Write Those Essays: On Letting Go of Limiting Yourself
July 30, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Susan Barr-Toman
Four years ago, I attended an author event for Martha Cooley’s Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. At the time I was stuck. I was a novelist, who couldn’t make stuff up anymore. Years before I’d studied fiction in grad school and had workshopped with Cooley. Back then, I was adamant about being a fiction writer, who did not rely on autobiographical material to create, having no interest in writing about my life.
At the reading, Cooley spoke how she’d lost eight friends in a decade. Her elderly mother had been in ill health back in the States, while she was in Italy working on translations with her husband Antonio Romani and trying to make progress on a novel. But her loss would not be ignored, and she began journaling. Her novel languished in the corner as essays came forth demanding her attention.
I caught up with Cooley afterwards and told her I found myself in a similar situation – my novel writing having halted and only essays arriving. She told me to write what was coming for me now. The novel will wait, she assured me. “Write those essays!”
I remember the novelist Elizabeth McCracken coming to give a talk at Temple University in 2008. For the first time she had written a memoir. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is about her two pregnancies: the first stillborn and a year later a healthy child. She said she never thought she’d write nonfiction, but then she didn’t have anything to write about. Until she did.
I remember thinking, I hope I never have anything to write about.
My husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. In 2013, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in 2015.
For each of us it seemed our grief demanded its due. If I ignored my loss and failed to listen in order to force myself to work on fiction, I would dig myself deep into a writer’s block. To get into the flow, I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing, of who I thought I was as a writer, and accept what needed to be put on the page. For the time being, my husband was my muse. Nonfiction was my medium.
I followed Cooley’s advice and stopped beating myself up about the novels. Of course, a part of me knew this is what had to happen, but I needed to hear it from someone else. A former professor’s permission helped me to accept my move to nonfiction. But even after that, I assumed I was meant to write a book length memoir about my life with my husband, about his illness and death. Still, those essays kept coming.
Finally, I realized that I had been putting my story down all along, and that it wouldn’t be a memoir, but a collection of essays. Flash essays to be precise. They operate as the perfect vehicle for my experience of grief. They come upon me unexpectedly and hit quick and deep with a lasting ache.
I recognized that my life and my experiences would shape what I created. Limiting my idea of who I was as a writer limited my writing. Once again, I learned the lesson that letting go of what I thought my life would be and who I thought I should be opened me to more creativity, more possibilities.
I printed out a stack of essays to consider for the collection and prepared to go on my first writer’s retreat. In the back of my mind, I wondered if making a collection would allow me to return to writing fiction.
As I packed for the retreat, I logged on to a Zoom author event at the Center for Fiction for Martha Cooley’s new novel Buy Me Love. I folded laundry and listened. Cooley admitted that she’d been working on the novel for over fifteen years. She hadn’t been working on it the whole time, she said; she’d taken time off to do translations with her husband and to write an essay collection – Guesswork.
I found myself smiling. Cooley was right. She’d written what was coming to her and had let the novel that languished in the corner wait. Perhaps she’d been working on it in the back of her mind all the while, but she had finished it. It could be done. Her novel had waited. Maybe mine will too. I’m open to the possibilities.
Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her flash essays have appeared most recently in Longleaf Review, JMWW and Zone 3. She teaches Mindful Writing workshops through the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Visit her at www.susanbarrtoman.com.
Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest
December 9, 2020 § 1 Comment
The Kenyon Review has announced its third annual 2021 Short Nonfiction Contest.
The contest is open to all writers who have not yet published a book of creative nonfiction. Submissions must be 1,200 words or fewer.
The Kenyon Review will publish the winning essays in the Mar/Apr 2022 issue, and the winning author will be awarded a scholarship to attend the 2021 Writers Workshop this summer.
Each entrant will receive a one-year subscription to the Kenyon Review which will start with the Mar/Apr 2021 issue. (Current subscribers will receive a one-year extension on their current subscription.)
The Long Way through No, To a Big Short Yes
October 18, 2016 § 14 Comments
You know the old saw. Tourist asks a New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Wiseguy answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”
So, how did I get published in Brevity Magazine?
For several years, Brevity was on my list of literary venues I vowed to crack. Why?
First of all, I love reading Brevity. That’s reason enough. While I drift most naturally to writing longer essays than Brevity’s 750 word limit, over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by flash nonfiction, and have been writing more of it. To me, Brevity is the mother ship for short nonfiction. Brevity also consistently publishes writers whose work I admire; who doesn’t want to share literary real estate with the cool writing kids? Finally, once I put a publication on that “to be cracked” list (which stares at me from a whiteboard in my office), it’s game on.
Even if the game takes three years and six rejections before a Yes.
Lesson number one: Persistence.
One thing that kept me submitting was my history with Brevity—kept handy in my Excel spreadsheet—included many “nice notes”: Moved by your story…Sorry to say no to this one…Try us again…Writing is impressive, but…” As an editor at a lit journal myself, I know those salvos are only handed out when an editor means it.
Lesson number two: Believe the feedback.
Studying the rejected pieces, I saw they were all based on something pulled out of a longer work-in-progress. It’s not that I didn’t work hard at condensing/rewriting (all eventually found publishing homes). But now I understand that one big reason the accepted piece worked is that I wrote it for Brevity the first time around: it never existed as anything other than a 748 word essay.
Lesson number three: Start from scratch.
When I saw Brevity‘s themed call for works “examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization and the intersections between race and gender, class, dis/ability, and language,” I knew immediately what I’d write about: an incident 15 years in my past, that at times still felt lodged in my throat. I set to work immediately; I didn’t dismiss the idea before even getting started, as we writers so often do.
Lesson number four: Listen to the gut.
I tend to be an over-writer, churning out rough too-long drafts, because I’m that odd duck who loves messy brutal revision. This time, I was conscious from the start that I didn’t want to go more than 100 words over with an early draft. That helped, a lot.
Lesson number five: Shake up the process.
By the third (or was it 23rd?) draft, I experienced a familiar nah-this-stinks-forget-about-it attack. That was compounded by seriously questioning my ability to speak to the topic, which sounded like: who-am-I-kidding-who-am-I-to-write-about-race.
Then a friend asked me to read something he was considering submitting for the same issue, and that reminded me: beyond the guidelines, you can’t know precisely what editors are looking for. If you pre-reject yourself (by not even submitting), you’ve lost twice.
Lesson number six: Punch that inner critic in the teeth and carry on.
When putting the final polish on the piece, I read and re-read 15 different Brevity pieces. Yes, this is out of order; that’s the first thing a writer should do: read the journal. But I had been reading Brevity, every issue, all along. This was a double, final gut check, a slow thoughtful cruise, making sure I’d absorbed the lessons I’d learned along the way.
Lesson number seven: Read, write, repeat. (hat tip: Susan Sontag)
When I finally hit submit, it was with a mixture of familiar dread (here we go again) but also, for the first time, a hopeful sense that maybe I’d done it right this time. But then, who knows?
Lesson number eight: You can’t hit if you don’t swing. (hat tip: Dad)
When the acceptance arrived, I didn’t break into my usual dance-around-the-room jig, maybe because I was practicing a conference presentation, annoyed at myself for incorrectly ordering the slides.
Instead, I read the email on my phone, smiled, and went back to work. Because I’d submitted it exclusively, I didn’t have to navigate the tediousness of withdrawing it from other journals, or second guessing that I’d sent it to the wrong place. There was only calm, a sense of feeling both particularly lucky, and also rewarded for staying the course.
I did however visit my whiteboard list, and put a big check mark next to Brevity.
And wondered what to write next.
Lesson number nine: Rinse, repeat. (hat tip: every writer, every editor, ever)
Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor, and writing professor. Her work is included in the Notables Essays section of Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, The Manifest Station, and of course, Brevity. Lisa serves as creative nonfiction editor for Compose Journal, and as a review editor of scholarly works for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her blog offers interviews, resources, and advice for the writing community. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo.
Awp 2014: Flash ‘Em
March 20, 2014 § 5 Comments
A belated AWP panel report from Alle C. Hall, on the panel “Getting Short-Form Nonfiction to Readers: A Publication Discussion”:
The place was packed.
Kelly Sundberg opened the panel with words worth my conference fee. She made the case that flash is too often and not thoughtfully enough categorized by length. Sundberg delineated four qualities differentiating flash from short fiction or nonfiction:
Flash lacks space for explanation and multiple characters. Image is the way into the emotional experience.
Nix grammar & punctuation. Fragment good.
Flash connects emotionally. Intuition is stronger in than in a longer piece. There, lean on structure.
Don’t just label it. Make those words do double duty.
Speaking next, Sarah Einstein, managing editor of Brevity, justified hotel costs by laying out what makes a submission work for the magazine
- Brevity leans toward memoir over thinky.
- For thinky-er pieces, try Slate.
- “We are not the edgyist journal on the planet. Brevity is not usually shocky—raw sex and drugs.”
- Sex and drugs? That would be a Pank piece.
Moving to what she sees too often, Einstein said, “Ten – 15% of submissions are set at a funeral or doctor’s office.”
- “Those are the moment that hit the writer in gut … (but they do not necessarily) hit the reader in the gut.”
- If writing about the loss of a loved one, write “the moment that you get it, that they are gone for good, and what you will miss. Write what you are doing at the time.”
Then came Creative Nonfiction’s Hattie Fletcher. Although CNF recently published several two-page essays, their tweet feature is where they do short. In the name of parallel structure, I thank Fletcher for covering my coffee expenditures.
Fletcher summarized a CNF certified-good tweet:
- Tell a story.
- You don’t have much room for reflection, but you must have a “my take.”
- Find meaning.
- You see a crazy person on the bus, and then another person says this.
- Use the juxtaposition to convey observation.
- Too many read like jokes, observations or description.
- Or settle for describing a character.
- The biggest challenge:
- Get outside your head.
- Don’t make your tweet cryptic.
The final speaker, Chelsea Biondolillo, posted a summation of her presentation here. Astoundingly, it includes a list of magazines accepting short nonfiction. To be clear, she is sharing what must have been hundreds of hours of research.
With this post, she is saving us all that time and all that rejection heartbreak.
The more I sift through the gifts of the panel, the less I want to poke fun at monetary value or highfalutin’ academia. I’ve been to plenty of commercial conferences. Not once did a writer make as selfless a gesture as Biondolillo’s. Not once did editors give as much submission information about a competing magazine as they did about their own.
AWP is a special experience. Thank AWP. Join. Return. Thank the presenters. Subscribe. Buy books. Donate. Today.
Alle C. Hall won The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition. Favorite publications in Creative Nonfiction, Bust, Literary Mama, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger (Contributing Writer). She blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. Stop by. She’s happy to talk your ear off.
The Quickness of the Form
April 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
Stated Magazine, a new site featuring “the stories of creative and inspirational people,” is sharing an interview with Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore wherein he discusses the genesis of the magazine, his thoughts on nonfiction, and the background of the anthology, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction.
Turns out he didn’t think it would last:
I never imagined it would survive more than a year or two. It was a lark. I was more interested in teaching myself web design, frankly, than I was in the idea of the magazine.
And he isn’t real fond of his own efforts at web design:
For the first 15 years, I did all of the design and HTML-coding myself. Just this past year, I hired a web designer to make us a WordPress layout, and I’m very happy with how that looks. The artwork is provided by a different guest artist or photographer each issue now. If you look at some earlier issues, the artwork was rather hodgepodge, including quite a few of my own photographs. The early issues are horrendous to look at, design-wise. This has been very much a DIY magazine
But he likes the process of editing and being edited:
In my experience, the more experienced and professional an author is, the more grateful he or she is for good editing. I know I feel that way when an editor works with me to improve my own work. So no, I haven’t really encountered many strong disagreements on either end of the writer-editor relationship. Sometimes there is some vigorous back and forth, in order to get a sentence or word exactly right, but it is almost always a fruitful back and forth.he likes
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.
Wanted: The Flash
November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
The Marie Alexander Poetry Series Press is putting together an anthology of prose Flash Sequences.
Below are guidelines from the Marie Alexander site:
- A flash sequence is an accumulation of two or more prose pieces, with each segment not to exceed 500 words.
- Writers may submit more than one flash sequence; however, each writer’s total submission may not exceed 10 pages (double-spaced, 12-point type, one-inch margins).
- We encourage submissions of every sort; rather than try to define the form, we hope each writer will use whatever organizing principle seems best in any particular case: fiction, nonfiction, prose-poetry, whatever.
- Email pdf files of submission and cover letter to Wesley Fairman at email@example.com.
- Please use “Anthology Submission” as the subject line.
- Make sure author’s name and email is on all attached documents.
- Previously published material is okay as long as author holds the copyright.
- We will accept submissions from January 1 until June 1, 2013.
Erika Dreifus’ Guide to Flash Nonfiction Markets
January 30, 2012 § 5 Comments
Erika Dreifus, the blogger voice behind Practicing Writing, researched and assembled a list of flash nonfiction markets last week. She came up with 26 different markets, including a few which (like Brevity) offer payment to the writers published.
There are more than 26 markets of course — as Erika herself notes “this list by no means includes every journal or magazine that might publish your piece of flash nonfiction. For the most part, I’ve omitted publications that specify only that submitted essays should run ‘no longer than’ or ‘up to’ 5,000 or 8,000 words. It’s entirely possible that the editors of these publications will welcome something more along the lines of 500 or 800 words.”
Indeed. It has been our observation that many of the larger, most-respected literary magazines are as open to very good flash work as they are to conventional length nonfiction.
Erika’s list is a great resource, and we thank her for taking the time and sharing the result:
CLICK THROUGH TO ERIKA’S FLASH NONFICTION LIST
Lee Martin on His Essay “Talk Big” and the Communal Voice
January 22, 2013 § 6 Comments
We regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published. Today, Lee Martin tells us how he came to write “Talk Big:”
“Talk Big” came about as my response to a specific shooting from my homeland of southeastern Illinois, but really it was my response to all the violence from that part of the country that I’ve been on the periphery of, and also my attempt to understand that violence from the perspective of the perpetrator and those who participated in it verbally. The essay, written in a communal voice, also investigates the role that language plays in these unfortunate acts of violence, becoming a weapon that eventually carries someone to the point of no return.
My writing of flash nonfiction is often voice-driven, so it was natural for me to occupy the collective point of view of the people who were present the night some drunken words led to a man’s death, and by so doing to think more deeply about who those people were in that particular place and to eventually find the vulnerability of that group, that fear of becoming voiceless. The only way they can try to keep that from happening is by talking big, big, big.
I love the small towns and farming communities of my native southeastern Illinois, and I recognize the pressures on the people there—the pressures of a shrinking economy, the prevalence of drugs like crystal meth, the dearth of opportunity—everything that can cause one’s world to narrow so much there’s nothing to be seen on the horizon, only the here-and-now, and when that’s the case, it’s not so hard to step over the line of right-thinking into the land of making a big enough noise that people have to notice. Sometimes, like the night of the shooting I describe, there’s a communal pain that screeches and roars until something explodes.
Writing from a collective point of view also allows me to think more deeply about the self. If you’re interested in trying it, begin by recalling a saying from one of your communities (e.g. family, church, school, scout troop, neighborhood, town) and then write an opening line that contains that saying. Keep writing using the language of the community to introduce a narrative action. See if you can let the climactic moment of that action reverberate through the community in a way that evokes a surprising response. The language of a community projects a certain image of the group, but almost always there’s an opposite truth just beneath the surface of the language. The pressures of the action will allow that opposite truth to emerge. In the case of my essay, people talk big to keep themselves from being afraid.