Solving for X: The Humble Essayist

July 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

humbleWe are quite pleased that Steven Harvey has chosen Pam Durban’s “Solving for X” from the most recent issue of Brevity for his “Paragraph of the Week.” You can read his thoughts on this intriguing, complex essay and Durban’s featured sentence at the Humble Essayist site.

I have made fire! The role of readers vs. the role of mentors

March 7, 2016 § 6 Comments

raftBy Sarah Wells

I’ve been striking out into the land-of-new-subjects after completing an MFA thesis of linked essays, or memoir-in-essays, or essays-I-am-pretending-work-as-chapters-in-a-memoir.

It’s scary territory. I’ve written with little direction, about whatever tickles my fancy, reaching here and branching there and juxtaposing this against that, just saying whatever it is I want to say and then slapping “essay” on top of it.

And then it just sits there in my folder of creative nonfiction. No one says I need to send them 10-15 double-spaced pages in the next week. No one digs in with track changes and comments enabled to tell me what’s working or “you might consider…” or “more here!” or “cut the first 80 pages.” (Steven Harvey said that to me. It was okay. I survived.)

No one is asking to read my new stuff. I’ve crash landed on the deserted post-MFA island, and my writing is piling up on the shore in soggy FedEx envelopes. I’m not paying anyone to critique my new stuff. I’m standing in the sand having just drafted the most amazing thing anyone will ever read shouting to no one, I HAVE MADE FIRE!!!!

And when I strike out from the island on my raft with my Dell laptop and Wilson, my pet volleyball, waiting for a big ship to come in, there is no ship. I no longer have a paid mentor to hold my hand through every page of the writing process, no mentor to say, YES! FIRE! or No… set this on fire.

Sarah M. Wells (feeling unhinged having lost her MFA mentors)

Sarah M. Wells (feeling unhinged having lost her MFA mentors)

It’s taking some getting used to, being out here all alone in the mentor-less world of solitary writing.

My mentors in the MFA program equipped me with a toolkit. They taught me how to identify lost causes and murder darlings. By this point, they would have told me to put down the Cast Away references and back away slowly from that extended metaphor but they aren’t here to save me from myself. Pout.

On this side of the MFA, my mentors’ job as mentor is over. When I want feedback, I can’t keep sending to them (though they, being sensitive and selfless souls, would probably put up with me for a time before blocking my email address and Facebook messages).

Instead there are these other people on their own rafts, with their own essays they hold between their trembling fingers. They look a lot like me, dehydrated and sunburnt and filled with hope. These people are my peers, my readers, my writer friends. Their job—our job—as readers, is to read. What are we looking for from these non-mentor readers? All I really want is someone to say, Yes. Keep going. This is worth telling.

The grace of this exchange, however, is the reality of the reader relationship. I am not paying my friend to read every word I have ever written, every time I revise a sentence. She is not paying me to respond within two weeks with detailed in-text citations. As close as I grew to my mentors in the MFA program, calling many my friends, our writing relationship was more transaction than writer friendship.

Reader status is not transactional; it is reciprocal. I read your stuff, you read mine. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but back and forth throughout the months of solitary composition, an email here, a Facebook message there, How’s the writing coming?

Frankly, I am not the most reliable reader. I confess this here with shame. I hate my delay to friends who have sent their hearts attached to email messages. Emails stay starred in my inbox past an acceptable time period. By the time I get to some essays, my friends have already submitted them or, elation, have already had the thing accepted somewhere, and I have failed, failed, failed at being their reader.

I always mean to read right away. Knowing this about myself is a reminder when I have sent similar emails off to friends asking for their advice. I HAVE MADE FIRE!!! What do you think? I ask. Would you read this? Sometimes the response is “I’m sorry, I don’t have time.” Sometimes the response is “Yes! I’ll get to it this weekend” or next week or within the next month. And sometimes the response is silence. I need to be okay with all of these responses and respect my readers’ regular lives, daily struggles, and general life existence outside of reading my stuff.

My writer friends are making room in their lives for me. No obligation. Only love. And when we fail each other, forgiveness.

This is the way all relationships ought to work, right? There’s a give and take, the need for respect and the need for compassion. We have to make room for each other, and we have to recognize when we’re abusing that sacred space.

When you find those few readers who understand what it is you are about, lasso your life rafts together and sail on, waving with thanks to the mentors on the shore. Encourage each other onward in your craft and in your storytelling, pushing your oars toward that bobbing horizon.


Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and a linked-essay-memoir-in-progress, American Honey. Her essays have been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. She serves as Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, Associate Editor of River Teeth, and Co-Editor of the Beautiful Things column. She blogs at and her own website, Follow her on Twitter: @sarah_wells.

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.

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