A Reflection on the Writing Life: Shawna Yang Ryan on Thomas Farber’s Brief Nudity


Brief Nudity, Thomas Farber, Manoa Books/ El Leon Literary Arts

Brief, from Old French brief, in turn from Latin, brevis, this via breve, note, dispatch. Nudity, noun form of adjective nude, from Latin, nudus, plain, explicit. In 1997, I enrolled in a writing workshop that was to profoundly change my relationship to writing. In this class, I learned about the author’s obligation to be precise, to use the full range of tools at her disposal in terms of language, knowledge, and experience—to hold nothing back.

The workshop instructor was Thomas Farber—UC Berkeley professor, Guggenheim recipient and author of 22 books and chapbooks—whose most recent work, Brief Nudity, is out in May from Manoa Books/El Leon Literary Arts. The writing in Brief Nudity exemplifies the lessons of precision and honesty that I found in Farber’s workshop. It is a nonfiction exploration of a writer’s life as he goes through the contents and stories of the cottage where he has lived for thirty years. However, the book is more than memoir (in fact, the book is written in third-person, which it turns out, surprisingly, can be more intimate than first-person). The book is also a reflection on the writing life, on words, on love, on life and on death, but in Farber’s characteristically unsentimental and meticulous style. Farber is a writer who takes nothing about language or the contrivance of storytelling for granted. In fact, there are frequent asides in which Farber offers up the etymology of a word to look at it anew or stops to examine the roots and meaning of a cliché. Such a technique encourages the reader to assume a sort of dual consciousness—one mind in the story while the other reflects on what language gives and the choices the author makes in telling his story.

The setting of the cottage (“white with blue shutters and trim…gabled roof, unenclosed wood eaves, bay window, clapboard siding….”) is intimate. Story arrives as time passes, and the world seems to move through the cottage: from salsa partners to aspiring young writers to lovers who stay for days or years. This is life, understood through story:

At sixty-one…the writer’s finding it harder not to see that his life will end; when he’s gone, someone will have to deal with what he hasn’t taken care of…. Under the eaves. The writer is trying to put his house in order. But if he does that, what will remain? For people like him, or can it be for him only, might packing it up be synonymous with packing it in?

What can a life contain? In 164 pages, Farber offers up the complexity of life in words that are bone-achingly precise, lovely and clean, with an erudition that makes one weep for other writers:

Morning. Synonyms, antonyms, homonyms/homographs/homophones. Categories as if never not grasped from infancy on in a home where language was play, shield, art, weapon. For example: wrest, rest, rest. Wrest: wrist; wrestle. Rest: No rest for the weary. I rest my case. Laid to rest. But also, with no suggestion of repose, the rest of my life.

Brief Nudity is a master class for anyone who wants to write.


Shawna Yang Ryan is the author of Water Ghosts, out in April from Penguin Press. She currently teaches at City College of San Francisco