Essay Contest: Mystery and Memory

January 13, 2013 § 16 Comments

antWe’ve launched a fine new issue of Brevity featuring fifteen brief wonderful essays. To celebrate our shiny January 2013 issue, we are launching a flash essay contest based on Philip Graham’s writing prompt in the the recently released The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers (and reproduced in the new issue as a Craft Essay). You have one month, until February 14th, to send in your entry

Here’s the prompt: First, read Graham’s craft essay.  Then, think of a memory, even a familiar one that you haven’t looked at closely in a long time: the lie you once told, the one whose memory you still flinch from; a conversation or argument you were part of or overheard that you’ve saved in memory but aren’t sure why; or a fraught incident from your childhood that you can’t seem to relinquish. Whatever the memory you dredge up into the light of the present, write a flash nonfiction essay (500 words or less if you plan to enter it in the Brevity contest) and examine the memory as if with first sight, its familiar shape transformed by something hidden. If you take the long pause and dig into the moment, perhaps you will find your memory’s “floating ant.”

Yes, you heard us right: 500 words, or fewer.

Philip Graham, author, teacher, bon vivant, and nonfiction editor of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter, will be the judge. First prize is a copy of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers and $50, second prize and third prizes will be other books from Rose Metal Press.  All three winners will be published on the Brevity blog.

Deadline February 14th, 2013.  Mail your entries to brevitymag(at) with MYSTERY as the first word in your subject heading.

The Book As Antfarm

March 27, 2011 § 3 Comments

Some weeks ago, the always interesting editor and writer Philip Graham posted to his blog a fascinating comparison between diptych and triptych paintings and the form of Shakespeare’s plays.

This week, though, he outdoes himself with a look at ant colonies and the structure of various books, including Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Here’s a brief quote from Graham’s blog entry, before you click the link to read the entire wonderful blog-essay:

Each ant colony is a formal, planned shape, built to contain the teeming life within … All structure leans toward elegance, I believe, even when it might at first seem a little lop-sided. Examining closely a book’s architecture will reveal much of its meaning as well … We build our books in much the way different species of ants construct their underground homes, with an astonishing variety of invention. And so the shape of our stories and poems and essays become personal mirrors that reflect our secret selves.

On Borrowing the Techniques of Nonfiction

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

The editorial staff is hunkered down next to the radiators in the Brevity corporate towers this morning, enjoying the bejeebers out of author/editor Philip Graham’s latest, most brilliant blog post.  We are as guilty as anyone of repeating the idea that creative nonfiction writers borrow the techniques of fiction to make truth come alive on the page.  Graham makes clear, however — using the examples of Herodotus, Xenophon, and Cicero — that the exchange goes in the opposite direction, and started well before Talese and Capote.  Here’s a fine except, followed by a link to the whole shimmering shebang:

The attraction for me of Cicero’s Murder Trials is the author’s voice, as alive on the page as could be. Here is an eloquent lawyer (his clients usually went free) making his case, doing his best to characterize his client in the best light, while casting other personalities in the trial into dark shadow, as can be seen in this excerpt from “In Defense of Aulus Cluentius Habitus,” where a mother seduces her daughter’s husband, forcing a divorce, and then promptly marries the man herself:

“She actually gave orders that the identical marriage-bed which she herself had prepared, two years previously, for the wedding of her own daughter should now be got ready and adorned for herself, in the very home from which her daughter had been expelled and hounded out. And so mother-in-law married son-in-law, with no one to declare the omens or give the bride away, amid the gloomiest forebodings from everyone.

“What unbelievably atrocious behavior that woman displayed! Indeed, her conduct must surely be quite unparalleled and unique. Her sexual desires must truly have been insatiable. Even if the might of the gods, the judgment of mankind, did not frighten her, it is strange indeed that she did not feel overawed by the torches, by the threshold of the bridal chamber which contained her own daughter’s bridal bed, by the very walls themselves which had gazed upon that other union. In her sensual frenzy there was no obstacle which she forbore to break through and trample down out of her way. Modesty was overcome by passionate lust, caution by unbridled recklessness, reason by mania uncontrollable.

“Her son Cluentius took it badly.”

Reading this, I imagine I can hear Cicero’s voice, the measured indignation rising before the jurists as he sets the scene of the marriage night, then quieting as he lowballs Cluentius’s reaction to his mother’s appalling behavior. Here, Cicero not only works hard to transform living, breathing people into something like fictional characters who can be efficiently understood and judged, but he spins it all with such an engaging narrative voice that he himself is added to the dramatis personae.

+=+=+=+  Philip Graham’s Blog Post: Cluentius Took it Badly +=+=+=+

Orange You Glad I Linked to This?

October 5, 2010 § 2 Comments

Memoirist and novelist Philip Graham carries on a juicy essay/conversation with John McPhee, or at least with the first few pages of McPhee’s amazing little book Oranges, over at his blog this morning:

[McPhee writes,] Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at people on the screen.

What must Irish movie theaters smell like, by the end of the film? A tropical plantation, perhaps, the scent—as well as those flung peels—adding its own commentary to the goings-on flashing across the screen. It seems there’s no end to the human imagination, always on the lookout to transform the potential in anything ordinary, even a piece of fruit:

Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice.

When I lived in the villages of the Beng people of Ivory Coast in West Africa, I was stunned at first by the local way of drinking orange juice. With a sharp, short knife, a Beng child (usually surprisingly young) would pare the rind off an orange carefully, so as not to nick the whitish skin beneath, but also swiftly—there seemed to be a certain amount of pride connected with this. After the orange had been shorn, a complete rind would fall to the ground, like some colorful Mobius strip.

Once I picked up one of those rinds and held it tentatively back together, though now it circled air, only the idea of an orange. Anyway, when the orange had been sheared like a sheep the thirsty child would cut off a thin slice from the top, exposing the moist fruit within. Head raised and holding the top to her mouth, she’d squeeze the orange until the juice poured out—instant orange juice from an all-natural cup. Once done, the scrunched orange would be discarded on the spot, having served its function, where the nearest hungry goat would snap it up.

Read the entire Orange Essay here.

” … the seeing commit a strange error … ” – Jacques Lusseyran

May 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Philip Graham has a fascinating look at French memoirist Jacques Lusseyran  over on his blog.  Lusseyran lost his sight when he was six, and subsequently cultivated awareness of his other senses.  He lived a storied life and was essential to the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

And of course, there is a message here for writers:

Over the years I’ve found that I keep coming back to Lusseyran’s writing, for the particular mix of clarity and spirituality that marks his vision of the world, and his simple but powerful credo of paying attention. When Lusseyran could summon his concentration, he could, sightless, identify nearby trees, even small details of the landscape around him. “Being attentive unlocks a sphere of reality that no one suspects . . . the seeing commit a strange error. They believe that we know the world only through our eyes . . . permit me to say without reservation that if all people were attentive, if they would undertake to be attentive every moment of their lives, they would discover the world anew.”

via Philip Graham » Blog Archive » I No Longer Saw Faces.

What I’m Reading: Dinty W. Moore

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

A week or so ago,  the Campaign for the American Reader asked Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore what he was reading.  His reply:

I am currently reading Philip Graham’s The Moon, Come to Earth, a fascinating blend of travel writing and family memoir set in Lisbon … Like everyone else in the nonfiction world, I’m also reading and re-sampling David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.… agreeing with about half of what he says, and disagreeing with about half … Just finished Steven Church’s The Day After “The Day After”: My Atomic Angst, a quirky hybrid memoir that chronicles a childhood spent in Lawrence, Kansas, chosen as the central locale for the iconic 1980s apocalyptic TV movie, “The Day After” … and finally, I’ve just started re-reading Lauren Slater’s Lying, a book I was determined to hate but which still fascinates me.

Full story here:  Campaign for the American Reader

So Many Thought Bubbles: The Imagined Life in Nonfiction

January 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

Philip Graham offers up a thoughtful post on our imagined lives and how they might become part of our nonfiction, by looking at the work of Jenny Boully and the writing exercise Boully contributed to the new book of nonfiction exercises, Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis.  Here is an excerpt, or you can jump to the entire blog post here:

Boully’s entry in Ellis’s nonfiction anthology is “Breaking from ‘Fact’ in Essay Writing.” It doesn’t start well, by my lights, with a seeming defense of the notorious James Frey’s silly puttying various points of his biography .. [but] Boully soon gets down to serious business, challenging the notion that essayists must avoid invention and instead stick to an implied stricture of Who What When Where Why. “Dream-life, daydreaming-life, and the imagined-life can sometimes be experienced so profoundly that they feel real to us,” she says, in a sentence that’s as spot-on a sentence as any I’ve recently read.

I say they are real, if we think them, because, though fictions, they are what we build our lives upon. Walk down a crowded street and you’ll be surrounded by people who are not concentrating on the very important mechanics of walking, but are instead having conversations in their minds with people who aren’t present: revising a fraught conversation with a spouse from earlier that morning, anticipating an encounter with a friend later in the day, or arguing, yet again, with a deceased parent. Or those fellow travelers might be sculpting possible strategies for managing a child’s adolescent rage, or plotting out a hoped-for vacation, or digging into the details of an alternate, imagined life.

So many thought bubbles, like storm clouds, hover above us.

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