Teaching Brevity: Pennies in My Pocket
September 15, 2017 § 13 Comments
By Amy Monticello
All my life, I’ve been drawn to singular things. Returning from a trip to Italy in my twenties, I brought only one bottle of wine from a private vineyard I knew I’d never visit again. I love charcuterie boards with their assortment of tiny, ephemeral delights. I had one high school boyfriend, one college boyfriend, and one husband with whom I have an only daughter. As a young pianist, I once fell in love with a piece of sheet music called “Light Amethyst” in a practice book my teacher gave me. From its first notes in D-major, that melancholy scale, I felt possessed by the story I heard the music telling. I memorized the piece so well, I can still play some of it over two decades later. I played “Light Amethyst” to the detriment of other music—in some ways, it was the piece that undid me as a musician, a piece I loved so much that nothing could lure me away from it.
Over time, I’ve learned that singular love is merely representative of the world’s possibilities, that to love one thing is proof that I can love infinite others. But my affection for the small and self-contained remains. This is why, as an M.F.A. student, I became enamored of the flash essay. This is how I found Brevity.
“I’d like to see all of you write a piece that could be published in Brevity,” our workshop professor, Lee Martin, once told us. He was not the kind of teacher to issue publication challenges. He was not the kind of teacher who thought the drive to publish was particularly good for the practice of writing. What he meant by his wish was that each of us in that nonfiction workshop could eventually write a 750-word essay that could satisfy the reader just as much as some of the 20-page essays we’d discussed in class. To learn how an economy of language forces choices of essentiality. To reveal the emotional “turn” at the end of the essay, as Lee called it, without sacrificing complexity.
It was a challenge that took me six years to meet. My work was rejected from Brevity at least five times, but the essay finally accepted, “Shame,” is still the piece I send to people in my non-writing life when they ask to see something I’ve written.
Now a writing teacher myself, I can’t think of a class I’ve taught in the last eight years where I haven’t used a Brevity essay. They are inexhaustibly useful, providing wholly digestible examples of expository writing from personal narrative, to literary journalism, from lyric essay to imaginative forms of cultural analysis appropriate for both creative writing and first-year writing courses. They are short enough to read aloud in class so that we can feel the language in our mouths, track the moves of inquisition, and trace the spine of story. I’ve often begun class with a Brevity essay as though offering my students a piece of currency to spend however they wish that day.
Matthew Gavin Frank’s “A Brief Atmospheric Future” has become my go-to piece for introducing the braided essay in my creative nonfiction workshop. From the same Issue 51, I’ve taught Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Some Childhood Dreams Really Do Come True” to open discussions of genre—what is the difference between a flash essay and prose poem? What are the challenges and opportunities of creating in liminal spaces? Amy Butcher’s “Eight Quarters” shows the command an essayist needs of both situation and story—the situation of visiting a once-beloved friend in prison, and the story of fearing the monstrousness within our loved ones, within us all. And then there’s Jaquira Diaz’s “Beach City,” and the intimacy of its young characters trying to find permanence in a place of transience: “We were the faraway waves breaking, the music and the ocean and the heat rising rising rising, like a fever. We were bodies made of smoke and water.”
But if I had to single out one lesson that Brevity has allowed me to create, it would be the lesson on using a collective voice in creative nonfiction. Fittingly, the person whose work inspired this lesson is the same person who introduced me to the journal: Lee Martin. His genre-defiant essay “Talk Big,” from Issue 41, speaks in the “we” voice of working-class men living in downtrodden conditions. “We know who we are—the lowlifes, the no-accounts, the pissants, the stumblebums,” Martin writes. “All liquored up. Ten foot tall and bulletproof in a going-nowhere-fast town in southeastern Illinois.” As the essay tells us the story of a second-degree murder that takes place outside a rough-and-tumble bar in that “going-nowhere-fast” town, it uses the voice of the place to describe both the men’s desperation to survive, and their resistance to admitting “how close we are to dwindling down to nothing.”
“Talk Big” opens up possibilities for new points of view in creative nonfiction besides the veritable “I.” It relies on the fact that an essay’s narrator is often representative, speaking on behalf of the groups to which that narrator belongs, and thus uses a group voice instead of an individual one, right down to the language: “So we keep talking. Pissed off—bat shit crazy—talking big, big, big to tell ourselves we’re alive, to convince ourselves we’re still whole.”
I like to pair this essay with another Brevity masterpiece, Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology,” published in Issue 44. Sukrungruang’s essay, too, describes a group experience. A clique of Thai-American boys, to which the narrator belonged as a child, ostracizes another Thai-American boy who wishes to be part of the group. “You were a boy after all. So were we,” Sukrungruang writes. “But boys are cruel with neglect, crueler than the violence our hands are capable of.” The essay builds on Martin’s use of the collective voice—Sukrungruang’s narrator retains an “I” point of view, but positions himself as part of the group of boys with the heavy use of “we.” Even more interesting, the piece itself is an epistle: It’s written to the ostracized boy, who, the narrator learns, eventually hanged himself many years later. I love the fluctuation of “I,” “we,” and “you” that explores our constantly shifting positionality—our relationships to others, to our cultures, and to ourselves.
In short (but not quite Brevity short, for this post already exceeds the maximum length for an essay in the journal), I carry Brevity essays into the classroom like pennies in my pocket. They are all worth the same, but the variation astounds: some are brassy, some glisten with the high sheen of newness, some have the build-up of history on their faces, and some have been manipulated by other forces—run over by trains, fingered into metal-softness, grown over with a lattice of dirt or rust. Each of them a singular accomplishment, and yet all sharing the same constraints. Each of them individually powerful and instructive, but all part of a single journal’s unforgettable vision.
‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here (we’ll update the links as we post the other entries over the next two weeks: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Amy Monticello is the author of the nonfiction chapbook Close Quarters (Sweet Publications). Her forthcoming collection, How to Euthanize a Horse, won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize in Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brevity, The Iron Horse Literary Review, The Rumpus, Brain, Child Magazine, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, and a regular contributor at Role/Reboot.