On “Kathy” and Brevity

May 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

300_129513Richard Gilbert gives us some thoughts on his Brevity 30 essay Kathy and on the narrative choices forced by the short form:

“Kathy” begins and ends with some moments in the first meeting between my father and my future wife. How to convey enough backstory in 750 words for readers to understand their significance? In the body of the essay I showed more of Kathy’s background than my father’s, since readers must know her better to appreciate those moments. I’d decided to focus on Kathy because I knew I wanted to write toward the inscrutable image of her that closes the story.

The events and flashbacks in “Kathy” may pack more wallop than they do in my memoir’s forty pages that cover the same material. For one thing, the opening and closing scenes—my father showing her his high school yearbooks and his meeting us at the airport—appear in different chapters. I used those two related events to frame the essay, one as a hook and one as the climax. The opening depicts my father doing something uncharacteristic, seeking my girlfriend’s approval. The ending flashes back to when he spotted Kathy at the Orlando airport and what he noticed that made him conclude she was like him. I might quibble with the label my father attached to himself and Kathy, but it would take many pages to show why and to probe all subtext in their encounter. The Brevity vignette shows Kathy’s and Dad’s essential natures emerge, catches his point of view, and preserves some of their encounter’s mystery.

The old lesson “Kathy” underscored is that we can’t stop thinking about the stories most worth telling because we can’t fully understand them. They resist reduction. Such stories surely intrigue readers and stir their imaginations, reminiscent of their own enigmatic memories.

I tend to explain things to death, and “Kathy” liberated me. It thrilled me how closely to its resonant core I could pare the narrative.


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