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!
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
September 30, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Debra Moffitt
As speculation flutters about who will win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming week, let us tip a titanic, plumy hat to Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf who, in 1909, was the first woman to win the honor.
Mostly unknown in the United States, Lagerlöf’s first novel made her famous in Sweden, but she’s beloved in her home country for her children’s book, “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.” When Sweden honored Lagerlöf by featuring her face on its currency, a scene from “Nils” appeared on the back of the 20-kronar note. In the story, Nils Holgersson starts out as a sneery 14-year-old who skips church and spends his free time being cruel to farm animals. But after Lagerlöf shrinks him into a sprite and flies him around Sweden on the back of a goose, he concludes the tale as a loyal friend of the feathered community, a much better son and citizen.
It all began with a snooze-inducing assignment Lagerlöf accepted in 1902 to write something educational about Sweden’s geography. She struggled to get started – a struggle she documented in the actual story. Just when tiny Nils found himself cornered by an owl, Lagerlöf shared “a strange coincidence” involving a lady writer.
“The very year Nils Holgersson traveled with the wild geese there was a woman who thought of writing a book about Sweden … She had thought of this from Christmas time to the following autumn.”
The unnamed writer living in a gray city wanted to start the story in Värmland County, where she was from, but couldn’t get her pen moving. A journey back home to the family farm sent her tumbling through the years, to the autumn fair, to long-ago Decembers when girls wore crowns of candles on St. Lucia’s Day, to tiresome chores but also a family reading together by lamp light, singing folk songs, planting gardens of turnips, beans and berries. The animals came back to her, too, how her father guarded the carp in the pond (no fishing) and protected the doves of the air, insisting they be left in peace. While the writer swam in memories, Nils, the shrunken farm boy who would be her protagonist, appeared in the moonlight.
“What luck to run across one who has traveled all over Sweden on the back of a goose!” the writer exclaims.
It wasn’t luck. Focused, creative energy on blast sent Nils – whoosh! – high over Sweden, before passenger jets, before Google Maps, before drone footage, before anyone urged us to “take a 10,000-foot view.” From this vantage point, Nils could marvel at lakes of blue satin, the wide grain fields of Söderslätt, how Hälsingland was green as a leaf – the whole of his homeland from the sky.
Call it the angle or the insight or the hook. It can set up the plot but in no way is fully the plot. It’s a shaft of light more than a 17-point plan. Your way in might whisper to you more than holler. Is that your muse pointing the way? Though the page is blank, it can feel like entering a conversation already in progress. Don’t bury the lede. Grab your reader. Understand the assignment.
But don’t be an order taker. Instead bend your assignment into an assignation, a secret meeting between you and your subject that will go where you decide. Before Lagerlöf had a Nobel Prize, she took a commission to write about geography, applied her own sensibilities and made it something new, utterly changed and fully informed by everything she loved about home, everything she wanted to say.
If how one chooses to live is another kind of assignment, Lagerlöf seems to have aced that, too, her biographer Anna Nordlund said.
Against her father’s wishes, Lagerlöf left home to get an education and then wrote in obscurity until a Danish translation of her first novel. The young woman from Värmland went on to become the author of 27 published works. She blazed through achievements, escaping near powerlessness to live a life of letters, supporting women’s suffrage and dodging marriage in favor of relationships with two women. Thanks to her income from writing, she was flush enough to buy back her childhood home, the farm her father lost, and preserve it for public use.
“She fulfilled so many of her childhood dreams,” Nordlund said. “She became a kind of powerful woman no one could have imagined in her childhood back in the 1870s.”
A productive writer with a social conscience, Lagerlöf led an expansive, creative life, she said.
“She never exposed or mistreated people around her for the sake of art,” Nordlund said. “Lagerlöf always endeavored to reach out to everyone with her writing without diminishing or simplifying the greatness and magic of life.”
In 1940, the same year Lagerlöf died, she helped Jewish poet Nelly Sachs and her mother flee Nazi Germany. Sachs herself would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966.
Whether we are given them or task them to ourselves, imperfect assignments are part of the deal, especially if someone is paying for your work. Clicks rule. No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the great masses, as Mr. Mencken said. Abide that word count. But whatever is on your assignment plate today, Lagerlöf reminds us to put on a big hat and write the hell out of it. Find your way in so you can relish something that is as true today as it was for her in 1902: Assigners assign, but writers can have the last word.
Debra Moffitt is a Delaware-based writer whose essays have appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, Farmer-ish and Garden Rant. She authored The Pink Locker Society (St. Martin’s), a middle grade book series about puberty. Find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Happiest_Writer.
September 14, 2022 § 1 Comment
Our new issue is here, featuring powerful new essays from Daisy Hernandez, Julie Marie Wade, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Shaindel Beers, Angela Morales, Jennifer Battisti, Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, Kristin M. Distel, Anna Vodicka, Mika Sutherland, Meg Senuta, Ralph James Savarese, Heidi Fettig Parton, Tyler Mills, and Lori Jakiela. Plus stunning photos from Amy Selwyn.
Our Craft section features three new essays: Jill McCabe Johnson traces the literary roots of lost and found narratives — reaching “at least as far back as the French poetic form, the Chanson d’Aventure, when medieval poets ‘lost’ themselves in the countryside until they encountered or ‘found’ something inspiring and transformative” — and offers useful prompts, based on the work of Roxane Gay, Victoria Chang, and Joanne Nelson. Rebecca McClanahan uses a scale devised by an astronomer to describe three levels of UFO encounters to encourage encounters of the deepest kind in our memoir and creative nonfiction. Aggie Stewart explores emotional pacing as it relates to writing about traumatic events, showing us how “Scene breaks and juxtapositions—almost any kind of change in technique—affected how emotions were carried or co-mingled, how long they were held, and the way they rose up and dissolved from one narrative moment to another.”
September 7, 2022 § 25 Comments
By Leslie Stonebraker
It was a simple enough idea: Read five years of Brevity, log each piece in an Excel database, then tickle the data until it tells me something useful about the common features of flash nonfiction essays. As a writer new to flash, I wanted to understand the rules of the genre, so I could be deliberate about breaking them. When I couldn’t find much literature to guide me, I decided to make my own. A secret, shameful part of me wondered if graphs and statistics could help me crack the code to getting my own Brevity byline.
Apparently, the real cheat code to a Brevity byline (see it? right there? below the title?) is spelunking wildly beyond my depth and soliciting an interview with editor Dinty W. Moore, who then invited me to transform my research into a series of craft essays for the Brevity Blog.
I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a professor, or especially well published. Though I supervise (and am supervised by) people who know Python, I cannot speak the language of the snakes, don’t know how to programmatically scrape the web, can’t write to an Azure instance, or arrange SELECTs and semicolons into a SQL statement. I have carved a niche for myself, professionally, wherein I transform research done by others into compelling stories. None of the very smart people I work with were involved in this project.
What I am is curious. Like many creative nonfiction writers, I style myself a scientist, poking at the world and myself to test hypotheses, as eager to be proven wrong as right. So I set this curiosity to work, reading flash after flash in the precious hours after the baby happily curled into his sleep sack and the toddler unhappily lay down in her big-kid bed (but only after I completed the correct number of kisses to specific body parts, both of which varied nightly).
My process was simple, studious, and a skosh error prone. As I read every Brevity essay published between 2017-2021, I logged the numbers associated with each in an Excel database with the help of WordCounter.net. I arbitrarily decided upon the site after a search for free word counting tools, but over time gained great affection for its soothing blue color scheme, its motto “Every Word Counts,” and its bold exhortation to “Bookmark this page now.” With WordCounter.net’s aid, every Brevity essay transformed, alchemy-like, into an Excel row of numbers: longest and shortest sentences, word and paragraph counts, essay type, point of view—34 columns in all.
From there, the steps were simple, and therefore confounding:
- Find and correct errors. Worry about the errors that remain unfound.
- Pivot the table. Pivot my thinking. Pivot 360 degrees in a circle.
- Make graphs. Tell the graphs how pretty they look. Find the graphs uncaring.
- Worry the reason this has never been done before is that it is a colossal waste of time.
Brevity should come with a warning label—flash is an addictive substance. The magazine is brimming with tiny worlds, or as managing editor Zoë Bossiere calls them in her introduction to The Best of Brevity (published in honor of the magazine’s 20th anniversary) “beacon[s] of small truths” (xvii). The essays went down easy—like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Milk & Cookies—but were similarly heavier in the belly than they were on the tongue.
Nightly, I made myself sick. Long after I closed my laptop, I wondered about the non-pandemic version of Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Me vs. Slugs: Pandemic Edition.” Wrote “breathtaking” next to Carrie Jade Williams’ “When I Speak Why Do I Become More Invisible?” Tried to recall where I’d read Laurie Easter’s “Kindness and Sorrow” before. Spun out for hours on 333 words, 68.8% of them unique, all of them bitterly laughing at the cancer risk underlying Anne Panning’s hermit crab “Intro to BRCA1+ Quiz.”
Like the not-quite scientist I am, I started formulating a theory long before the data set was complete. Flash essays seemed not quite a big thing shrunk small, but rather, a fun house mirror reflection of a larger essay. Short sentences just as short. Long just as long. But also, just as much emotion, reflection, action, scene, dialogue, all of it stuffed into a wee package. The tone tended sadder. Brighter. Sharper.
Early conclusion: subtlety is not for the small. Economy leaves no room for buildup, no mild arc to a restrained-yet-satisfying conclusion. In his introduction to The Best of Brevity, Moore writes, “In such a small allotment of words, there is no time to clear one’s throat, to gently introduce the story before moving leisurely along to the point of tension, the moment the reader’s curiosity is piqued” (x). In a flash essay you best immediately punch me in the eye, offer me a raw steak to sooth the hurt, then tell a joke so I’ll laugh through the pain.
Knock, knock. Who’s there? A life, contained in a thimble, built with a stranger’s words.
After inhaling five years of flash, I became convinced that I will never write as well as all of you. That I will never bend the creativity to the metrics, or the metrics to the creativity, to unlock the spell of this particular magic. That there is some spark Brevity authors have, something I see in myself only occasionally, such that I read your work and wonder how some squishy gray matter could have pulled these words, an average of 4.5 characters in length, from the dictionary and placed them just so.
With my Brevity database complete, I gazed across a sea of numbers, unable to quiet my internal critic. After all this time, had I discovered anything at all? I’d rather read another five years of Brevity than figure out what to say about it.
So I’m not going to. At least, not in this craft essay.
See, I really shouldn’t be here—I’m cheating even now, splitting my findings across three essays (at Dinty’s suggestion no less), thereby neatly avoiding the recommended word limit. Stay tuned for part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers”: Word clouds and other squishy results.
Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at email@example.com.
September 1, 2022 § 27 Comments
The Brevity Blog keeps expanding, growing in readership and fielding an increasing number of quality submission, so we’re expanding our team. A hearty welcome to Andrea Firth and Heidi Croot who join us as Blog Editors, alongside Allison and Dinty who are still on the job, looking for fresh voices and fresh perspectives. Andrea introduced herself yesterday, and Heidi does so today. We are thrilled to have them on the team.
Brevity Blog is that place writers dream of.
The writers’ café.
Worn pine floors, rickety round tables crowded together, fragrance of coffee and cinnamon—the place where writers meet for fellowship and deep dives into the kind of craft talk many of us can’t access at home. The place where we get to share our despair with protagonists who refuse to “arc” and rejection letters that missed the point. The place where we exult in our successes knowing others understand what it took.
I love it here as a reader and a writer, and I’m going to love it even more as an editor. Words have been my solace and surprise since I wrote my first (okay, only) novel at 10 and, later, turned in weekly columns about secondary school life to the village newspaper, edited by my mother.
From there it was on to an Honours BA in English at London Ontario’s Western University with no thought to the future other than I wanted to read books and write essays. Happily, I landed a decades-long career in corporate communication that involved writing strategic plans, speeches, trade press articles, and annual reports for both the private and public sectors. Being edited and editing others was just part of the job.
In 2006, I went freelance, and a few years later, feeling edgy and unfulfilled, eased out the screen door and into the garden. I wanted to be a creative writer.
Writers’ groups were my way in—three at last count—resulting in several shelves of “how-to-edit” books. I was terrified. I knew how to edit for business, but poetry? YA science fiction? Speculative fiction?
What powered me through was the joy in learning that comes with editing and applying those new skills to my own writing, including my memoir, now in its final edit (excerpt here). More joy from admiring what sparkles, noticing where a bridge needs repair, and helping writers add their voice to the buzz in the writers’ café and beyond.
Thank you, Dinty and Allison, editors extraordinaire, for the opportunity to join the Brevity Blog team.
And to the 87,000 Brevity Blog subscribers, those burning with ideas and those rocking the fence: Read the guidelines and submit. This is your time. We are eager to embrace your words.
August 31, 2022 § 35 Comments
The Brevity Blog keeps expanding, growing in readership and fielding an increasing number of quality submission, so we’re expanding our team. A hearty welcome to Andrea Firth and Heidi Croot who join us as Blog Editors, alongside Allison and Dinty who are still on the job, looking for fresh voices and fresh perspectives. Andrea introduces herself below (and Heidi will do the same tomorrow). We are thrilled to have them on the team.
Hi! I’m a writer, editor and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and I publish personal essays, literary journalism, and hybrid writing. (Read more of Andrea’s work here.) Five years ago, I co-founded Diablo Writers’ Workshop, which provides writing classes, editorial services, and a vibrant writing community for adults—it’s a big, wonderful part of my life.
Like you, I’m a writer trying to create my best work and get it published. I’ve been reading the Brevity Blog for years (usually with my morning cup of tea and my cat). Starting my day with another writer’s insight into the world of creative nonfiction has taught me a lot about the craft of writing, the ins and outs of the publishing world, and new ways manage this thing we call a literary life. Let’s face it—writing is a solo venture. (My loyal cat keeps me company through my writing days, but she doesn’t say much.) Having a network of writers that I can tap into, who I can support, and who can support me, is essential. In an eight-minute morning read, the Blog gives me that.
At the onboarding Zoom call with our newly expanded editorial team, Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore described the Blog as a conversation, which has been ongoing more than fifteen years now. And I thought, yes, that’s it! We are a community of writers and friends having a regular, intelligent, thoughtful conversation about what we do and how we do it.
I’m excited and honored to be an editor of the Brevity Blog and hope you will consider submitting a post. Join the conversation. The Blog’s guidelines outline what we’re looking for, but just like literary magazines, the best way to understand what we’re all about is to read it.
What am I interested to see more of? I love when personal narrative and technique demonstrate the craft point, or the story underlying the story—get meta! The Blog is focused on CNF, but genres lines are blurring—what can we CNF writers learn from autofiction, hybrid memoir, and experimental prose? And, of course, surprise us.
August 1, 2022 § 27 Comments
In his essay “How Truthful are Memoirs?”, Roy Peter Clark, a journalist and Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute, offers a detailed list of ten “rigorous steps to an honest form of writing,” making a firm argument that there is a clear line between fact and fiction in memoir. We present his steps below, followed by a link to the full essay (featuring Mary Karr and Vivian Gornick). We’d love for you to weigh in through our comment section as to your level of agreement with Clark’s standards:
- Any degree of fabrication turns a story from nonfiction into fiction, which must be labeled as such. (A story cannot be a little fictional.)
- The writer, by definition, may distort reality by subtraction (the way a photo is cropped), but is never allowed to distort by adding material to nonfiction that the writer knows did not happen.
- Characters that appear in nonfiction must be real individuals, not composites drawn from a number of persons. While there are occasions when characters can or should not be named, giving characters fake names is not permitted. (They can be identified by an initial, a natural status “The Tall Woman,” or a role “The Accountant.”)
- Writers of nonfiction should not expand or contract time or space for narrative efficiency. (Ten conversations with a source that took place in three locations cannot be merged into a single conversation in a single location.)
- Invented dialogue is not permitted. Any words in quotations marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source. Remembered conversations — especially from the distant past — should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation, such as indented dashes: — like this –.
- We reject the notion in all of literature of a “higher truth,” a phrase that has been used too often as a rationalization in nonfiction for making things up. It is hard enough, and good enough, to attempt to render a set of “practical truths.”
- Aesthetic considerations must be subordinated — if necessary — to documentary discipline.
- Nonfiction does not result from a purely scientific method, but responsible writers will inform audiences on both what they know and how they know it. The sourcing in a book or story should be sufficient so that another reporter or researcher or fact-checker, acting in good faith, could follow the tracks of the original reporter and find comparable results.
- Unless working in fantasy, science fiction, or obvious satire, all writers, including novelists and poets, have an affirmative duty to render the world accurately through their own research and detective work.
- The escape clause: There may be occasions, when the writer can think of no other way to tell a story than through the use of one or more of these “banned” techniques. The burden is on the writer to demonstrate that this is so. To keep faith with the reader, the writer should become transparent concerning narrative methods. A detailed note to readers should appear AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WORK to alert them of the standards and practices of the writer.
You can read Clark’s full essay here at Poynter.org, and please take some time to let us know your thoughts, agreements, disagreements, questions.
June 25, 2022 § 5 Comments
We understand the disappointment that some have shared since learning that the Brevity Blog will not be featuring book reviews going forward. The decision is not taken lightly, but was deemed necessary due to time and staffing issues. Though our blog editors understand the importance of promoting small press books, it became increasingly obvious in tracking our site statistics that book reviews were our least-read feature, while also among the more time-consuming.
Please note that Brevity and the Brevity blog will still promote small press memoir and nonfiction, but primarily through craft essays by book authors, author interviews, and other posts that contain explorations of the writing and publishing process.
Our blog editors are working on a volunteer basis, and we are doing as much as we can with the resources available. We’re grateful we can provide a venue for hundreds of writers who generously share their knowledge and their work with the Brevity blog audience.
Dinty W. Moore