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

Shawna Yang Ryan on Zachary Mason’s novel Lost Books of the Odyssey

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Starcherone Books

A few years ago in the midst of my Mandarin studies, I began to explore Tang poetry.  I discovered that a mere 20 characters could contain whole stories, elaborate scenes, emotion, action, place, and history: movement embedded in the lack of prepositions, allusions compressed into a word. Tang poetry is in a way ungrammatical, which allows the reader as Chinese literature scholar Wai-Lim Yip says “a unique freedom to consort with the objects and events of the real-life world.” Yip describes the poems of Wang Wei: “The poet does not step in, but, rather, he allows the scenery to speak and act itself out. It is as if the poet has become the objects themselves” (72). Tang poetry also has a sense of timelessness; without a western sense of grammar or perspective, all objects on the page occur simultaneously. The art is both compressed and expansive.


In the winner of the 2007 Starcherone Fiction Prize, Zachary Mason’s gorgeous debut The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I found a similar sense of the compressed and expansive, of timelessness. In 46 chapters, each a story both self-contained and intimately linked to the others, Mason switches between points-of-view and narrators, unpacks and expands moments of the original, and re-imagines stories with a clarity that consumes the reader.


The book could be opened at random, a finger dragged along the page and any line chosen would exemplify the beauty of Mason’s writing; it is, appropriately, its own best example as we see from the chapter ‘One Kindness’:

Within, three women sat around a snapping fire. The shadows on the wall behind them were the blurred silhouettes of sweet maiden, stout matron and bent crone, but as the firelight flickered the shadows took other forms—a long armed ogre with grasping hands, a bird of prey with unfurled wings, a net with glass floats (their iridescence gleaming on the rough rock walls), or, sometimes, nothing at all. (35)

Mason evinces freedom with the entirety of language, archaic and modern are at his fingertips. In one line is maiden, matron, and crone—not only does each word telegraph strong and distinct connotations, but the order relays a transformation of sound that reflects the sliding through stages represented by the words’ meanings. Further on we can admire the visceral textures of the line that mentions net, glass, gleaming, and rock.


And yet The Lost Books of the Odyssey yields up even more, because what Mason has crafted is not only a gem of the cleanest, most precise lines but also a work that expands into meta-fiction—of riddles, stories within stories, stories that create infinite loops, and stories blossoming out of cracks and silences.  Incidents are revisited, rewritten, the same story told again and again in a way reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. After awhile, one’s memory of the original Odyssey and Mason’s version begin to bleed together, and one loses the sense of what was original knowledge and what is new. This is a book that can be appreciated on many levels: as compelling story, as heartbreaking prose, and as intelligent and playful commentary on the act of storytelling itself.



Shawna Yang Ryan is the author of Locke 1928, a 2007 Finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Locke 1928 will be republished in 2009 by Penguin Press.