May 12, 2020 § 6 Comments
Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.
Nonfiction writers are pack rats. Not in the “I-already-have-three-hundred-and-fifty-seven-ceramic-owl-figurines-but-I’m-going-to-go-ahead-and-get-this-one-too” kind of way (though when it comes to our books, that hoarding quality is real, and many of us have unwieldy stacks that overrun our shelves and are getting the better of our living spaces). Rather, nonfiction writers are mental pack rats. We have a certain way of being in the world—a hyper-attentiveness to what we see, hear, and experience—that compels us to collect many of the images, conversations, and stories we encounter and stack them on the shelves of our minds even if we don’t quite know what we plan to do with them. Sometimes they stay there for years, gathering dust, before we discover the shapes of their narratives and can finally bring them to the page.
This is exactly what happened with the story that became the basis for my essay, “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be” that found a home in the anthology, Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. In January of 2008, only twenty-four hours after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake had decimated the Caribbean nation of Haiti, I met Henry. He was an international student from Port-au-Prince enrolled in my Business Writing course at Northeastern University in Boston. It was the first night of class, and when he introduced himself and told us where he was from, I felt the rise and swell of the sadness that had gripped my chest all day as I’d watched one catastrophic image after another fill my television screen. Suddenly those images felt very close. “Is your family okay?” I couldn’t help but ask. And when Henry answered that he hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone, my chest tightened even more. After class, I asked Henry to send me updates on his family’s status, and he did. His sister was missing. His other siblings and parents were digging through the rubble of her last known location round the clock hoping beyond hope to find her alive. After five painful days of searching, they found her body.
For weeks after Henry’s last message that told me this news, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, about his family. I couldn’t let go of the mental image of what the physical toll of digging for that long through bricks and dust and twisted metal and broken glass must have been on Henry’s family. I kept picturing their hands, and I kept trying to write about them. Nothing landed. I couldn’t figure out the meaning I was trying to unravel out of this account. I couldn’t find my way in. Eventually, I gave up. But not before tucking Henry and his family into the folds of my memory, hopeful that eventually I’d find a reason to tell his story.
And in 2018, only one day before the 10th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, that reason presented itself when, in a closed-door meeting with a group of lawmakers, Donald Trump wrote off immigrants of color, specifically from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, by reportedly referring to their nations of origin as “shithole countries.” His vile and racist comments marked a new low in a presidency that regularly showcased the deep flaws in Trump’s character. I felt the same outrage that reverberated around the world in the wake of his remarks, and I felt something else—a wave of grief for the people he dismissed so callously at a time when their remembered sorrow and shared loss were so raw. People like Henry. The President’s words and that wave of grief gave me the narrative in which to locate Henry’s story. I pulled it out of storage and the words I needed to do it justice finally came.
I’ve been thinking about how the evolution of this essay—specifically the idea of stories that wait for the right time to land—feels particularly resonant for our current moment. Like many others I know, I’m struggling to see past the fog of fear and uncertainty that hangs in the air. I’m caught up in the stories of Covid-19, in the accounts of so many lives indelibly changed by illness, by economic hardships, by inconceivable personal and collective losses. As a writer, I feel an instinctive pull to share these stories, a persistent responsibility to bring the faces on the other side of the staggering numbers into view, a deep longing to make sense of my own churning emotions in the midst of it all. And yet, though I keep trying to find them, the words won’t come.
Maybe this reminder of how much time passed between the events that defined Henry’s story and my ability to fully access it can help make the judgy stares of my blank screen and blinking cursor a little more bearable. Maybe it can tell me to afford myself a little grace. Let myself simply watch, listen and gather the stories of this time, trusting that somewhere on the road ahead is the glint of understanding I’ll need to spark them into being.
From “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be”
My evening plan to discuss the value of good writing in the workplace seemed so unimportant in the face of this personal crisis. I wanted to stop class there. Cancel it for the night, send everybody home, and let Henry go do what he had to do. But Henry was here in this classroom, his notebook open on his desk, ready to learn. Stoic. Poised. His demeanor spoke to a kind of resilience that I’d rarely encountered. One that says, Today, this is what I have to do. A resilience I needed to honor.
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Creative Nonfiction, and other notable journals. She teaches writing at Northeastern University and Merrimack College in Massachusetts and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She is completing a memoir about living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995.
September 12, 2019 § 8 Comments
“Oh, I hated history in school.”
“That sounds so boring.”
These are the two responses I get most frequently when I tell people I’m a historian. How rude, as my hero Stephanie Tanner would say. But here’s the thing: I secretly kind of agree with them. History is fascinating, but some history books are boring. Bestseller lists teem with 800-page biographies of the founders, but these tomes are not for everyone. They are not for me, in fact.
I’ve never been particularly drawn to narrative nonfiction, popular history or biography. So when I crashed and burned in academia, I flailed around for a bit looking for a kind of writing that would draw on my scholarly background but encompass my interest in creative nonfiction. In the meantime, I devoured essay collections, and when I began writing again, the essay was the form I turned to. Eventually, it occurred to me that the way historians are trained to think and write is far closer to the essayist than to the narrative-nonfiction writer: rather than follow a story from beginning to end, we approach an overarching question or problem from many different angles, trying to weave these pieces into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Now I’m writing a biography of Martha Schofield, a nineteenth-century Quaker, abolitionist, and feminist, best-known for founding a school for freed people during Reconstruction. What I’m trying to do, though—following Christy Wampole’s 2013 piece in the New York Times—is to “essayify” the biography. Here are three methods I’ve developed for doing so, along with some of the authors who have inspired me along the way.
Find Your Voice. In Orlando: A Biography (not a biography), Virginia Woolf pokes fun at the genre. Occasionally, her narrator breaks in to bemoan the biographer’s limited role or even to trace, in a pages-long digression, the provenance of a certain document or piece of information. Cynical, sarcastic, and witty, the voice is very different from the “objective” distance we expect from biographers.
Orlando’s narrator, of course, is not Woolf, and my voice—Serious Lady Essayist Who Is Also a Jaded Millennial (and Jokes about It to Avoid Her Feelings)—is not me. Readers expect this in fiction, and, following Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, we understand that the “I” of a nonfiction narrative is not the writer per se, but a persona.
Biographical and historical narrators are personae, too. This narrative persona can establish distance from the subject through the exploration of diverging experiences, which I find much more interesting, natural, and valuable than scholarly remove. A present, well-developed persona can also reveal their feelings about the subject in a way that traditional biographical narrators can’t.
Make It Personal. In H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald charts her attempts to raise a goshawk while grieving for her father. It’s primarily a memoir, but hidden within it is a mini-biography of The Sword in the Stone author and falconer T. H. White, who becomes Macdonald’s central antagonist. Eventually, she realizes that they share more similarities than she would like to admit—and that she must write about him because he helps her understand what she herself is experiencing.
Forming a relationship with your subject can help clarify the stakes of your biographical project: What are you trying to figure out by writing out this subject? and Why is it urgent that you do so? I was halfway through my own project before I realized all of the ways in which my life parallels Martha Schofield’s—and then only because a fellow workshop participant pointed it out. But in 2017, when I started writing, I needed to see how a woman like me confronted a time of national crisis.
We don’t need to resemble our subjects; we don’t even need to like them. We just need to need them. When tackling a new subject, think about what draws you to it. Keep digging until you find something personal. My personal story starts with me adrift in authoritarian America, searching for something to anchor myself. That something became Martha Schofield.
Show Your Work. Another way to include more essayistic elements in your biography is to comment on the research process itself. Even formally trained historians do this, often in prefaces, introductions, and conclusions. Jill Lepore’s books, especially Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, provide great examples of this.
It’s also possible for the book’s spine to be the research process itself. John Edgar Wideman adopts this strategy in Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File. He puts his own experiences growing up black in America into conversation with the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, when both Till and Wideman were fourteen, continuing police and extrajudicial brutality against black people, and Wideman’s attempts to track down information about Till’s father, Louis, who was executed by the army in 1945 on unfounded charges of rape and murder. As Wideman leads readers up to dead ends, through bureaucratic red tape, and on his journey with the file itself, he also shares his interactions with the documents, connecting their materiality and content with his own bodily and emotional experiences.
Most of us aren’t Jill Lepore or John Edgar Wideman, but we can still implement some of these strategies by keeping, alongside our research notes, a process journal dedicated to our research experience. What are you finding/not finding in the archive? What do the room and the documents look like? What is your internal and/or physical experience within this space? We like essays in part because of their “thinking on the page” quality. Making the discovery process itself—learning about a subject and figuring out what you think about it—part of the work extends this quality to history and biography.
Now get out there and essayify, and be sure to tell me what you learn along the way.
Christina Larocco received her PhD from the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Philadelphia, where she is editor-in-chief of a scholarly journal and a prose editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Hotel Amerika, Avidly, Feminine Collective, Drunk Monkeys, and elsewhere.
February 13, 2018 § 16 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
January 25, 2018 § 6 Comments
When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.
None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.
I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.
Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.
The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?
The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.
The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?
Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.
It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?
Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.
The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
August 1, 2017 § 28 Comments
The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”
Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!
It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:
They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.
Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.
Not this one.
Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.
Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.
I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?
In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.
The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”
In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.
The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.
You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.
Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.
As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.
The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writer’s voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.
Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.
Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.
Some nice braided essays:
Seriously. The strands have to repeat.
It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.
2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.
3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.
4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.
5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.
6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.
February 1, 2009 § 1 Comment
So yes, that makes us fans, and we are of course happy to hear the news that Brenda’s newest book, Blessing of the Animals, has just been released.
Says author Kim Barnes: “Brenda Miller writes with such extraordinary grace and intimacy that, despite our weariness and fears, we find ourselves falling in love with the world all over again…”
Congratulations to Brenda, and to anyone lucky enough to read her work.