November 27, 2017 § 5 Comments
Brevity magazine is now available to Chinese readers thanks to a translation project undertaken by Tong Tong, a graduate student at Boston College, and Yumeng Yao, an MA student at University College London. The literary translation team is posting essays from Brevity‘s 20th Anniversary Issue two-at-a-time, using the Chinese social media platforms Zhihu and WeChat.
For Chinese readers, Brevity will go under the name One Leaf. Tong Tong explains the reasoning here: “We intend to translate ‘Brevity’ into ‘一叶 yi ye’ in Chinese. Its literary meaning is ‘one leaf,’ and it’s an abbreviation of a Chinese idiom ‘一叶知秋,’ which means that one can sense the advent of autumn via the changes on one leaf. We think that it shows the power of brief writing. In addition, it is a homophone of ‘一页,’ which means one page of paper. We hope you like this name!”
We very much like the name, and we are happy to share the first three postings, including the editor’s introduction to our 20th Anniversary Issue:
“On Turning Twenty”: https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31011523
And these essays:
Ira Sukrungruang’s “Invisible Partners”:
Rebecca McLanahan’s “The Birthday Place”:
The Ten-Year Wake by Sue William Silverman:
The Shape of Emptiness by Brenda Miller:
Anniversary Disease by Diane Seuss:
What Bad Owners Say at the Dog Park by Lise Funderburg:
And here is a bit more about our translators:
Yumeng Yao graduated from Kenyon College with a history and Asian studies double major. He is currently attending the MA history program at University College London. He enjoys reading about early modern East Asia, wandering on the streets, and going to Cat Café.
Tong Tong is an MA student in English at Boston College. Interested in short stories, essays and modernist novels, she looks forward to working in translation and publishing and to bridge the gap between Chinese culture and the English world.
Many thanks to Ton Tong and Yumeng Yao for helping us expand our readership.
November 1, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Here at Brevity, we’ve known Michael Perry — humorist, radio show host, recidivist memoirist, volunteer firefighter, and intermittent pig farmer — for more than twenty-years, before he wrote his first wonderful memoir, Population: 485- Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. He graced Brevity early on, back when we had around ten readers, with his essay “Boat People,” and, shucks, we just love the guy.
And now he was written the alarmingly thoughtful (but still funny) Montaigne in Barn Boots and we thought, “Geezus Weezus, let’s interview him already.” So we did:
1. Do you entirely believe Montaigne? You fill the readers in on his extreme wealth, the constant tutoring, and the trailing zither players, but does knowing of this extreme privilege ever lead you to doubt his sincerity? I mean, really, the guy was a prince.
In the main, I don’t doubt his sincerity. But he must still be read through a lens that corrects for parallax.
For starters, there is no getting around the fact that he was an uber-privileged rich male European dude. He was furthermore, as the excuse and epithet has it, “a man of his times.” There was mitigation in the fact that his wealthy father chose poor villagers to be Michel’s godparents, and then sent him to live in a small cottage with paupers for the first few years of his life. This didn’t likely do much for the peasants and comes with its own set of problematic assumptions, but the fact remains that his father wanted him to confront his privilege, and take that privilege into account when dealing with others. That he shouldn’t be blithe about it. This is reflected in much of Montaigne’s writing, and some of his insights outside of his class are powerful, including the way he addresses ethnocentric bigotry in his essay “On Cannibals,” and how he used his experience as a judge to write bluntly of how little hope those trapped in poverty have for true justice. So, yep: Super-privileged, but capable of useful self-examination. None of this means you’d have wanted to be his manservant. Or his maid.
Montaigne also openly admitted his honesty had practical limits. That you can’t serve princes and tell only the truth. Others have noted that for all his self-revelation, he tends to describe personal faults that place him in the lovable goofball category. More troubling things may have been left in the dark. But even this tendency I have tried to leverage, for instance, by writing about my comical absentmindedness in contrast with the fact that for my wife, the cumulative effects of my behavior are not comical at all. There is no punchline.
I also believe–and hoo boy am I under-weaponized and in over my head here–that he never completely showed his hand regarding the Catholic church. One gets the sense that he was covering his bases.
- As you mention in your “Shame” chapter, Montaigne once wrote that “our life is part madness, part wisdom.” Is that still true in the age of Trump, or has madness finally won the day?
Well, I’ve lately been reading Voltaire, and he fashions a frame that fits a little too easily around our daily news. It seems we are deep into the golden age of gas-lighting. I come from blue-collar roots. Tend to kick my foot in the dirt and be all diffident. Properly so, in most instances. But there’s a huge gulf between being ignorant (as I am, to great depth, and across vast expanses) and proudly ignorant. I love big ol’ pickup trucks, but they wouldn’t be the same if some European polytechnic math whiz hadn’t worked out that whole turbocharger thing. I dunno. I know what it is to be condescended to in certain artful circles because I deign to pay half the mortgage telling cow jokes. But the effects of anti-intellectualism are insidious and currently flowering up in big fat rot-blossoms. That’s why I spend time in the book exploring the great debt non-academic me owes the academy. Sticking up for the perfessers. It’s so hard not to sound preachy, and I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime. But lately–including this week down at the fire hall–I have taken to reminding some of my buddies, “Them founding fathers we all hear so much about? They were farmers who studied French philosophy.” In the end, I don’t know if madness has won the day, but what Montaigne teaches me is I’ll be double-damned if I’ll let it win me.
- Do you think Montaigne, if he had been born in rural Wisconsin, could have raised chickens?
In fact he did have chickens. And pigs. Alain de Botton reckons Montaigne’s frankness about sex came from watching barnyard critters doing it (Mr. de Botton would want you to know that is a paraphrase, not a direct quote). Key difference is, I doubt Montaigne cleaned his own chicken coop. Speaking of rural Wisconsin, it is a pinnacle achievement of my literary life that the cover of the book features the great philosopher/essayist wearing a blaze-orange ear-flapper cap, standard issue around these parts come late November so as to keep you from being shot by some rifle-toting roughneck mistaking a sixteenth-century philosopher for a deer.
- The book is funny, of course, because that’s who you are, but to be honest, I was surprised how spiritual it became, and in the end, how positive. It made me feel as if I could be a better person. Were you surprised as well?
I was raised in an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect. These days I’m a bumbling agnostic with traces of amateur existentialism. I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, I’m just lookin’. But despite where I’m at now, and despite the profound misrepresentation of Christ’s spirit and intent by those who wield the Gospels like a cudgel dipped in spit and fear, my “fundamentalist” childhood was filled with love, peace, songs, and joy. These were (and are) people of charity and humility. So my enduring yearning for spiritual ties doesn’t come as a surprise to me. It’s always there. I’m just wary of where it leads, and how much good it does in the face of all the blow torches and barbed wire. And that tricky bit where faith transmutes into an abdication of responsibility for our neighbors, or for that matter, our own behavior. Or the behavior of our leaders.
In the book I quote former Black pentecostalist Ashon Crawley on the joy black gospel music still brings him, and I quote Bill Friskics-Warren on how Johnny Cash navigated his own contradictions of doubt and belief, of rectitude and misbehavior. Even when we leave our faith–even as we wallow in our contradictions–we trail the threads of that prayer rug. Even if I no longer buy the whole program, I am open to the idea of my insignificance. To the hope of being lifted up by something bigger, something purer, something more timeless, than I. In the end, even this ragged spirituality is a form of hope, and as grim as I find things to be, I want to fight for hope to the very end. Even if it’s only making one more ambulance call. Or sticking up for one more persecuted person. Even if I’m throwing cotton candy at a steamroller.
September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Emily Franklin chose to lengthen her 2005 essay, “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland.” The results are below. )
By Emily Franklin
1) Where is D., my first love, first sex? Armed with vague notions of where I could find D. I type in his name with the same trepidation I had a decade prior when I’d called him at his hotel in London and we’d met for a curry and kissed like we were trying to rewind. Remnants of my teen aged heart aflutter, on the screen I weed out the genealogy sites, the porn. What am I looking for? Old love? Myself? No. Just to be able to picture D. as an adult, in his life now. White pages produce an address, but divulge no details. Ideally, I’d stumble onto his wedding announcement complete with photo of the bride (would she look like me? Have a familiar name, or fat thighs?).
2) Ponytailed and perky with her be-ribboned shirts and banana-seated bicycle, A. once called me a Kyke though later, after her father forced her, she apologized and admitted she didn’t know what the word meant.
I learn D. is married, that his sister is still childless, that his parents had relocated to North Carolina. All this I ascertain by way of his mother’s obituary, whose face I cannot recall. Just that she wrote to me after D. broke up with me (on the phone, the night before the SATs), that her sons called her Fred for no good reason, that she smelled of syrup, that she died young. In suburban Connecticut my first love lives without his mother, the funeral held on his birthday.
Locating A.’s whereabouts requires no filtration. Her unusual last name is highlighted on the screen on the first link. She is now a gossip/society writer for a glossy Hollywood magazine. With her head tilted to the right, her publicity photo is remarkably similar to the second grade school picture I unearthed in an old journal; Fair Isle sweater, hair straight and gleaming, eyes ahead; sure.
3) T.’s letters to me were crammed with confetti, fishing lures depronged, Hershey’s kisses with their paper inserts rewritten to reveal grotesque or funny fortunes. Our summer group of girls met for the last time in Atlanta in 1988, swapping jeans, smoking Camels, nursing one girl back to health after her hidden abortion. There was pot, beer, a drummer with long hair, some pizza place in Little Five Points where we clustered and hugged, already missing each other. T. stood off to the side, heavy-mouthed and forever pushing her eyebrows against the grain. “I want them to go the other way,” she explained when one of the girls nudged her.
Finding T. takes minimal effort. Her father, a well-known Canadian actor, has passed away and articles about his life and family are abundant. One grammatical error keeps showing, however: survived by son named T. When I locate the same misattributed pronoun in each piece, the truth clicks. Then, the website. T. is now an artist, and a male, and – in his words (and isn’t this what we hope to find of our search engine queries?) – happy.
4) What am I searching for – photos, yes, background, my inner-investigator enjoying the private eye excitement? But maybe what I wonder is if people can change. Perhaps that’s the unsaid impetus – are you the same person you were when I knew you? Am I? Are you living the life I might have predicted? Am I?
And – here’s where the heart-racing-finger-hesitating-on-the-contact comes in – should we still know one another now?
5) Back when I wrote this, you got two, maybe four links. Sufficient. Now the same search is twelve pages, 3,120 results. Does this give a better sense? Maybe. But the reasons for searching haven’t changed, haven’t improved. If I search for D. it’s still because I want confirmation he’s alive. And, more honestly, I want to scratch the itch of wondering if I am still the best thing that ever happened to him, if he would regret dumping me over the phone the night before the SATs. If he remembers hooking up in a hotel room in London years later, if that remains sweet for him. But of course these are not items one can source. For the writer, it leaves me to narrate the spaces in between.
And spaces are important. People worry about forgetting. I worry about remembering. The soon-to-be-lost art of forgetting, the gentle receding of old flames and glorious trips and trauma in the rear view mirror.
When we log on, we are Jacques Cousteau, diving for vampire squid, blob fish, dumbo octopuses with their odd-cute faces and ear-placed fins. We are excavating other humans and our pasts. But what do we gain by knowing? Are we better for tethering each past (relationship, comment, job, moment, selfie, purchase, pain) to us as we navigate the now?
The mind was built to remember what it needs. Googleland prevents the natural discourse between now and then, holding on and letting go. We know we are losing – our ability to recall lyrics from that song you Frankenstein-style danced to in 8th grade, our knowledge of bird species or geography or how to get from one place to another without being told and directed. We hare shifted our lives from this land to Googeland.
6) The truth is that T. did not want to be in touch. Even though I wrote a heartfelt letter and wanted to know him as he is now. And D. dumped me and probably never looked back (or maybe his wife looked for me on-line just to see). And the anti-Semitic fashion-forward girl in the Fair Isle sweater? She’s nothing but kind, and happy to consider pieces for her hug glossy magazine.
Here is the truth: we think we want to know everything. Here is the other truth: we really only want to know some – and quite often, not even that. As the world opens up, we have to give ourselves permission to undo, to lose touch, to fade and to forget. To embrace the deep-sea darkness of the unknown.
Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, as well as seventeen novels for young adults including Last Night at the Circle Cinema named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her work has been published in The New York Times, and numerous literary magazines, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She lives with her spouse and four children near Boston.
September 21, 2017 § 4 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. William Bradley cut his 2010 essay, “Julio at Large” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by William’s reflections on the process.)
By William Bradley
One summer day my dad came home with the newspaper in his hand. “Do you know this girl?” We had been in the same homeroom when we were middle school students and had taken ninth grade history together the previous year. “She’s missing,” he said. “Her parents think she was kidnapped.”
Of course, she hadn’t been. I imagine deep down, we all knew. So when we learned two weeks later that she and her companion—a boy who hadn’t been reported missing—had been charged with indecent exposure, having sex on a beach in Florida, I think many in the town sneered, called her a slut, thought she was damn lucky to not be prosecuted for her sinful behavior.
This was rural West Virginia in the early 90s. Conservative Baptist country. Most everybody knew—just knew—that girls like her were trouble.
I didn’t really “know” this though. I wasn’t a Baptist myself; nor was I a conservative. I was just me—weird, anxious me. I didn’t want to judge her, but I was kind of scared of her. Sex as a concept terrified me; sex on a beach seemed unthinkable.
I didn’t see much of her after she returned. We started our sophomore year in the high school, where the homerooms were not arranged by alphabet and she was no longer taking the same classes those of us who were college-bound were taking. And I moved away that November anyway. Decades later, I would try to look her up online—Facebook, Google, Twitter—but she was gone. Vanished again.
We were never really friends. Now, 25 years later, I just remember us as kids who sat near each other in sixth grade homeroom, kids who giggled sometimes. That, and the last time I recall seeing her, sophomore year when I usually didn’t see her at all. I was walking through the school parking lot one morning, and I saw her standing beside a car, smoking a cigarette, a behavior that was only recently banned. We made eye contact, and I almost said hi to her. But she frowned, narrowed her eyes. Ready, I think, for a fight over whatever I said to her. I just looked down and kept walking.
William Bradley’s Thoughts:
It occurs to me only now, over seven years later, that when I wrote “Julio at Large,” I was really attracted to the idea of youthful rebellion, of refusing to follow the rules, of sneering and proclaiming one’s own status as both anti-Christ and anarchist, as Johnny Rotten shrieked (before he became a fan of conservative control once again called Lydon—and honestly, before a lot of parents of “kids these days” were even conceived). I was in my mid-30s and working at a private college that seemed to become more regressive and disdainful of its students on a weekly basis. I think on some level I had begun to romanticize the idea of fighting the power, raging against the machine, or in some other way telling clucking adults with sticks up their asses to mind their own damn business. I knew by then that I was a sell-out and a square, but I was still young enough to have a silent respect for kids who refused to do as they’re told. And in most ways, I still do.
But thinking about Julio all these years later, I wonder if I actually wrote the thing correctly. I mean, it did what I wanted it to do at the time, but when I think about that story as a middle aged man now, I’m struck not by Julio’s coolness, but the cruelty she must have endured. Why did she decide to run away from home? It might have been for fun or passion or something else we’d romanticize. It might also have been something darker—an abusive parent, maybe, or a manipulative older boyfriend who could drive when she couldn’t and must have had an interest in public sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend.
Of course, the goal was never to write her story. I lack the knowledge and the right to claim that I can. My hope was to write the story of my response to what I thought I knew. So in that sense, I know it succeeds. At least partially. Because the truth is, these days I don’t really think of Julio’s coolness—I think of the sadness I imagine she might have lived with. Again, I know very little about her, really. But the memory that comes to my mind now is that final scene in the parking lot. Her obvious anger when she saw me. Although we had never had a hostile exchange, it seemed like she had come to expect cruel confrontation after her return to our town. So rather than think about how cool I thought she was when I was a frightened 14 year old boy, I find myself reflecting more on how sad I think she was—or at least, might have been—now that I’m a 41-year-old man.
William Bradley is the author of Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. William passed away in August 2017 and he is greatly missed.
September 19, 2017 § 5 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Shane took the challenge himself, cutting his brief essay “Icky Papa Died” from 2009 down by more than 200 words. The result is below, followed by Shane’s reflection on the process.)
by Shane Borrowman
I was relieved when my great grandfather died.
I learned, a year too late to celebrate, that he’d been buried beside my great grandmother—in a grave unmarked and expected to remain that way.
No one would spring for a tombstone.
A horse-thief-turned-burglar-turned-forger-turned-rapist probably can’t expect better, even if he is family.
The last time I saw him I was twelve, and he was standing stolidly in his white gravel driveway, asking, “Are you mad at me? Your mother sure is.” I nodded, dropping an armload of brightly colored books into the trunk of my parents’ red Volkswagen.
He was remarrying. No one was anything but mad at him.
Thirty years after I nodded my answer, I discover his prison records.
“His picture,” I say over dinner and around a mouthful of steamed broccoli, “was right on top of the file. Didn’t look anything like him.”
Elizabeth shrugs, doesn’t point out that the picture is of a thin boy, while the great grandfather I remember was sixty-five and fat and liked to push his thumb into the bottom of pieces of chocolate to glimpse the filling, leaving a sweet smelling cardboard container of violated candies no one would eat.
John is three, sits to my left, knows I’m going to make him eat broccoli before he leaves the table. As I speak of family and criminal records, he furrows his brow and asks, “What papa?”
A simple grammatical structure for a complicated question. I chew, consider answers. John can’t grasp that my father is his grandfather; this discussion is already nothing but abstract genealogy.
Elizabeth steps in: “This papa died a long time ago.”
“He got dead?”
I nod. Because I’m an English teacher, I almost never correct my son’s grammar, even when it’d be a good way to change the subject. John immediately shares his new knowledge across the table with his twin sister, leaning from side to side to see around the collection of salts and spices that serves as a centerpiece: “Hey, Sam! The Icky Papa died!”
I notice that “got dead” has become “died” and that my great grandfather has gone from being an abstraction to being an icky. He was icky, yet my instinct is to defend him.
“Honey,” I might say, “We don’t call people icky. That’s not nice.”
I can’t correct John because he’s right and because I smiled when I learned that Chips was dead.
“Honey, eat your broccoli.”
At bedtime, I spin the story of Terry Troll, bridge builder in my Kingdom of NeverEverWas. John stops me: “Daddy? The Icky Papa died?” His voice is filled with anguish that hurts deep in my chest.
“Were you mad?”
My knees pop as I stand. “No, I wasn’t mad.”
John rolls to his side, faces the wall, falls asleep with his arm over the battered orange and green cover of Go Dog Go. I watch, feet planted solidly on the graying bedroom carpet
Shane Borrowman’s Thoughts:
In May of 2009, I published “Icky Papa Died” in Brevity 30. It wasn’t the first text I’d ever written about my great grandfather, but it was the strongest over time, an essay that still chokes me up when I read it aloud (most recently at a Spoken Word Festival in Dillon, Montana). That original essay came in, by my count, at 704 words.
I’m shocked, in retrospect, that I didn’t cram in exactly 750 words. I write short…but I don’t tend to be a writer who can resist one more line of description, one more adjective or adverb, when the space exists for it. Maybe a new sentence fragment.
Late in 2016, as the contributors who join me here worked, I returned to “Icky Papa Died” with the intention to halve the text, the intention to cut those 704 words down to a slim and trim 352. To drop the middleweight down to a welterweight without losing any punching power or stamina.
I could only bring “Icky Papa Died” down to 491 words—a reduction of only 213 words. Worse, I think I did almost irreparable damage to the essay’s foundation. The new, slimmed-down essay seems, as I read and re-read it, to lack context, to lack meat on the bones of its story, to lack, well, power.
There are moments where I like this new version of that old story better: “John is three, sits to my left, knows I’m going to make him eat broccoli before he leaves the table” has a nice flow to it, better than the slightly longer original, which took 25 words and two separate sentences (as opposed to 20 words in a single sentence—not a huge change, but a good one).
But those moments are rare in this new iteration of “Icky Papa Died,” and with the exception of these limited points, this new essay lacks the poetry of the first.
It’s still got a good opening line, though…
Shane Borrowman is a professor of English at the University of Montana Western, where he teaches classes in nonfiction, the history of technology, and zombie cinema/literature/gaming. He is author, editor, or co-editor of eleven books, including Mistakes Were Made: Reflections on Being a Mediocre Father, Trauma and the Teaching of Writing, Authenticity, and Rhetoric in the Rest of the West. His current writing focuses on the intersection of family, memory, and the collapse of copper mining/smelting in southwest Montana.
September 14, 2017 § 7 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Steven Church took his very brief essay “Lag Time” and doubled it in size. The result is below, followed by Steven’s reflection on the process.)
by Steven Church
It doesn’t thunderstorm in the Central Valley of California. Not like the apocalyptic storms from my memories of home, where my father still lives. We’d watch those storms roll in from the southwest and they’d settle in and sit over our town of Lawrence, Kansas, their whole weight pressing down on us, often dumping rain for days on end. I remember driving once through a hailstorm, and the insanity of ice stones the size of golf balls, pounding onto the roof, sounded like the end of the world.
I still listen for thunderstorms at night here in Fresno when the sky half-promises, hoping for something big, but they rarely deliver the noise I need to take me back. They rarely cause me to question reality and memory. But the locals still latch onto them, often asking, “Did you hear that thunderstorm last night?” to which I’ll often answer, “That wasn’t a thunderstorm,” with the same incredulous disdain that Crocodile Dundee used in his iconic line, “That’s not a knife.” If I could, I’d conjure up a Kansas blade and say, “THAT’s a thunderstorm.” But every now and then, grey-blue clouds pregnant with electricity will drift through our valley, dropping their tendrils of lightning, and I’ll think again of lag time and loss. As I write this, it is almost May 16, an anniversary my family doesn’t celebrate; and here in the Valley we are perched on wayward edge of spring, still clinging to the last wet and cool remnants, before we tip irrevocably into the relentless heat of summer–that time where weather ceases to exist here and is replaced instead with the weight of air measured in pollution counts and particulate matter.
My father used to say: If you count the time it takes between the flash of a lightning bolt and its noise–If you time the lag, Dad would say, you can tell how close you are to the lightning. My brother and I often lingered in the pre-storm with him, standing in the front yard during tornado weather, watching a green-soup sky boiling with clouds, pulsing and churning like an ocean overhead. We’d stand there with our neighbors, dwelling in the pause between cause and effect. All of us gazing at our potential demise, counting intervals between what was and what will be. And if there is an objective measure of a “split second” it would have to be close to the time between the flash of intimate lightning and the sound of its ear-stunning crack, a noise that tingles up from your toes, and ripples through your belly—a sound the body hears before the ears, a sound that shakes your foundations; or maybe it is similar to that time I sat on the porch swing at the lake where I lived in college, and heard the lodge dinner bell ring itself, the clapper vibrating like an ear-bone, a split second after a flash and lightning strike to the metal tower; or the time between a blue racquetball’s jump off the wall and the sound of its impact; or the gap between when your ear hears a noise in the house at night and the second your brain registers it as normal and safe (the sound of a dog’s dreaming whimpers, the metal rattle of the refrigerator) or something different, maybe dangerous (the wheezing croup cough of your baby, the jiggling of your front doorknob, or just a simple phone call in the middle of the night); or perhaps a split second is a more subjective measurement, the kind of tiny gap where I lose myself again and again in memory. A split second is perhaps a divide, a liminal space where physics and family overlap. It’s how long it takes for everything to change, how long it takes to remember what is missing. It’s the time it takes for one world to end and another to begin. Untethered by time, longing for storms, I want to drop this loss into the hundreds of miles of distance between my father and me, as if it will fall and keep falling until it disappears or dissipates into the void. But the loss never leaves. It is always there between us. I wish I could let go of the ringing, the jiggle of the doorknob, the hand on my shoulder, waking me up; wish I could forget that rip in my father’s voice over the telephone twenty-five years ago, and that interminable pause after the words rolled out, It’s Matt. Your brother. There was an accident, and just before the crack of the plastic phone settling into its cradle, because in that lag, that brief second between what he said and the impact of what it meant—your brother is gone–it was possible that things would always sound the same between us.
Steven Church’s Thoughts:
It’s perhaps interesting to note that the original version of “Lag Time” began as one segment in a much longer braided essay titled “Ultrasonic,” that focused on racquetball, blue noise, physical transcendence, escape, and worries over the health of our unborn child. It was an outlier, a segment that pulled the reader out of the main focus of the essay. I hadn’t, at that point, mentioned my younger brother’s death, and so it was a clear case of a “darling” that needed to be killed. Except that it didn’t want to die. It wanted to LIVE! And to exist on the Brevity site. And to grow up from a little 411 word essay into a ‘big ol’ 800-something word essay. It was interesting to try and revisit the essay and to expand it without compromising the economy of the piece. Mostly I tried for some added clarity, but without telling the reader everything; and clearly I’ve tried to focus more on weather and thunderstorms early on. I’ve had a couple of readers tell me they didn’t know that my brother had died after they read the piece, and I realized that it’s not totally clear that’s the case. I guess I wanted to “fix” that with revision as well.
Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals and the forthcoming collection of essays I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood. He also edited the forthcoming anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School. He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School and he Coordinates the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.
September 14, 2017 § 7 Comments
Guest Editor Shane Borrowman’s introduces The <750> Project, wherein he asks past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it:
I begin things badly. First lines come to me both slowly and unnaturally, and I admire most those writers whose talents lead them to strong opening lines:
Norman Maclean’s “The day I was born, as I was to be often told, my father gave me a dog for a birthday present. Very early in life, then, I was to learn about the power of odd coincidence, because my dog turned out to be a duck dog and my father turned out to be a duck hunter and evidently, at least in my infancy, I did not resemble a duck and the dog did not give a damn about me” (“Retrievers Good and Bad”).
Caroline Knapp’s “It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out” in the prologue to Drinking: A Love Story, and Joelle Fraser’s “I wake up in December and I’m twenty-six and married and living in Spokane, a city that spreads over the dry prairies of eastern Washington like a slow burn” (“The Dive Bar Tours,” perhaps the finest braided essay in the memoir The Territory of Men).
All memorable, powerful lines that set memorable, powerful stories in motion.
Because I begin badly, I gravitated toward the short form naturally and early in my writing career. In 750 words, there’s not room for a weak first line. The whole thing has to get rolling immediately, or it’s not going anywhere. Like a punch, the short form has to fly with strength, straight from the shoulder, straight from the start, or it won’t have any effect when it lands.
The <750> Project began in the summer of 2016, and the idea hit me like a whistling roundhouse, probably one thrown by a lefty, since I don’t seem to have ever learned to effectively block my right side. It started as I was driving between Twin Bridges and Dillon, singing along with The Gaslight Anthem and thinking about my great grandfather’s prison record. I’d written about him in Brevity and had shared the essay with students many times, sometimes talking to them about how I’d write the essay, “Icky Papa Died,” differently, if I had the chance. I began to think concretely about what I’d write if I took that essay and made it longer. Or shorter.
And the idea for The <750> Project hit. Hit so hard I’m surprised it didn’t leave a mark.
I turned down the music. Woke up my wife. Asked her to write a few notes so the idea wouldn’t escape. As soon as I got near a computer, I emailed Dinty. He emailed back. We kicked the idea around, did some fine tuning as we worked through other projects and their attendant deadlines, finally landed in September of 2017.
We invited four Brevity authors to return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it. No one turned us down. No one asked why such modification mattered, and we gave no directions beyond our word-length request. This willingness to dive headlong into such a nebulously-defined task only confirmed the fact I’d suspected, along with thousands of other readers and writers, since 1997: Brevity writers are awesome.
Ann Claycomb returned to her essay “WQED, Channel 13: Programming Guide,” from Brevity 31, with the task of making the work shorter, while Steven Church took “Lag Time,” Brevity 33, and built 411 words to 806.
William Bradley trimmed “Julio at Large” (Brevity 32), as Emily Franklin’s “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland; Results of My Top Three Searches” (Brevity 18) expanded from just over 500 words to north of 1000.
And as these writers returned to their work with an eye towards adding or subtracting, they also reflected on their situation, on their process for revision and the rationale for their inclusions and deletions in what were already fully-formed, fully-functional, fully-successful essays.
These four authors have walked a line simultaneously fine and fuzzy as they embarked on The <750> Project, retaining the stories they shared in Brevity‘s pages without losing the poetry and power as the work either stretched or contracted. It’s no easy task to return to something originally built short and to make it shorter or longer.
I know. I tried.
Shane Borrowman is a professor of English at the University of Montana Western, where he teaches classes in nonfiction, the history of technology, and zombie cinema/literature/gaming. He is author, editor, or co-editor of eleven books, including Mistakes Were Made: Reflections on Being a Mediocre Father, Trauma and the Teaching of Writing, Authenticity, and Rhetoric in the Rest of the West. His current writing focuses on the intersection of family, memory, and the collapse of copper mining/smelting in southwest Montana