What a Way to Start an Essay

January 19, 2018 § 6 Comments

categories22Some first lines from our brand new issue, to entice and intrigue you:

I awoke to my mother’s weeping and walked over the jail bars’ shadow the Venetian blinds made on the kitchen floor.  Beverly Donofrio

Our friend Shana… her… father… well, she wasn’t born yet. But her father won a live monkey at a drive-in movie. Jack Pendarvis

In the country of my mother’s birth, miracles and sloths keep to themselves. Traci Brimhall

Imperceptibly, the white pine has grown so tall no one can see what’s happening up there. Fleda Brown

Because I used to stare at Mendy Frankl’s Adonis curls in statistics, because I had a pair of silver boots from Baker’s I got on clearance for $14.99 and Sharpied them to near-extinction, because I dreamed of being the kind of girl who had a red high heel on the end of a keychain, as if that were really even a kind of girl, I sometimes felt sad. Temim Fruchter

When I tell you that my mother’s father was born in a Siberian prison, I’ll remind you that was because his parents were perhaps exiled as retribution for political acts. Or simply because they were Jews.  Jessica Handler

You know how you find yourself in the kitchen and you can’t remember what you’re doing there so maybe you put your hands on the cold sink and look out the window but it doesn’t help? Abigail Thomas

 

 

 

 

 

Writing While Mothering: That Sometime-y Feeling

January 17, 2018 § 14 Comments

feliciarosechavezphotoIn our new issue, Felicia Rose Chavez takes a deep look at the “invisible managerial responsibilities” that ensure her family and home runs smoothly, how this impacts her as a writer, and how her gender responsibilities lead her to thoughts and worries such as:

“I’m a writer, but not the real kind, not like my playwright husband, who works every day even if our son is crying or the refrigerator is empty or the throw blanket is askew. He can jam out pages at the kitchen table as though he were staffing an executive desk, unaffected by the sapping need all around him, the everyday-ness that wanes my woman’s mind into a slip of something remembered, another item on tomorrow’s to-do list.”

And

“I’m always choosing. Which mental load is it today? Man the kitchen table and forgo the rest, knowing that if I choose writing over housework, I’ll suffer the physical manifestation of my to-do list, evidence that I’m a bad wife, a bad mother, a bad Chicana? Or else forgo the writing and suffer the heat-hot psychological cargo of golden stories burning bright?”

Chavez has learned that she has to fight to allow herself space on the page.

How does it play out for you?  Let us know in the comments below.

Brevity’s January 2018 Issue is Here

January 16, 2018 § 6 Comments

11-FruchterBrevity is pleased to present the first issue of our third decade, featuring work from Beverly Donofrio, Jack Pendarvis, Abigail Thomas, Temim Fruchter, Jessica Handler, Fleda Brown, Heather Sellers, Jeff Gundy, and a rich array of other outstanding writers, chronicling pine trees and gar, the mud and the gravel, the creek and the trees, and the endless peculiarity of the human experience.

Also, three brilliant craft essays: Chelsey Drysdale examines how a writer transforms an essay collection into a memoir, Felicia Rose Chavez asks why so many wives and mothers feel like a “sometime-y writer,” and Annelise Jolley captures Mary Karr’s sacred carnality.

We’ve just turned 21.  Feel free to buy us a beer.

 

 

Brevity in Chinese Translation: Welcome to ‘One Leaf’

November 27, 2017 § 5 Comments

one_leafBrevity 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”:

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31011526

Rebecca McLanahan’s “The Birthday Place”:

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31011527

The Ten-Year Wake by Sue William Silverman:

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/KE8QSQCU7PazUwpFYft4Fw. (WeChat)

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31205977 (Zhihu)

The Shape of Emptiness by Brenda Miller:

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/7JehzNpp1LG3akUjMX32xQ. (WeChat)

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31206160 (Zhihu)

Anniversary Disease by Diane Seuss:

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/kZuUgwAnV0iMMgBwAP8j-A. (WeChat)

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31424634 (Zhihu)

What Bad Owners Say at the Dog Park by Lise Funderburg:

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/XyNh2l1G2ZUEFJzbIye7Lw (WeChat)

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31424698 (Zhihu)

Louie’s New Truck by Emry McAlear:

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/bkdvB7U-lkbnq6zmkMYMwA (WeChat)

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31889904 (Zhihu)

Wishbone by Marilyn Abildskov

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/MlJl09sz8YtMq-kZWnEMRg (WeChat)

https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31889897 (Zhihu)

Abandoned by Bob McGinness
Good Faith by Lee Martin

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.

With Montaigne in Barn Boots

November 1, 2017 § 5 Comments

51Vyw7TsPCL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_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.

  1. 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.

  1. Do you think Montaigne, if he had been born in rural Wisconsin, could have raised chickens?

photoIn 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.

  1. 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.

 

 

 

The 750 Project: Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland

September 26, 2017 § 2 Comments

750(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.

8329-for web and email

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.

 

The 750 Project: Julio at Large (Revisited)

September 21, 2017 § 4 Comments

750(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.

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wbradleyWilliam 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.
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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 SalonThe Mary SueUtne ReaderThe Bellevue Literary ReviewInside Higher EdThe Chronicle of Higher EducationCreative NonfictionBrevityFourth GenrePassages NorthCollege English, and The Missouri Review. William passed away in August 2017 and he is greatly missed.

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