Image from Romance of the Rose

These sorts of readerly responses, whether snarky or snaky, whimsical or wise, are one reason I also love the essay. From its start, the essay has been a genre that imagines a spirited, even truculent reader.  We see this in Montaigne’s Essais.  He ends his introductory remarks “To the Reader” on a surprisingly defensive note:

So, reader, I am the subject of my book: there’s no reason you should use your leisure about so frivolous and vain a topic. Therefore, farewell.

However facetious Montaigne might be when he says goodbye to his readers at the start of his book, his farewell does acknowledge that readers have selves and lives of their own. An essayist who has nothing to offer readers but his self-portrait might well expect one of them to write “frivolous” or “vain” in his margins.

Not all early essayists felt as defensive as Montaigne. His followers shared his view that the essay served a moral purpose, helping them learn how to live and die well, but they very much wanted their readers to join them in essaying the topic at hand.  “Read all,” encourages Owen Felltham in his Resolves of 1628, “and use thy mind’s liberty.”  As for the margins of his book, Felltham says, “I always wish to leave [them] free, for the comments of the man that reads.” The margins are where readers should follow Felltham’s example and do their own moral improvement.

I’m not sure drawing nuns harvesting a tree full of penises counts as moral improvement, but I want to stress how the essay makes this inclusive gesture.  An essay, by its very nature, isn’t finished by an essayist; it’s finished by a reader.  As Scott Black puts it in his excellent study of the early English essay, “The burden of the essay falls on the reader, not the writer.” The essay doesn’t end on the page. It finds its “final shape in the reader’s response.” To say it another way, these early essays ask us, as readers, to essay ourselves, in every senses of the phrase. When we fill up our margins, when we write from, into, and back at these essays, we’re doing exactly what the essay was designed to do.

As an essayist, I’m excited by this potential in the essay’s genetics.  I think it’s different from that familiar idea that we find on library billboards about how readers bring books to life.  That’s true, but that’s not quite the same thing as a genre that presupposes that its reader is its co-creator. Imagine a novel or poem printed on a page with small blank lines filling the margin and, above them, the heading “What’s Also Happening?” or “Complete the Poem.” When poets tout the evocative power of white space, I’m pretty sure this isn’t what they have in mind.

And yet essays can thrive on this degree of involvement by readers. At least that’s my hypothesis.  I’m speculating that, 400 years after Montaigne and his followers invented the genre, the essay is once again ripe for its interactive reader. I base this hunch in part on what my anachronistic term suggests: today’s digital technologies allow us to build a reader’s interaction directly into an essay. We can ask readers to read, yes, but we can also ask them to add content, make decisions, and collaborate on our work in who knows how many ways.

It’s the “who knows” that excites me. In a piece for Creative Nonfiction called “Binary Truths,” I’ve pointed to some innovative examples of digital work. Not all of them are essays, but they all re-imagine the role of readers.  And I’ve tried to explore a few of these possibilities myself, in interactive essays on Montaigne and Bacon and in a new book that includes “playable” essays. This work doesn’t always succeed, but I’d like to think it points toward a new, which is to say old, vision of the essay:  a reader doesn’t find or discover meaning in an essay, so much as make it.

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Eric LeMay is the author of a new essay collection, In Praise of Nothing. Here’s online at www.ericlemay.org.

 

Winning the (Essay) Lottery

December 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

balls

Bad news, Brevity fans.  You aren’t going to win the lottery**, a fact made clear in Eric LeMay’s addictive essay in Diagram 11.5 and in Hannah Ensor’s appreciation of LeMay’s essay found on the Essay Daily Advent Calendar.  Here is Ensor on LeMay’s essay (which is indeed a Flash essay, but of a different kind):

LOSING THE LOTTERY … does some fancy interactive computer stuff alongside more classic essay things. It starts by asking you to choose six numbers from among floating gray lottery balls. Once you do, you enter the essay: split into two parts, the essay sections (49 in all and, besides the first, randomly presented) on the left and on the right a computer-generated simulation of lottery results: using the six numbers you chose, it simulates winnings and costs based on buying a hundred $1 Ohio Classic Lotto tickets every second. Which, for the record, would be a lot of lottery tickets. … The essay itself, or rather its 48 sections after the first, are presented in random order, making for 14,106,722,264,245,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible sequences. I like the order I first read them in. I obviously never got that order again, still and each time I’m pretty convinced that this is the best order: the one I’m reading them in now. The fact remains that I can’t even comprehend of the number 14,106,722,264,245,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Do you know how you would say this out loud? And, I mean, even if you knew the right word, how would you say this out loud and mean it?  … I think I like this essay in large part because it’s perfect for my little tiny attention span. Each section is a paragraph, at most 100 words or so, that ends. And then I’m on to the next one. Also: look over to the right! Have I won yet? Reading, reading, another second ticks by and I’ve “bought” another hundred lottery tickets. Good news: I’ve won $1,876. Bad news: I’ve spent $19,372. This is crazy!

You truly have to see it to fully understand. Read the Ensor appreciation here, and then by all means jump over to and read Eric LeMay’s interactive, addictive, dynamic essay. You might just get lucky!

** But if we are wrong, and you do win the lottery, here’s A WONDERFUL IDEA.

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