Craft Essays

Craft Essays

In our Craft Section, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction, while Randon Billings Noble defends “themelessness” in assembling an essay collection.

In Defense of Themelessness

Must an essay collection have a theme? “Theme” comes from the Latin word thema, which in turn comes from the Greek “proposition.”  A proposition sounds right. An essay proposes. It suggests. It tries and tests. It might argue, but counterarguments are addressed, even encouraged. An essay is not entirely set. It proposes, and the reader answers. Must an essay...

Genre as a Vessel for Presence

Fiction and nonfiction form poles at either end of a long continuum, and our work can slide fluidly along it. Here’s how it feels.  A voice begins to speak inside your head. Sometimes it talks about things that have actually happened to you; sometimes it conjures imagined creatures uttering strange things. Sometimes it sounds like...

The Vein of Jade: Restraint in Nonfiction

A mountain overlooks the Missouri River in Montana near Helena, and that mountain is called Mount Jessie by some, especially by those related to a woman who died in 1968 and whose ashes lay scattered on the mountain’s peak. Her parents owned a general store nearby, and when she was a girl she named the...

Chasing Our Elusive Voice

My writing partner of ten years was frowning. “The voice,” she began. “It’s formal and distant.” She stared at the manuscript I’d slaved over for months. “I can’t explain—it just seems off.” My friend had struck my literary Achilles’ heel. Voice is an aspect of writing craft I’ve struggled with for years. One of the...

The Diptych as Short-Form Memoir

In the Middle Ages, devotional paintings rendered on two hinged wooden panels—known as diptychs—were used to depict religious scenes for meditation and contemplation. Portraits of Madonna and Child were common, as well as important biblical stories, like the Virgin birth or Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion. Many diptychs were created on a small scale so they...

Schizophrenia, Dandelions, Cookies, Floods and Scabs: Alternate Approaches

We are trained from earliest age to be linear thinkers.  The world, we are taught, has a beginning, a middle and a conclusion. My toddler son ran to me, excited: “Mama, I made a story!” “Yes?” “One upon a time. There was. The end.” We read narrative obedient to the “upside-down checkmark” (tension, climax and...

Picturing the Hybrid Form

My mind speaks through drawing – a perk of painful childhood shyness. Afraid to talk, scared of crowds, I stared at paper and doodled until a comprehensible universe formed on the page. Doodling is still my escape route away from awkward human interactions. As an adult, I applied my compulsion to draw to creating hybrid-form...

Paynes Gray: When Watercolors Become Words

I’d gone and fallen in love with the wrong man. Said my mother. She hadn’t met him yet, but there were facts. He was Salvadoran (not my country), Catholic (not my religion), a subway-tunnel singer (I shouldn’t have mentioned that), an architect who would rather be an artist. (What sensible daughter marries a rather-be artist?)...

White Space: An Annotation

Every essay begins with white space. White space is the essay entitled “Essay” looking for its opening line, the writer looking for the new way into her old material. White space is the slit in the body marked “Self.” # White space is a possibility. The writer sorts herself. Pine needles on a sidewalk so...

Beyond Perhapsing: “Split-Toning” Techniques for Speculation in Nonfiction

When I teach nonfiction, one of my favorite essays to reference is Lisa Knopp’s Brevity essay, “‘Perhapsing’: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction.” During my MFA program, Knopp’s essay was prominent in my thoughts as I learned how to read and write “invented” spaces—places where imagination and speculation must be added to flesh out meaning....

The Ethics of Empathy: Techniques for Portraying Antagonists in Contemporary Memoir

How do memoirists manage the ethical problem of writing about their antagonists? Writers who examine real places, events and people face risks that warrant thoughtful consideration before publication. As poet and memoirist Judith Barrington notes, “We have a right to tell our stories, but not to blunder into publication without a thought for the consequences.”...

Transforming an Essay Collection into a Memoir

A year-and-a-half ago, I wrote a craft essay for Brevity about being a literary late-bloomer and finishing my first manuscript, an essay collection about my relationships, in my forties. In the piece, I said I was “done” with my book. Since then I’ve received encouraging feedback from agents and editors, but no solid bites. Over...

Capturing the Numinous: Mary Karr’s Sacred Carnality

When I want to pay attention, I make bread. The dough feels like skin against my own, drawing my focus as something to be attended and held. It demands lifting and patting; it asks to be placed on a bed of flour and coaxed it into a loose loaf, shaped and smoothed and weighed in...

The Mental Load: Honoring Your Story Over Your To-Do List

Facebook has this quiz—you might know it—“14 Fun Questions to Ask Your Child,” and because I was supposed to be doing something else, I turned instead to my five-year-old son, and we proceeded down the list. When I got to number thirteen, “What do your parents do for a job?” my son hesitated. “Well, I...

Eight Variations on the Idea of a Sentence

after Paul Gruchow in memory of Brian Doyle 1. Is it just that I like the sensation of my skin snagged on those sentences, the breathless anticipation of what he’ll do, the next “sharp sentence where the dagger enters your heart and the essay spins on a dime like a skater, and you are plunged...

Zooming In [Draft by Draft]: The Narrowing Lens of “Stranded”

for my father The summer I turned six, I sat on the stinging concrete of our driveway in Lubbock, Texas, with a pair of new roller skates and a book about skating (I don’t remember the title—Amy Learns to Skate?). While my father mowed the backyard, I laced up my white skates and opened the...

Come On In: The Writing’s Fine

I stared out my writing-room window, watching our yard transformed into a meteor crater. Enormous piles of dirt lined the edge of a twenty-four-foot wide, two-foot deep circular hole. The Bobcat had tracked a swath of sand across the yard to the fence. It was a beautiful mess. Two months ago my spouse and I...