Sarah Einstein and Silas Hansen

Brevity’s Special Issue on Experiences of Gender examines through multiple lenses our strongly-held beliefs about what gender is and what it means, featuring authors such as Kate Bornstein, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Sandra Gail Lambert, Deesha Philyaw, and Torrey Peters.

Our guest editors Sarah Einstein and Silas Hansen discuss how they use the issue in their creative writing classrooms and offer a writing exercise specifically focused on helping students to identify conflict in their own lives.

Sarah Einstein on Teaching the Essays:

Brevity’s special Experiences of Gender issue offers an opportunity to use thematically linked essays to discuss the multiplicity of craft techniques that can be used to explore individual, but interconnected, experiences of identity. Silas and I worked to curate a selection of essays that would “shine a light on the intersections of gender and race, sexuality, disability, faith, and social class, interrogate our strongly-held beliefs about what gender is and what it means, and show us how to embrace and celebrate gender fluidity.” In doing so, we also curated a collection of essays that provide a number of models for writing essays in which deeply personal, interior experiences are rendered accessible on the page.

When I teach this issue, I often start with Alex DiFranscesco’s craft essay, “Writing Trans Characters,” focusing on their admonition that “there is no such thing as ‘the trans experience’.” This is, of course, true of all experience: each of us exist in the world in our own, very specific way.

I like to group the essays together to discuss this. How, for instance, does the discursive voice of Brian Doyle’s confessional essay “Mea Culpa” differ from the collage of first-person narrated vignettes in Mark Stricker’s “Recesses?” Both Sandra Gail Lambert’s “Sex Objects” and Cade Leebron’s “In the Company of Others” begin in the plural first person; how does this collective voice function specifically to tell stories of shared experience, and where do these authors sheer off into first person to demonstrate where and how the experience becomes theirs alone? What is told by “we” and what by “I,” and what do those shifts signify? How does the second person narration in Madison Hoffman’s “Genderfuck” and Ira Sukrungruang’s “After the Hysterectomy,” in which the “you” is the author’s past self, differ from the second person narration in Jody Keisner’s “When You Knock on the Door at the Suburban Inn,” in which the “you” is the reader? Each creates a different sort of intimacy. How are these intimacies achieved? And how does Torrey Peters’ “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay,” made up entirely of the voices of other people, push against intimacy in favor of bearing witness?

These examinations of voice and point are good jumping off points for student work on essays that engage with identity.

Silas Hansen with a Writing Exercise:

When I teach these essays–and others like them–I’ve found that students become more conscious of the ways in which internal conflict can be a starting point for an essay–but they still often have trouble seeing these opportunities within their own lives. Thankfully, I’ve found a writing exercise that is perfect for getting students to think about these intersections, to help them figure out what conflicts or tensions might be worth exploring.

I start by having students create three lists. I like to set the timer for a little longer than I think they’ll need (about 3 minutes for each list, depending on how long we have), as the best ideas often come in the last 30-60 seconds, when they think their list is complete.

First, they list identities that they could claim. I encourage them to think about both traditional identity markers like race, gender, socioeconomic class, and religion, as well as things like the roles they play in their families, friend groups, or other communities: for example, are you an oldest sibling? The class clown? The one who always has bandaids and Tylenol? Students have also thought about things like astrological signs and Myers-Briggs types when those are relevant to how they see themselves.

On the next list, students are asked to think about communities to which they belong. I ask them to consider ones that they currently belong to, as well as ones that they have connections to, and formal communities like hometowns or a specific church or an online writing group, as well as more informal communities like “the LGBT community,” ethnic groups, faith traditions, etc.

Finally, students create a list of interests, beliefs, and values that are central to their lives. These should be things that influence the choices they make, particularly ones with financial, moral, and/or interpersonal stakes: how they vote, where they spend money, what they buy, how they spend their time, how they treat other people, etc.

Once students have three completed lists, I ask them to look at them side by side and identify the moments of conflict or tension, similar to the ones we identified in the Experiences of Gender special issue essays: being torn between multiple communities like the narrator in Eunice Tiptree’s “One Thing or the Other” or the tension Brian Doyle explores between who the narrator was in the past vs. who the narrator is in the dramatic present in “Mea Culpa.”

I ask them to consider questions like: Does their membership in one community make people in another of their communities uncomfortable? Do they see a conflict between one of their central/core beliefs and the beliefs of the other members of a community to which they belong? Have they ever had to choose between two or more items of their lists—eg, their membership in one community barred them from being a member of another? Even if they don’t see a conflict, do others see one?

When they’re finished, they have a list of possible essay topics that would easily lend themselves to experimenting with the techniques they admired or found to be particularly effective in the example essays.


Sarah Einstein teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015) and Remnants of Passion (SheBooks, 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other journals. Her work has been reprinted in the Best of the Net and awarded a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

Silas Hansen’s essays have appeared in The Normal SchoolColorado ReviewHobart, and elsewhere. He’s the nonfiction editor of Waxwing and directs the creative writing program at Ball State University.