On Writing With Substance and Compassion

January 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

IMG-2476In her new craft essay, Mary Ann McSweeny illustrates why compassion should be one of the underlying components of all stories, and she explains how it is only when the writer remains a “detached witness” that compassion can flourish. McSweeny provides a list of questions and a brainstorming exercise for writers to immerse their characters and narrators in substance and compassion:

When I read my own work and that of others, I ask myself: Does the writer have compassion for the character on the page? Does the writer know the character’s life history, background, biography? Does the writer understand how the character has arrived at the point where the story begins? Has the writer somehow entered into the character’s struggle? With the personal “I” narrator: Does the writer portray the narrator’s struggle with an understanding of the narrator’s weaknesses, fears, or defects without trying to control the outcome of what’s happening?

Substance is not writing about compassion; it is writing with compassion so that the reader feels the writer’s authenticity.

Read the rest of this exceptional craft essay in our latest issue.

Teaching Brevity: Whetting the Appetite

September 25, 2017 § 7 Comments

DSC_1174-2By Frances Backhouse

Recently, while flipping through an Italian cookbook, it occurred to me that I’ve organized my third-year creative nonfiction workshop like an Italian meal. At twelve to thirteen weeks, with one three-hour class a week, it lasts longer than even the most leisurely Italian repast, but the structure is similar. During the first few classes, I serve up an array of bite-sized activities and assignments – the antipasto course, which both whets the students’ appetites and take the edge off their hunger while they’re busy writing first drafts of the pieces they’ll submit for workshopping. Once those drafts come to the table, we move onto the primo and secondo courses and spend the bulk of the term thoughtfully chewing our way through two essays per student. The last class is the dolce – a sweet, celebratory finale in which the students read excerpts from works they’ve written and polished over the term.

The part of this culinary metaphor that I want to expand on here is the antipasto course, specifically the ingredients provided by Brevity for the first assignment of the term. (But I’ll cease talking about food, so you don’t get hungry and wander off to the kitchen.) For this assignment, worth 10 percent of the course grade, each student chooses one essay from the collection of craft essays on the Brevity website and explores it through a short class presentation, plus a written reflection, due a few weeks after their presentation. Although both parts are mandatory, I grade only the written submission. I tell the students to think of the presentation as a preliminary articulation of their thoughts, with the class discussion offering ideas for refining them. My other instructions for the assignment are as follows:

The presentation should be about 15 minutes long: in the first 5 minutes you’ll tell us why you picked that essay and highlight what you consider to be the most interesting and important points; then you’ll lead us through a 10-minute discussion of the essay. Everyone is expected to read all of the essays in advance.

The written part of the assignment is a 750- to 900-word reflection. Begin with a brief overview or summary of your chosen essay (no more than one or two paragraphs). Then move on to a discussion of what you took away from reading this essay. For example: What questions did it answer for you? What questions did it raise? How did it inspire you? How did it challenge you? If you find the essay doesn’t offer you enough substance to feed 750 to 900 words of reflection, you may follow links in the essay or do your own research to expand on ideas raised by the essay. (If you go beyond the text of the original essay, include end-notes citing your additional sources.)

Typically, there are fifteen students in the course. I introduce the assignment during the first class and schedule five presentations for each of the next three classes.

The presentation sign-up is done online via CourseSpaces, my university’s learning management system. I give the students a couple of days to browse the Brevity website and then I open up a forum where they claim their preferred craft essay. Some of them leap in the moment the forum opens to ensure they get the piece they want, while others dither or procrastinate and finally settle on something just before the deadline. Banter often accompanies the choosing. “Damn you, Ellen! That was my first choice too,” one student wrote last year when someone else beat her to the essay “Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again” (a perennial favorite). “Sniffed this one out,” wrote another as she announced her choice: “The Nose Knows: How Smells Can Connect Us to the Past and Lead Us to the Page.”

The beauty of allowing the students to choose their essays is that it let’s them take ownership of the learning process and pursue the topics that are of most interest to them. In past years, those whose first literary love is poetry have picked “What Can Sonnets Teach Us About Essays” and “Line Breaks: They’re Not Just For Poets Anymore.” A student mourning the loss of her grandmother opted for “Writing the Sharp Edges of Grief.” Another, who knew that revision was his weak point, challenged himself by choosing “Becoming Your Own Best Critic.” And the beguilingly titled “And There’s Your Mother Calling Out to You: In Pursuit of Memory” always gets snapped up quickly.

The students generally deliver insightful presentations and turn in intelligent written reflections. The quality of both writing and analysis varies, of course, but there’s enough evidence of engagement overall that I can easily count the assignment as a pedagogical success. However, the greatest merit may be in the discussions that follow the formal presentations. These free-flowing, student-initiated conversations often exceed the prescribed ten minutes and take us in unexpected but worthwhile directions, such as the lively debate about muses that followed a presentation on the essay “My Muse – He’s Just Not That Into Me.”

The value of these conversations is (at least) twofold: they get students thinking about craft in new ways; and they start building the bonds that are critical to effective workshopping. One particularly powerful case was a series of overlapping discussions about stereotyping, stigma and gender politics within the literary world that was prompted by three self-identified queer students’ presentations on “Writing Trans Characters,” “Mapping Identity: Borich’s Body Geographic” and “The Craft of Writing Queer.” But all of the discussions help lay the foundation for the sensitive work of peer-critiquing because they get the students talking about creative nonfiction in universal terms before they zero in on each other’s personal offerings.

If you’re teaching CNF, you’re welcome to add this assignment to your teaching menu. I’m sure you’ll find that Brevity’s pantry of craft essays holds plenty of delicious fare.

Buon appetito!

‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.
Frances Backhouse teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is the author of six nonfiction books, including Women of the Klondike and Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. Her short-form CNF has appeared most recently in the Bellingham Review and The New Territory.

Words as Image: How “Thank You” Originated

January 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

girl w cameraSejal Shah discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay “Thank You” and offers up an intriguing writing prompt.

I have often relied on objects and images to help convey meaning in my stories, poems, and essays.  Perhaps over-relied.  However, I also felt that I had found a way in to a telling a story that worked.  In “Street Scene,” a lyric essay about a close friend who took her life, I found the image with resonance that knitted the essay together was that of the now-filled-in swimming pool of my childhood in my parents’ backyard.  “Street Scene” is about remembering and grieving this friend, whom I met when she was in her thirties; the present tense of the essay is a week-long trip to Paris some years later, and the childhood pool initially seemed like a random out-of-place image.  (She had never even seen the pool and we might never even have talked about it.)

My writing group pointed out that the pool and the associative memory of it that followed didn’t have anything to do with LeeAnne or the present-day of the narrator, who is walking around in Paris, but I felt stubborn about the pool, and refused to give it up.  I worked on this essay for over two years (I have a patient and kind writing group), and with the wise suggestions of the editor of the literary journal that published it, the image emerged and quietly grew to be the central image of childhood, the past, and my longing for LeeAnne’s return.  The image of the pool was the right one, but I had had to trust it and also, to learn to trust myself.  Writing and completing “Street Scene” gave me the confidence to trust myself.

My essay in the September 2013 issue of Brevity, “Thank You,” is unlike anything else I’ve ever written in that the two words themselves become what is usually an image in my writing—a touchstone, a repeated phrase, a symbol, a talisman, a warning, an entreaty, an objective correlative, a prayer, a plea, a longing, a wish.  Voice and imagery have traditionally driven my writing.  In both the fiction and nonfiction I’ve written, I have never used a lot of dialogue.  I think of writing assignments that ask students to overhear and record bits of dialogue in restaurants, in coffee shops, on trains, in line at stores, in line anywhere. As a teacher, I’ve given these assignments myself, but often haven’t taken the advice to listen closely, myself, and to write down what I hear.

When writing “Thank You,” (the whole first draft came out in one rush—it was a gift), I mused on how often the man in the essay and I said “thank you” to each other, but when I expected and wanted to hear thank you the most, the words never came.  The title of the essay and the essay itself would not have worked without the sentence from the young daughter.  The little girl’s father and I both thought it was an odd and funny thing for his daughter to say:  I love this book so much I’m not going to say thank you.  I am intrigued by the gap between what we say and what we feel or think we feel. When I showed an early draft to a few other writers, at least one was puzzled by the title.  Who is saying thank you?, she asked.  And what is she (the narrator/me) thankful about?   He is gone, I never met the daughter, but the words and story stayed with me.  I am thankful for that.

Writing Prompt:  Many essays, stories, and poems I’ve written are letters to people I have loved or people who haunt me—these are letters I am unable or unwilling to send.  “Thank You,” is one of those letters.  Write a letter that you can never send or will never send—to someone with whom you are not in touch, or who has passed, or to whom the ability to speak at a certain level or pitch has faded.  Who are the people who haunt you and what would you say that you never had a chance to say, if you could say it?  A brief essay in the form of a letter, a direct address, a wish.

Sejal Shah’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, The Literary Review, Web Conjunctions, and AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle. She lives and teaches in Upstate New York. Find her online at www.sejal-shah.com.

This is Not to Say

September 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Amy Lee Scott discusses the impulse behind her Brevity 31 essay, “This is Not To Say”:

I wrote this essay in response to a prompt my writing group assigned. Though I cannot fully recall the specifics of the prompt, I remember that it was on a topic situated somewhere between Lost Things and Nostalgia.

For a long time I had wanted to write an essay for the things that I never write about, the things that are lost by merit of being unsaid. This seemed like the perfect time to think it out. I also wanted to practice writing a sharp turn, something that would wield the essay from one emotional state to another by stitching memories together in an associative manner. This is surprisingly difficult to do in a short space, so I thought I would tackle the space issue by using a catalog.

Catalogs work hard, especially in small spaces. They can collate, categorize, and narrate in a way that other forms cannot. They can pinball from here to there, create an evocation of an emotion with few strokes, and hypnotize. The rich layers they accumulate can stun and delight and send a body reeling. On the flip side, they can seem shtick-y. Lazy. A bit too hip. Worse, they can feel pointless.

But for me, I had to take the risk. Sure, it wasn’t the kind of risk that saved lives from despicable ends, but it still had me mooning about with a big ol’ grin.

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