Peak Moments

October 19, 2007 § Leave a comment

Lisa Groen Braner wrote the Soundtrack for Brevity 25, and this meditation on brief nonfiction:

The challenge of brief nonfiction seized me first out of necessity, then out of delight.

A few years ago, in a tiny terracotta room, I wrote a book for new mothers. I set my alarm for five-thirty every day and wrote until my children woke up, usually at seven. Just enough time to sketch a 500 word essay, write a draft, or revise one. Fifty-two short essays later, a book small enough to fit in a diaper bag was born.

When your audience (and author) works all day with small children, when overtime and sleeplessness are de rigueur, brevity works. A book daunts. A single essay enchants.

Still, the challenge of brief nonfiction is the compression. Everything extraneous must fall away. Like a poet, the short nonfiction writer must distill an idea, story, or memory to reveal its peak moment. Short nonfiction that succeeds carries an epiphany or emotional punch. Like Debra S. Levy’s piece entitled “Jackpot,” when she reveals in her very last sentence the truth about her mother. Or in John Calderazzo’s “Lost on Colfax Avenue,” when he recounts his own disorientation while watching a blind man struggle to find his way.

In my lyric essay “Soundtrack,” I navigated briefer territory than usual. A lyric essay is a nonfiction subgenre between essay and poetry. It’s mosaic in form and attempts to reveal an emotional truth beyond constructed narrative. No segues or transitions. Just as songs on the radio rouse specific memories, I leap from one shard of my life to another, ending close to where I started—a memory of my father.

I began writing short nonfiction out of necessity. And now, though my children sleep through the night and go to school all day, the flexibility and creativity of the form still delight me.

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