Craft Essays

Craft Essays

Issue 52 features three new Craft Essays: Joe Oestreich on balancing narrative and reflection, Amye Archer on the power of emotional distance, and Amy A. Whitcomb on the struggle to prioritize writing in our otherwise busy lives.

Mary Poppins and the Art of Sweetening with Scene

In the essay “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story,” Phillip Lopate tells us that he has always been attracted to the passages in memoir and personal essay “where the writing takes an analytical, interpretive turn.” He says that he considers these explicative moments to be “the dessert, the reward of prose.” Now, given Brevity’s...

Writing the Truth in Memoir: Don’t Skimp on Objectivity

My ex-husband didn’t love me. He was mean and selfish, and sometimes even cruel. The day he left, I found dating profiles on his computer along with e-mails from other women. He didn’t work for longer than a year at a time, and he drank like he deserved to. He spent most of our three-year...

To Do: Prioritize My Writing

This wasn’t a sabbatical, because I’m not a professor. I’m a professional tutor at a university writing center. It was not a vacation because I have only two weeks, not two months, of that. (No, to me, it was certainly not the vacation peers kept calling it—if it were, I’d actually go to Nepal to...

On Keeping a (Writing) Notebook (or Three)

In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes about the odd notes she has taken over the years – on conversations she has overheard (“That woman Estelle is partly the reason why George Sharp and I are separated today”), facts she has learned (“during 1964, 720 tons of soot fell on every square...

Becoming a Writer in Due Time

I recently found a line in my old journal that reads, “What I really want to do is get an MFA in creative writing.” I wrote this on April 25, 2000. More than fifteen years ago. At the time I had spent two exhausting years getting a single-subject credential to teach high school English, and...

On Asking the Hard Questions

When I first started writing nonfiction, as an undergraduate creative writing major, I struggled—a lot—to find my subject matter. These days, I write about my ever-evolving relationship with masculinity, particularly now that I have been living openly as a transgender man for five years and have been sporting a beard for three. Back then, though,...

Textures and Contrasts: Starting Points for Travel Writing

We walk toward the Saturday flea market in Hannover, Germany; my eyes saccade between the shop windows and my children, who dart ahead toward the river. A woman is kneeling on the ground at an intersection of this pedestrian zone—a square that interrupts the busy street. In front of her are shopping bags and a...

Revision Advice from the Judges’ Table

Writers are connoisseurs of criticism. At least, this is how I justify some of my love for the television program Top Chef. Each week the show’s “cheftestants” compete in cooking challenges judged by professional chefs, restaurateurs, food critics and celebrity guest-judges. Every episode features moments of creation and revision, as the chefs plan, execute and...

Writing the Sharp Edges of Grief

When I was an undergraduate, I volunteered with a youth outreach program at a local high school. One of “our kids,” a sophomore boy named Nile, lost his father to cancer halfway through the year. Two other youth leaders and I visited Nile at home one evening to offer support. I was just twenty and...

A Picture’s Worth: Learning from Looking at Photographs with Judith Kitchen

Four years ago I attended a class, “Worth 1,000 Words,” taught by essayist and critic Judith Kitchen, who passed away in fall 2014. At the time, Kitchen was finishing a book that had grown out of a collection of family photos, and she was interested in talking about how photographs and text relate on the...

Line Breaks: They’re Not Just for Poetry Anymore

As someone who writes both poetry and prose, I’m often (okay… sometimes) asked to talk about the difference between the two. Over the years, I’ve played around with all kinds of lofty pedagogical answers (firecrackers versus bottle rockets, making a long story short versus making a short story long, etc.) but really, I think it...

Writing Trans Characters

When I was in my early twenties in the early part of the aughts, I gravitated towards anything with a transgender character. Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the bizarre zombie flick and Guitar Wolf vehicle Wild Zero, The Kink’s “Lola,” Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild...

A Balancing Act

As a memoirist, I often write about my family. I don’t worry too much about offending the people I write about for one simple reason– they’re dead. When you die, you lose the chance to object to what people say about you. I don’t know if I even could write as candidly as I do...

Write Like a Cow: On Taking Craft Cues from Your Subject

In her chapbook The Cows, Lydia Davis begins with the promise of drama: Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play. They amble out from the far side of the barn with their rhythmic, graceful...

Beyond Beautiful: The Significance of an Objective Critique

“Beautiful.” If I had $10 for every time I heard this word during my first MFA residency, my full tuition for the residency would be back in my bank account. Beautiful. This word, which I reserve for something unique or rare, something that makes me take pause from life, was assigned to just about every...

The Shared Space Between Reader and Writer: A Case Study

I often teach classes on the form of the “hermit crab” essay, a term Suzanne Paola and I used in our textbook Tell It Slant. Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide,...

Going Cold: Writing Emotion, the Earley Scale, and the Brilliance of Edwidge Danticat

In a scene that is central to Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, eighteen-year-old Sophie Caco’s mother guides her gently to her bedroom and “tests” her for virginity—with a finger, just as Sophie’s grandmother tested the mother and her sister every week. It’s an invasion that shatters Sophie’s sense of boundaries and will make her...