Flash Essays as Fireworks
May 5, 2023 § 2 Comments
In our May issue of Brevity, fresh this week, Leslie Jill Patterson uses examples from Brenda Miller, Jenny Boully, Erin Murphy and other flash writers to explore how micro-essays are like “a single bloom that bursts then swells into meaning, unfolding while we read.”
Extending on her fireworks metaphor, Patterson writes:
Lately… I’m attracted to flash essays that act like ghosts—firework shells that contain multiple peonies that burst in layers, each subsequent flare seeming to appear from nowhere. How, I ask myself, do writers generate ghost narratives—a turn we didn’t see coming, an unexpected destination?
You can read more of Patterson’s analysis of essay endings that burst and swell and see examples of the effect here: Ghost: The Flash Ending That Appears from Nowhere
Brevity Reading Period to Close in Two Days
April 28, 2023 § Leave a comment
Brevity’s reading period for general submissions and also for our special issue on Transgender Experience will end on April 30th, giving our brilliant assistant editors time to catch up with the backlog before summer arrives.
The last day is coming soon — just two days away!
Please send us your best & brightest flash nonfiction (750 words or fewer) before we close!
And thanks so much for your reading and writing.
Memoir is Exploration, So Keep Yourself Open: An Interview with Abigail Thomas
April 20, 2023 § 10 Comments
Like Abigail Thomas’s previous memoirs and essay collections, Still Life At Eighty: The Next Interesting Thing, is wise, reassuring, funny, and at the very same time unsettling. Thomas manages this apparent contradiction through her signature style: passionate and unwavering honesty. Nothing is off limits, and everything is examined with eager eyes and a dash of acerbic wit.
The primary subject, as her title signals, is aging, how it feels to be turning eighty, facing diminished capabilities yet also a growing understanding of what matters in an authentic, deliberate life.
Vanity Fair hails the memoir as “irreverent, wise, and boundlessly generous,” while no less than Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) calls it “a little jewel box of a book, full of epiphanies that are comforting and merciless in the gentlest possible way.”
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore talked recently with Abigail Thomas about the new book, about the craft of memoir, and about those things “a body remembers”:
Dinty W. Moore: You said during your virtual reading this past weekend that “If your memoir ends where you thought it was going to end, you aren’t doing it right.” Can you expand a bit on what you mean?
Abigail Thomas: Well, first of all because there are usually surprises along the way. Leave room for them. After all, the word “memoir” comes from “memory,” and memory is a fickle creature. Unreliable. Tricky.
Writing memoir may bring ways of seeing the past from an angle that changes it a bit, moments you had forgotten that show up. If you have these surprises, maybe you are thinking of avoiding them. Don’t. Because part of the deal in memoir is having to face things you’d rather not know, especially about yourself. We all have things we’ve buried, if they appear you need to dig them up and take a look at yourself from what may be an unattractive angle.
This is called progress. You are about to learn something worth knowing. Write as honestly as you can about whatever it is. Memoir doesn’t consist of stacks of neat unalterable facts, writing memoir is a fluid messy process, there are rough patches, maybe a tsunami or two, and what you are writing might take you somewhere you hadn’t imagined. Your original ending is now unnecessary, or too neat, or somehow leaves out everything you’ve learned along the way. Because at its best, writing memoir can lead to a clarity you’ve hungered for without even knowing it.
DWM: In Still Life at Eighty, you tell us that “a shift in the way we look at ourselves and our lives is one of the benefits of writing memoir.” Have you experienced those benefits personally? Or to put it more directly, is your life better because you chose to share it with readers, even the grief and various personal difficulties?
AT: I think most memoir writers write first of all for ourselves, not for any specific audience. We write for our own clarity. The painful admissions, the ways in which we are upset by ourselves, our actions, things we did, things we failed to do, all of that has to be honestly faced. No point in skirting the truth. Who would we be fooling? Ourselves?
So it has to all come out and get looked at honestly. If it belongs, then it goes in the book. If not, then we’ve learned something worth knowing about our role in our own lives, and in the lives of others. It’s about clarity, which really is the best gift we could give ourselves, and as it turns out, it is useful to others
DWM: That’s one of the aspects of your new book, Still Life at Eighty, that is so wonderful, the way you process lingering guilt and feelings of dread so straightforwardly, but also celebrate with us as readers how the small, wonderful moments—a lightning bug, a feather, remembering how tiny fish swim in silver schools—demand our attention as well. I’m also taken by the way you will occasionally refer to yourself in third person— “… her body is still remembering the kinds of things her body remembers, she needs to sit down and stay still while she waits for it to forget.” Is essaying, for you, a way to “sit down and stay still,” do you write at times to put these memories to rest?
AT: The feather! What a perfect end to that moment, it appeared and disappeared at the perfect moment. I write sometimes to put the memories to rest, and sometimes to go back to them. Because there are some griefs, some longings, that the body wants to return to, despite the pain, and writing will take me there. As for dread, it happens, it needs to be honored by recording it, but I hope it never comes back.
Abigail Thomas is the author of many acclaimed memoirs, including A Three Dog Life, Safekeeping, and What Comes Next and How to Like It. She lives in Woodstock, New York, with her dogs.
Dinty W. Moore is the founder and editor of Brevity magazine and is likely out in his garden at this very moment.
The Josie Rubio Scholarship: Who Was Josie?
March 31, 2023 § 2 Comments
By Joselin Linder
I have a recording of Josie and I talking. It’s about a month before she died. There are parts where we talk about what we think happens after we die, but I’ll admit, in those parts it’s mostly me talking. The parts I like best are where we are reading through a Seamless menu laughing about the garbage some people will put on a hotdog, especially in Brooklyn—like baked beans and Doritos—because a hot dog is what Josie felt like eating for lunch. “I already feel like crap,” she mused, “so I figure the hotdog isn’t going to hurt me.”
Josie was the kind of person who thought that dry January was dumb and that diets that deny you of pleasure were also dumb. Don’t hurt yourself, but also, don’t deny yourself, was a conversation we had often.
At one point she started showing me all the weird things she wanted to order from Amazon for her birthday/Halloween party. Dry ice for the punch. Black lights. At one point we were laughing about these blood bags she planned to fill with vodka-cranberry. I suggested Bloody Mary. Then we just started going back and forth about whether or not it was too gross or morbid to put Bloody Mary into blood bags at the party of a woman planning to enter hospice right after the party.
At least, at the time that’s what I thought we’d been talking about. But as I listened, I realized Josie hadn’t been worried about grossing anyone out or making anyone feel sad or weird. She’d been worried that the blood bag would get stopped up. They wouldn’t be able get the drink out of the blood bag. It was an issue of alcohol-conveyance.
She didn’t correct me. I never realized my mistake until four years later, four years and four months after Josie died at the age of 42.
Josie and I knew each other for a long time before we became good friends. I was closer with her former boyfriend, the guy who left her right when she got her terminal diagnosis, the one featured in her brilliant, hilarious New York Times article. But after he left her, Josie and I scheduled a daily “check in” phone call. We probably spoke more often than that. I invited her every time I went out and she did the same.
Josie was a professional writer. At the end of her life, she was the editor for the Guggenheim’s website. She and I wrote a blog together for the company that produces Fiji Water for many years. I got the job through her. In fact Josie got me a lot of my first writing jobs. But it was Josie who took my first ever writing class at Gotham Writers Workshop. She wanted to write about dying from cancer, but mostly she wanted to shame her boyfriend publicly.
Josie’s class grew close in large part due to Josie’s energy and spirit. Now, I am not one of those people who deify the dead. Maybe it’s because I’m a memoir teacher. I spend a lot of time trying to convince writers that there are no villains in memoir and there are, likewise, no angels either.
But it’s hard not to think of Josie as practically perfect. She was generous as a writer and a person. She was funny and she was smart. But mostly, she was kind. She was the type of friend who didn’t correct you for misunderstanding that a conversation about the best way to drink booze at a Halloween party wasn’t a conversation about her impending death. Josie loved being alive. She wanted her life to matter.
I love that Josie’s class makes the Josie Rubio Scholarship available every year. It’s a wonderful tribute to Josie, but also a reminder that when you are alive, you should feel alive. Write because it’s important to tell stories, it reminds us that we are alive, it helps us delineate why and how our lives matter.
Even at the end of her life, Josie didn’t like to talk about dying. She liked to talk about living. She loved planning that Birthday/Halloween party. She had two costume changes that night because she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be Little Bo Peep or an insomniac. So she was both. She didn’t buy the blood bags to drink out of in the end. But she did put dry ice in the punch.
No one felt weird. No one felt sad. We all just felt more alive around her.
To enter the Josie Rubio Scholarship Contest, please submit a one-paragraph story, in the style of the New York Times’ Tiny Love Stories, no more than 100 words long.
Deadline is midnight, EST, on Friday April 14th, 2023.
Winners will be announced in late May, and will receive a tuition-free class of their choice at Gotham Writers Workshop (subject to class availability).
Send submissions to the Josie Rubio Scholarship Committee at email@example.com.
You can read examples of entries by previous winners here.
Joselin Linder’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Post, Elle, and NPR’s Morning Edition. Her memoir, The Family Gene, published by HarperCollins explores the history of medical genetics and the unnamed genetic disease only found in fourteen members of her family. Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and teaches writing online and in person for the Gotham Writers Workshop.
In Praise of Conversation: Celebrating Montaigne on National Essay Day
February 28, 2023 § 12 Comments
By Daisy Hickman
As Mark Twain once noted: “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.” Could there be a timelier suggestion? The art of conversation—talking with others to discuss ideas and issues in depth—is disappearing like icebergs melting around the globe.
Maybe I’m simply partial to “talking it over.” I love to turn an intriguing topic upside down, rattle it around. I still see tremendous value in sharing experience and knowledge even if disagreement is inevitable. Thought-provoking dialogue, substantive and honest, also defuses the loneliness engendered by hectic, techno-based lifestyles seldom focused on meaningful human interaction.
Is this unfortunate trend—the waning of meaningful discourse—a cultural phenomenon—a societal circumstance brought about by social media, technology, and the pressures of contemporary life—or is something else fueling this dynamic? Turning to an earlier time, I sought clues.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1586), French writer and philosopher, was a lawyer turned writer, credited with inventing the essay form. The Complete Essays of Montaigne, first published in 1580, hasn’t lost its relevance, a fact easily confirmed by a quick survey of online reviews. National Essay Day, February 28, was, in fact, established with Montaigne’s birthdate.
Searching for truth when political, religious, and civil wars ran rampant because of the Calvinistic Reformation and Wars of Religion (1562-98), Montaigne rejected fanaticism, cruelty, and increasing religious persecutions to examine human nature instead. Writing from the Tower on his family estate, redesigned for reflection and study with an extensive library and abundant artwork, Montaigne penned the sentence that prompted me to learn more about him: “The most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds is, in my opinion, conversation.”
One could infer, given the backdrop for his work, that the disconcerting civil wars in France hadn’t been conducive to constructive discourse. Of course by the time disagreements turn violent, talking or negotiation has largely failed, and those involved are ready and willing to
take up arms out of extreme frustration or a desire to squelch all disagreeable thought and beneficial discourse. This scenario, however, can’t help but remind me of what is occurring in the United States.
Montaigne, a distant, but insightful voice from the 16th century, was privy to the aftermath of the Renaissance in terms of the intellectualism, optimism, and celebrated “rebirth” of humanity that occurred after the Middle Ages. On several levels, don’t we appear to be living in a similar time given the ongoing breakdown of civil discourse and constructive conversation? Not just in the political arena, either.
Coming to this topic with a background in sociology, specifically, complex organization, I’ve also observed that our modern-day society—culture and the individuals who comprise it—leans toward communication, as opposed to conversation. Like Twain’s apt comparison, it seems that tossing barbs at each other, i.e., superficial communication, is replacing, or at least compromising, rational, humanistic discussion.
It’s everywhere. Most of us are guilty of substituting a rushed two-sentence exchange for a healthy back and forth—an honest, inquisitive exchange of ideas—as though conversation isn’t necessary or relevant any longer. Granted, attention spans have been under attack; it’s commonplace for people to jump from one task to the next at lightning speed, while hoping to survive a chaotic balancing act dependent on the ability to do five or six things at once.
Yet, without an ability to discuss matters of interest and importance in a useful, dare I say respectful, manner, aren’t we left with mere endurance as opposed to engagement? Where might this path lead? If we, as a collective, opt, by default or otherwise, to merely endure life, it won’t be an inconsequential choice. Lifestyles built around endurance, instead of a citizenry invested and fully engaged in ways that are fruitful, even joyful, sound dreadful.
Meaningful human connection is linked to just about everything: mental health, happiness, finding a sense of purpose and direction, and the overarching ability to grow and evolve. If productive conversation is basically off the table in a significant number of circumstances, we can’t help but compress, even diminish, our own worlds. Clearly, we won’t be expanding them.
A fractured society lends itself to exploitation—manipulation, futile power struggles, and stymied growth—as disorganization and indecision flourish. Violence finds deep roots in
such darkness. But conversation, genuine and intentional, can bring us back from the brink.
D.A. (Daisy) Hickman, an avid student of culture and society, writes to connect more deeply to the complexities of the human condition. Hickman’s book titles include: A Happy Truth: Last Dogs Aren’t Always Last, Ancients of the Earth: Poems of Time, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, and Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place. She studied sociology (M.S.) at Iowa State University and completed her undergraduate work at Stephens College. She is at work on a collection of essays and a new poetry collection. Check out Hickman’s blog at SunnyRoomStudio.com.
Flash Is the Future
February 6, 2023 § 2 Comments
By Matt Weinkam
For the last two years, Literary Cleveland has been running flash fiction and flash nonfiction festivals online via Zoom. During these week-long programs, we hold panel discussions, workshops, and open mics designed to help writers learn about the genres, draft new pieces, share their work, and learn where and how to publish.
Not only have we gotten to work with some of the best flash writers in the country (Venita Blackburn, K-Ming Chang, Kathy Fish, Daisy Hernández, Lindsay Hunter, Michael Martone, Elena Passarello, Amber Sparks), we’ve also seen participants go on to publish work in Split Lip, Necessary Fiction, Fractured Lit, Tiny Molecules, Portland Review, and more.
Running these festivals and talking with panelists brought into focus what flash fiction and nonfiction have in common, what makes short form prose special, and why flash is central to the future of writing and publishing.
Engine of Innovation
During past festivals, Michael Martone, K-Ming Chang, Elena Passarello and others have spoken about flash as an engine of literary innovation, as a place where writers can experiment with new voices, forms, and tones. When you can draft a flash piece in a few days or even a few hours you are freer to take bigger risks than when you spend a few months or years working on a full-length story or essay or book. At the same time, short form prose places fewer demands on readers, allowing writers in flash fiction and flash nonfiction to try new things without overstaying their welcome.
Consider Diane Seuss’s single sentence “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” (a much loved essay often cited during our flash nonfiction festivals), or the hilarious body horror list of “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” by Amelia Gray (a personal favorite). Flash pieces like these accomplish things formally, tonally, emotionally, and politically that are harder to sustain in a longer story or essay.
At the same time, publishing at large is less receptive to experimentation than online flash journals, which are the tide pools of the literary world where strange new writing can evolve. Occasionally experiments from the flash world break out into the mainstream. For example, I suspect the recent popularity of novels in fragmented form (Dept. of Speculation, Memorial, No One is Talking About This) can be traced at least in part back to the rise of flash. Still, mainstream acceptance is not the goal. Flash fiction and flash nonfiction are not just farm-league systems for the major publishers, they are meaningful genres in their own right. They are essential to the future of literature.
That is why one of our major takeaways from these festivals is to be bolder, take bigger swings, and use flash to really explore what writing can do.
Catalyst for Change
Our festival panelists in both genres also identified flash as a potential space to dismantle the cultural redlining that still dominates publishing as a whole.
White writers made up the majority of contributor lists and mastheads and MFA students for so long. But in recent years not only do we see more flash stories and essays published by writers of color, writers who are queer or transgender, or writers who are disabled or neurodivergent, there are also more flash outlets with diverse mastheads and equitable models of publication.
Flash is uniquely suited genre to take back power. As a network of small (mostly online) journals, the world of flash in both fiction and nonfiction largely exists outside of the major established structures of production, reception, and recognition making it more responsive to calls for change. Flash can be a powerful outlet. As Vanessa Chan put it in one of our festival panels, “I think that writing for me is an exercise in regaining power and correcting the imbalance of power structures that exist for someone that looks like me in spaces that are maybe not made for me.”
Not that the flash community has fixed publishing or defeated white supremacy, of course. Genuine multicultural magazines and diverse contributor lists are still too few. But journals like The Offing, projects like SmokeLong en Español, special issues like Brevity’s upcoming Trans Experience, and anthologies of flash by writers of color like Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction edited by Megan Giddings help lead the way to an equitable future for all of publishing. A major takeaway from our festivals is the need to push this work further.
In the introduction to Forward, Megan Giddings explains that publishing diverse writers is more than just posturing: “I want to feel like my work is important. Not just something that makes the editors look good, but it so urgent and beautiful and engaging that they had to respond. That I am speaking to humanity and living, not filling a quota. I am a person.”
But most of all, our panelists and participants celebrated flash fiction and flash nonfiction as genres for play. Writers of all backgrounds and interests find their way to flash to create in a joyful spirit.
Although fiction writers may draw more often from the well of imagination while nonfiction writers more often shape experience and research into new writing, firm genre distinctions are less important in flash. There is more crossover and interplay. I like how Joy Castro puts in in “Genre as a Vessel for Presence” when she says, “I see fiction and nonfiction slow-dancing, inseparable, holding each other close.”
At Literary Cleveland, we are excited to continue this dance, holding flash festivals for as long as the writing community is interested. Our third virtual Flash Fiction Festival is this February 19-25 and our workshop leaders and panelists are all contributors to the new Flash Fiction America anthology out from W. W. Norton on February 14. We will continue and deepen this conversation about flash and the future of writing. I hope you will join us.
Matt Weinkam is the executive director of Literary Cleveland. His work has been published in Denver Quarterly, Sonora Review, New South, DIAGRAM, and Electric Literature. He holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University, an MFA in fiction from Northern Michigan University, and he has taught creative writing at Sun Yat-sen University in Zhuhai, China.
Revision is Remodeling (Not Dusting the Furniture)
February 2, 2023 § 25 Comments
HOW TO AVOID TWO COLOSSAL MISSTEPS IN REVISING MEMOIR
By Dinty W. Moore
“Writing is revision,” Tracy Kidder famously suggested, and if the number of times I rewrote this blog post is any indication, he is entirely right.
But being a mentor and writing coach for countless memoirists and essayists over the years has shown me that two colossal missteps keep many of us from realizing the massive benefits that re-visioning – seeing the work through fresh eyes even after completing a first or second draft – can provide.
The first misstep is entirely understandable, because it follows age-old advice about starting any worthwhile task “at the beginning.” We sit down for a new draft and the first thing we do is to begin polishing the first sentence. “Got to make this one better,” we murmur to ourselves. “The first line has to be good.”
Making any sentence more vivid, more compelling is a positive thing, but, yes, this approach can be a waste of time.
To make serious use of the revision process, writers need to let go of the natural urge to preserve the sentences we have already written. We need to be entirely open to the possibility that large chunks of our current draft are just trial runs. Our first sentence, our first paragraph, our first page – all of these elements are just auditioning for the role. They haven’t earned it yet.
They may need to be replaced, rearranged, or perhaps your story will be stronger simply by taking them out and letting the remainder stand by itself.
One way to think about the difference between minor revision and serious revision is to imagine that you are remodeling your family living room. Simply proofreading your second or third draft and fixing a few awkward sentences is like remodeling a room by dusting the end tables and rearranging the pillows on the sofa. Not much of a change. A minor improvement at best.
The true act of revision comes when a writer is willing to move each and every piece of furniture out onto the front lawn, roll up the area rugs, take the pictures down, unscrew the wall sconces. Then, on a case-by-case basis, the writer can decide which elements returns to the room, and where they will be situated. Sometimes the old sofa needs to be left out on the curb for recycling, because it just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe some new furniture is purchased (a new scene is written). Perhaps the walls are painted a new color (voice or point-of-view shifts.)
In some cases, maybe all the furniture is returned to the room, but not to the same location. Put those tables over there, where they are more useful. Arrange the chairs so they face the window and its excellent view of the weeping willow branches. What’s important is that nothing goes back inside the metaphorical living room until and unless the writer makes the conscious choice that it belongs. And where it belongs.
This may seem like hard work, and indeed it is, but well worth the effort. Writing is an act of detection, an attempt to determine what the writer thinks and feels, so it only makes sense that the author’s idea of what a memoir or essay should say and do will transform over time.
Be ruthless with your early, auditioning pages. Show no mercy.
And the second colossal misstep? Dreading the revision process. “My work is so bad I can’t stand to look at it,” we grumble. Or maybe, “Cripes, there is so much to fix, what is wrong with me?”
It’s really, however, just a matter of how you think about it.
Personally, I love revision. “Oh my goodness,” I tell myself. “What a lucky break. I get to fix this mess. I get to fiddle around in here and save the good parts, cut the weak parts, connect the parts that need to be connected, before anyone sees what a ham-handed early draft I wrote. Thank goodness!”
Life doesn’t give us enough do-overs, but writing always does. If we grant ourselves the space.
I’ll be talking more about all things revision next week as part of Jane Friedman’s amazing webinar series. The webinar – The Art of Revising Memoir – is $25, live on Wednesday, Feb. 8th, at 1 pm Eastern. (But you can register and download a recording if that time is not free.)
I’d love to see you there. We’ll discuss the best ways to approach revision, the numerous, overlapping stages of improving your work, and what questions to ask as you journey happily through an early draft in search of the better, final version.
Dinty W. Moore is founder and editor of Brevity magazine. He is author of the writing guide Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and teaches master classes and workshops across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, and Mexico.
New Brevity 72: Fantastic Flash
January 18, 2023 § 8 Comments
Our first issue of 2023 features powerful, concise nonfiction prose from Richie Zaborowske, Michelle Koufopoulos, Kaila Lancaster, Gabe Montesanti, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Patricia Foster, Sven Birkerts, Gary Fincke, Karen Kao, Robert Long Foreman, Patricia O’Donnell, Aliceanna Stopher, Heather Surls, and Hayli Cox.
In our Craft Section, Anna Farro Henderson explores world-building and narrative structure in science writing, Aaron Gilbreath demonstrates how “theme” in nonfiction can “expand the gaze of one person’s life to reveal something larger about our culture, our times, or human relationships,” and Bryan Furuness joins Sarah Layden to advocate for using “lenses’ in the revision process.
Plus stunning artwork throughout from Sheila Squillante.
Please have a look soon!
Thanks, From Brevity
November 24, 2022 § 4 Comments
We give thanks today for the thousands of readers who visit our pages, for the dedicated teachers who feature us in the classroom, and for all of the talented writers who send their essays to Brevity and to the Brevity Blog, trusting us with the work they have labored over for many weeks or months.
We are thankful as well to our volunteer staff, who are the heart and soul of our literary enterprise. We don’t thank you enough, volunteers, but we truly value what you do and the generosity with which you do it.
And for those who contribute large and small sums to keep the lights on, a special thank you. We are proud to be able to pay the writers we feature in Brevity, and could not do it without you.
Finally, we are thankful for the readers, writers, and volunteer staff at countless other magazines that form our literary galaxy.
Art saves lives!
~ Dinty W. Moore, Brevity editor-in-chief