Tangled in Too Many Details: Katherine Gries on the Brevity Essay

March 15, 2010 § 4 Comments

Katherine Gries’ gripping essay “Not Like You” can be found in the most recent Brevity, Issue 32.  Here, she discusses the process of writing a short-short nonfiction essay:

Yes, he went to prison. He spent more than twenty years incarcerated for this and other crimes, his conviction based partly on more than twenty hand-written pages of details that I remembered from the three hours I spent with him.

I started writing this piece as a personal essay for a journalism class. With a much higher word count, it seemed to ramble, veering off into a lament of facts and statistics: I was 22 years old and this was the third time I had survived a stranger rape; every two minutes, an American woman is raped; more than seventy percent of rapists know their victims, so why was this happening to me? I didn’t want my decades-old emotions to clutter the story. I became tangled in too many details. I abandoned the draft and turned in something else.

When the “write an essay for Brevity” assignment came up in my memoir class, I had an “Ah-ha” moment. The short-short genre demands attention to pacing, and slashes anything extra—coincidentally, the way I felt when these scenes were taking place, or in any emergency. You breathe. You move. You do what is demanded. You survive. And the short-short genre reduced a particularly heinous situation to precisely what it has become: a few paragraphs—not a chapter—from my life.

My thanks to Laurie Lynn Drummond (University of Oregon) for her belief in and support of memoir.

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§ 4 Responses to Tangled in Too Many Details: Katherine Gries on the Brevity Essay

  • Christine says:

    Amazing piece. The brevity works. And your explanation is beautiful, especially the part about it being reduced to a few paragraphs – and not a chapter – from your life.

  • Tim Elhajj says:

    Three times? Holy cow.

  • John Swope says:

    When one of my beginning creative nonfiction class selected and presented this piece to her classmates a few weeks ago, the initial response was complete silence. As the students began to examine the technique of the piece, they pointed to the precision of the focus and the precise details. Thanks for giving them such a great example of extraordinary creative nonfiction.

  • Eleanore Kenny says:

    Katherine, I’m stunned. Your story and editing are outstanding. Someone else asks, Three times ?!? How is this possible ?

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