Vulnerability is Strength

The most important thing writing has taught me is this: the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the stronger you become. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. It sounds like bullshit. Here’s the thing: you can’t change the past, but if you can face it, both the present and the future will shift. And it’s...

Writing the Animal Other: Beyond Anthropomorphism

Some of my earliest writing advice was to beware anthropomorphism. Whenever an animal flew, stalked, or swam into an essay, I’d receive that warning at least once in any critique. Having come to writing in middle age after experiences as a naturalist, park ranger, field biologist, and graduate student of ecology, this happened often. Early...

Good Noticing: A Whole-Body Strategy

Several years ago, I took a beginning mindfulness class. It was held in a sad room in a hospital: no windows; buzzing fluorescent lights; uncomfortable plastic chairs. But I loved our instructor. She was probably in her late forties, with long russet hair and thick bangs that almost covered her eyes. When she sat in...

Here’s Looking at Me: Lessons in Memoir from Self-Portraiture

Conveying ourselves as characters on the page is tricky business, like expecting a butterfly to pin its own wings. As James Hall explains in The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, when Montaigne put pen to paper, he referenced those who had put brush to canvas, citing King René of Anjou: “I saw…King Francis II being presented...

House as Home: Writing the Places That Raised Us

Childhood was rooms and doors, gaping lace in open windows, potted parsley in yellow kitchens, splintered floorboards, buckled carpets, the bug-zapper sound that the basement light made when your father pulled the string, and then that tube of violet light abuzz over his box of tools. Childhood was place as much as it was people,...

Odd Objects: In Praise of the Wunderkammer

No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible,your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.—John Maguire The world is too big today, so I close my pandemic journal after I’ve made my notes for the day, and head to various mudlarking Twitter accounts, marveling at the clay pipes, Roman pottery,...

Writing in Persona: Language, Lipstick & a Mirror

My mother kept a large wicker basket, the size of a trunk, filled with what she called dress-up clothes. There was the red accordion-pleated organza dress my mother wore to prom, a couple pairs of what we called ‘princess’ shoes, a collapsible stovepipe top hat that my father had inherited from his father, pirate eye...

Run Your Essay into Shape, Dance or Drum It Free

Two months after I began an MFA program, deep in a pandemic winter, I fractured my ankle. “A chunk of bone came off when you tore the ligament,” said the emergency doc, looking at the CT scan. “No running for a few months,” said the physio. Excellent. Running is how I self-medicate out of low-level...

Speak Your Writing to Life

What might happen if you read your memoir aloud as if talking to a therapist, or your personal essay as if jogging on a treadmill? What might an unexpected whisper or pause bring to your novel or poem? A few years ago, I developed a “Speak Your Writing to Life” workshop that uses improvisation, theater...

Writing the Community “We”: Approaches to First-Person Plural Point of View

Memoir is typically a first-person singular affair—the intimate story of a particular childhood or adolescence or other slice of life. But first-person plural, which I’ll call the community we after Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s suggestion in Tell It Slant, can create what they call “community” or “communal” memoir and can convey the experience of...

Experiences of Disability: Our Guest Editors in Conversation

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Editing this Brevity special issue, Experiences of Disability, has been an interesting process that reminds us of the power of language and the privilege of publishing. Can you both talk about why you initially wanted to edit this special issue, as well as the ways the emergence of COVID-19 and our current...

Everything Has Changed, but Craft Still Matters: Lessons from a Top Travel Editor

When editor Lavinia Spalding started reading submissions for Volume 12 of The Best Women’s Travel Writing (BWTW), forthcoming in October 2020, she couldn’t know that a pandemic was on its way, one that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives and make travel problematic, if not impossible. She also couldn’t anticipate the cultural upheaval and...

A Memoir Takes Its Place: A Conversation with Rebecca McClanahan

In 1998, with a sublet lined up but without jobs, Rebecca McClanahan and her husband left North Carolina and moved to New York City. They were well into middle age. (“Isn’t that backwards?” asked one of McClanahan’s nieces. “Don’t most people go to New York when they’re young?”) Expecting to stay for two years, they...

Out of the Iron Cage to Swim

When I think about the writers whose prose makes me groan with gratified envy, Virginia Woolf leads the posse. In her company are Annie Proulx, Sylvia Plath, Anne Enright, Peter Orner, Tania Hershman, and more. This “worship” of writers are stylists, and their sentences sing to me, letting me know that my own scrabbling in...

Circus Act

“How’s that circus of yours?” my father said, and it took me a minute; I paused. It’s this thing we do now—the conversion, the switch, me replacing his nouns with my nouns. Sounds like, looks like, could be— “You mean the book?” I said, in my aha voice. “The picture book with the girl at...

No Ideas but in (Beautiful) Things

Like so many writers I know, my writing-self grew up on “show, don’t tell,” a maxim that demands sensory details and descriptions, action, scenes, and showing, and cautions against too much summary and backstory, exposition, and telling. Unfortunately for me, the advice show, don’t tell! written in the margins of my early attempts at creative...

Nancy Drewing the Essay: A Guide to the Literary Expedition

When I was first introduced to the creative essay, I was gobsmacked. An essay provides the perfect vehicle to explore the self while prying open the larger world. I’ve used the form to wonder and wander my way through topics as wide-ranging as class and gender ever since. It was a match made in genre-heaven....

What Do You Care About? How Compassion Leads to Dynamic Writing

Language is alive. The written word does not sit inert on the page, black symbols on a white background. It reverberates with the intangible of the human experience—suffering, love, pain, self-seeking, self-sacrifice, indifference, generosity— and also concretizes human experience. Literature rises above the anecdotal to meld the intangible with the concrete. How the writer manages...