The Pleasures of the Personal Essay

June 28, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

There is, perhaps, no current genre of writing as misunderstood as the personal essay. The personal (or literary) essay nowadays is often dismissed as some variation on a “Freshman English” paper, dull at best, and at worst a cliché-ridden five-paragraphs weighed down by unnecessary thesis sentences. Alternately, the personal essay is confused with archaic, meandering pontifications from old dead white guys, British and effete. Or at times the essay form just gets lost in the name game confusion of creative nonfiction. What, for instance, do we call a work of scene-based memoir that runs six manuscript pages? Is it an essay, or a memoir, or a, essay-length memoir? And if it is indeed an essay, then what do we call an essay that isn’t primarily memoir? 

I’m confusing even myself.

The downside of all this uncertainty is that too often we fail to recognize that the personal essay is a wonderfully flexible and creative form, as alive and inventive as the writer at the desk wishes it to be.

In its purest and most dynamic state, the essay takes flight when a writer engages a topic – any topic under the big yellow sun – and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. In the hands of contemporary practitioners such as Rebecca Solnit, Brian Doyle, Patrick Madden, or Roxane Gay, the personal essay is an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection.

I’d like the personal essay to generate less confusion, and I’d like more nonfiction writers to see how this flexible form creates opportunities to expand on our “usual” subjects, to find new life and fresh writing pathways emanating from our personal stories.

On Wednesday, I’ll explore all of this in a 75-minute webinar – The Pleasures of the Personal Essay – sponsored by Jane Friedman, examining the myriad forms that an essay can take. The 90-minute course will discuss how the essay fits into contemporary literary publishing, how understanding the flexibility of the essay form can help with “stuckness,” The role of research (and how it can be fun not work), and how to find the best markets (literary magazines and beyond). Participants will leave with useful prompts to help them determine their own essayistic opportunities. 

Here are the details.  Hope to see you there:

When: Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time

Fee: $25

 Do I have to attend the live class?

No. Everyone who registers will get access to the recording.

 Register HERE

Writing the Quotidian

April 15, 2019 § 20 Comments

Iris Print Image 2By Iris Graville

Quotidian.  I read that word in an essay I critiqued during my first semester in my MFA in writing program. I had to look it up.  Ironically, it’s a fancy word for something that’s not, well, very fancy.  Here’s how the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it:

quotidian |kwōˈtidēən|
adjective [attrib.]

  • of or occurring every day; daily : the car sped noisily off through the quotidian traffic.
  • ordinary or everyday, esp. when mundane : his story is an achingly human one, mired in quotidian details.

While this word hasn’t become a regular part of my vocabulary, its meaning resonates for me.  Apparently it does for some other writers as well.

Patrick Madden wrote in praise of “Quotidian Nonfiction” in Issue #44, Spring 2012 – Creative Nonfiction:

I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.

Madden, an essayist and writing teacher, claims to lean toward quotidian nonfiction “because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism.”

I know the feeling.  It crops up often for me as I write personal essays and especially did so as I drafted my memoir, Hiking Naked (okay, that might not sound very quotidian, but the title is mostly a metaphor). My life has been shaped by ordinary experiences of birth, loss, work, parenting, friendship, and spiritual seeking. Experiences described by many of the synonyms that the New Oxford lists for quotidian:  typical, middle-of-the-road, unremarkable, unexceptional, workaday, commonplace, a dime a dozen.  In short, “nothing to write home about.”

And yet, I do write about these everyday experiences.  I’m compelled to craft essays about community, listening, patience, simplicity.  I’m led to tell the stories of “ordinary, everyday” people whose voices often aren’t heard.  Patrick Madden attests to the value of such writing:

This, for me, is the placid beauty of the best creative nonfiction writing: the opportunity to settle one’s buzzing mind for a few brief moments, to meditate on a focused subject, to escape the plangent assaults of the beeping, blinking world and find respite in the thoughts of another human being… I think we have a right to (and a hunger for) art that is quieter, more enlightening and uplifting.

Fortunately, an abundance of nonfiction writers create the kind of quiet and uplifting art that many of us yearn for.  One of them, Ana Maria Spagna, was my thesis advisor at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. She taught me in the classroom how to tell my story through well-crafted scenes, settings, and characters, as well as through her own “quiet” writing (such as her essay collection, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness).

Another is Scott Russell Sanders, who I studied with one summer at Fishtrap on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. I had met Sanders at my first residency in my MFA program and have become a devoted reader of his writing. Work that springs, as he explains in Writing from the Center, from accepting “the material that my life had given me, and… learning to say as directly as I could what I had to say.”

 Also on my list of quotidian writers are Kathleen Dean Moore , Brian Doyle, and Brenda Miller. All of them practice what Madden urges:

 …each of us, I dare say, can do with a little more wonder in our lives, can benefit by shunning the artificial and superficial to spend more time contemplating the quotidian miracles that surround us.

What quotidian miracles surround you? Perhaps it’s time to write about them.

Iris Graville is the author of three nonfiction books: Hands at Work, BOUNTY, and a memoir, Hiking Naked. She lives on Lopez Island, WA where she publishes SHARK REEF Literary Magazine, writes essays and blogs, and teaches. Sometimes you’ll find her on the interisland ferry, working on a new essay collection about the Salish Sea, climate change, and Washington State Ferries.

Seeing an Essay and My Father Anew

April 4, 2017 § 3 Comments

Victor Domino1x

Gilbert’s father bought a great-great-great grandson of this legendary bull, shown in 1935

By Richard Gilbert

Almost three years ago, I began writing about accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. What provoked reliving the trip was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery. I remembered a stockman’s cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, 58 years later. Why?

Trying to answer just that, the essay explores reflexive story-making and the complex relationship among memory, imagination, and inner narratives. I found out late last week that “The Founder Effect” made the 2017 long list for the Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British biennial competition. It pays £20,000 to the winner, and they also publish five runners up. Two writer friends made the long list too: Jill Christman, who teaches for Ball State University, and Pat Madden, who teaches for Brigham Young University.

Competition is steep, so I’m counting the long list as my award. The 2015 winner was David Bradley’s provocative essay “A Eulogy for Nigger.” For some further great reading, go to the 2015 long list and pick an author and title and google it—those essays were first published or have since appeared in an array of journals. They are diverse in length and approach. Starting with the current competition, Notting Hill entries cannot have been previously published.

After a year of working on “The Founder Effect,” I tried to get it published. When it didn’t get anywhere, I sent it to a thoughtful friend who hadn’t seen it. He said he couldn’t understand its point. I suspected that, in my effort to make the most of the essay, I’d screwed it up. Two other friends had fretted that I was overworking it. Finally I hired a developmental editor, the talented novelist Joan Dempsey, up in Maine, to read it and advise me.

Joan pointed out that I started telling the story by alternating between my trip and related aspects, but then went into apparently unrelated stories about my father. After that, I let it sit a long time. Then I cut a ton. The trick was, I wanted to keep some of the memoir stuff. I write about the bull breeder’s life going on after we moved to Florida, so some of my father’s and my post-ranching life seemed relevant too.

And I restored something neither my friend nor Joan had seen. This was an initial foreground thread about my wife Kathy’s recovery from foot surgery. That thread grounds the essay in the here and now. It echoes the essay’s notion that in life, as in stories, the little things can be the big things. For example, the lone step at our house’s side door and a low tile lip on our shower loomed like Everest to someone with only one useable foot. And a friend bringing us a casserole dish? Huge. These lively segments make the essay kind of amusing, too, because while Kathy was recovering, and I was tending her, I was also lost down the internet rabbit hole, learning about Herfords and our bull’s breeder.

I learned a couple of things in this essay’s long writing and revision process. Per writing, I saw that the bullheaded drafting mind, the mind trying really hard to do something, isn’t the mind that can see immediately when a strategy doesn’t work. You need time, probably help from a writing posse, and maybe a professional’s eye. Of course ultimately the writer must decide alone.

Per life, the essay’s illumination of how I form narratives, often from mere scraps, helped me see my mind’s operating system. And pondering such reflexive story-making—amid my existing inner stew of memory, imagination, and previous stories—I finally saw my father’s narrative arc apart from its effect on me. That shift felt, and feels, big.

All this from exploring, for almost three years now, the memory of going with Dad to buy a bull in remote southwestern Georgia over half a century ago. I worked for 15 years in journalism, which teaches you to make the most of what you’ve got and to move on. To apply to essaying, those maxims must address a different dimension. “Literature,” Cyril Connolly said, “is the art of writing something that will be read twice.”


Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood. His essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named by Longreads as one of its “Best of 2016.” He is working on a collection of essays about animals and landscapes.


Race & Gender: New Kickstarter Rewards

March 31, 2015 § 1 Comment

two spec

We are Happy to Announce New Backer Rewards!

Our Kickstarter campaign is going wonderfully, and we are touched by all the support for Brevity. It’s been going so well, that many of the premiums have already been snapped up, and so now we are bringing new ones!

We have some exciting new rewards for backers, and we are incredibly grateful to the community of writers who have donated them. Help us out, and grab yourself some of the best possible literary swag.

GENERATE SOME NEW WORK! Brevity author Chelsea Biondolillo has generously offered a seat in an upcoming generative online workshop to one of our lucky backers! The date of this is open, so if you can’t make the next one, don’t worry! From the website:

The Generative Writing workshops emphasize the production of new work. Each week an optional prompt and maximum word count will encourage you generate up to 4500 words of new nonfiction. These can be individual flash essays, a connected series of vignettes or lyric fragments, or the building blocks of a single personal essay, literary journalism feature, memoir chapter, or hybrid of one or more CNF forms. You are welcome to share your responses with the class, or not, as you choose.

Biondolillo is a frequent craft essay contributor to Brevity, as well as one of our authors. She’s a smart, thoughtful essayist and a great teacher. We think you couldn’t do better than to take this workshop, and we are grateful to her for donating this incredible prize!

GROW YOUR PLATFORM! Does the word “platform” make you shudder a little bit? Are you feeling a little gobsmacked by the way publishers increasingly expect writers to have a strong social media presence in order to market their own work? Us, too! Well, all of us but the excellent Allison Williams, our social media editor!

For a hundred dollar donation, Allison will give you two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of social media advice, including a one-hour Skype or phone consultation on how to build your specific brand as a writer. She’s done amazing things for us—really, she’s grown our blog audience exponentially—and we think she could do wonderful things for you, too.

A SPECIAL REWARD FOR WINE LOVERS, a SIGNED copy of Brian Doyle’s THE GRAIL: A YEAR AMBLING & SHAMBLING THROUGH AN OREGON VINEYARD IN PURSUIT OF THE BEST PINOT NOIR WINE IN THE WHOLE WILD WORLD. You will also get our gratitude, your name listed on a thank you page associated with the special gender issue, and a rock solid excuse to purchase and consume numerous bottles of opulent wine with dark cherry back notes.

THERE ARE TWO OR THREE THINGS WE KNOW FOR SURE, and one of them is that Dorothy Allison regularly delivers heart-breaking, hilarious, essential stories. So we asked her to sign us some books, and she said, “Fuck yeah.” Reward yourself with a SIGNED copy of Dorothy Allison’s TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE. You will also get our gratitude, your name listed on a thank you page associated with the special gender issue, and a book that will kick you in the ass. The good way.

WE WILL ALSO BE ADDING NEW BOOKS BY BREVITY AUTHORS OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, including work by Sonya Huber, Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Gary Fincke, and Lori Jakiela.

You can see all of the Kickstarter campaign awards here. We are incredibly grateful for the response so far, and excited about the things will be able to do as new backers continue to join us. Thank you, all. We are deeply grateful.

NonfictioNow 2015: The Flagstaff Conference

March 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

iowa (41)

Patrick Madden proves once and for all that he is taller than Michael Martone at NonfictioNow 2012

The next iteration of the popular NonfictioNow Conference will be hosted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, from October 28-31st, 2015. The conference began in Iowa City in 2005, repeated twice in Iowa, and moved to Australia for 2012. This year’s conference – the fifth in an irregular series – is discussed by conference organizer Nicole Walker, in an interview conducted by Erica Trabold:

Erica Trabold: NonfictioNow is a relatively new conference for nonfiction writers. What do attendees typically find most appealing about the conference?

Nicole Walker: Although this conference is centered around nonfiction, nonfiction itself is a somewhat hybrid, inclusive, bending genre. Fiction writers, poets, essayists, and journalists gather to really consider what is nonfiction and how nonfiction is shaping and defining itself as its own genre and in a conversation with other genres. So in some ways, its exclusive title is just a tricky way to be incredibly inclusive. This conference, too, is working on establishing an international understanding of the genre— writers will be attending from Hong Kong and Singapore, among other places.

ET: In the call for proposals, you expressed interest in work that focuses on genre boundaries, tensions between art/facts/truth, and “forms beyond the strictly literary.” What can you tell us about the proposals you’ve read so far and, perhaps, selected?

NW: We haven’t selected proposals yet. We’re still compiling them. We’re received over a hundred panel proposals for about 50 spots, so the competition will be stiff this year. Still, glancing quickly at the spreadsheet that my MFA student and conference-organizing-assistant Stacy Murison has put together, I see excellent titles like “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating The Animal World,” “The View from the ‘Slush Pile’,” “Author Versus Narrator,” “Rewriting Those We Love,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Perspective, Agency, and the Tools for Getting Both on the Page.”

ET: What might attendees recognize about this year’s conference, and what will be brand new?

NW: As in the past, we’ll have keynote speakers who are as diverse in content as they are in form. Roxane Gay, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery, Brian Doyle and Michael Martone will bring their unique vision of what nonfiction is to the conference. We will have panels during the day and readings around town at night, integrating the town of Flagstaff with the conference, as happened in Melbourne and Iowa City.

For the first time, we are hosting a book fair. We’ve limited the book fair to 20 tables so attendees aren’t overwhelmed by the vast number of lit mags and presses out there. Those exhibitors will be able to promote their books, magazines, and commitment to publishing contemporary nonfiction.

We’ll also host a game show night— which happened before but will be a little more formal this year— with Patrick Madden and Elena Passarello. On opening night, Alison Deming and Joni Tevis will kick off the conference with a reading sponsored, we hope, by the Arizona Arts Commission. It’s going to be nonstop nonfiction, but, even more inclusively, we’ll have discussions about how fiction and poetry are informed by nonfiction.

ET: What part of this year’s conference has you the most excited?

NW: I’m incredibly excited how many speakers we have coming to the conference. Six! Plus two more on Wednesday. And readings hosted by Milkweed, Diagram and Hotel Amerika in spots around town. And the influx of editors from magazines and presses will add a new dimension to the conference. We’re hosting the conference in the High Country Conference Center, which is attached to the Drury Hotel, where a number of our guests will be staying. It will be great to have a centralized space for everyone to convene and hang out and attend the panels and the keynote speaker sessions. The conference center is only a couple blocks from downtown so it will be easy to connect Flagstaff businesses and restaurants with the conference, making it a destination conference as well as a professional one. And true to form, I care most about the food, so I’m excited to bring a number of local restaurants on board to help sponsor the conference by advertising their restaurants and offering deals to visitors. I want people to know how excellent Flagstaff’s restaurants are. (Hmm. That was a lot of “ands.” It was too hard to pick just one.)

Brevity blog readers can visit to register for the conference and learn more about confirmed panelists and speakers as information becomes available.


Erica Trabold’s (@ericatrabold) essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Weave, Seneca Review, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction.

Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, released in June 2013 and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.


AWP 2014: Planning for Surprise

March 5, 2014 § 1 Comment

fire retardant

Jody Keisner guest-blogs on “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative”:

Panelists: Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, and Desirae Matherly. *Note: Patrick Madden was unable to attend. His work was read by Thomas Larson.

In short, panelists cited examples from their personal essays and discussed the surprising ways their essays have evolved. Ideas for their writings-in-progress came to them when they were jogging, at the bus stop, showering, engaged in conversation about something else, and sleeping. Writing begins with thinking, and to some extent, obsessing about subject matter. Let the brain turn an idea over and over, they coached, and let the story tell you where it wants to go. Be especially open to essay writing—the exploration of an idea or a question (versus memoir writing—the exploration of an event that has already been experienced and thus, has some predetermined finality).

Things They Said: In 13 Tweets #AWP14

  1. I’m teaching gorilla English. *Attributed to Alex Pollack
  2. Teaching is a subversive, humanitarian act.
  3. Assigning personal narrative requires the instructor to witness.
  4. My writing time is spent mostly not writing, but searching.
  5. The hard part about writing isn’t the writing, it’s the thinking.
  6. The great joy of writing is getting my mind to do something it hasn’t done before.
  7. Give yourself time to re-see.
  8. Dream and imagine in alien shapes.
  9. Write to generate, not to confirm, a purpose.
  10. Hunters and members of the Rodeo Club know how to be close observers.
  11. A careful first draft is a failed first draft.
  12. The book and I co-partnered.
  13. Your prose begins at the first moment you startle yourself.

Two exercises for disrupting traditional, linear narratives:

  1. Begin by writing about something seemingly quite boring, like grocery shopping, sleep habits, or bathing. Keep writing and then write some more. Your mind will be forced to move sideways and out of narrative mode.
  2. Write on any subject of your choosing and then switch your paper or laptop with another writer. Pay attention to the subject matter selected by the other writer. Now write on the emerging themes, and write creative nonfiction. Switch again. Once your paper is returned to you, marvel at where your subject went when it was let loose and into the wild.

Jody Keisner teaches writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama; Third Coast; Women’s Studies; Brain, Child; and elsewhere.


Exploring the List Essay

October 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

CaptureA heads up from our good friend (and king of all things Quotidiana) Patrick Madden:

Keen essay readers have long noted the prevalence and importance of lists within essays, whether quick catalogs of items in a cupboard or multiple perspectives on the question of whether animals have souls, so it’s no surprise to find not just lists-in-essays but lists-AS-essays coming into a kind of subgeneric, subversive prominence in our postmodern period. Leonard Michaels’s “In the Fifties” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ’80s” both focused on decades filtered through personal experience, and Joe Brainard perhaps took the form farthest with his “I Remember” books, which covered, in haphazard fashion, a whole life.

Somewhat independently and somewhat inspired by these and other examples, essayist John Proctor has been chronicling his life in decades-dedicated lists updated daily on his website. September pitted us “Against the Eighties and October is bringing us “Out of the Nineties,” while November promises the Aughts and December will regress to the Seventies. Having read the whole series (before the links, embedded videos, and photos, which heighten the online experience), I highly recommend it. It offers an interesting challenge to our default narrative and structural expectations while essaying a life through its interactions and influences.

On ‘Elements’ and Great Teaching Moments

April 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

579px-wind_turbine_1888_charles_brushA guest essay and book review from John Proctor:

First, let me tell you a little bit about why I love Donna Steiner.

I heard of her magisterial essay “Elements of the Wind,” first published in Fourth Genre, from essayist Patrick Madden, who marveled at a couple of tricks Steiner plays on her reader. One involves a copious list of different cultures’ names of the wind and the other breaks down the “two kinds of people in the world” dialectic. I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to spoil either payoff.  After reading the entire essay, I realized that these were just two of the many schematics Steiner makes use of; “Elements of the Wind,” in fact, draws most of its energy from a series of inversions, reversals, and recontextualized narratives and memories. To call them jokes would belie the critical and emotional heft at the center of the essay, but there’s something to the fact that I’m giving the review-speak version of “You just have to hear it.”

So instead of giving anything away directly, I’ll relate a personal experience. I’ve now taught “Elements of the Wind” to my freshman writing students for the past two years. My primary reason for this is to show them the multitude of possibilities inherent in the essay, a form that by college most of them have decided can only exist in five paragraphs and most would only write for a standardized writing exam.

Predictably, many of their responses to it can be summarized as, “Is this really an essay?”

Yonathan, one of my better students this year, came to my office recently to talk about his own personal struggle with “Elements of the Wind.” Another professor and I joke about Yonathan. We say he has the singular ability to make deeply profound observations while simultaneously looking like he’s about to bust out laughing. On this day, he wasn’t laughing.

“I’ve read the essay three times now,” he started, “and I don’t understand if she likes the wind or not.”

“Well,” I said, venturing in slowly, “What do you think?”

“It’s kind of tricky. I mean, on the one hand she makes all these lists of the gods named after the wind. But then she says,” and here Yonathan began skimming through his copy of the essay, “‘When it can’t be named, ascribe it to the gods.’ Which is it? Why does she give the wind all these names, and then say it can’t be named?”

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Well…” His brow furrowed, and a smile started to curl one side of his mouth. “I guess she might be saying that there are no real answers? Is she contradicting herself on purpose?”

“What do you think?”

“She does start the whole essay by saying you can’t say there are two kinds of people, that it’s too simplistic, then she says there are two kinds of people. And that whole thing with the big list of names for the wind—which I read, by the way—then saying there are people who read the list and people who skim over it. And she gives that—whatsitcalled—Beaufort Scale diagram about kinds of the wind, and she says that’s too simple: ‘The Beaufort Scale categorizes and concretizes what was once a subjective, almost abstract phenomenon: the movement of air. Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.’ So is she saying words and charts are too simple to describe the wind?”

I sat, looking at him.

“Then why did she even write the essay?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I started, “she’s writing about writing.”

“I thought she was writing about the wind?”

“Maybe she’s writing about both of those things.”

He was smiling on both sides of his mouth now. “I’m so confused,” he said, shaking his head.

This was one of my great teaching moments.

Now, let me tell you a little about Donna Steiner’s new essay chapbook, Elements.  (Scroll down after clicking the link.)  This is the first essay “chapbook” I’ve read, but I hope essay chapbooks turn into the next big trend in indie publishing. I’ve just ordered B.J. Hollars’s three-essay In Praise of Monsters, and have always loved Eula Biss’s One Story-inspired Essay Press, which publishes bound copies of novella-sized essays by Albert Goldbarth, Jenny Boully, and others. The chapbook has traditionally of course been the publishing realm of the poet, which has sustained my abiding love of poetry. I love going to a reading, being blown away by a poet’s work, buying the poet’s chapbook, and taking it home with me so I can later see the voice I loved hearing, transcribed on the page. Looking at my poetry section on my bookshelves now, I realize I have about three times as many chapbooks as full-length collections.

I’ve never heard Steiner read, but I can confidently say she has one of those voices you want to take home and savor, in small, slow, savory bites. Elements, a little blue square, can fit easily in most pant pockets (though probably not skinny jeans, yet another reason not to wear skinny jeans). It makes me think less of a book than that symbol of a bygone industry that still, only scant years since its demise, evokes a nostalgic twinge—the CD. It’s beautifully tactile—handbound, with a cover cutout of a square revealing a full moon. Opening the diminutive book reveals the moon in a sky over an ostensible illustration of  “a freight train busting the night open,” from the closing line of “Elements of the Wind.”

The chapbook contains five essays, one about her alcoholic lover, another about a magnifying glass by which she detects elements of her world, another about a vaguely sexual prank phone caller, another about her sleeplessness, another about the wind. Each of them, whatever its ostensible subject, is as much an assemblage as a narrative, turning over each element in her palm and mulling it over with the care of a collector and the passion of a paramour. When I open it and take in Steiner’s masterful prose, and even when I simply open the book and hold it in my hands, I think not of a reading but of a conversation, of a voice offering no answers and telling no lies, but rather setting up the riddles so that every response, so long as it is honest, is the punchline.

John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. An active reader on the New York City open mic scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, New York Cool, the Gotham Gazette, and the anthology Imagination & Place: Weather. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts, and teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at

On “With and Without Care”

April 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

deathLori May, author of  “With and Without Care” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay. merging experience, and the quotidian in nonfiction:

I grew up paying little attention to health care. Health insurance was something I took for granted, as many Canadians do, since it was a given part of my birthright, not unlike maple syrup and hockey.

Everything changed when I crossed the border with a fiancée visa in hand and married my American-born husband. Within days of my move, while cardboard boxes still scattered every room of our house, we were legally wed in a downtown Detroit courtroom. Romantic? Yes, in some ways. But our timely ceremony was a necessary step in my immigration. It also provided insurance. Or, rather, it provided my legal title as ‘spouse’ so that I would be covered immediately under my husband’s health insurance.

He was more concerned than I that bad timing and a lack of paperwork would leave us in a bind. I was not yet fully versed in how the system works here. He knew. My spouse grew up with the understanding that to receive medical care, one must be skilled in filing forms, have advanced knowledge in which professionals fall under in- and out-of-network coverage , and feel over-insured while also never fully being covered for everything. This was a strange adjustment for me and continues to be.

My experiences as a Canadian-American have aroused a number of questions, prompted cultural commentary from others (“you’re not really am immigrant; you’re just from Canada”), and, of course, inspired a number of essays. I enjoy exploring the differences in my two home countries, as well as the commonalities, yet when it comes to health care I still don’t know what’s better, what’s worse. Maybe I never will. But I like to ask questions.

In “With and Without Care,” I wanted to show health care concerns and experiences outside of my own. My first draft of this essay had a more linear narrative and was weighted with my own angle. Yet in working on a book-length collection of essays, an immigration memoir in shorts, I have discovered that merging my experiences with those of others is infinitely more interesting. It adds complexity. It allows me to explore what I see of myself in others, in connecting the dots across humanity.

In “Quotidian Nonfiction,” (Creative Nonfiction, Issue #44 Spring 2012), Patrick Madden shares his pleasure in uncovering those everyday moments that are, most often, lacking in shock value, yet still inspire him to write:

“Perhaps this is because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism. No matter. I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.”

In “With and Without Care,” and throughout my collection-in-progress, I’m using my personal experiences of culture adjustment as a prompt to connect those dots. Rather than plainly narrate what I see and experience as a newcomer, I’m reflecting on my migration and emergence to seek ways to identify with others—and, perhaps, new ways to identify myself.

Lori A. May is the author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook. Her essays and reviews may be found online with publications such as Passages North, The Iowa Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Connotation Press, and New Orleans Review. Canadian by birth and disposition, she now calls Michigan home. Visit her at

This Essay Does Hot Yoga

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955)

The fine folks at Ninth Letter have been having some fun with Robin Hemley’s essay “Study Questions for the Essay at Hand: A Speculative Essay” and with a contest asking essayists to respond in kind.  And so they did.

Here’s judge Patrick Madden’s take on the two winners, with links:

So I chose two. One hews closely to Hemley’s questions, even satisfying our curiosity about Bernarr MacFadden, and the other comes at the prompts indirectly, surprising with asymptotic relationships, sometimes making us wonder, or search for, the thread tying the derivative work to the original. But maybe that’s the shining characteristic that convinced me that these essays were the winners: that they do not seem derivative at all. They seem strong enough to stand on their own, to be read even without “Study Questions for the Essay at Hand.” Is this a betrayal of the whole purpose of the contest? Perhaps, but I hope not. If so, then the winners have succeeded at that age-old essay characteristic: subversion.

What’s certain is that I was enchanted by them both, the one for its centrifugal force out of narrative and the other for its erudition in answering the fundamental meta-questions arrived at through Hemley’s particulars. “A Response to Hemley in Eighteen Parts” seems, from the get-go, to have its own agenda, but one can sense the sideways conversation it makes with the questions, at times approaching quite closely, at other times keeping its distance. In all, it’s a confession of callousness in the face of a grandmother’s death, but even that explanation oversimplifies the emotional trajectory of the piece.“Nineteen Ways of Looking at an Essay,” though, has no central narrative of its own. Instead, it spins away from Hemley by taking on Xavier de Maistre and Jorge Luis Borges, playing its own linguistic and organizational games, one-upping the original by an additional question followed by a prompt for new writing. The energetic reader is thus invited to continue the experiment yet further, to respond to the response. I hope someone takes that challenge.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Patrick Madden at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: