Do You Need an MFA? The Absolutely, Positively Definitive Answer

May 10, 2022 § 16 Comments

Not condescending at all!

I’m in a wonderful writing group, tailored to our exact needs: 20 pages, once a month, no written feedback. We are three people with writing or writing-adjacent jobs and one aerospace systems analyst. Between us are a PhD, a couple of MFAs, some BAs and Associates degrees. If you listened to our last discussion, ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, you’d be hard-pressed to define anyone’s credentials from their writing or their critique. We’re all working on projects that stretch our abilities. We’re all great at some craft elements and struggling with others.

I’m one of the MFA holders. Has it forwarded my writing career? Yes. And No. (You knew that was coming.)

My MFA is in Playwriting. With all due respect to my teachers, a Playwriting degree from an English department is ridiculous. Writing for actors and directors to interpret, creating setting from a few stage directions while maintaining awareness of the budget needed to stage your play, is its own process. More importantly, your Theatre department peers will go on to form small theatre companies that produce new plays. Long-term, an English department has nothing to offer playwrights.

Fortunately, I’d already published plays and had scripts produced. Many of them. I was also teaching in the Theatre department, where I could stage my thesis script. My MFA did two things for me: my assistantship was as a journal editor, and I discovered I liked writing nonfiction. Editing under the eagle eyes of a brilliant (Theatre department) mentor was a valuable step towards my now-career as an editor and teacher. Writing nonfiction led me to the Kenyon Writers Workshop, Dinty W. Moore and Brevity.

What’s made me a better writer is critique. My first sustained critique experience, giving and receiving, was a 10-month online contest with weekly prompts. Responding to others’ work with genuinely helpful feedback, while still being likeable enough to get votes for my work, was powerful. Receiving critique taught me to recognize the Damn, I thought I could get away with that feeling that means that criticism is correct; using it will make my work better. Recognizing when critique was wrong or unsupportive thickened my skin and gave me confidence. Writing weekly (and sometimes more often) on a strict deadline for 10 months gave me 50+ chances to try out craft techniques, and a folder full of work ready to revise and submit. And I got all that for free.

A good MFA program also gives critique, deadlines, and sustained commitment. Ideally, writers graduate with a significant project ready for publication, a host of smaller pieces, the ability to give and receive critique, and the ability to write to deadline, plus colleagues and mentors who will blurb, publish and support our future work. Many of us also incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt, discover the program doesn’t support our genre, and/or that our thesis is not actually publishable without substantially more work.

Is it worth it?

Yes—if you are writing literary fiction, literary memoir, or can find a program dedicated to your genre that also focuses on publication.

No—if you write genre fiction or commercial memoir and want to make money.

Yes—if you are fully funded by the department. That’s a vote of confidence in your work; your whole experience will be better.

No—if you want to become university faculty. That career boat has sailed. Publish books instead, and the English department will come to you.

Yes—if you’re a returning student in a low-residency or nontraditional program who needs time, support and focus for a specific project you are burning to write.

No—if your feeling is “maybe I’ll write a book someday.”

Yes—if you have substantial personal funds to pay for your experience.

No—if you’re putting it on a credit card.

If you have a burning passion for your book, and the ability to pay for the program or get funding, go for it. But an MFA is not a “figure things out” place—it’s a “use this time as fully as you can for your plan” place.

Fortunately, there are plenty of less-expensive and lower-commitment places to learn to write and finish a book. Several writing centers offer year-long programs oriented to finishing a book, complete with deadlines, colleagues and critique. And of course, you can cobble together your own program from webinars, craft books and short-term workshops, ideally enlisting a couple of writer friends you’re sure you’ll still be speaking to in 3 years.

No matter what your best path is, what matters most is putting the lessons into action. Revising and resubmitting a piece that doesn’t work yet. Actively analyzing fellow students’ writing to see what’s working, what’s not, and why—and then applying those discoveries to your own work. Hiring a teacher for yourself/your group to improve your craft. An MFA won’t do you any good without doing the homework, and neither will self-study. But if you’re focused, dedicated and committed to your own work, it doesn’t matter who you pay—or if your writing credentials cost nothing at all.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Building your own MFA? Want to learn more about publishing and improve your writing craft? Learn to write a book pitch and see if yours works? Allison & Dinty are co-teaching a five-day virtual intensive next week, and two spots are still available. More info/register here.

Emotional Subcontractors: Working with Adverbs

June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments

Everyone hates on adverbs.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.

When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?

Replace redundant adverbs.

She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.

But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.

She thumped her coffee on the counter.

Skip the “duh” adverbs.

If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.

Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:

Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)

Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.

Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:

“Tell me right now!” she said quickly.

Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.

As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:

RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?

SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.

Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)

Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.

 “That’s him,” she said accusingly.

Instead:

“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.

“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.

“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”

With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:

He turned angrily and raised his fist.

He whipped around, his fist raised.

He spun, his fist raised.

Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.

He smiled bitterly.

They ran haltingly.

She danced jerkily.

Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”

In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:

Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.

The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.

Plumb the adverbs in your own work:

1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?

2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.

3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.

Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.

Read More Bad Writing

July 21, 2020 § 9 Comments

At a renaissance festival, a large male audience volunteer stands on a woman lying on a bed of nails. Another performer stabilizes the standing man.Back when I was a stunt performer, my regular auto mechanic came to a show. After, he said, “I just don’t know how you can figure out which volunteer to bring on stage! How do you know they aren’t going to hurt you or act like a jerk and ruin the show?”

I said, “Bob, how do you know my catalytic converter is the problem without even jacking up my car to look underneath?”

Bob had a lifetime’s wealth of automotive knowledge that let him listen to the car and my description of the problem and figure out what was wrong. I was able to scan a crowd and determine who was actively engaged in the show (leaning forward, laughing, arms uncrossed), who wasn’t going to be a jerk (dad-age or older, here with family and not a gang of male friends), and who was going to play along nicely (already following instructions like ‘everyone say hello!’).

I learned these ways to look at people by picking bad people. I picked drunks who wouldn’t follow directions, smart-asses who tried to steal the show, someone from a religion that did not allow them to shake my hand. Public embarrassment, low tips, and getting dropped on a bed of nails were the immediate, specific feedback I needed to learn to pick audience members who would participate joyfully and let me make them a hero who deserved a round of applause.

As writers, we rarely get that kind of specific and immediate feedback. Form rejections don’t tell us anything beyond “this piece wasn’t right for this journal at this time.” How are we supposed to learn what’s not working in our writing, and make it better, fast?

By reading bad writing.

Overwrought memoirs. Jargon-filled science fiction. Purple-eyed, flowing-haired, has-all-the-powers fantasy. And by reading beginning writing. Early efforts from writers still a little less-skilled than we are. Novels self-published on Amazon by authors whose craft is catching up to their ambition.

Spotting problems in less-sophisticated writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like walking up to a broken car and immediately seeing a flat tire, instead of having to pop the hood and run diagnostics. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our own work and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

To make reading bad writing a truly useful experience, approach it like an assignment. Read a chapter (or an essay, or a story) and first identify what the author is trying to do.

This chapter introduces the family members and shows each person’s job, their place in the family hierarchy, and how they relate to the narrator.

Pick out anything that is actually working, just as you would if you were sharing a workshop with this author.

I can clearly see the mom and dad’s physical appearance. The sister is likeable and I’d want to spend more time with her. The brother is shown as a bad guy from his interaction with the narrator.

Identify what’s not working. But unlike the reading-for-fun stage where you’d simply say “Ugh!” and chuck the book aside, get specific about why it’s not working.

Huh, if I skim ahead, this all seems like backstory to about page 50. Maybe the hiking trip should be at the beginning? Before that they’re all just hanging out. If we need to know who they are, the two sentences on page 5 are enough about the sister, the incident with the puppy shows us the parents, and maybe just the brother shoving the narrator?

Or

These sentences feel really long and clunky. Oh, look, they all have three or more prepositional phrases…

I’m counting, and there are 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

When you know what specifically is wrong, try rewriting a paragraph or two as if you were this author’s editor. (Do not under any circumstances communicate to the writer that you’re doing this. That’s not a favor unless it’s been requested, and unasked-for critique is insulting.) See if you can carry out their original intent, but in better words.

Finally, return to your own writing. Pick one of the problems you saw in the writing you critiqued, and look for that problem in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Is there a word or sentence pattern that sticks out?

Yes, we can absolutely learn good writing from reading good writing. But that often takes a teacher or group to identify the subtleties of craft together. If you’re working alone, reading bad writing helps you learn to spot problems and fix them. As your eye for craft develops, you’ll get better at seeing issues and knowing how to fix them when you read better writing. You’ll notice the one bad sentence in an award-winning book, or a famous author’s overused paragraph structure. You’ll understand how a very popular book’s powerful story is pulling readers through a saggy, under-plotted middle. And you’ll be able to apply these fixes to your own work as your writing improves.

Best of all, while you’re practicing, you don’t have to change a flat tire. Or get dropped on a bed of nails.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is forthcoming from Woodhall Press in March 2021. Join her mailing list for occasional writing tips, adventures and inspiration: sign up here!

Why We’re Not Writing Succinctly—and What to Do About It

October 23, 2018 § 9 Comments

By Mathina Calliope

Writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent elimination.
-Louise Brooks

I know I should write concisely. Plowing through bloated prose, I’ve certainly wished other authors had. I’ve silently struck needless words and cursed the writer for lacking the courtesy to clean up after him- or herself.

I also struggle to get my own word counts down. As with many things in life, it’s easier to spot a speck than pull out a plank.

At some point in our writing trajectories, a well-meaning person read our draft and said it needed “more details.” Yes, a well-chosen detail brings a scene alive and puts readers into the action. Unfortunately, many of us, perhaps too young to grasp what details were, simplified this advice to more words.

Later, we come across Strunk & White’s “Omit needless words” and Mark Twain’s “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” and we may try to unlearn wordiness.

This is difficult.

But why? Shouldn’t it be easier to write fewer words than more? Let’s take a look at some threats to succinctness and try to understand their source—and how to eliminate them.

First drafts are where we figure it out.
If I had a nickel for every time I wrote a sentence and immediately wrote another one containing the exact same idea, I’d have many nickels. Writing is not stenography—it’s not transferring neat, insightful, and lovely ideas from our brains to the page. Writing is the messy process of wrestling with those ideas, taming them into insights. For me, that’s trying out an idea in one sentence, then explaining it in the next. The idea forms as I write, so the second sentence feels like additional information. It’s not until I reread that I can see the redundancy. Sometimes I can strike the first sentence altogether. Sometimes it’s the second sentence that goes. And sometimes half the idea is in one and half in the other, so I combine and tighten.

Succinct writing takes time.
Blaine Pascal, John Locke, and Henry David Thoreau are all credited with versions of “I’m sorry this is so long; I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

First drafts are where we work things out. That takes X length of time. First drafts plus re-reading and revising to eliminate redundancy takes X plus Y length of time.

We might not have that time; worse, we might not realize how much it matters. Smart readers, who don’t need to be told anything twice, can spot redundancy from a page away. They won’t tolerate much. As writers, we have to put our work aside for a bit, make it unfamiliar, then reread and ruthlessly delete anything superfluous.

We don’t realize we’re being wordy.
We may write our first drafts conversationally. The advantage of this is accessibility and a natural tone. The disadvantage is that speech is seldom succinct. Word padding that may not inconvenience listeners still weighs down prose.

We think long sentences sound good.
But they usually don’t. Long sentences work only when the complexity of their ideas warrants them. Best case, an unnecessarily long sentence confuses and tires readers. Worst case, it conveys uncertainty or even ignorance; readers see right through the writer’s attempt to appear to know a lot.
It’s not easy being brief. But it’s important—for the clarity of your ideas and for the love of your reader.

So the next time you are ready to submit a piece of writing to a reader, an editor, or a friend, remember these words of Dr. Seuss: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

_____________________________

Mathina Calliope is a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post’s Magazine and Outlook sections, NPR’s Morning Edition, Prevention, the Manifest-Station, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. Currently she is finishing a memoir, Deprivation Vacation, about hiking the Appalachian Trail at 43 as a way to step cold turkey out of her comfort zone. @mathinacalliope IG: mathinacalliope

Reading Like a Writer: Sustaining an Image

June 5, 2018 § 7 Comments

By Jennifer Berney

“What does it mean when your body cannot be one simple thing?” Gabrielle Bellot asks, in her essay “Volcano Dreams,” published recently in Unruly Bodies (a web anthology curated by Roxane Gay).

“Volcano Dreams” opens with an anecdote about a sexual encounter in which the author is pursued by an old acquaintance. Though the acquaintance is clearly flirting, the author questions his seriousness, explaining that her identity as a trans woman often renders her sexually invisible.

I was disinterested and yet vaguely, stupidly desired his desire, as if that would validate something of my womanhood—no but yes, an in-between uncertainty, like the grey smoky nightmares of a slumbering volcano.

This connection between yearning body and volcano, is an image that drives the rest of the essay. In fact, once the encounter ends with the acquaintance’s abrupt rejection of the author’s body—only halfway through the essay—Bellot sets aside the tools of scene and story. The rest of the essay is grounded solely in image and metaphor, in volcano and sea. She develops and balances these images:

My body, I sometimes think, like many bodies, is like Dominica’s. Waitukubuli, the Caribs declared our island before the colonists came, a mountainous world named corporeally: Tall is her body. An unruly island, rainforest one moment, melancholy ramshackle zinc roofs rattling under the metallic drums of rain the next… beaches of nothing but gray stones a hurricane hurled with its roiling rolling arms like a furious crazed cricket bowler, a rough Atlantic beyond the fins of sharks or whales where fishermen in bright-painted dinghies occasionally venture under the spells of their insomniac mermaid dreams and never return. Dominica’s body changes grandly, wider in potential than a Sargasso Sea, yet she is also one defined and whole.

When I left this essay, I found myself haunted by these landscapes, as if I had dreamt them, and as if that dream had lodged itself somewhere between my conscious and subconscious.

I can’t quite explain the meaning of these images because, as Bellot says about the body, they “cannot be one simple thing.” I can tell you that the volcano conjures both anger and desire, that the sea evokes both fluidity and grief. But I can also tell you that these landscapes hold more than that.

Bellot told me these images came to her in a conversation with a friend:

We began talking about volcanoes, and then the conversation shifted, but when I went home, I began to think again of volcanoes as a metaphor for the body, and, in particular, the special, uncomfortable uncertainty and false sense of security a sleeping volcano can present. A body can seem calm and quiet, yet be roiling on the inside, ready to burst. Volcanoes destroy and rebuild. I realised that my experience of the body was connected to that sort of unstable, unpredictable imagery. (I also grew up in sight of one of Dominica’s many dormant volcanoes, and the apocalyptic tales of Mount Pelee’s eruption in nearby Martinique at the start of the twentieth century was one I thought of often as a young adult.) I’ve also long been drawn to the ocean and to the colour blue. Both have long histories for me. A family member was swept by a riptide into the ocean and drowned before I was born, a story my mother repeated to me many times when we drove past a certain white estuary that had become known for its fatal pull. And ‘the sea is history,’ as Derek Walcott put it, a place as much of life as uncountable deaths from the horrors of the transatlantic trade. So the ocean was inevitable as an image for the body as a site of contradiction and open-ended possibility.

Somehow, all of the associations that Bellot describes here reached me as a reader. In one short essay, I absorbed pieces of histories and landscapes, and connected those pieces to the author’s experience of body, of moving between conflict and fluidity.

What makes these images work? It’s not their simplicity but rather their expansiveness. Bellot does not offer simple correlations, such as heart = love or bird = freedom. At the same time, the images aren’t arbitrary or random. As Bellot makes clear in her commentary, they are carefully, lovingly chosen and rendered, and interact with the essay’s topic in meaningful ways. Like the body, these landscapes contain multitudes.

The lesson I glean from Bellot’s work is to fully commit to the images that choose me. If an image truly belongs in a work, then it deserves some oxygen. When given room to grow, the right set of images can do more than enhance a piece; they can drive it.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Five Quick Fixes To Make Your Essay Better Right Now

February 1, 2018 § 27 Comments

patent diagram of a roller skateNot “feeling it,” but need to get some writing in? Don’t have time for a long sit at the coffee shop, but you might have fifteen minutes before carpool? Technical fixes are the way to go.

1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:

  1. Open Advanced Find and Replace
  2. Check the box for Wildcards On
  3. Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
  4. Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
  5. Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.

2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.

I never considered that he would run away

I never considered he would run away.

3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.

Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.

Pat was also kind of mean.

When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:

Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog. 

For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:

Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.  

4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.

We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.

Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.

5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.

Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.

Happy writing–with or without inspiration.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Find out where she’s teaching next–we’d love to see you!

Stop Making Sense

November 21, 2017 § 27 Comments

Have we got an offer for you!

Black and white picture of David Byrne dancing in a boxy oversized suit from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense

How did I get here?

Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?

This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.

Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.

Within the same sentence.

Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:

He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.

Tell it once:

His hands were gnarled.

Better yet, show it in an action:

He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.

He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.

Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:

Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”

Show it once:

Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”

(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)

Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:

I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.

 Pare it down:

I texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

I thought it was very clear.

Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”

As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?

But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

This also applies to “filtering”:

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.

If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”

It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her bimonthly travel and writing newsletter here.

Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)

A Brief Guide to Essays

August 1, 2017 § 28 Comments

We’re ready for our prose poem!

The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”

Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!

It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:

Lyric

They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.

***

Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.

***

Not this one.

 

Prose Poem

Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.

 

Collage

Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.

***

I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?

***

In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.

***

The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”

***

In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.

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The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.

 

Braided Essay

You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.

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Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.

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As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.

The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writer’s voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.

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Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.

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Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.

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Some nice braided essays:

The Search for Marvin Gardens by John McPhee

Buzzards by Lee Zacharias

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Seriously. The strands have to repeat.

 

Hermit Crab

It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.

1) Choose an existing form, such as guidebook, grocery list, rejection letter or recipe.

2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.

3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.

4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.

5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.

6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

 

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