Brevity by the Numbers Part 2: Word Clouds and Other Squishy Results
September 8, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Leslie Stonebraker
Welcome to part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. If you want to learn why I began this research, how I built my data set, and what qualifies me to write about it (spoiler alert, not much beyond chutzpah!), go back and read Part 1: “How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” In this installment, I make pretty word clouds and sad discoveries.
Piling up five years of Brevity essays and titles into one long document, I find a total of 138,991 words, of which 23,678 are distinct, according to FreeWordCloudGenerator.com. 210 writers published between 2017 and 2021 agree on this top five: “the” (7,907 instances), “and” (3,811 instances), “to” (3,271 instances), “of” (2,839 instances), and “in” (2,390 instances). “My,” “on,” “you,” “that,” and “is” round out the top ten. Onward down the list: it, he, with, for, her, was, his, she, we, as, at, but, when, from, your, like, not, me—all solid, functional words. Utilitarian. Common words that till the fields to present bushels of barley to their liege terms, those canorous locutions.
But I do not seek royalty, the kind of words I must gossip about with a dictionary to get the inside scoop. I seek, instead, middle-class words, words you see on a Sunday, wearing a yellow hat on the way to the flower market. Removing special characters and stopwords, FreeWordCloudGenerator drops the distinct count across every essay in this census to 15,375.
One. Back. Know. Time. Say. Day. Just. Even. Says. Man with 162 mentions, body 158, want 156, home tying think with 153. Freud may have been right—our Oedipal complexes apparent in mother besting father by 119 uses. We’re obsessed with love, and something, and everything. We have eyes and faces and red hair and old skin. We want. Feel. Need. A hand to hold. A dog at the door. A little something. Maybe nothing. Words that make a world.
Former The New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris would be appalled by this analysis. In a 2011 article for Neiman Lab titled “Word clouds considered harmful,” he cautions that word clouds “can be wildly misleading,” warning amateur researchers like myself not to “confuse signifiers with what they signify.” He then gets needlessly hurtful, writing, “Every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.”
I wouldn’t want to kill your insides, Mr. Harris formerly of The New York Times. I’ll try to do better. After segmenting the essays into 55 categories (from “illness – COVID” to “nature”), I find the most popular subjects are parent-child and romantic relationships (22 and 19 essays respectively). Slotting the 55 categories into overarching themes, 20% of the essays cover illness; 20% relationships; 14% death; 6% racism; 6% crime, rape or abuse; 6% gender or sexuality; 4% mental health; 4% infidelity, divorce, or contraception; 1% disability; and the remaining 19% a hodgepodge of self, religion, language, travel, news, food and the like.
Does the subject need to be universal to work in a space so small? Most of the Brevity essays are about entirely human experiences. The minds in flash do not float in antiseptic tanks, waxing philosophical on whether thinking is being. These minds are muddy, messy with bodily fluids, and suffering a panic attack, or Alzheimer’s, or dysmorphia. So few of the bodies in Brevity are joyful that I found myself celebrating each one in Excel marginalia, jotting “happy! how lovely” by Scott Loring Sanders’ “Bee Man,” “a celebration!” beside Amie Whittemore’s “This Abortion is an Act of Love,” and “more joy! now at the end” next to Brenda Miller’s “Typos.”
I wonder at Jack Pendarvis’ “Shana’s Father Wins a Monkey.” Who is the speaker? Who are they speaking to? I turn this essay over like a stone in the mouth, loamy on the tongue. Though I am exactly half the narrator’s 70 years in “Solving for X,” I see myself in her questions. How many more words will I write? How many chances will I get? How do I make them count?
The last lines of Jeff Newberry’s “Butchering,” echo in my head: “Like Michelangelo before a stone, I sometimes think the story exists buried in language. I forget that before I take up my knife, I have to invent the creature who roams the woods alone.” Have I invented that solitary animal here, or am I carving up nothing into smaller pieces of nothingness?
Data is the opposite of nothingness. I still believe the data can save me. I pivot my unwieldy table once, twice, three times, and ask the numbers to talk dirty to me.
Data about titles
86% of titles contain fewer than five words. Though in theory it is possible to have a title longer than the flash it crowns, I have yet to see one. Single word titles are nouns (or rather, 79% of them are). A trinket to clutch to your chest. Hold close. Real. Though the strategy is growing in poetry, only five of the 228 essay titles stand in for the start of the first sentence. Beware of trends, for they may not get you published.
Data about contrast
42% of essays sport a 26 to 75-word difference between their longest and shortest sentences. Only 7% stretch that difference to more than 300 words. Short is quick. Long takes a whole lungful of air. Every single essay breathing thin atmosphere at this altitude achieved such heights by containing a sentence less than four words in length.
Data about dialogue and scene
If you have scene, you have dialogue exchange. If you have not scene, you have not dialogue exchange. This rule, like all rules, is not exact enough to be tattooed onto one’s body.
Data about you
You need not be a creative nonfiction writer (though it probably helps). 46% of Brevity’s writers are poets and fictioneers. You need not be traditionally published. 39% of Brevity’s writers had not a single book to their byline at the time of publication. You will probably get one shot. 92% of Brevity’s writers were featured only once in the journal during this five-year sample.
But this is all just foreplay. Stay tuned for part 3 of “Brevity by the numbers,” where I try my hand at the kind of hard math that could unlock the true form of the flash essay.
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.
A Review of Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart
October 21, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Kelly K. Ferguson
Last week I found myself wandering Ellis Hall in Ohio University. Back when I was a creative writing grad student, I lurked all the time, acting as if I had official business, but really on the lookout for company, which I usually found. But that was seven years ago, and we’re in the second year of a pandemic. Ellis Hall has since been renovated to resemble a Hampton Inn. The dusty hardback copies of Ivanhoe? Recycled. The bat under the trash can? Disposed. No sensible person would miss how the stairwells used to smell of baby diapers. The clank of an opening door echoed and I scurried out.
The above is what Brenda Miller would call a container scene. My scene is meant to demonstrate particular loneliness, the loneliness a writer feels for other writers. The German word for that feeling is Schrifstellersehnsucht.
Schrifsteller = writer
Sehnsucht = longing
In A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form, Brenda Miller weaves short essays of her writing life with craft lessons. The book is divided into three sections (of course!). The first centers around memoir of Miller’s writing life, the second on craft, and the third reflects on writing community.
Any follower of Brevity recognizes Brenda Miller as a good friend to creative nonfiction. Perhaps you’ve read her classic essay “Swerve,” or Miller writing about writing “Swerve.” Miller may not have invented the lyric essay, but she has made containers such as the hermit crab, collage, and braided essay accessible to instructors and writers.
If Miller’s Tell it Slant (co-authored with Suzanne Paola) is a chalkboard crammed with notes, A Braided Heart is a pot of perfectly steeped tea with two cups. The book is a testament to the tensile strength of essay. No matter how the form is bent, so long as the writer remains in conversation, the connection maintains, this friendship through words.
While I was a grad student at Ohio University, Brenda Miller was a visiting writer and I picked her up from the Columbus airport. I was nervous and excited and took a detour to Canal Winchester, the exit where strip malls and car dealerships go to thrive. Losing our visiting writer to the machinations of neoliberal industry would be bad. I rambled without pause to cover my anxiety until I figured out how to merge back onto the proper road.
Miller remained good company throughout.
Miller’s talent is to make the structure of her lyrical essays feel natural, as if they couldn’t read any other way. “Writing Inside the Web” connects a story about a Free Box at a lodge, to a writing retreat, to a list of internal brain machinations, to Simon and Garfunkel.
“…the mind, given the right conditions, will become a soft receiving ground, so full of inviting crannies that thoughts, images, ideas can drift there and settle like pollen.” (“On Thermostats”)
Last Friday, I sat down to finish this review, and wound up writing a hermit crab essay instead, which I credit to the juju provided from A Braided Heart.
When I taught the hermit crab essay as a graduate student, I would show this video of a pet hermit crab changing shells. Without their container, the hermit crab is vulnerable, disproportionate, a hunchback out of the belfry. At the end of the video, when the crab slips into their new home, a woman gasps, “Ooooh! There she goes!” This always made the students laugh.
That laughter was the sound of freedom from the five-paragraph essay.
Miller writes how concrete forms allow for “inadvertent revelations,” where the writer surrenders control. “Revelation, or discovery, emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer, rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.”
Confession: Schrifstellersehnsucht doesn’t exist. My partner is Austrian and finds this idea of a “German word” for everything perplexing. He explains that German has more compound words, so it’s easier to string words together, but that doesn’t mean the words are real.
“But what would the German word be, if you made one up?” I ask.
He knows I’ve been lonely for other writers.
The day after I’d visited Ellis Hall, I ran into my former creative nonfiction professor, Eric LeMay, in a market parking lot. Even as my chatter floated in the air, I wondered why I would go on about lurking for the smell of baby diapers, out of all the things I could say. Our exchange was over in a minute.
“Maybe see you somewhere, someday,” I said. I meant a reading or a gathering.
“Maybe,” he said through his mask.
The inside of my car was silent. I thought, this is a somewhere, someday.
“What I’m trying to say is the lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken,” Brenda Miller.
Two wide flat mossy rocks sit like invitations in front of my house. A father and his daughter walk by most days. The girl always runs up to the rocks, and leaps from one to the other.
“Whee!” she says, but only when she’s in the air.
Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Storysouth, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications. In the past ten years, she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio back to southern Louisiana on to southern Utah back to southern Ohio, where she has planted asparagus in the hopes of yielding a tender spear in three to five years.
Eating Nonfiction in Flagstaff
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
An illustrated NonfictioNow round-up from Rebecca Fish Ewan:
“Stories are food!” Brian Doyle shouted right before we all broke for lunch. Stories are food. He said this throughout his keynote address with the urgency of a preacher in a revivalist tent. In fact, his message was not unlike a religious one.
“Nonfiction is everywhere!”
“Every part of your life is an essay!”
Can I get an Amen?
As he spoke, I thought back to the last NonfictioNow conference I attended and why. I had just gobbled up Reality Hunger by David Shields and had developed a huge crush on his brain, so I submitted to be a panelist at the conference just to hear him deliver the keynote. Not very spiritual of me. That was Melbourne, 2012.
Now the leaves shimmer golden in the brilliant light of Flagstaff, Arizona, and I can sense change in the air, specifically with regard to form. As I move from session to session, my own panel included, a clear thread begins to emerge, though it goes by varying names—visual memoir, blended genres, side-stepped boundaries, hybrid essays. Stories are food and while truth is still on the menu, the variety of dishes now expands beyond traditional bounds of language.
Amen to that.
Never one to feel at the center of anything, I love witnessing the erosion of borders—between poetry and prose, between word and image, sound and story itself. Story-telling is embracing a synesthetic sense of the world, something Shields hinted at three years ago, but that now feels deep in the DNA of nonfiction. Panels include: Music and Writing, Making (Radio) Waves, Performing the Essay, Of Visual Essayistics, Mix It Up, Adventures in Poetic Biography, CNF and the Hybrid Form, the Poessaytics of Form, and my own Mixed Media Memoir. “One art form can explain another,” said Harrison Candelaria Fletcher while using Cornell’s shadow boxes to illustrate his thoughts and experience with the hybrid essay. “Writing is a script that can only be heard in the ear,” Will Jennings said as he discussed his interests in the link between music and memory. “Food is a mode of storytelling,” said Samantha van Zweden of using the lyric essay to write on memory, food and mental illness.
A formalist might panic. If edges vanish, won’t everything blend into chaotic mush? How will we shelve our books at Barnes and Nobles?
Brenda Miller offered calming options in talking about her experiments with poetic forms applied to the essay. “I have always believed that rules and constraint can be liberating,” she explained as she presented her prose villanelle about two cats and pantoum on ectopic pregnancy and her college roommate Francisco. Another structured approach to genre bending comes through pairing. “The most interesting thing is the technique of juxtaposition,” said Michael Martone in the session on creative facting with Dave Madden, Tim Denevi and Maggie Nelson. Martone later illustrated the richness of juxtaposition in the keynote on keys he performed in duet fashion with Ander Monson. Juxtaposition is one way that a writer can apply what Madden called the “nonfictive imagination.” Nelson talked of “modes of assembly” as a way to reach into this species of imagination to find the story.
But what about truth? Is all this fuzziness a kind of magician’s slight of hand to enable the writer to lie? These questions circle back to Doyle’s story sermon where he implored us to use our gifts to “catch and share” the stories that are out in the world. “Witness is the greatest single thing you can do with your work,” he said. A witness is not a fabricator, but any witness perceives with his or her particular lens and recounts the story with his or her unique voice. I return as well to Kafka’s 63rd reflection on sin, suffering, hope, and the true way, where he reminds us that “our art is a way of being dazzled by truth.”
I was curious how the event affected a newcomer to the conference. My co-panelists, Amy Silverman and Deborah Sussman, both seasoned nonfictionalists, had never attended a NonfictioNow conference. “I was struck by how much experimenting is going on,” said Silverman, “I love seeing that visual art and poetry are making more appearances, even though my own work blends memoir with journalism. It was a nice time to get out of the writing cave and hear what others are working on.”
The collective wisdom and experience shared over these past three days has been astounding. The organizers, an army led by Robin Hemley, David Carlin and Nicole Walker, amassed a humbling assembly of authors. After reading through the speaker bios, I felt both honored and intimidated to be among such a group of writers. Nicole Walker senses the gladness of this entourage of talent that permeates the air in Flagstaff. “I thought I was doing this to bring people together for collaboration and conversation,” said Walker, “I didn’t know how much joy people would get from the conference and that makes me very happy.”
Amen to that.
Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She just finished her hybrid memoir (free verse + cartoon) on a childhood friendship cut short by murder and is launching a mixed form zine, GRAPH(feeties): true stories of walking. More on her work and submission info at: www.rebeccafishewan.com
You Can Haz Brevity Chapbooks
February 25, 2014 § 2 Comments
At our first-ever AWP Bookfair table (A40), we will be selling our first-ever Brevity chapbooks, at $1.50 a pop, or five for $5. Brief essays from Brenda Miller, Heather Sellers, Joey Franklin, Kent Shaw, and Ira Sukrungruang. We’re pretty excited.
Plus, three of the authors will be in Seattle and will drop by to sign your copies, so stop in and buy a few while they last. Here’s the schedule:
4:15 Brenda Miller
11 am Ira Sukrungruang
2 pm Joey Franklin
How Hipster Toast Made My Week
January 20, 2014 § 2 Comments
Brevity’s managing editor and culinarista Sarah Einstein writes:
John Gravois’ “A Toast Story” at Pacific Standard has me unexpectedly craving artisanal cinnamon toast, and not because I particularly like cinnamon toast. (For the record, while I share Brenda Miller’s preoccupation with toast, I prefer mine made out of pumpernickel or rye.) Gravois’ first reaction to San Frans’ latest food craze was “How silly; how twee; how perfectly San Francisco.” But he digs a little deeper, and what he finds will surprise and amaze you.
This essay demonstrates why writers need to stay emotionally and intellectually open when they set out to explore a subject; why the essay needs always to remain an exploration. If Gravois had insisted on sticking with his original thesis—that artisanal toast is just another example of how the influx of rich techies is ruining San Francisco—we would never have had this lovely, thought-provoking piece.
February 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
Over at the Journal, Silas Hansen conducts an excellent brief interview with Brevity favorite Brenda Miller, including this nifty new definition of the flash:
I do a lot of my writing in timed segments in groups, and so that is why much of my work lately is coming out in short bursts that seem self-contained. It feels like a flash piece when I can come around full circle pretty quickly with an image that “rings the bell” at the end. I think flash nonfiction acts as a microcosm of experience, and as such it needs to contain all the elements of that experience, but it concentrates them. When I think of “concentrate” I think of those cans of frozen orange juice—“just add water.” If one were to “just add water” to a short-short essay, an entire memoir should gush forth.
Creative Nonfiction and the Law
August 29, 2011 § 18 Comments
An article from the Associated Press exploring the question of whether a former law clerk must “adhere to the same ethical and legal obligations as an attorney,” what constitutes confidentiality, and further, how these issues apply to a work of creative nonfiction published in the Bellingham Review. Brevity author and respected teacher Brenda Miller notes the dilemma faced by small magazines when embroiled in such issues:
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans law office specializing in death penalty cases is suing a former summer intern who wrote an essay about her work at the nonprofit group, accusing her of disclosing confidential information and undermining clients’ defenses.
The Louisiana Capital Assistance Center is seeking a court order blocking Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich from publishing any privileged information she obtained while working as a law clerk for the center for several weeks in 2003.
Her lawyer says she is writing a book that is part memoir and “part literary journalism” about the prosecution of Ricky Langley, one of the center’s clients. Langley, a sex offender, was convicted of strangling a 6-year-old boy to death near Lake Charles in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison in 2009.
Marzano-Lesnevich, a Harvard Law School graduate who is pursuing a writing career instead of practicing law, wrote an essay on the same subject that was published by the Bellingham Review. The literary journal, based in Bellingham, Wash., removed the piece from its website after the center complained.
Brenda Miller, editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review, said in an email that Marzano-Lesnevich’s essay is a “wonderful piece of creative nonfiction” that the journal was proud to publish last year. Although the edition in which the essay appeared is still for sale, Miller said the Bellingham Review complied with the center’s demand to remove the piece from its website.
“We are a small journal, with a mostly volunteer staff running the journal on a shoestring, and so could not afford the time or resources to get involved in a legal process,” Miller wrote.
Nonfiction WOW! The Game Show
November 8, 2010 § 1 Comment
Patrick Madden and his team of hooligans (including Michael Martone) staged a romp of a game show at last week’s NonfictioNow Conference in Iowa City.
Mere words cannot express the joy of watching essayists Ned Stuckey-French, David Lazar, and Brenda Miller diaper stuffed animals in the Japanese game show portion of the evening.
Or the goofiness of watching the Lopates face off against the Gutkinds in Family Feud.
But pictures can convey the madness, so GO HERE AND SEE THE ACTION.
Or, if you’d rather, change a diaper and get a job.
Brenda Miller is Toast
September 16, 2010 § 2 Comments
Brenda is also one of our favorite essayists, and she writes about burnt bread (and dogs, and love) in the latest Sweet. Here’s just a taste:
And even later, when I lived with one man and then another and then another, toast could allay even the most bitter arguments. When I lived with Francisco in our mildewed canvas tent at the edge of Lake Powell, we made toast on the iron skillet, a process that required patience and watchfulness and diligence. We spread it with cheap margarine, ate it in silence in the early morning cold. When I lived with Seth at Orr Springs, we made toast on a griddle pan, from loaves we made ourselves, big heavy wheat bread always a little too moist in the middle, studded with hard specks of millet. Toasting made it better, and we spread the slices with homemade apricot jam, made it something to linger over in the mornings before all the chores—wood to be chopped, leaks to be fixed, weeds to be plucked—crowded in to oppress us.
When I lived with Keith, we toasted bread at all hours of the day as we both wrote in our rooms in that little house in Green Lake. He would say, in passing, this is my life! and sometimes this cry meant: “I can’t believe my good fortune, eating toast with you in this house on the hill!,” and sometimes, if the writing weren’t going so well, it meant: “I can’t believe this is what my life has come to, eating toast with you in this house on the hill.” But in any case, we enjoyed the toast, made with grainy, slightly sweet bread bought at the co-op down the road. Eating toast made everything good enough, for a little while at least.
Finish the whole plate of toast right here Sweet – A Literary Confection of Poetry and Creative Nonfiction.
It’s Never Just Me: Jill Talbot on “All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven”
October 2, 2014 § 10 Comments
An informative, fascinating inside look at Jill Talbot’s writing process:
According to my laptop, my first draft of this essay was saved on March 12, 2013, when I was teaching an Advanced course on the flash essay at St. Lawrence University. On the first day of that class in January, I challenged my students to avoid the established themes, the easy-groove patterns, and the go-to predilections we had all come to know of each other’s in the beginning workshop. I even told them I’d do it, too, because I write what I ask my students to write (I’ve read Brenda Miller describe how one of her essays came from a writing exercise she did with her students.) So I told them I’d do it, too, and that meant one thing: no Kenny. Their eyes widened.
I said, no, really, he won’t be in any essay. When I said it, I felt as if I were standing out on some essayistic ledge. Then I knew: I could write about my twenties in Texas to find out who I was in the years before meeting him. What choices did that girl make that led her to love a man who would end up leaving? So I started a series of flash essays about my dusty, self-destructive twenties in Texas. In fact, one of those essays, “Stranded,” appears in the Fall 2013 Issue of Brevity.
“All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven” began with Hemingway. I was flipping through The Garden of Eden and came across one of my underlines: “When you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.” And I thought, yes, it is, so I decided to try to write an essay about how I was doing that back then. I included the Hemingway line as an epigraph and started the essay: “Because you’re Jill Talbot, it’s all empty beer cans and skinny dipping.”
That semester was one of experiments, so not only did I write with my students, I also signed up for a workshop date, and I submitted a draft of this essay titled “Self-Portrait.” One student said about the opening line: “We’re tossed out of the essay if we’re NOT Jill Talbot.” That allowed me to see I was not using the 2nd person as direct address. I was writing to myself (and as essayists, we have to make connections with our readers). When it came my time to speak in workshop, I mentioned what the bearded man said that night—about there being a “little Jill Talbot in all of us,” and they suggested I put that into the essay. I’m glad they did.
The next draft was titled “Scattered,” and it was. It wasn’t clear I was addressing a younger self or even writing about the past because the draft was in present tense. At one point, it was in the past tense, but that implies distance and reflection, and this girl of the essay had neither. I was trying to capture a phase of my life from a collection of moments—like photographs—and those are always in present tense. I did try a draft in the first person, but I decided “Jill Talbot” needed to be different from the name at the top of the essay, and I had to make clear that this was the twenty-seven year old version. I let the title do that.
The guitar player, the lover, the PhD student in geology, and the Texas/Mexico border were always there, though not as united in form. Initially, the only parenthetical in the piece was “(this one a PhD student in Geology),” but when I was still revising the draft in early 2014 (when I had the privilege to be teaching with David Lazar and asking him at the Panera on the corner of State Street and Congress about his parentheticals), I realized I needed to be stylistically consistent, so I added one in each section.
One major change that didn’t come until an entire year of revisions? The diction. The third section, the Geology section, always had “surveying her neck” and my favorite word in the essay that came from my then neighbor, Dr. John Huntley, a paleontologist in the Geology department at St. Lawrence—who is now rocking it (sorry) at the University of Missouri. But back in New York in 2013, I called him one day and explained, “I want a geology-related word like erosion but something more sudden, destructive, aggressive.” And that’s how I got “corrade empty streets.” Only after looking at the draft for a year did I realize each section needed such precision. So I tuned the guitar section, let the bearded man “[play] the same chord” and “[strum]” the water; I added the bob and weave between me and my lover’s wife, the “sheets taut as a boxing canvas,” and the phone throwing rings like punches. And I slowed down the Texas border scene by pushing the lyricism—all those “s”s and “t”s—which in my mind whispers the beginning of a certain word. Because I still wish I could tell that twenty-seven year old woman standing on a rock to stop so she will no longer feel that “desert inside.”
[Side note on considerations when submitting to a particular journal: There was a line, a line I really loved: “In the back bedroom, where you thought he would be fucking you by now, the phone throws its high-pitched rings like punches.” But I hoped to place the essay in Brevity, and I couldn’t recall one “fuck” in the archives—beyond Lee Martin’s “Talk Big” and William Bradley’s “Julio at Large”—and neither Martin nor Bradley were using the word the way I was, so I took out that phrase after deciding Brevity wasn’t a “fucking” journal.]
As for Hemingway? I held on to him for dear life, worried the reader wouldn’t get “danger” unless I held it at the top of my essay like a flashlight guiding the way. But one afternoon, I tweeted: “To epigraph or not to epigraph this flash essay is my question.” And while a few of my followers suggested “Yes!” Ryan Van Meter replied, “My vote is no.” And that’s all it took—I admire and envy his writing so much I immediately deleted the Hemingway. Only then did I understand that the epigraph wasn’t a flashlight, it was a weight, because it’s my job to show the reader the danger. I added “All or Nothing” to the title in a private nod to Hemingway (not to mention Sinatra) and to hint that with all the “Alls” I had going on back then, I had nothing.
In the end, the most problematic portions of the essay turned out to be those one-liners. In fact, the second major revision began: “It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.” It didn’t take long for me to see I couldn’t begin with the abstract—I had to begin with “empty beer cans and skinny dipping.” After all, the essay is about emptiness and baring myself.
I’ll end here with the progression and revisions of what ended up being the final five lines. By the way, thanks to Steve Edwards who showed me that “82 west out of Lubbock” was the only way for the essay to end. With “Jill Talbot” trying to leave herself behind.
It was lightning storms in the distance.
Blinking lights on the answering machine.
It was “Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.
Letters you now wish you’d kept.
It was all Marlboro Lights in a soft pack.
Pay phones outside gas stations.
82 west out of Lubbock
It’s all notes in the margin.
A tired story.
Blinking lights on the answering machine.
“Goodnight Elisabeth” by the Counting Crows.
82 west out of Lubbock.
It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.
It’s the Hemingway professor.
And it’s dangerous.
It’s all underlining words in used novels.
And hole-in-the-wall bars.
It’s letting the machine get it.
Pay phones near exits.
It’s all the hard mornings in the same black skirt.
America’s Greatest Hits.
82 west out of Lubbock.
Gold drinks from a silver bar.
It’s all running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.
It’s all thunderstorms in the distance.
Blinking lights on the answering machine.
A pay phone on the corner.
It’s running away from yourself knowing it’s something you can never really do.
82 west out of Lubbock.
Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.