Writing as a Doorway to the Unknown

May 30, 2022 § 1 Comment

In our May issue, Degan Davis uses uses the words of Dante, Mark Doty, Rebecca Solnit, Bret Lott, Sue William Silverman, and other outstanding writers to explore “how to keep our eyes open in the darkness of our writing process.”

Davis writes:

Dante’s often-quoted beginning of the Divine Comedy has the narrator arriving at a dark wood, unsure of which way to turn. To many writers and artists, Dante’s predicament is a familiar, disquieting, and essential starting place. Leonard Cohen wrote, “I write to reveal not what I know, but what I don’t know.” And of an artist’s profession in general he said, “You’re married to a mystery. It’s not a particularly generous mystery…” In other words, a writer has to enter into the dark, the unknown, to see if their path leads to art.

You can read the full discussion of how we “enter into the dark, the unknown” in our writing in Brevity’s Craft Section.

What Makes for Good Creative Nonfiction Writing?

August 13, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Suzanne Farrell Smith

One of the many measures my sons’ elementary school has in place for pandemic-time in-person learning is file boxes: an open box under each chair to hold all personal materials, so no one shares crayons or germs. Smart—in theory. In practice, the boxes are a bit of a mess. In and out go folders, books, pencils, markers, stickers, rulers, paper clips, paper masks, notes from home, notes for home, open hand sanitizer bottles, used tissues, animal crackers, empty juice boxes, pepperoni, Cheetos. The box is like a closet without bars and shelves. A catch-all with no way to catch.

I love my closets with their bars and shelves, dedicated boxes and bins. As a highly organized person, I hang my dresses from sleeveless to long sleeve, knee-length to ankle. My tops are sorted by color, then by pattern. Towels are stacked by shape. My closets are 3D Excel spreadsheets.

When I think of creative nonfiction, I think of the genre as a wide-open box, one that is ever expanding to include more shapes and inventions. I love it. But … well, I like my bars and shelves, my containers.

To better understand the contours and corners of creative nonfiction, I organize the genre. Using Sue William Silverman’s definitions in “The Meandering River,” I’ve built a spreadsheet that arranges the subgenres by focus and length. I’ve developed a list of characteristics for each subgenre and a list of characteristics specific to brief pieces. I’ve catalogued my library by content and again by type (traditional memoir, experimental memoir, essay collections, etc.). I like to find things easily. I like to know a type of writing when I see it. I like to place essays in conversation with each other, to read similarly styled pieces in one sitting, to learn more about the whole by reading lots of the parts.

The resource I use most often, in both teaching and writing, is my list of what makes creative nonfiction writing good. Before I share the list, a caveat: search “traits of good writing” and you’ll find pages for days. When I taught elementary school, my colleagues and I assessed our students’ work with “6 Traits” and, later, “6 + 1 Traits” from Education Northwest. To evaluate my undergraduate students’ essays, I used the campus writing center’s 10-characteristic rubric. Teaching graduate school, I offered a four-criteria scale on creative works. (These resources are included below this post.)

Adult writers are my students now, and over the past few years, I’ve combined and condensed the lists into one that I find easy to teach, apply, and remember. The list is a touchstone for my students when they ask for and provide specific feedback and as a means to closely evaluate their prose. Good creative nonfiction writing is COCOC: clear, organized, coherent, original, and correct.

  • Clear: The writing is clear, both at the macro level and sentence level. It has a strong core, or purpose/central idea. (Recall being asked “What is the main idea?” on reading comprehension tests.) The piece reads fluently. If an essay is clear, readers are not lost in time and space. Readers don’t re-read sentences or paragraphs searching for context. The only questions readers ask are the ones the writer wants them to ask. 
  • Organized: The piece has a form, shape/controlling design, and structure. For example, for a particular story, I might choose the subgenre of personal essay (form), use a symmetrical pattern to swing back and forth between the personal and the universal (shape), and decide where to start, where to end, and how much of each side to include (structure).
  • Coherent: Summaries, scenes, and details support the core. Nothing seems like a diversion too far afield. Everything hangs together (like a well-organized closet).
  • Original: The voice is distinct and reveals identity and personality. There’s evident commitment to telling a true story with craft and connecting in an honest, intimate way with readers. The writer has taken care to say things in new ways.
  • Correct: Rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are followed. If a rule is broken, it’s intentional and meaningful. 

For very brief pieces, I add a sixth trait: compressed. Like a peony on the verge of blooming, a small wonder, or flash, contains a showstopper inside a bud no bigger than a marble.

The funny thing about all my defining and listing is that I edit a journal called Waterwheel Review, and we don’t label the pieces we publish by genre. Not creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry. Nothing. We let the author decide what it is and let readers decide how to receive it. And we infuse each issue with other arts: music, film, painting, sculpture, a science project, a video of two men chopping logs for a fence. As a teacher and writer, I order everything. As a publisher, I let Waterwheel be a big ole file box.


Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of The Memory Sessions, a memoir about her search for lost childhood memory; and The Writing Shop, a guidebook for writing teachers. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for her essay “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity. She teaches creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshop, mentors emerging authors, reads for Longridge Review, and is founding editor of Waterwheel Review. Suzanne lives by a creek in the Connecticut woods with her husband and three sons. More can be found at suzannefarrellsmith.com.



Elementary (6 + 1 Traits from Education Northwest)

  1. Ideas: The student has a main point or storyline with supporting details. The writing has clarity, focus, and a sense of purpose.
  2. Organization: There’s a sound internal structure of the piece. The student organizes, groups, and sequences.
  3. Voice: The student brings the topic to life by showing enthusiasm for writing. The writing shows evidence of the writer’s personality and style.
  4. Word choice: The student understands there are different ways to say things and stretches to use new words and phrases.
  5. Sentence Fluency: The writing has rhythm and flow, with a variety of sentence structures and lengths.
  6. Conventions: The student shows awareness of spelling, punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, and capitalization.
  7. Presentation: The student has taken care with the overall appearance of the work.

Undergraduate (points range from 1 to 5 for each)

  1. The essay is coherent.                                           
  2. The essay is clear.                                                 
  3. The essay makes a well-organized argument.
  4. The essay proposes an original perspective or otherwise advances an existing debate.
  5. Adequate research is included.      
  6. The essay effectively uses quotations, summary, and paraphrase.                                                 
  7. The essay uses details and examples effectively.
  8. Paragraphs are clear, focused and structurally sound.
  9. Transitions between sentences and paragraphs skillfully move the writing forward.                      
  10. Standard English grammar is correctly used.

Graduate (points range from 1 to 25 for each)

  1. The piece tells one true story with a central conflict and resolution/learning.
  2. The piece includes actions, details, and dialogue to bring the true story to life.
  3. The piece is clear, coherent, and organized.
  4. The piece is on time; has been revised through the writing process; is edited and proofread for conventions; includes name, the title, and page numbers; is double-spaced in a standard 12-point font.

AWP 2014: The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

March 13, 2014 § 2 Comments


Linda Joy Myers  on the AWP 14 panel “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family”:

I’m a family therapist and a memoirist, so I was looking forward to hearing writers talk about the intersection of family and memoir in the workshop “Family Trouble” moderated by Joy Castro. She is the editor of Family Trouble—The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. The panelists included Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, and Stephanie Griest. The crowd filled the room and spilled out the doorway.

Joy Castro, author of the memoir The Truth Book, introduced a topic fraught with “trouble” for memoirists. “We are on a voyage of discovery to personal truth and family as we write memoir, and may be dealing with ‘self-erasure’ due to trauma.” Memoirists struggle with what to write and whether they should give themselves permission. We break the “family rules” when we write memoir—”don’t you dare tell anyone about THAT.” We have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out to serve the story.

Ralph Savarese continued the theme about choice as he discussed how he negotiated with his autistic son what details to include and the important threads in their memoir Reasonable People.  Writing a memoir means we have to ask ourselves what right we have to material that includes intimate details in other people’s lives. How much do we weigh their privacy with our need to express ourselves? He shared his writing process with his son, whose voice became more prominent over the course of writing the book. Together, they crafted a story that belonged to both of them.

Sue William Silverman writes to understand herself, and is unwilling to hold back her hard-won truths. In her book Love Sick, she revealed details that upset her ex-husband. “I wrote the story the way she needed to.  My honesty is more important to me than my ex-husband’s anger. We write to no longer hide behind our secrets.” The issue of silence looms large in the narratives of people who are abused and traumatized. An abused child lives in a world of silence, as adults do too, until they are able to break out and speak the truth. This can become our life’s work. “Writing my life gives me power.” Her advice? No matter what family thinks or wants, “break through your barriers and write anyway.” Figure out how to handle your family later.

Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith, has a Nordic-American mother and a Nigerian father. She’s spent her life learning about her global family, and exploring identity and belonging. She says one of the goals of writing memoir is to “free the family of shame.” She discussed the topics of betrayal, loyalty and silence in the work of Patricia Hampl and the poetry of Sharon Olds. “Writing family members on the page requires great compassion. Each memoirist’s voice is part of a larger song and we each have to decide where our songs begin, over and over again.”

Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes to discover the bonds of family in Mexican Enough—My Life Between the Borderlines she explores belonging, identity, and how we call ourselves family. She visited Mexico to try to find her roots, and saw how quickly we disappear—“the etchings on the grave stones were worn smooth by the rain.” She spoke with passion how we must explore the questions that drive us, and write our discoveries so we articulate the voices of our ancestors and leave a legacy. “Memoir is the best way I know of perpetuating us.”

The feeling in the room was one of hunger—to understand the “rules” of memoir, and to find answers about the conflicts that haunt memoir writers about family, truth, and finding voice. The panelists fed that hunger by speaking about their struggles, demonstrating that you can write a book about family and live to tell about it.

Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, joins speakers for monthly teleseminars at www.namw.org to discuss tools, topics, and questions that drive memoirists crazy. She is the author of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, The Power of Memoir, and the Journey of Memoir. She co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months.

AWP Flash Nonfiction Panel and Booksigning

March 4, 2013 § 1 Comment


Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore and Brevity contributors Sue William Silverman, Peggy Shumaker, Judith Kitchen, and Ira Sukrungruang will be at the Boston AWP  Conference this week to discuss the flash nonfiction form in the panel “Write Short, Think Long: Exploring the Craft of Writing Flash Nonfiction.”

Please join us if you are in town:

Friday, March 8
3:00 pm: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction contributors Sue William Silverman, Peggy Shumaker, Judith Kitchen, and Ira Sukrungruang discuss the flash nonfiction form in the panel “Write Short, Think Long: Exploring the Craft of Writing Flash Nonfiction.” Room 108, Plaza Level

And immediately following, there will be a signing at the Rose Metal Press Table at the Book Fair:

Friday, March 8
4:30 pm: RMP Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction editor Dinty W. Moore and a number of contributors, including Sue William Silverman, Peggy Shumaker, Judith Kitchen, and Ira Sukrungruang will be signing copies of the Field Guide at the Rose Metal Press bookfair table, B5

In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray

September 8, 2011 § 32 Comments

We asked Sue William Silverman, one of our favorite memoirists and author of the craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, to expand upon the excellent response she wrote as a letter-to-the-editor in the most recent Writer’s Chronicle, and, happily, she agreed:

I was disappointed (okay, angry) to read an interview with Aleksandar Hemon in the March/April 2011 Writer’s Chronicle.  Here was yet another fiction writer (or critic) berating the memoir as if it’s unseemly to explore the human condition.

Here is how I responded, in part, in a “Letter to the Editor” (WC, Sept., 2011):  “When Mr. Hemon questions ‘…how many books of addiction can you write in a lifetime,’ he attempts to reduce human experience to the absurd notion that a person is defined by just one thing.  I admit it – I have written about addiction.  But I’ve also written about growing up in the West Indies, Pat Boone, Route 17, working in a building riddled with asbestos, Lake Michigan…and so on.   Putting subject matter aside, what Mr. Hemon fails to grasp is that memoir requires that the author craft a personal story into one that’s metaphoric and universal – just like fiction and poetry.”

In the same interview, Hemon goes so far as to claim that memoir writers are cowardly because of their “refusal to enter literature, to create fictional work, to ply the imagination…that to me is cowardly…. There is something safe when someone tells you, ‘Your story’s interesting. Just tell it….’ Then you put it together and there’s your memoir.”

Cowardly?  Really?

What I didn’t say to Mr. Hemon, in my Letter to the Editor, is that to write a memoir is not a simple act of regurgitation or spitting out facts to an “interesting story” along the lines of “first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened.”  Of much greater interest, and at the heart of memoir, is the story behind the story, the memoirist’s courageous ability to reflect upon the past, thus artistically recasting his or her experience into one that’s transformative.

It took me five long years to write my memoir Love Sick.  Why?  Because it took that long to discover the metaphors and the irony – to go beyond the mere facts – of that experience.  If memoir were what Hemon claims, I could have knocked that sucker out in a few weeks.  Anyone could.  (Ironically, the only memoir that Hemon seems to admire is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, because he did make “stuff up.  He had the right instincts, just not the right label.”)

Here is what I did say to Mr. Hemon: “I don’t hear nonfiction writers disparage novelists, so it’s all the more frustrating that any number of fiction writers have an axe to grind with memoirists.  Literature is not a zero-sum game.  What expands readership is great writing, whatever form it takes.  What shrinks readership is the failure of writers to take emotional and stylistic risks.  Right now, I believe that an expanding range of creative nonfiction presents writers with the best opportunities to take those risks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many serious writers – to say nothing of readers – find this genre so compelling.”

And that, for now, is all she wrote.


Sue William Silverman’s memoirLove Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton) is also a Lifetime Television original movie.  Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award series in creative nonfiction, and her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (www.suewilliamsilverman.com).

Mama Cocks the Shotgun: Bristol’s Finest Lyric Essays

February 17, 2011 § 4 Comments

To review: Bristol Palin is reportedly writing her memoir.

Memoirist Sue William Silverman found this idea somewhat absurd, given that Palin’s life so far has included 1) being a rather flawed spokesperson for abstinence, and 2) Dancing with the Stars. Memoirist Robin Hemley made a joke about Bristol’s possible future as a lyric essayist.  We here at Brevity, deep into our third bottle of Malbec, decided that a Bristol Palin Lyric Essay Competition was just the thing to brighten a dull February.

Yesterday we posted some of our favorite lines from the numerous, wonderful, rich-with-grizzly-bear entries.

Today, we post our winner, and two runners-up.

And then we promise never to mention Bristol Palin again.

Here goes:

THE $25 whopping American dollars WINNER:

Nine Months to Now

A Lyric Essay by Bristol ‘She-Ra’ Palin

As told to Laurie Ann Cedilnik


Mama cocks the shotgun, and we’re off. She has her target, I mine. Her words are bullets, and they fall without mercy. I am hit. Utterly without protection. His seed is a hail of bullets, and I do not duck.


Really craving pickles this month.


The Nifty Runners Up:

Aurora Borealis

A Lyric Essay by Bristol Palin

As told to John Warner

It’s lonely in Alaska. That’s why families are big, so there’s always someone else around, but your family isn’t around, and maybe that’s why you fall into the arms of the handsomest hockey player in town, let him take your clothes off, let him place his hands on your hips and look at you and bring his lips to your belly and call you beautiful, which is something you’ve been taught to value.



A Lyric Essay by Bristol Palin

As told to Amy Butcher

Call me Ursidae. Call me whole.

As a child, I sifted river rock from the sandy collarbone of Wasilla Lake, stood ankle-deep in the cool, crisp water.  We were twinned then, the water and I both: each of us free, each of us moving at an inexhaustible speed.  The current carried the weight of the world: dandelion seed and pollen.

It was in an inlet in October that I saw him: the bear, that hulking bulge of brown.  He stood by the water and then was in it, found a fish and took it whole.  He swallowed its flailing, flippy body down.


Thanks to all of our awesome entrants, and congratulations to our winners, and Bristol.

The Bristol Stomp: A Lyric Essay Competition

February 9, 2011 § 5 Comments

Yes, our favorite Dancing with the Stars contestant is writing her memoir, and yes, there are far too many awful  jokes made possible by yesterday’s announcement.  But we won’t make those jokes.  Instead, we quote an exchange found on Facebook today between the master memoirists Sue William Silverman and Robin Hemley (and read even further down for your chance to win big bucks).

SUE :  Bristol Palin is “writing” a memoir! Really? Can’t we find another term, other than “memoir,” to describe what it is nonwriters write when they produce “something” that more or less resembles a book from the outside?  Here is a description of her nonbook: “Twenty-year-old Bristol Palin has wisdom she wants to share with us all, and she…’ll do it in book form.” Am anxiously awaiting “wisdom.”

ROBIN: I’m thinking of getting her as the keynote speaker at the next NonfictioNow Conference. I loved her series of lyric essays in Seneca Review, didn’t you, Sue?

Robin is kidding, of course.  Bristol’s lyric essays were rejected by the Seneca Review, poor kid.

So, does anyone want to enter our NIFTY BRISTOL STOMP CONTEST?

Here are the Rules:

— In 250 words or less, write a lyric essay that might’ve come from the pen of Bristol Palin.

— send it to brevitymag@gmail.com, DEADLINE Monday, Feb. 14th, 4 pm EST.

— the best ones will be reprinted here.

— Winner gets $25!!!


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.

AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Thursday Afternoon

January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Thursday afternoon at the AWP is just as busy as the morning for us nonfictionistas, and that’s not even counting the cross-genre readings and panels, talks by agents and publishers, and other events that make writers smart and happy.  Below, though, some specific nonfiction events, many with recent and past Brevity contributors …. and then, at the every end of the day, FREE BEER!

NOON to 1:15 pm

Virginia B Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R156. Imagining Ourselves: The Narrative Stance in Memoir. (Judith Barrington, Dustin Beall Smith, Nancy Lord, Allison Hedge Coke, Valerie Miner, Sherry Simpson) A diverse group of memoirists, who also write and teach in other genres, will discuss how they create personas for themselves and how these identities are freshly created and shaped to the work in hand. Exploring what Vivian Gornick calls “the glory of an achieved persona,” they will share examples of versions of themselves they have used in memoir, consider how persona functions in other genres, and assess how each identity is central to the authenticity and depth of the writing.


1:30 to 2:45 pm

Palladian Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

R187. Recovery as Discovery: Rethinking Nature Writing. (Tom Montgomery-Fate, David Gessner, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Gretchen Legler, John Price, Kathleen Dean Moore) Since Thoreau’s invention of the nature memoir 160 years ago, much of the natural environment itself has been damaged or destroyed. Thus, today’s nature writer must attend to both the natural world and her/his own role in its slow destruction. Their task now is less to discover and record the rare, than to recover and nurture the ravaged. This panel of nature writers will explore how they’ve addressed this paradox in their work.

Virginia C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R178. Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay. (Steven Harvey, Kathryn Winograd, Robert Root, Rebecca McClanahan) The lyric essay gives writers the license to experiment—to play with language in fresh and surprising ways—but if this playfulness lacks intensity the lyric essay can become a game, or worse, an idle exercise. What do writers do to animate the form so that it not only enjoys the freedom to explore but achieves the level of passion and intelligence we expect from all great writing? A panel of writers will consider the question and offer concrete suggestions.

3 to 4:15 pm

Maryland Suite Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R193. What’s Normal in Nonfiction? (Steven Church, Debra Marquart, Ander Monson, Bonnie J. Rough, Bob Shacochis) Moderated by editors of the Normal School, the panel will feature a discussion of the polarizing questions concerning the ethics and aesthetics of nonfiction writing today. Is the nonfiction writer’s obligation to the art or to the subject? The audience? Can you conflate time, use composite or fictionalized characters, or borrow material from other sources without citing it? Panelists will consider what the role of the nonfiction writer is today and how that role is defined by ethical concerns for subject and audience, and/or aesthetic concerns for art, genre, form, and technique.

Palladian Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

R208. What Women DON’T Write About When We Write About Sex. (Xu Xi, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Honor Moore, Victoria Redel, Ellen Bass, Sue William Silverman) In a post-feminist age, the memoir has blown the lid off sexual secrets, and in all genres, women have written increasingly frankly about sexuality over the last fifty years. It almost seems that nothing is off limits. But what’s the art and craft of this sexual “anything goes”? Six women discuss the treatment of sex in their writing and ask: do we write Passion? Do we write Lust? Do we write Love? And what don’t we write about when we write about sex?

4:30 to 5:45 pm

Thurgood Marshall East Room Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

R217. Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook. (Jen McClanaghan, Phillip Lopate, Bob Shacochis, Debra Monroe, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Susan McCallum-Smith) Between the ever-popular tell-all memoir and ubiquitous status updates on websites such as Facebook and Twitter, the confession has never been so popular or so utterly mundane. We know more about each other than ever before and yet little that’s truly intimate or insightful. This panel will discuss the tradition of the personal essay and what it might offer the contemporary reader and writer, namely the opportunity for real insight and reflection.

10:00 p.m.-Midnight

Thurgood Marshall
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level
R233. AWP Public Reception & Dance Party. A Dance Party with music by DJ Neza. Free beer and wine from 10:00 to midnight.

Sue William Silverman and the Craft of Memoir

September 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

Brevity book editor Debbie Hagan takes a look at Sue William Silverman’s recent writing guide, Fearless Confessions, in our latest issue. Here are some excerpts from her review:

…Sue William Silverman begins by showing us what not to do. She takes us to the beginning of her career, as she’s sitting in writing class, facing an instructor holding up a magnolia blossom and saying, “Describe this.”

Silverman complies by writing, “The flower is white, the petals are soft, the blossom smells like perfume.”

“Unoriginal,” the instructor tells her.

Then the instructor tells the class to write using all five senses. Silverman jots down a paragraph about a homeless man. Most of her sentences sound rather predictable, but this one line stands out: “Sunrays clanged in his ears.” Clanged? Odd, until you realize that this man is hungover. This verb not only makes us sit up and pay attention, but deepens our understanding of this character.

Silverman shows us in Fearless Confessions how this one line changed her writing. In it, she saw how authentic details shape tone, theme, and voice, “[It] taught me one of the most valuable lessons of creative writing: how external sensory imagery is crafted – slanted – to create mood and emotion,” she writes…

One of my favorite sections of this book is chapter five It’s not enough just to find the right voice, Silverman points out. The memoirist really needs to juggle several voices, namely innocence (the time of the narrative) and experience (the wizened self looking back). I’ve shared this idea with memoir students, who either stare at me blankly as if I’m speaking Swahili or bolt upright as if I’d just handed them that long sought-after puzzle piece. I’ve never read (or heard) about this memoir technique anywhere else, but Silverman not only explains it, but illustrates it with clear examples…

Debbie Hagan’s full review is here.

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