Teaching Brevity: Joe Mackall’s The Little Girl at the Door

September 20, 2017 § 12 Comments

pgBy Penny Guisinger

My students are arguing. One of them points to a paragraph in the essay  we’ve just read and says, “No, this is reflection, not summary. The author is telling us how he feels.”

The passage reads, “I want nothing more in life at this moment than for this child to leave our home. I don’t want her to return, not ever. I don’t want to care for her. I don’t want to worry about her.”

Another student shakes her head. “No.  This is information he could have showed us in a scene, but he’s telling us instead, so it’s summary.” She runs her fingertip under the words and reads aloud, completely clear that she has this figured out.

I offer my best, most-practiced, most-teacherly nod at this exchange, but the truth is that I don’t care which of them is right, and that’s fortunate because I’m not sure  I even know which one is right because I think, in some ways, they might both be right. What I care about is that they’re having the conversation at all. Further, they’re taking sides and getting upset. While they parry and thrust, I rub my inner hands together in delight. We are here to learn about the building blocks of CNF, but also more.

We’ve just read Joe Mackall’s piece, “The Little Girl at the Door” from the September 2005 issue of Brevity. I’ve taught this essay many times in CNF courses because I love the way the sentences (mostly) break cleanly across the lines (when we can find them) between the tools of scene, summary, and reflection. These terms are abstract until we do a close reading of Mackall together.

Check out the four sentences that open the second paragraph:

Sure enough, it’s the girl from the next street asking if my granddaughter is over. The little shit seems to have a sixth sense about Ellie’s visits. What I hate admitting to myself or anybody else is that I fear this child. The house she lives in screams of too much activity and not enough care.

Four sentences serving up the three tools: scene, summary, reflection, plus one line-straddler, which is part of the lesson. The first sentence is clear action: scene.  The second doesn’t want to be categorized right away. The third? Such a clear example of the reflective voice that it makes the distinction impossible to miss. And the bit that glosses over about what the house screams is a fine example of summary.

It’s the moments when the sentences sit on those blurry lines that can often be squeezed for the pulpiest juice. When the students disagree, and have to mount a defense of their position, they have to get their mouths around these concepts and describe them. What makes something a scene? The verbs? The sensory information? I hold myself back from the fray here and let them argue.

I have a hidden agenda. Getting students’ heads around scene, summary, and reflection is important, yes, but this piece has more important lessons to teach. That sentence about the little shit? I tell them, “It might be some fourth category. It might be summary or scene, but thoroughly filtered through this narrator’s eyes. Just because it reveals something about the narrator doesn’t automatically categorize it solely as reflection.” I pause, watching foreheads crinkle around the table. “In some ways, really, every sentence can and should reflect on the ‘I’ that’s telling the story, right?”

Now, they’re kind of annoyed.

Over and over, students of writing have to confront this terrible reality about our craft: the answer to most questions is “it depends.”  Sentences defy categorization. Narrators are shifty. And – here’s the worst news – narrators and writers do not have the same goals and are, in certain important ways, not always the same people.

“Do you like this narrator?” I ask.

At first, universally, they do not. “He’s mean. He’s judgmental. You’re not supposed to say things like this.” His willingness to be so openly unlikable feels risqué.

This conversation unfolds predictably.  Some student with children or grandchildren puts together enough courage to say, “I understand him.”

Silence. For about ten seconds.

Then others creep onto that same platform, tentatively at first then more firmly. “He just wants to protect his granddaughter. He’s kind of right, you really can’t save everybody.” And, finally, we get to the truth: “I have felt like this, but I’m not proud of it.”

I ask, “Do you think Joe Mackall is proud of this?”

Nobody thinks that. Together, we zero in on this central line: In certain important ways, I’m much less of a person now. This line is the gravity around which the whole piece orbits. I talk about the narrative hand-tip. The pulling back of the curtain. The authorial back-flip required to get there.

At this point, all concerns about which sentences are which things have fallen away. Now we’re talking about the real issue on the table: we’ve moved into a discussion about situation and story, as defined by Gornick. We have moved beyond craft into questions about why we write CNF at all.

I reach for Philip Lopate’s Introduction to the impressive-looking anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay – an introduction I keep in my teacherly hip pocket for this moment. I read two sentences, heavily underlined:

(1) The harvesting of self-contradiction is an intrinsic part of the personal essay form.

(2) If some readers are repelled by a writer’s behavioral contradictions, this is quite all right, because the personal essayist is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being.

I have shared similar ideas from minute one of every class, but this is the moment when it sinks in: using the tools we have at hand, we make our work resonate by admitting our complicity in this flawed mess called humanity.

All around the classroom table, heads slowly nod and eyes roam across the printouts of Mackall’s piece.

Class ends, as all classes eventually do, and my students slide their copies of Mackall into backpacks, inside the covers of notebooks, or into computer bags. The course changes – every time – at this moment. Students leave this conversation less content with telling their stories as anecdotes. They want their stories to do that magic trick of lifting off the page, doing the half gainer, flipping inside out, and revealing something complicated about the “I” on the page. They’ve seen it. Deconstructed it. They get it.

‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here (once they are posted) : 1, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and an assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program.

On Literary Editing and the Nature of Love

April 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

rtOur friend Dan Lehman at River Teeth offers a comprehensive, nuanced, and honest look at how editors make their  decisions, with helpful detail on River Teeth‘s active and intuitive process. Here is an excerpt, followed by a link to the whole article:

Fifteen years into this journey, an important thing readers should know about River Teeth is that its two editors once worked at magazines and newspapers where we shaped content and nurtured writers. Hence our love for factual writing that soars in interesting ways. Beyond that, we love clustering great essays and literary reporting into the soul and rhythm of each issue … At heart we always ask two questions: Is this the sort of piece I would want to call the other editor in the middle of the night to say we have to have? And would we die if we saw this piece in someone else’s journal and knew we could have had it for ourselves? Those are the criteria, nothing else really. As we wrote a few issues ago, we will publish the work of friends and acquaintances (even ourselves) if it meets those standards. Only then. That’s all. That our two Best American essays come from writers with close ties makes our case. Both were among the best dozen or so essays in this or any other year; it would have killed us to see them win those prizes for someone else. And we confessed that fact in writing before the prizes were won.

We know all this sounds more than a little intuitive, even presumptuous, and quite a bit less than arm’s length. That’s the nature of love, we guess.

Read Dan Lehman’s full explanation here.

AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

March 13, 2014 § 5 Comments

mr lopate

“Lefty”Lopate. Photo courtesy of Marla Sink Druzgal [TravelingMarla.com]

Alle C. Hall reports on the panel, “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir.”

Stop whining, dang you!

Naturally, the panelist stated it more kindly and with greater eloquence, fessing up to arrogance and regret, to fear, even self-pity—so long as by the final draft, self-pity was gone, gone, gone.

Philip Lopate and Suzanne Greenberg’s craft talks opened and closed the event. Greenberg teaches CNF at Cal State Fullerton, while Lopate goes about the lucky business of being Lopate. He suggested:

  1. Say horrendous things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.
  2. Say them blithely.
  3. At least teeter on the edge of completely unacceptable.
  4. Use slightly anachronistic language.
  5. Be exquisitely modest.
  6. Poke fun at one’s own cowardice, cruelty, and selfishness.

Susanne Greenberg described students regularly writing about personal tragedies without understanding the unremarkable nature of their tragedies. To help them “stop staring out the window in regret,” she:

  1. infuses the classroom with humor, primarily through her attitude;
  2. looks for moments of humor in an otherwise serious work; and
  3.  seeks revelation, a slashing truth in a lighter piece.

To my mind, she was speaking to the Chekhovian state of joy-filled pain, or pain-filled joy. I can’t out which was which, but do know that it doesn’t matter. The three authors that spoke between Lopate and Greenberg—Joe Mackall, Mimi Schwartz, and Daniel Stolar—understand keenly what it means to share that gift.

Joe Mackall wasted no time getting to busting guts. “Speaking after Phillip Lopate must be like what Danny DeVito feels, at a bar with Brad Pitt. They’re not there for you but there is decent overflow.”

Mackall then dove into a confession of true fear, and the separate fear of writing trite. Was he a “sentimental idiot” because:

  • he was ageing. (Riff: when incontinence finally gets too embarrassing, he plans to smoke a lot of weed.)
  • he refuses to get new carpet in the library because his granddaughters had crawled across the old.

Mimi Schwartz taught the gift by sharing it. She described a moment, when she was at an emotional nadir from loosing her breasts to cancer, that her husband went about their house, saying, “Here, titty, titty; Here, titty, titty.”

She said, “Question the premise that seriousness is more valid than honest humor. Let’s not choose. Let’s go for good writing and good reading, toward a more complex truth.” Schwartz encouraged what she called, “the anger that may start the piece” giving way to something so much more than a way to get over your tragedy. It can turn survival into thriving.

The ideal segue for Dan Stolar, who read work so personal that he remains undecided as to whether to publish it. To honor his choice, I’ll share some of his wisdom, instead.

  • “I use humor to try to break your heart, and to try to keep mine from breaking in the process.”
  • “Make the reader complicit.” He mentioned a gossip-nasty joke that came up two times. “Some of you laughed twice.”
  •  “You are not joking, even as you are trying to make someone laugh. But we are not joking.”

Note the shift in pronoun.

It was gorgeous, witnessing the writers enjoy their work with a seeming lack of self-absorption. Their work seemed at a point where they were curious about people (including themselves) as the walking diagnoses that we are. And the moments that scored the biggest laughs were those when one of them looked up from their prose with a pause, and a self-effacing chuckle.

Alle C. Hall’s blog, About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children, is accepting submissions for The Not-Nearly-Annual Frozen Fish Head Haiku Contest. Ms. Hall is a saucy lass, but serious about comic haiku.

AWP 2014: The Ethics of Immersion

March 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

downloadA guest post from Ann Beman.  (For those of you wondering, we still have about ten more panel reports in our queue, and will continue rolling them out into next week):

Select seat with view of lectern. Check.

Push Voice Memo button on phone. Check.

Scribble panel title in notebook. Check.

I’m ready. So are the five panelists facing me, and so are the 60+ audience members surrounding me. We are the researchers in Room 607.

“It’s a bit of an oddball role,” began moderator Ana Maria Spagna. She described the ethical challenges experienced while researching Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, in which she explored her late father’s involvement in the Tallahassee bus boycott of 1957. The various people to whom she spoke had different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story, “as well as their own real lives and real pain,” she said. The crux became how to respect those peoples’ privacy, integrity, and culture: “How could I honor their stories and still tell some version of the truth? How could I characterise my relationship with them, because on one hand, these were friends of my late father, and on the other hand, they were subjects of a potential book?”

Many different writers have faced these challenges, said Spagna. “And they’ve approached them — necessarily — differently, both in terms of craft and in terms of ethics.”

Joe Mackall, author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, describing how he framed his intentions with his insular Amish neighbors — “I told Samuel I just wanted to write the truth as I saw it.” Invoking Gay Talese’s “fine art of hanging out,” Mackall told his Amish neighbors, “I’m going to hang around so much that I’m not going to leave on my own accord. So you need to tell me, ‘enough.’ They never did. I was exhausted.”

Amanda Webster, discussing her work in progress, a book about growing up in a gold-mining town in West Australia, attending school with members of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their families by the Australian government — “In Australia, a white person writing about personal Aboriginal stories is typically taboo. Story ownership was a real issue for me.”

What Webster learned:


  • Establish your authority to tell the story, and once established be aware that it’s not unassailable authority.
  • Establish your stake.
  • Be aware that your role is not to provoke further trauma.
  • Be mindful of Aboriginal customs.
  • Not to plunder these peoples’ lives and then disappear without a trace.


Webster also explained her rationale for and methodology in paying some of her research subjects — “Ultimately, it came back to the refrain we always hear: as writers we should be paid for our work. Shouldn’t these story subjects be paid for their work as well?”

Both Mackall and Bob Cowser Jr. (Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team) expressed their reticence to change names during the writing process. They acknowledged it was necessary but preferred to completely finish their manuscripts before doing so. “It breaks the spell for me,” said Cowser, “I don’t know who to care about, or where the ground is under me.”

Jo Scott-Coe, author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School, describing her efforts — “I took a great deal of time to shade identities, particularly with the darker material, of which there is quite a bit,” she said, adding that she avoided names by identifying teaching staff by role, and family members by relation. Despite the camouflage, there were readers who recognized themselves.

What she learned:


  • The ethics of where or how to camouflage names
  • When people react negatively or angrily, it’s not always to debate. Often it is because you have expressed a connection or perception that they disagree with, or that they find offensive, or that they didn’t expect to be expressed by you.
  • Essayists cannot always anticipate these reactions, and they’re not always ours to control or evade.
  • We are not always in the service of a predetermined message. We don’t know what we will discover.


All of the panelists agreed that the most important “contract” they had with their research subjects was to let them read and vet what they had written.

“Ultimately,” said Scott-Coe, “our byline is our accountability.”

Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.

AWP 2012: Immerse Yourself

March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

By Kate Fox

F128  The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing / Robin Hemley, Melissa Pritchard, Joe Mackall, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Christopher Merrill

After the recent brouhaha over John D’Agata’s approach to creative nonfiction, I was amazed when not a word about it was mentioned in this session. Instead, Robin Hemley began by identifying earlier writers—Nellie Bly, James Agee, Barbara Ehrenreich and others—who have used themselves as a “conduit” for experiential, participatory writing. He then cited three types of immersion writing:

•  Immersion Journalism

•  Immersion Memoir

•  Immersion Travel Writing

though he was quick to state that these categories are meant to be useful, not binding; the boundaries among them are permeable.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who has written about “life in the Communist Block after the Marxist meltdown,”—specifically, Russia, Beijing, and Mexico—was the first to present. She spoke of encountering a bias in publishers toward memoir over direct reportage, and as a result, had to alter her work to introduce more of herself into the narrative to attract publishers. She then addressed the ethical landmines involved in writing creative nonfiction, specifically exploiting and/or profiting from someone else’s story. As a sort of antidote to these landmines, Griest holds to five tenets:

1.      Learn the language of the people you’re writing about. For her this meant intense study of Russian, Chinese, and Mexican, though she admits she still had to use interpreters to overcome the distance between the language she had learned and the colloquial/regional dialects.

2.      Live the life of the people you’re writing about. You must have intimate contact; you must live among them as they live.

3.     The “subjects” or people you are writing about are always right. This assumption grants the compassion and understanding you need to treat people with respect.      

4.   Share the work before it is published. You must give the people you’re writing about a chance to respond to the work.

5.      Writing these stories is a privilege, not ownership. You must be clear on who owns the story—they do.

Joe Mackall was next, and though I’ve known Joe since at least 2001, I didn’t realize he was so drop-dead funny. He talked about writing about the Shettlers, an Amish family, in Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and said up front that his wife threatened, “If you screw up our friendship with these people, you are in deep trouble.” He also described being terrified of both Amish draft horses and riding in Amish buggies (“You people drive too damn fast around the Amish!” he declared to the audience). To Mackall, the “outsider” in his subtitle says it all: there was no way he could be anything other than an “infiltrator,” one who provides a window on what they allowed him to participate in, so that his role was more of a benevolent docent and a justifier of a misunderstood subculture. Mackall echoed Griest’s tenet of sharing the work with those being written about, though he was surprised at what the Stettlers took issue with. The things he worried about, they seemed to see as the provenance of the writer. But when he noted the shabby conditions of a brother-in-law’s barn, they asked for that part to be removed, and when he estimated a hog’s weight at 200 pounds, Samuel Stettler corrected him, saying it was closer to 300 pounds—and Mackall knew he was the better judge. According to Mackall, “Immersion is negotiation.”

Christopher Merrill gave perhaps the best—and most harrowing—example of true immersion, citing Christopher Hitchens’ willingness to undergo waterboarding to dispel the Bush Administration’s claim that it was not torture, but simply “extended interrogation.”

He then cited Elisabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” as the best template for the way active description should work—its tripartite structure of a faithful account of the details, then a reflection upon those details that finally allows the “true” meaning to emerge. As he explained, “Any moment, if you pay enough attention to it, will act as a hologram for meaning and truth.”

As another Brevity blogger bemoaned, I have overshot my 500-word limit, so I will conclude with two anecdotes I thought were quite resonant for different reasons. Griest underscored the “danger” of immersion writing by telling about a “blind date” she was supposed to have with a local in Mexico. He showed up drunk, after midnight, with several drunk friends in tow, inviting her to “come and party.” As she said, no one in her right mind would even consider going. But as a memoirist, she tended to think, “If I get out of this alive, this is going to be great!”

Then Melissa Pritchard spoke of walking through—I believe it was India’s—brothel district, where 12-15 years olds were on display and being sold for sex. And she thought she was “handling it all right” until she saw that some boys had a young brown bear on a leash and were torturing it to make it dance. In the middle of all of these children being sold, she cried at the dancing bear—though she realized later that it certainly wasn’t the only thing that made her cry.

Kate Fox is a writer/editor in Athens, OH

Brevity’s AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Saturday

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

And finally ….

Saturday 9 to 10:15 am

Wilson A, B, & C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

S116. Moving Pictures, Moving Words: Essays in the Digital Age. (Ned Stuckey-French, Marcia Aldrich, Rebecca Faery, Doug Hesse, Philip Metres, Wendy Sumner-Winter) This panel will examine the impact of the digital revolution on the essay. We will address the following questions: How are the new media changing the ways we write, read, and teach essays? What can essayists learn from poets, novelists, filmmakers, bloggers, web designers, and hackers about what the digital future may hold? What problems and possibilities do these new essays present to magazine editors, anthologists, and book publishers?

Saturday 3 to 4:15 pm

Diplomat Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S201. Shaping a Life: Voice, Structure, and Craft in Memoir. (Janice Gary, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ben Yagoda, Dustin Beall Smith, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Michael Downs) While fiction writers create entire worlds from scratch, those working in the nonfiction genre of memoir must struggle with the bulky material of an existing life. Like a sculptor working with a block of stone, the memoirist’s task is to shape and reveal, fashioning a well-formed text out of a lifetime of experiences. In this session, writers of memoir will discuss the challenges of the form including where to begin, structure and voice, material selection, and other craft considerations.

Saturday 4:30 to 5:45 pm

Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S222. The Unfolding Story: Narrative Possibilities in Creative Nonfiction. (Steven Harvey, Joe Mackall, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Bob Cowser, Michael Steinberg) Stories emerge in works of creative nonfiction in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are told in a straightforward manner, but often they are truncated, muted, or implied—and each choice has consequences. What are the possibilities for storytelling available to the writer of nonfiction? What effects do these choices create? Does the genre place any limits on narrative possibilities? A panel of writers and editors will examine these questions about the tales we tell in creative nonfiction.

AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Friday Afternoon

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

If you’ve been following along, you  know that by now we’ve all fainted in the lobby:

Friday Noon to 1:15 pm

Nathan Hale Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

F148. Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared. (David Everett, Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, Christopher Joyce) Many nonfiction writers either don’t understand or are afraid of the challenges of writing about science, medicine, technology, or other complicated subjects. But this panel of experienced writers argues that the best science writing can be as ambitious as the best literary writing on any subject. Good science writing, in fact, may be more challenging, because it requires a journalist’s regard for accuracy plus the ability to explain complex subjects with grace, passion, and literary skill.

Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F160. Memoir, Spirituality and the Self in the Narcissistic Culture of Our Time. (Elizabeth Kadetsky, Rodger Kamenetz, Farideh Goldin, Julia Spicher Kasdorf) If one believes the detractors, memoir bears responsibility second only to reality TV for fomenting this “narcissistic” age, in Christopher Lasch’s term—an era of therapeutic jargon that celebrates not so much individualism as solipsism, justifying self-absorption as “authenticity” and “awareness.” Here, we consider quests for self-knowledge as linked, rather, to a spiritual project. How can memoir point to places beyond the self—to transcendence, insight or affiliation with human community?

Friday, 1:30 to 2:45 pm

Ambassador Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F179. Stranger Than Fiction: The Choice Between Fiction and Nonfiction. (Robin Romm, Kerry Cohen, Pam Houston, Cheryl Strayed, Richard McCann) Most every writer has a personal story to tell. But with memoir comes potential harm—for friends, family, and themselves. Writers often wonder if they could simply change their stories to fiction. How do authors choose between fiction and nonfiction when telling their stories? Can the same story be both fiction and memoir? Five authors who have made such choices will discuss the reasons behind their decisions, and the ramifications of having done so.

Friday, 3 to 4:15 pm

Thurgood Marshall North Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F195. Flinging the Ink Pot: Resisting Messages About Off-Limits Subjects in Memoir. (Jill Christman, Kate Hopper, Paul Lisicky, Joe Mackall, Sue William Silverman) This panel of memoirists will consider what happens when we write about subjects that are commonly lumped together and dismissed by the publishing industry. It seems we shouldn’t talk about abuse, addiction, or parenting of any stripe. Why are certain subjects seen as played out, clichéd, and sensational? We will consider whether we can avoid categorizing giant facets of human experience as literary no-nos, and find our way back to the serious writing of the stories we need to tell.

Friday, 4:30 to 5:45 pm

Harding Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F210. What the Narrator Doesn’t Know: The Importance of Speculation in Narrative. (Jill McCabe Johnson, David Huddle, Dinah Lenney, Lee Martin, Lia Purpura) Should narrators admit what they don’t know? Does ignorance discredit the nonfiction author? Listen to four writers discuss how they use speculation to openly investigate questions, uncover the narrator’s vulnerabilities, delve more deeply into narrative, and intensify plot. Learn how not knowing can build credibility and open possibilities for the author, while inviting the reader to embark with you on a journey of exploration.

Diplomat Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F223. Interviewing In My Underwear: Adventures as a Female Memoirist. (Wendy Sumner-Winter, Barrie Jean Borich, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Kerry Cohen, Brenda Miller) We’ve all heard that confession is good for the soul, but how about for a woman living in the real world? Six memoirists discuss the familial, professional, social costs and benefits—and everything in between—of being a woman who writes candidly about her body, her physical life, her sex life, her carnal appetites. We will talk about what it is like to navigate our various social and political worlds having told, literally, the naked truth.

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