May 8, 2020 § 1 Comment
The wonderful writer and teacher Sue William Silverman employs the format of a doctor’s prescription to bring to life an essay that interweaves humor, heartbreak, and extramarital affairs. An excerpt from Silverman’s brilliant and surprising essay follows:
Do Not Use this Drug: While reading Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Lover or any other material that might induce fear and loathing of love.
This Medicine Works Best: If you are currently brain-dead and thus susceptible to a profound change of heart. Be sure to avoid direct sunlight and hide shame in the darkness of night. Use sunscreen and protective clothing such as hair-shirt or widow’s full-length veil. A shroud is also appropriate.
Additional Possible Side Effects: If you develop a cough, your heart might be shedding emotional pus which is being absorbed by your lungs. Serious and sometimes FATAL bloody, messy problems could result from use of this drug. If you experience hallucinations SEEK HELP. It may mean you are experiencing LOVE for the first time. Ditto for severe nausea.
March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
Maybe you’ve been able to get some writing done this past week, even focus. If so, I applaud you. I certainly haven’t. The situation, as we all know, changes by the hour, sometimes by the minute. What seemed unthinkable yesterday is the new normal; what seemed unthinkable last week—well, last week was a different era entirely.
I teach at Bowdoin College, which was and is on spring break, and which, when classes do resume next week, will switch to online-only for the remainder of the school year. With only a few necessary exceptions for those who don’t have anywhere else to go or have visa issues, students will not be returning to campus. I feel for them, especially the seniors whose college lives have evaporated with no chance at in-person goodbyes, and those whose home lives are unwelcoming or abusive. And I feel for them even more as they, and all of us, are subsumed into this whirl of uncertainty.
As an epidemiologist friend of mine put it, if the situation feels unprecedented in our lifetimes, it’s because it’s unprecedented in our lifetimes.
There is, in other words, plenty for us to think about. And so I will admit: I haven’t been thinking about writing.
When I emailed my students to check in, asking how they were and what I could do, I assumed they hadn’t been, either. But the responses came back: they’d like a writing prompt, please. A prompt like the kind I usually start each class with, a place for us to practice the making of art together, practice putting whatever is in our hearts and our minds and our memories to the page. And right now, a place for us to put all this uncertainty.
So for them, and for me, and all of us right now who could use a short assignment, a brief encouragement to acknowledge and feel this moment and turn it into art, here’s a writing exercise we can do together.
You’ve seen the handwashing diagrams, the ones intended to give us something—anything—else to sing beyond yet another rendition of Happy Birthday, many of them made through Wash Your Lyrics, a website created by 17-year-old William Gibson, using a poster from Britain’s National Health Service. Here’s one for Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” which I fully remember dancing to when I was my students’ age and 9/11 was still two years away, and we hadn’t yet had our worlds as disrupted as these kids just have:
Good, right? Makes you smile, keeps time while you keep safe. Gives you, in other words, a short assignment to keep your anxiety at bay.
Now try this:
I wish I knew whom to credit for turning Lucile Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” into a handwashing diagram—it was making the rounds on Twitter—but when I saw it, something unlocked. It made me wonder: what if we treated the handwashing diagram as inspiration for a hermit crab essay?
In Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell it Slant, they define a hermit crab essay as one in which the essayist borrows the form—the hard, hermit crab shell—from elsewhere in the world, and treats it as the container to shelter some deeply personal thing to be explored. “It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace,” they write. “[M]aterial that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.”
Soft, exposed, and tender—sound like anyone you know right now?
So for a prompt, try writing into the handwashing diagram, seeing what text you can pair with each step. (The Wash Your Lyrics website has a place for you to enter your own text.) What memories come up for you, as you write? What do the instructions suggest to your subconscious? And how can their orderly progression of steps shelter the disorderly progression of your thoughts in this time?
And—important, too—is there anywhere you want your essay to become less orderly? For the words to overspill the diagram? If that starts to happen, let it. Write into that uncertainty, and explore. What tension have you uncovered? What is at stake in your refusal, now, to be contained by the form? (For inspiration, here, try checking out Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing,” in which the narrator’s life and anxieties gradually overspill the hermit crab form of a syllabus.)
Then take it further, beyond handwashing. Are there other found or hermit crab forms you can see in the world around you, in its response to the virus? Other forms you might use as inspiration for an essay? Perhaps one of those ubiquitous sales emails from a company talking about its virus response; or a text chain as you try to convince your loved ones to stay inside; or even instructions for a Zoom cocktail hour?
Have fun with it. Explore. A different form—a different short assignment—for each day.
I hope it becomes something that shelters you, as art must for all of us.
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is an assistant professor at Bowdoin College and the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir. Their most recent piece was “Body Language” in the December 2019 Harper’s.
Author Photo by Greta Rybus
September 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Ann Claycomb cut about 250 words from 2009 essay, “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by Ann’s reflections on the process.)
By Ann Claycomb
6:40 a.m. Sesame Street
Your son pads in, pats you on the head. His hand is sticky, his patting gentle and inexorable.
You finally fell deeply asleep only after your third trip to the bathroom, at 5:00 a.m. When you do not immediately get up, your son crawls into bed. He smells like pee, enough to make your eyes water.
Sesame Street has been brought to today you by the number 8 and the letter P. Your son turns over, managing to kick you and elbow you in one movement.
“Mommy,” he whispers, “pee starts with P.”
11:30 a.m. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
You watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when you were little. When he said you should “just be you,” you would guiltily slip off your Snow White costume.
This morning you have been The Joker, Cat Woman, Wonder Woman, and a lost kitty’s mommy. You have been mean and turned nice, been nice and turned mean, died and come back to life. You eat cereal while you make your children’s lunch, scooping up spoonfuls between slicing cucumbers and pouring juice. Your daughter wants to eat her cucumbers on the sofa. She rearranges the skirts of her best church dress, pushes her tiara higher on her head.
Mr. Rogers is visiting a cereal plant. He dons a hard-hat, looks with amazement into a huge whirling vat of corn flakes.
Your son asks for cereal. You tell him you don’t have the kind that Mr. Rogers has. He suggests you go to the store and buy some. You wonder if the trolley on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood still goes to the Land of Make-Believe. That was always your favorite part.
5:00 p.m. The Joy of Painting
Your son wants you to sit with him on the floor to watch a man paint a picture of pine trees around a lake at sunset. From your daughter’s room come the sounds of despair as she throws herself at the door.
“You’re bad!” she shrieked as you hauled her back there.
Your son took your hand, pulled you down the hall. “I don’t think you’re bad, Mommy.”
You can achieve a gorgeous wash of pink across the canvas by applying the paint in a thin layer then sweeping a wet brush over it. Your son wants to know if that man is a real painter. You tell him yes, but not a good one. The spaghetti water boils over, hissing, on the stove.
You go to your daughter’s room, push open the door she has wedged shut with stuffed animals. She holds out her arms to be picked up. You carry her to the sofa and adjust her on your lap so she is not pressing against your belly. You rest your hand there instead.
“I want the baby to come soon,” your daughter says.
You kiss her head, careful of the tiara. On the t.v., the camera zooms in on a brush conjuring a dark green tree out of white space. Your daughter thinks the man must be a very good painter, but your son turns around to assure her that he is not.
Ann Claycomb’s Thoughts:
The first hundred words went easily. The baby who is pressing on the narrator’s bladder in the opening of “WQED, Channel 13 Programming Guide” is now nearly eight years old. Making that first pass over the essay felt like putting a hand in my son’s drawer and unearthing a tangle of mismatched toddler socks, the kind with the raised letters on the bottoms that act as scuffs under little feet. There is nothing sentimental about that discovery, just exasperation—“what are these still doing in here?”—before they go into the trash. So out went the explicit expressions of how the narrator felt at moments throughout the essay (“You are so tired.” “You are exhausted.”) Of course she is tired. The readers don’t need her to tell them that. And out went words big and small that had felt important eight years ago but now just—aren’t. Singleton socks, every one of them, and too small to fit any feet in this house.
Then it got harder. The initial version of the essay was clearly invested in repetition—men with scraggily beards, one in the morning, one at night—and in near-repetition. But did we need both Wonder Woman and Supergirl? And those bearded men didn’t matter so much as I’d thought they did. Certainly their beards didn’t, not anymore. In fact, the longer I looked at the word scraggily the more I hated it. Yet still my finger hesitated over the “delete” key. The repetition had felt clever. Now it felt like a bad habit I had to quit. It wasn’t until the man and his music and the dream of him were all gone from the opening section that the spell was broken. (And isn’t that the way it is with all of the New Yorker articles taking up space in my head?)
But once the early morning was stripped of the narrator’s regrets about the night before, it felt too thin. Rearranging and rewriting accomplished what more cutting wouldn’t have done. Now, as in the original version, in each present-tense section the immediate past peers through (“You finally fell asleep,” “You have been the Joker,” “you hauled her back there.”) The intrusions keep immediacy from winning out. This day isn’t just these three moments, after all, any more than any day can be distilled into an hour-long t.v. show or a year into a day. The past tells us how we got to where we are, here and now.
Neither the past nor the present, of course, tells us where we are headed, any more than this piece could have predicted what life would be like with three children in the house, how my daughter would fall madly in love with the baby, how her twin would grow sinewy and fierce inside his new roles: big brother, older son. But then, programming guides only work when you consult them, which these days in our house, we rarely do.
Ann Claycomb believes in the power of fairy tales, chocolate, and a good workout, in no particular order. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is the author of numerous pieces of published short fiction and creative nonfiction. Her first novel, The Mermaid’s Daughter, came out this year. She lives with her husband, three children, and two cats in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she is at work on her next novel.
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.
April 6, 2015 § 9 Comments
Randon Billings Noble discusses the origins of her Brevity essay, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle””
Sometimes when people read an essay or a memoir they think they know more about the writer’s life than they actually do. They might speculate or wonder, or, if given the chance, ask the writer something that falls outside the boundaries of what was written and shared. But there’s a firm line between what is written and what is lived. Sometimes the best response to these speculations is to tell another story.
When my NYT Modern Love piece “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” came out (an essay about how hard it was to tell my most significant ex-boyfriend that I had married someone else), a family member confronted my husband at a dinner party: “How do you feel about this?” she asked — but it was more of a disapproving challenge than a legitimate question. I was standing next to him, blushing hotly, ready to say something about boundaries (see above) when my husband, a prince among men, said, “Did you read the essay? Because she married me.”
Reader, I did marry him. And I am perpetually happily grateful I did. Even when writing – or living – a piece like “The Heart as a Torn Muscle.” Here’s a bit about how it came to be:
One hour into a ten-day residency at the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts I pulled my back. I was trying to move a gigantic desk closer to the window and just as that little voice inside my head was saying, This is a bad idea – you should ask for help, some small junction of nerves and tendons and muscles in my lower back torqued out of their usual groove and left me bent over at a 45-degree angle for two days. I was barely able to make eye contact with my fellow residents at meals and was supremely grateful to an artist who not only gave me Advil but also drove to a drugstore four miles away to procure a heating pad. By day three I was better – still sore but fairly upright – and after another 24 hours I was back to my usual self.
I had been sketching an essay about temptation and heartbreak and was thinking of structuring it as a timeline: How long does it take to get over a crush, especially a forbidden one? What stages does one go through, what milestones does one pass? Then I started to think about my back and how long it took to heal. Could a heart heal in the same time span? After doing some seemingly unrelated, very practical and non-literary research about ice packs and anti-inflammatories, I realized that the heart, too, a muscle. And much of what I was reading about an actual torn muscle started to feel relevant to treating a metaphorically torn heart. I took the structure from various medical advice sites and wrote from there.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Millions; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; The Los Angeles Review of Books; Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.