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.

 

On Dialogue and Memoir

September 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

2014-09-15_1027The always brilliant Lee Martin discusses “The Thing Said: Ten Thoughts on Writing Dialogue in Memoir” on his blog this week.  There is not much we can add, except “Thank you, Lee.”  Here is his first thought, followed by a link to the entire blog entry:

1.  Accept the fact that you’ll never remember exactly what someone said. Trust me. You may think you will, but you won’t. The thing said is lost to time; all that remains is the shape you give it as you do your best to call it back.

Read the entire entry, “Ten Thoughts on Writing Dialogue in Memoir”

On the Road Again (with Sundog Lit)

September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

66Sundog Lit has a road-thumping, tire-biting, asphalt-meltingly wonderful new issue — (Letters from) the Road edited by Brevity contributor Jill Talbot.  We especially love the digital work by Eric LeMay (full disclosure, he’s on the Brevity Board of Directors) and the video essay by William Hoffacker, as well as work by Pam Houston, Marcia Aldrich, Lee Martin, Nicole Walker, William Bradley, B.J. Hollars … oh, cripes almighty, it would probably just be best to list the entire table of contents.  As for the theme, Here’s an excerpt from Jill’s marvelous intro, followed by a link to the issue itself:

A gas station in Beatty, Nevada in 1973. Twenty-two miles from here, off the U.S. 93, four cars with out-of-state plates laze in the parking lot of the Outlaw Motel. Who knows what’s really going on here? The blue sky looks so brilliant against the yellow sunflowers in a South Dakotan summer. A flock of blackbirds flies off a field somewhere near Columbus. And there on the side of the road, looking up and out at the surrounding emptiness, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine. The night train from Venice. Around the wide square driveway, down the hill and around the turnabout with the lit lantern beacon in the middle across the street from the red barn and the muddy yard. The road to Hana, the 68-mile highway that skimmed along beige cliffs, single-lane bridges. A road after a flash flood in San Angelo, Texas. The stacked stones of a roadside liquor sign in Ohio. We are half-way there. Speeding the curves of a road braced by the blue light of snow….  It is staggering to be here.

Read (Letters from) the Road

AWP 2014: Hidden Populations Panel: The Saddest Place

March 4, 2014 § 5 Comments

Seattle AWP Starbucks logoJacqueline Haskins guest blogs on the “Hidden Populations” panel:

Sonja, a panelist, painted it for us with words. Naked railroad tracks under empty sky. Trains roaring past in stink and noise. Sonja parked down there, because who’s going to pay to park on campus? So every work day she walked past it, the saddest place on Earth. Beside the tracks. A squat, windowless, cement-block building. Its parking lot cracked and fissured. A blood-bank; a place to sell your blood. Scattered across the busted asphalt, dented cars, where people sat with a window, or maybe a door, wide open, music wafting, waiting their turn to sell their blood. Across the parking lot, Scutties. Walking past, one glance told you Scutties sold beer and lotto tickets. Convenient.

Sonja Livingston walked on, to the writing workshop she teaches. One morning, as the group sat sipping take-out coffees, waiting for workshop to begin, a student mentioned the blood bank. And it seemed someone did pay to park on campus, because a second student asked, “blood bank?”

“You know,” Sonia put in. “The saddest place on Earth.”

A third student looked up from her paper cup. “I know that place,” she said. “When I was a single mother, I used to go there to sell my blood.”

Sonja sat there kicking herself in the butt until the start of workshop let her be busy and in charge. “I’m telling this story now,” she told us, shame still in her face, “because I used to be Catholic, and I still love to confess.”

The place she had dismissively called the saddest place on Earth belonged, in a deep and intimate way, to somebody. That place was a complicated place, full of memory and resonances. A place a single mother might sit in a dented car, if she had one, maybe thinking about her little one left with a neighbor, maybe leaving with enough to get by until payday.

Locate beauty in the hard places, the panelists reminded us. Resist easy labels. One panelist recalled pearls of moonlight seeping through outhouse walls. Light and shadows on a single sunflower. Dialect? Yes, use it—to create poetry.

Panelist Karen Salyer McElmurray told us, “The first time I was a hidden population I was in 4th grade.”

Her 4th grade teacher asked the class to write about their family and their house. What is the name of the street you live on? What is your Mama’s name? Your Daddy’s name? asked the 4th grade teacher.

So great was her dread, the shy child slipped up to the teacher’s desk, desperate for a way out of the assignment. Yes, she had a mama and a papa. No, she didn’t mind telling the name of the street she lived on. But she didn’t want to tell her mother’s name. None of the others would have a mother’s name like that. A mountain name. A back-woods name.

“Don’t get above your rasin’,’” one panelist was told. But others were told: You can do anything, be anyone, in this world.

“Grandpa told me I could do anything,” blogged a student who had given permission to a panelist to share her story. “But what he didn’t tell me is that if I did it, if I made it, I would be angry almost all the time.”

Angry to be the only student at the mandatory 5 am dorm meeting called to impress upon students that dishes need to be returned to the kitchen. Her dorm-mates instead paid a $25 fine, and were sleeping blissfully. Angry as day after day she carried others’ dishes to the kitchen. Angry that the other girls never seemed to wonder, or notice, how dishes magically clean themselves away.

Angry that her classmates went to poetry readings in the evenings, as she headed to one of her jobs. That her classmates applied for unpaid editing internships while she spent the summer waiting tables and cleaning houses.

And back home? “No one wanted to hear about someone who made it out,” she wrote. Back home was a lot of anger too. Things stolen, friends gone cold, even punches thrown. Anger, she concluded, is the unspoken side effect of social mobility.

Panelist Lee Martin told us the rural working class /poor whites may be the most under-represented population on America’s elite campuses. He asked: how can we be deliberate in adopting a pedagogy of inclusion? Do we want literature to be filled with outsiders? Then start by making the writing workshop a safe place.

First generation college students, children of the working class—for whom hard work may be one of the highest values—often must deal with deep skepticism from their communities of origin that learning is truly work. “Writer” is an identity their families may not recognize or understand.

Have you ever been tempted to “pass” as some who has always had a subscription to the New Yorker? How much greater this pressure on writers from the working class, and/or below the poverty line. These writers may face even more difficulty than most of us in claiming our identity.

The rural poor, just like [insert population of your choice here], wish to be neither ridiculed nor mawkishly romanticized. Instead, as in all good writing, celebrate complexities and contradictions.

As a writer, the greatest challenge for me, and I suspect for many of us, is to both claim and critique our own heritage. If this is hard for us, how much harder might it be for a quiet woman beside us in workshop who, we may never have suspected, has sold her blood to pay the electric bill.

The panelists turned the question back to us: How do we live in a broken economy?

Creative writing, the panelists reminded us, can be that rare place of meritocracy. So invite outlaws into the classroom, they said. Kill the silence around social class. Create, says Claire Watkins, a culture of inclusion within this structure of exclusion.

One panelist recalled the ache in her legs after standing all day on hard, cold cement, bent over trays in a greenhouse. A five-dollar-an-hour ache. Exhausted, she did not write at the end of those days. Still, she saved up the stories.

Back then, she says, the question she stood on every day was never “is this worth my time?” The hard, cold, but strangely untrue question that defined her everywhere she went and every choice she made was: “am I worth it to spend this much money?”

Sitting in the audience, we had the opportunity to wonder, to notice, whether we are worth it. What might it mean for us as writers to be worth it? We sat there, silent for just less than the time it takes to poke one hole in the greenhouse tray and slip one seedling inside, pondering the worth of one human story. And of stories about places, of the human home, our planet. Of moonlight through outhouse walls, of rage, of the saddest place on Earth.

All the panelists in the “Hidden Populations” panel R223 were fabulous, and I can’t wait to get hold of their books. Dorothy Allison was unable to attend. Nonfiction panelists: Sonja Livingston (award-winning Ghostbread). Authors of both nonfiction and fiction: award-winning Karen Salyer McElmurray (memoir: Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey) and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin (latest memoir: Such a Life). Fiction panelists: Claire Vaye Watkins (award-winning Battleborn) and Carter Sickles (award-winning The Evening Hour).

Jacqueline Haskins is a biologist of wild wet places, from cypress swamps to glacial cirque swales, and has a forth-coming essay collection, Eyes Open Underwater. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest. Her non-fiction, fiction, or poetry appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Raven Chronicles, Cirque Journal, and elsewhere.

Lee Martin on His Essay “Talk Big” and the Communal Voice

January 22, 2013 § 6 Comments

lee_martinWe 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.

AWP 2012 – Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction

March 1, 2012 § 25 Comments

By Patrick Ross

R148: Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction / Thursday, March 1, 2012 – 10:30-11:45 am

“If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.”

Cheryl Strayed doesn’t think much of Joan Didion’s assertion that writing memoir means selling others out. Her contrarian position resonated from the podium at AWP’s session “Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction.” The Pushcart Prize-winning Strayed told a packed ballroom of 300 writers that she didn’t aim to embarrass her ex-husband when writing about her failed first marriage. In nonfiction, she said, “I show more about myself.”

There is no way to control the reaction of another to appearing in your prose, however.

“If you were to see yourself through your friend’s eyes, you wouldn’t recognize yourself,” said The Rumpus founding editor Stephen Elliott. Even when a subject grants permission for you to portray them in, print, they may be hostile to the result. “They don’t mean,” Elliott said, “‘You can write about a side of me I don’t know I have.”

Hostility can come from any source. “My father threatened to sue if I ever wrote about my family again,” The Sun associate publisher Krista Bremer said. A few days after the publication of an essay about her parents that revealed no dark secrets—no incest, no abuse, no pathology—Bremer found herself sitting on sizzling asphalt beside her mailbox, digesting the “furious scrawl” of her father’s handwriting.

“’Congratulations,’” Bremer said a writer friend told her. “‘If you pissed your family off that much, you got it right.’” Bremer said her father only disputed one fact—her mother drank tonic water with vodka, not gin—but it was what was unspoken that rocked him. “The spaces between the words,” she said, “had been the most difficult for him to contemplate.”

It’s important to remember, said multiple memoir author Lee Martin, that “you volunteer to be a character in your memoir, but others don’t.” Martin first disguised his memoir writing as fiction, but that didn’t lesson the frustration of family. After writing a short story about an anecdote regarding his father that was shared with him by his aunt, his source of information dried up. Martin had betrayed his parents, the aunt said, informing him that “’I’ll never tell you another story about the family again.’”

Yet all of these writers continue to craft and publish memoir. They seek to examine the human condition by telling the truth about others and themselves, as best as they can recall.

There are other reasons to write memoir, said essayist Poe Ballantine.

Years ago a short piece of fiction Ballantine wrote based on his life paid $300, but a subsequent story paid only $200. The publisher informed him the first essay paid more because they thought it was an essay. “‘Oh, you pay more for essays,’ I replied.”

Ballantine’s essay-writing hasn’t stopped, he said. “I have an inexhaustible catalogue of suffering and failure.”

Patrick Ross is a writer and an instructor with The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Lee Martin Throws His Voice

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Lee Martin, a great teacher, superb novelist, and outstanding memoirist, has given some recent thought to what he can do with voice in memoir versus what he can do in fiction.  Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the whole discussion at the end.  Lee has a new novel, out in a few weeks, and it will be a wonderful read, trust us:

So … what can I do with voice in memoir that I don’t necessarily do in a first-person novel? Let’s see if I can throw out some thoughts to see what thoughts of your own they might provoke…

1.  My voice can be extremely earnest in a memoir, its directness and intensity and “me-ness” (for lack of a better term), more readily accepted than such a voice sometimes is in a novel where irony is often the thing that tempers the overly urgent and reflective response to experience.

2.  I can live within that reflective voice longer and more intensely in a memoir. I can let action, and character, and image, and dialogue wait for me as long as I prove to be interesting in those “voice of experience” passages.

3.  I can be more people (more parts of my persona) in that reflective voice in the memoir as opposed to the first-person narrator who is usually more distinctly divided between “before” and “after” in a novel. Perhaps the memoir form more clearly announces the layers of the narrator’s persona, and, as a result, the voice becomes more textured, made up of more sounds coming from a number of different aspects of the narrator’s character.

… Things slow down for me in memoir. The form gives me permission to linger over small details and large actions as well. My voice becomes more textured with nuances of tones and personae. It embraces and gives full throat to the person who lives simultaneously within the experience being narrated and the various, countless positions I occupy beyond that experience. To me, my voice in memoir more readily gives expression to the multiple pieces of myself that create it, whereas in a piece of fiction there seems to be a more demarcated distinction between the voice of the character within the narrative sequence and the voice-over of the storyteller relating that tale.

Here’s his FULL POST and his NEW NOVEL, Break the Skin.

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