Teaching Brevity: Pennies in My Pocket

September 15, 2017 § 13 Comments

amymontBy Amy Monticello

All my life, I’ve been drawn to singular things. Returning from a trip to Italy in my twenties, I brought only one bottle of wine from a private vineyard I knew I’d never visit again. I love charcuterie boards with their assortment of tiny, ephemeral delights. I had one high school boyfriend, one college boyfriend, and one husband with whom I have an only daughter. As a young pianist, I once fell in love with a piece of sheet music called “Light Amethyst” in a practice book my teacher gave me. From its first notes in D-major, that melancholy scale, I felt possessed by the story I heard the music telling. I memorized the piece so well, I can still play some of it over two decades later. I played “Light Amethyst” to the detriment of other music—in some ways, it was the piece that undid me as a musician, a piece I loved so much that nothing could lure me away from it.

Over time, I’ve learned that singular love is merely representative of the world’s possibilities, that to love one thing is proof that I can love infinite others. But my affection for the small and self-contained remains. This is why, as an M.F.A. student, I became enamored of the flash essay. This is how I found Brevity.

“I’d like to see all of you write a piece that could be published in Brevity,” our workshop professor, Lee Martin, once told us. He was not the kind of teacher to issue publication challenges. He was not the kind of teacher who thought the drive to publish was particularly good for the practice of writing. What he meant by his wish was that each of us in that nonfiction workshop could eventually write a 750-word essay that could satisfy the reader just as much as some of the 20-page essays we’d discussed in class. To learn how an economy of language forces choices of essentiality. To reveal the emotional “turn” at the end of the essay, as Lee called it, without sacrificing complexity.

It was a challenge that took me six years to meet. My work was rejected from Brevity at least five times, but the essay finally accepted, “Shame,” is still the piece I send to people in my non-writing life when they ask to see something I’ve written.

Now a writing teacher myself, I can’t think of a class I’ve taught in the last eight years where I haven’t used a Brevity essay. They are inexhaustibly useful, providing wholly digestible examples of expository writing from personal narrative, to literary journalism, from lyric essay to imaginative forms of cultural analysis appropriate for both creative writing and first-year writing courses. They are short enough to read aloud in class so that we can feel the language in our mouths, track the moves of inquisition, and trace the spine of story. I’ve often begun class with a Brevity essay as though offering my students a piece of currency to spend however they wish that day.

Matthew Gavin Frank’s “A Brief Atmospheric Future” has become my go-to piece for introducing the braided essay in my creative nonfiction workshop. From the same Issue 51, I’ve taught Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Some Childhood Dreams Really Do Come True” to open discussions of genre—what is the difference between a flash essay and prose poem? What are the challenges and opportunities of creating in liminal spaces? Amy Butcher’s “Eight Quarters” shows the command an essayist needs of both situation and story—the situation of visiting a once-beloved friend in prison, and the story of fearing the monstrousness within our loved ones, within us all. And then there’s Jaquira Diaz’s “Beach City,” and the intimacy of its young characters trying to find permanence in a place of transience: “We were the faraway waves breaking, the music and the ocean and the heat rising rising rising, like a fever. We were bodies made of smoke and water.”

But if I had to single out one lesson that Brevity has allowed me to create, it would be the lesson on using a collective voice in creative nonfiction. Fittingly, the person whose work inspired this lesson is the same person who introduced me to the journal: Lee Martin. His genre-defiant essay “Talk Big,” from Issue 41, speaks in the “we” voice of working-class men living in downtrodden conditions. “We know who we are—the lowlifes, the no-accounts, the pissants, the stumblebums,” Martin writes. “All liquored up. Ten foot tall and bulletproof in a going-nowhere-fast town in southeastern Illinois.” As the essay tells us the story of a second-degree murder that takes place outside a rough-and-tumble bar in that “going-nowhere-fast” town, it uses the voice of the place to describe both the men’s desperation to survive, and their resistance to admitting “how close we are to dwindling down to nothing.”

“Talk Big” opens up possibilities for new points of view in creative nonfiction besides the veritable “I.” It relies on the fact that an essay’s narrator is often representative, speaking on behalf of the groups to which that narrator belongs, and thus uses a group voice instead of an individual one, right down to the language: “So we keep talking. Pissed off—bat shit crazy—talking big, big, big to tell ourselves we’re alive, to convince ourselves we’re still whole.”

I like to pair this essay with another Brevity masterpiece, Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology,” published in Issue 44. Sukrungruang’s essay, too, describes a group experience. A clique of Thai-American boys, to which the narrator belonged as a child, ostracizes another Thai-American boy who wishes to be part of the group. “You were a boy after all. So were we,” Sukrungruang writes. “But boys are cruel with neglect, crueler than the violence our hands are capable of.” The essay builds on Martin’s use of the collective voice—Sukrungruang’s narrator retains an “I” point of view, but positions himself as part of the group of boys with the heavy use of “we.” Even more interesting, the piece itself is an epistle: It’s written to the ostracized boy, who, the narrator learns, eventually hanged himself many years later. I love the fluctuation of “I,” “we,” and “you” that explores our constantly shifting positionality—our relationships to others, to our cultures, and to ourselves.

In short (but not quite Brevity short, for this post already exceeds the maximum length for an essay in the journal), I carry Brevity essays into the classroom like pennies in my pocket. They are all worth the same, but the variation astounds: some are brassy, some glisten with the high sheen of newness, some have the build-up of history on their faces, and some have been manipulated by other forces—run over by trains, fingered into metal-softness, grown over with a lattice of dirt or rust. Each of them a singular accomplishment, and yet all sharing the same constraints. Each of them individually powerful and instructive, but all part of a single journal’s unforgettable vision.
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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here (we’ll update the links as we post the other entries over the next two weeks: 2, 3, 4, 56
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Amy Monticello is the author of the nonfiction chapbook Close Quarters (Sweet Publications)Her forthcoming collection, How to Euthanize a Horse, won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize in Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in BrevityThe Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe RumpusBrain, Child MagazineHotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, and a regular contributor at Role/Reboot.

 

Brevity Special Issue: Race, Racialization, and Racism

March 15, 2016 § 7 Comments

nbcccitizenrankineBrevity is excited to announce a special issue to be focused on experiences of race, racialization, and racism. For our 53rd issue, we are looking for work that considers all aspects of race: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how race is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of race shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.

We are looking for flash essays (750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of race, racialization, and racism, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open from March 15th- May 31st and the issue will be published in mid-September.

In concert with this special issue, we are announcing our first-ever student writing contest. Students enrolled at the graduate or undergraduate level will be invited to flash essays on the theme through their writing programs, and the winner will receive a $200.00 prize and publication in the issue. (Don’t send yet. There will be more details on this contest released soon.)

We are very excited to announced that our anchor authors for this issue will be Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay.

The guest editors for this special issue will be Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro.

Born in Miami, Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir, the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, the essay collection Island of Bones, and the short fiction collection How Winter Began. Recipient of an International Latino Book Award and the Nebraska Book Award and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, she edited the collection Family Trouble:  Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, and serves as the series editor of Machete: The Ohio State Series in Literary Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in anthologies and in journals including SalonSeneca ReviewFourth GenreNorth American ReviewBrevityAfro-Hispanic Review, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post RoadThe Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida.

Because we are committed to showcasing a variety of lived experiences in this issue, we want to be certain that everyone is able to submit their work. If Brevity’s small submission fee of $3.00 would keep you from submitting, you may submit your work to brevitymag.race@gmail.com without paying the fee. (Should you take this option, however, you need to send a word doc. not a PDF for complex technical reasons too boring to describe here.)

Submissions begin today on our Submittable page.

Essays Are For Lovers

February 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

ValentineWe’re here because we love essays, memoir, creative nonfiction. They’re not always easy to find on the shelf, and the Amazon browsing process can be…flawed. (Inspired by your shopping trends, this print of Iron Man. Yep, got it in one.)

Over at Essay Daily, notable nonfictioneers including Ander Monson, Maya Kapoor, Brian Doyle and Jill Talbot have listed some of their favorite essay collections, including our own Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mr. Essay Writer Guy and Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang, and also mentions of individual essays, including several at Brevity.

The booklist is itself a catalog essay of sorts, with the editorial comments from the recommenders as charming as tracking down the essays they adore. From Aurvi Sharma:

Eliot Weinberger’s ‘An Elemental Thing’
I read this collection of essays pretty much entirely on the NYC subway and often wanted to grab the person sitting next to me and say, ‘Read this!’ Apparently Eliot Weinberger is not that well known the the States. Must be rectified.

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book Are these essays? Poems? Journal entries? Fiction? We don’t know but Sei Shonagon’s late 10th century words make us question our assumptions of what makes what, and that’s a good enough feature of nonfiction in my book.

Go check out the list…and choose a book for your Valentine.

Southside Sukrungruang Selebration

July 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

iraCongratulations to Ira Sukrungruang whose memoir in essays, Southside Buddhist, has been named a winner of the 36th Annual Before Columbus Foundation American Book Awards.

Two essays previously published in Brevity appear in the book: “Chop Suey” and “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology.” We would have been happy for Ira in any case, but the appearance of these two excellent Brevity essays in the book make us both happy and proud.

The American Book Awards were created to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community, which is a darned good thing.

An Open Letter to Anyone Who Will Listen (#SAVECITYUMFA)

May 6, 2015 § 6 Comments

Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang writes today on his reactions to the #savecityumfa campaign and the dwindling support for arts and humanities on many fronts:

I was taught to always keep my emotions in check, to not speak out, to watch but not act. I was taught to blend. This, my Thai mother said, would keep me safe. This, she said, would help me go far in the world. Keep quiet. Keep level-headed.

But the last few weeks have made it hard for me to heed my mother’s advice. Hard to stand and watch and not say anything. I find myself with an urge to scream at this world that has let me and my friends down. This world that has broken its promises. This world with its racial injustices and its devaluation of the arts.

To this I say: What the fuck?

It’s all I can say.

I am robbed of any ounce of intelligence. Any ounce of patience. I have found myself out of rationality. I am tired—I’m sorry, Mother—of watching.

Because I love this world. Because I breathe this air. Because the hurt of many is my hurt. I absorb it like a sponge. I carry it in this fleshy body. This body that feels every punch, every rock, every fire, every charged word of hate, every pronouncement that what I do, what I care about has no value in this new world we live in, this new world that cares more for numbers and commerce, forsaking the very thing that makes us feel.

Art. Voice. Expression.

We have become an unfeeling culture. We have become a finger-pointing culture. We have become a culture of moral judgement, as if there is one and only one way to be in this world. There is not. There are so many wonderful ways of being. It is what makes this world beautiful. A man marries a man. A woman, a woman. A single parent raises a child. A man becomes a woman. A woman, a man. A boy chooses to be a writer, a painter, a singer, instead of a scientist, a doctor, a CEO. When my mother first came to America, she remarked on the open spaces everywhere in this country. “America is so big,” she said. “There is room for the world here.” There is. There should be.

And yet, I find myself always defending my place in this world. I see colleges close doors to the arts. I see severe cuts in the humanities. I see English Department budgets shrink. I see businessmen decide what is right for education. A colleague at the English Department I work at in Florida said the other day, “This won’t change. They don’t care about us.” And then it happened. The feeling I got when I was a child, when I was being bullied for being Thai and fat, the feeling of helplessness that numbs the entirety of me. The feeling of picking at a scab until it bleeds. That same feeling is happening now. This feeling of being undervalued and unnecessary and unwanted. Bullied.

When I voice my concerns, I am placated. I am given a generous nod. An of course, of course. A sentence in the passive voice that claims no ownership. Your concerns are being looked at. A thank you for bringing this issue to light. And then nothing. And then I feel, as soon as the door is closed, that they are saying, Here is another minority bemoaning fairness. Here he is playing the race card. Here is another writer fighting for uselessness. Here he goes again with art matters.

This is what the powerless feel. Placated. When the courts rule unjustly. When university humanities programs get cut.

So we rage. So we fight.

So we say, Don’t placate me. Don’t placate us.

savecityumfaThis last week, among all the other going-ons in the world, among riots and earthquakes, a small international low-residency MFA program in Hong Kong got axed for incomprehensible reasons–City University HK MFA. This was a program like no other, producing writing like no other. It was not only shaping literature in Asia but also adding diversity to the western cannon. The faculty, which I’m lucky to be part of, are truly stellar writers and teachers. They care. They believe the willed word can fill the fractures of the earth. They believe wholeheartedly that the writer matters still in this world, that her voice can affect change. Story. Poem. Essay. It’s what we teach. It’s what we do. These students, these writers, are vital to the life of global literature. This program bridges the East and West. These students are impassioned. They want. The program’s closure is reprehensible. Short-sighted. Unwarranted. Just plain stupid.

But here is the thing: Has it stopped the students from writing? Has it stopped the students from raising their voices? Has the administration stifled these young and loud cries?

Look at the uprising. Look at the Facebook page. Look at all the letters. Look at the website and pictures. Look at the wave of protest on social media. Look.

They sing loud.

They write louder.

We are writers! they say

We matter! they say.

Give us back our program! they say.

#SAVECITYUMFA

I admire them. Applaud them. Love them. It’s one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a teacher. It’s not about publication. Not about accolades. It’s about being heard. Damn it, it’s beautiful.

Their heart is my heart. Their voice is my voice. I raise it with them. I stand with them, though I am 8000 miles away. I’m here. In every respect.

I we—don’t ask for much. We ask to be listened to. We ask to be included in the conversation. We ask that you care for what we do and what we’ve added to the community. We ask that you do not placate us.

Most of all, we ask for fairness.

We ask for fairness here, too. In America. In Ferguson. In Baltimore. In the places and communities many have forgotten. We ask for justice. It seems obvious, a no-brainer. We ask you to listen.

Please listen.

I’m tired of stifling my voice. I’m tired of remaining quiet when everything I love is evaporating. A program. A country. People. Art.

I owe my life to this country. This country gave my immigrant parents jobs. This country provided a suburban home in the Southside of Chicago. This country offered me an exemplary education. For this I am indebted. It’s hard not to echo the sentiments of James Baldwin in moments like this. “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

I was born on June 23, a couple of weeks before America’s bicentennial, when the country celebrated its break from a ruthless and unjust monarchy. When the citizens of this country sought to be heard. When a document read: We the people We. We. We. We must become the we again because we live in a world of separation, where power is decided by color and wealth and greed. My criticism is not aimed at America. It’s aimed at humanity. Because we are part of it. I am part of it. I can’t go on without voice.

So hear me.  So hear all of us. Our voices—interlaced, interwoven—are powerful.

With so much love,

Ira Sukrungruang

Brevity Announces Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization

March 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

A Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization guest-edited by Ira Sukrungruang and featuring new work by Claudia Rankine 

nbcccitizenrankineYou continue to astound us with your generosity! We can’t believe we have already made it through our first Kickstarter stretch goal, and everyone at Brevity is grateful and moved and more than a little overwhelmed. Thank you! Our next stretch goal is, we think, a really amazing one: our next special issue, featuring new work by award-winning poet and playwright Claudia Rankine and guest-edited by one of our favorite (not that we have favorites) Brevity authors, the also-award-winning Ira Sukrungruang.

Claudia Rankine (as if you didn’t know) is the author of five collections of poetry, including most recently Citizen: An American Lyric, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. She has coedited American Women Poets in the 21st Century; Where Lyric Meets Language (2002), American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (2007), and The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2014). Her poems have been included in the anthologies Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present(2003), Best American Poetry (2001), and The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry (1996). Her play Detour/South Bronx premiered in 2009 at New York’s Foundry Theater.

We’ve been reading, and teaching, and gushing over Rankine’s work quite a lot recently, and are more than a little beside ourselves that she’s said yes to being next year’s anchor author. We can’t wait to bring you a new piece of her powerful writing!

Guest editor Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity:What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthologyand Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.buddhistboy.com.

We hope you’re as excited about this announcement as we are, although unless you’ve just gotten giddy and a little teary-eyed, done a happy dance and called your mother to tell her that you’ve finally made something of yourself, you probably aren’t. We are deeply honored by the amazing writers who are willing to work with us, and the amazing readers who make our work possible. Thank you.

Help us Fund the New Special Issue, and so much more.

AWP 2014: Find Your Voice, Get Naked

March 6, 2014 § 7 Comments

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An AWP panel report from Jennifer Ochstein

Exposure is risky, a little embarrassing, but part of the contract. It’s not simply dropping your robe to reveal a bare shoulder or allowing strangers a peek at your thigh. Creative nonfiction requires a stark naked pose.

As panelist Dinah Lenney put it during the Saturday afternoon discussion, The Naked I: Nonfiction’s Exposed Voice, the creative nonfiction writer has to “get naked, stand up and turn around. Slowly.” The effect might cause some to avert their eyes, others to be overcome with desire or jealousy or revulsion, but the authenticity of the exposure is crucial. Without it, creative nonfiction might as well disappear into the self-help section of the bookstore and call it quits.

The creation of the panel stemmed from Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, edited by Margot Singer and Nicole Walker. In it, Singer points to the self-reflective narrative voice that is the living ‘I’, the body of the author. There is no objectivity, only an odd, bracing mix of hubris and humility. While Singer could not attend the discussion, panelist Judith Kitchen explained that the narrative stance in creative nonfiction profoundly influences the voice of the writer. “Creative nonfiction creates a complicit contract with the reader,” Kitchen said. “The voice represents a self so close to the inner self it’s like hearing yourself in the mirror.” That voice is the “stamp of the individual in a world of conformity,” she said. It asks, “Who am I,” in that world and how to find that self within the community.

While the panelists, who also included Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, and Ira Sukrungruang, offered up stale dictionary definitions of voice, they proved how useless those definitions are in helping young writers discover their own voices. Sukrungruang, who teaches at the University of South Florida, tells his students they each have at least five voices. By way of example, he points toward his own: French, Thai, Thai-lish (his family language, a blend of Thai and English), the private language between him and his lover, the safe, professional language he uses with his colleagues at university, and the “insecure fat voice” of a man who struggles with weight. Each voice reveals a separate piece of him, but they are wholly him. Those voices are always evolving, different within each narrative journey because each deserves a unique hearing.

Borich referred to this evolution as resistance and desire of the push and pull patterns that present themselves within each narrative. But how to explain it, asked Lisicky? To him, the beauty of exposure is not the full, naked body. The sexiest bodies, he said, are in different stages of undress and concealment.

Creative nonfiction is not a vanishing act, Lenney insisted. “I don’t write to disappear. I write to locate myself.” That location may be as mother, writer, teacher, wife, friend, or other. Locating herself in the narrative allows her to use language to sing for her reader. And perhaps this is where the paradox of the Naked ‘I’ unveils itself. While Lenney said she only feels authentically present in the creative nonfiction genre, she can control the impression readers have of her. “I don’t want to fool you,” she said. “I only want to sing for you in the key of my choosing, the best way I know how.”

Jennifer Ochstein is a writer and teacher who lives in the Midwest. Her work can be found at Brevity, Connotation Press, Hippocampus Magazine, and Hothouse Magazine as well as in The Lindenwood Review and Evening Street Review. Follow her blog at jenniferochstein.com.

 

 

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