Category Archives: essay-concise

A new manual for flash nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore. Rose Metal Press, 179 pp.

They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work the little money coming worked out well
C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

—Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell (Teenage Wedding)”

When I was in school I hated creative writing exercises. They were just diversions from what I wanted to write. Now that I’m a teacher I see their great value and wish more teachers had made me use them. They surprise the planning mind, which may be cunning but struggles to soar. So for my classes now I peruse my growing file of other teachers’ exercises or hunt inside Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis.

Before a prompt I like to play a catchy story song—for instruction and inspiration—because songs are so structural and so compressed (I make sure the students are holding a printout of the lyrics in their hands as they listen).

Now comes Dinty W. Moore with more helpful prompts in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. It joins the Press’s guide to flash fiction, a genre that, Moore notes, stimulated short nonfiction efforts as it expanded in the 1980s. In his helpful historical overview Moore defines concise creative nonfiction as that of up to 2,000 words, though most is much shorter, 500 to 1,000, and 750 is the upper limit he’s set for his own journal, Brevity. His new guide features exercises, thoughts, and tips by masters such as Lia Purpura, Lee Martin, and Sue William Silverman, as well as their own published essays.

Here’s Purpura’s twist on the usual read-aloud advice:

I have found it clarifying to read my essays-in-progress in environments that are wholly different than the environment in which they were initially drafted. In this way, I reconstitute the sense of essay-as-letter, even if it’s addressed only to myself and is in its infancy. Take an essay you’ve been working on and read it aloud to yourself in a fresh place. Reading in the car at a red light allows for an urgency of hearing, and a close, fast, focused, intensified listening. Reading in a coffee shop (best if it’s in another country) allows for a form of intimacy created by ambient, atmospheric bustling—that sense of being happily on the sidelines. Reading a work-in-progress in a library, a space of enforced silence, can make the encounter feel different, too: almost chatty, in a private, slightly secretive kind of way.

As a writer I’ve found concise essays fascinating and challenging. They lend themselves to at least starting with prompts. In their imperative to make every word count, they underscore the affinity between poetry and creative nonfiction. Like great songs they often begin in media res and set in motion whole worlds in readers’ minds. While pulling off a publishable piece is as hard as for any form, they foster a freer and freeing approach. Writing that feels like cheating? That lightens one’s heart? Give me more.

And for anyone, success is apt to start in low-stakes exercises like those in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. You never can tell.

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Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, essay-concise, experimental, fiction, freewriting, MFA, NOTED, REVIEW, teaching, education, working method

Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.

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Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-classical, essay-collage, essay-concise, essay-expository, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, humor, immersion, journalism, memoir, research, REVIEW

A nifty concise essay

David Bailey—magazine journalist, restaurant critic and worker, foodie and barista, knockabout North BaileyshoesCarolina writer, and my friend—has posted a delightful concise essay, “Daddy Needs a New Pair of Shoes,” on his blog, My Pie Hole. It’s a ramble, with visuals, voice, and flow. A taste:

“I’ll admit that the kitchen dress code was easy to comply with: t-shirts, white sox, black pants and black shoes. The shoes were a trifle irksome, though. One pair admittedly looked a little worse for wear — and leaked, especially when you stood at an industrial dishwasher for eight hours or when you waded around in a pool of duck fat that you had just helped to spill. . . .

“Why spring for an expensive pair of chef shoes, I wondered. Instead I switched to my venerable dress wingtips, witnesses to any number of funerals and weddings. In a way it was a gesture of optimism.”

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“Kathy” and Brevity’s blog

I have a guest post on Brevity’s blog discussing the narrative and structural choices I made in my essay “Kathy,” published recently by Brevity. I first analyzed the piece here, and so with the Brevity blog exegesis—not to mention this notice—I have now written more words about the essay than are in the essay itself.

I could go on. Which gives me the notion that writers might begin the practice of publishing essays that comment on their essays, books that explain brevitylogoxxand emend their books. Nonsense, you say. I say: look at the popularity of directors’ commentaries on DVDs. I wager that many readers would skip the book and read the “writer’s cut, with commentary.” It’s coming, and you read it here first.

The ostensibly blameless part of my motive for writing about my essay is the hope that it might help a few teachers teach “Kathy,” just as I was helped to teach Marcia Aldrich’s Winter 2008 Brevity essay “Not a Good Day for Planting Root Crops” by her explanation on Brevity’s blog.

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Filed under editing, essay-concise, essay-narrative, memoir, narrative, revision, structure, teaching, education

“Kathy” in Brevity

Distilled from an essay of more than twenty pages and part of another of that length, my essay “Kathy” appears in the May 2009 edition of Brevity, a journal of concise nonfiction. Essays for Brevity may not exceed 750 words and are compressed wonders, caught moments, life’s puzzles, shining nuggets fetched tumbling from a brook. I’m proud to have work in this company!

“Right before her high school senior photo, Kathy took her mother’s sewing contrast-flowerspondblogscissors and sawed off her long brown hair—it was hot on her neck in the fields. Mary, mortified, begged the photographer to do something, and he dabbed brown paint on the picture. The yearbook showed a girl wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses and an uneven pageboy that looked like Joan of Arc’s dented helmet. A layer of baby fat still softened her cheeks, but her composed smile—a young intellectual’s nod to the world—wasn’t warm enough to distract a viewer from the intense inquiry in her eyes.”

The last sentence in that passage is punctuated differently in my parent essay: “A layer of baby fat still softened her cheeks, but her composed smile, a young intellectual’s nod to the world, wasn’t warm enough to distract a viewer from the intense inquiry in her eyes.”

I now think  those parenthetical dashes in the Brevity version are too obtrusive, not as smooth as the commas. (Any votes? I’m  interested.) Punctuation affects tone: a friend now editing a piece for me just pointed out that I’d gone on a semicolon bender. She believes in using semicolons sparingly in creative nonfiction since they are more “talky” than vivid by nature. Incidentally, Scott Fitzgerald is a master of dashes and semicolons in The Great Gatsby. Consider their elegant use in this gorgeous passage from the end of the novel:

“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled to an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

My sentence that bugs me aside, I feel  “Kathy” just clicked in its brief version and affirms that good stories resist summary. “Kathy” is about a connection at their first, historic meeting between two people I love. Depth calling to depth. The Brevity vignette captures this encounter without unnecessary backstory or impossible explanation. There was something  both perfect and elusive about the incident and my reaction to it.

One friend who test-read the piece for me hated it; she said it had no theme and didn’t add up to anything. She’s a gifted editor, but in this case I knew she was wrong. The stories we can’t stop thinking about our whole lives, the ones most worth telling, remain mysteries.

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Filed under editing, essay-concise, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, narrative

Dinty W. Moore on concise nonfiction

The writer, and editor of the journal of concise nonfiction, Brevity, was interviewed by Mary Richert as part of her nonfictionist series odintyn her blog No Titles:

“I think certain experiments, with language, point-of-view, structure, work better in the short form.  Very brief essays are like a petri dish for innovation.”

“. . . [T]he lyric, almost ethereal essay as opposed to the highly journalistic ‘article’ –   are both nonfiction, and nonfiction that allows creative choices on the part of the author . . .  But fiction has this range as well: fiction includes the child’s board book and the highly formulaic western, and all of the literary genres and sub-genres, including the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino.”

“I think any story can be set as fiction or nonfiction (though of course, the nonfiction story must be limited to the honest facts, memories, and observations, and the fiction author can , and should, allow the imagination to add and enhance).   Maybe the difference is with the author — some authors need to explore an experience, idea, or question in one mode while others need to explore it in a different mode.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-concise, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, honesty, journalism, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, structure