Dream Catchers: On Writing the Brief Moment

February 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

April Monroe’s thoughtful reflection on the short essay form and her brief essay The Potato Harvest in Brevity 31:

One of the reasons I have been a longtime reader of Brevity is because size, at least in literary nonfiction, matters to me a great deal. Short-short nonfiction has always been a very natural genre for me both as a reader and a writer. In many ways this quickly leads to vast literary disappointment, as there are very few places to publish or read, and writers of brief nonfiction are rarely found on the best-seller list. But despite the pitfalls, it remains my favorite form. As a reader I find it to be more accessible than poetry, but it still has the arch that I crave in stories and essays. And, more than anything, I believe it is the most honest nonfiction around.

The discussion on what truth is and where creative license becomes deception has been had ad nauseum, and I cannot offer anything new to that dialogue. What I can say is that I believe telling the truth is the obsession, goal, and persistent quandary of all nonfiction writers, and that I found my best answers in short-short essays.

In one of the first writer’s workshops I ever participated in, the ongoing advice for every piece I turned in was to “make it longer.” Of course, most of the young and uncorrupted writers in the circle of desks under the always-throbbing fluorescent lights said it more eloquently: “let it bloom,” or “I feel like this story is trying to be a poem,” and sometimes more straightforwardly: “this is weird,” or “You could never publish this.” As a consequence, I spent a great deal of time figuring out how to elongate essays. Sometimes this was great – necessary, even. But other times, I was left with the feeling that every word I added was a movement away from what I was trying to write in the first place – the truth.

Sometimes the most moving, altering moments of life are in fact only moments. Sometimes they are not destined to be novels, essays, or memoirs. Sometimes, there is no bigger picture. There is only the truth, and all that I know of it barely reaches the two-hundred word mark. My essay “The Potato Harvest,” which appeared in issue 31 of Brevity, is a good example of such a time.

I would rather write about anything, anything at all, than write about my children. The enormity of the undertaking, the likelihood of blundering into cliché, and the added difficulty of writing with absolute honesty when my children are my subject matter scares me. Every word is a mountain. “The Potato Harvest” is, to date, the longest piece I have written about one of my children. It is quite brief, but to me was a large accomplishment in the art of telling the whole truth. The particular poignant morning that inspired the essay was the kind of moment that reaches us at our core, but when it has passed, seeps out of our mind like a complex dream. For me, short-short essays are the dream catcher that those moments get stuck in, and the only way I have found to capture them and put them into writing.

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