March 21, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Celia Jeffries
When I first taught the essay, it was in the form of five paragraphs: a nice model for young writers used to counting on their fingers.
When I taught high school English, we pushed beyond five paragraphs to more formal essays: persuasive, descriptive, narrative, and expository, all of which may be as necessary as learning table manners, but each of which sometimes felt like writing with one hand folded in the lap.
In college I taught the requisite freshman composition essays: analytical, argumentative, compare and contrast, and, if the school was progressive enough, the personal essay.
For the past few years, I’ve been teaching writing workshops in a literary arts center, working with adults who had survived the five-paragraph essay and all the proscriptive forms handed out in English classes across the land, but each of whom sensed there was another—perhaps better—way to present their thoughts on paper.
I went back to some of my favorite essayists: Joan Didion, John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, and M.F.K. Fisher. They weren’t arguing or persuading or comparing and contrasting. Or if they were, they were not following a rigid formula to do so. They were simply speaking their mind—on the page. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with rage, but always with their own engaging voice. I kept reading, moving through the “new journalism,” the “nonfiction novel,” reveling in how writers were pushing the boundaries and playing with form. Along came “flash” pieces and “hermit crab” essays and prose that looks and feels like poetry, and essays that break out of academic labels to make the reader see and feel the world in new ways.
Finally, along came Randon Billings Noble and her anthology A Harp in the Stars, An Anthology of Lyric Essays. Acknowledging that there is no widespread agreement on what it is or what to call it, Noble has gathered the slippery term lyric essay and folded it into the warm arms of four different forms: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. In her introduction she refers back to mythology, to Orpheus playing the lyre. “His music was so powerful it could almost—almost—raise the dead.”
Lyric essays, Noble says,
have the same power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse, to overcome. Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.
Noble says she came to define a lyric essay as “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.”
Thank you Randon Billings Noble. This anthology is a treasure chest of daring ways to take one’s voice to the page. It opens with two stunning flash essays (defined by Noble as one thousand words or fewer) by Diane Seuss and Jericho Parms, and then off the page flies Sarah Minor’s segmented essay “Vide” that literally must be seen to be believed. “Apocalypse Logic” by Elissa Washuta and “Woven” by Lidia Yuknavitch offer startling braided essays, while Sarah Einstein offers the laugh-out-loud (well, parts of it made me laugh out loud) segmented essay “Self-Portrait in Apologies.”
It’s hard to highlight just a few of the forty-four essays in this collection, each of which “stands out” and offers the reader an idea in an “unexpected way.” Noble has said she’s fond of the six craft essays included because they are “lyric essays about lyric essays; they do what they’re talking about as they talk about it.” As if forty-four outstanding essays and six craft essays were not enough, Noble closes out the anthology with a section titled “Meditations” where she gives the authors the last word: each contributor adds their own short meditation on the lyric essay.
My copy of A Harp in the Stars is already dog-eared and covered with post-it notes and will be at top of my syllabus.
Celia Jeffries is the author of Blue Desert, a finalist in both the 2021 IPNE literary fiction awards and the 2021 Sarton historical fiction awards. Her prose has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Solsticelitmag.com, Mom Egg Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals.
July 23, 2020 § 19 Comments
By Jason Thayer
I was having trouble focusing. Every story idea, every essay concept seemed unwieldy, unmanageable in the hellscape of Spring 2020. My mind flitted from anxiety to new anxiety as I obsessively checked the infection rates, monitored the new restrictions, raged against the maskless. I sat down at my computer every afternoon and tried to write something new and failed. I tried to revise my memoir manuscript, but couldn’t keep track of the arc, couldn’t assess whether the pacing in the first chapter was too fast or whether my hook was punchy enough to attract an agent.
The doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, a woman with short gray hair who wore pedal pushers like my mother. She was hugging a cardboard box.
“We have this food I won’t eat,” she said, then took a breath. Exhaled. “I don’t know if you know yet, but my husband died last week.”
I did not know this. I stood on the front porch with her for a few moments, fumbling for condolences, finally taking the box of food.
I told my partner about the interaction, the way our neighbor had used the plural, we, and then the singular, I. We unpacked the saltines, the canned chicken breast, the diet 7-Up. Trips to the grocery store were daunting and so, even though these items didn’t top our shopping list, we made our way through the gifted food.
In the morning while I washed dishes, I’d see our neighbor walk past the window and my mind would swim toward her sadness. Grief is its own isolation, and knowing that she was bearing hers alone, in lockdown, seemed an unprecedented cruelty. My father died when I was a child, and with a loss like this, comes a special communion with the bereaved; I could not stop thinking about my neighbor. Wondering what she made for dinner, and how long the leftovers lasted. Whether she was eating much at all. Whether there were days she didn’t speak to anyone except the cat that skulked across her lawn chasing squirrels. At night, I would look across our yards, the ill-defined property line, and see her reading in her living room, a single light on in the big dark house. In the morning, I would see her walk past my window as I washed dishes, and if I let my mind linger too long on her sadness, my eyes would well.
I sat down to write about this, but again, the task of molding this small interaction into a traditional essay seemed daunting. I did not have the attention span to research the impact of grief on bereaved spouses, or cull my memory for a poignant anecdote that would characterize our deceased neighbor, bringing to light what was lost. Even a flash piece was more than I could commit to, as the daily news grew more and more grim, the world around us more chaotic and unstable.
But what about a single sentence? Could I write a single sentence about my neighbor’s private grief and its vicarious impact? Yes, I could. I could work within these parameters. I could commit to this.
The single-sentence format is well-suited for this new world where our attentions stray, where our brains must keep tabs on virus rates, on which family members aren’t wearing masks, on systemic racism, on cops murdering unarmed Black and brown people.
This isn’t to suggest the single-sentence form is any easier to write. For example, I had wanted to write this blog entry in a single sentence, but couldn’t manage to fit everything I wanted to say. The limitations of a single sentence challenge the writer to twist syntax, bend structure to their will, or else winnow narrative down to the bones.
But with these restrictions also comes the opportunity for innovation. Experiments that might not be sustainable in longer work are manageable, even revelatory in brief formats. Could I read a whole novel where the protagonist was a slice of pizza? No. But a single sentence? Definitely.
Single-sentence stories can be told in a single breath, like Hemingway’s famous, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But they can also take the form of Diane Seuss’ tour d’force, “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” published in Brevity. Here, content dictates form. The long-winded, tangent-laden single sentence mimics the breathless adrenaline of the speaker in that moment, trying to make sense of what she has just done, excising the two drug dealers from her son’s apartment. This form wouldn’t work for a plodding story without that charged immediacy.
For my purposes, a modest single sentence was ideal for distilling a small interaction that lingered with me:
I did not know our neighbor died until his wife knocked to offer a box of food she wouldn’t eat: pancake mix, diet 7-up, Pepperidge Farm white bread her husband had stomached during a 3-month-long losing-battle to cancer, a box I took gratefully, offering condolences—no hugs, because the virus was already spreading, and because I didn’t know these neighbors well enough to provide this comfort, in fact, had no idea that the jolly guy I’d bantered with under the black walnut tree we shared, had cancer—and now I try not to watch her, absorb her loneliness, take it as my own, the widow social distancing in that big house, leaving briefly for daily walks past our kitchen window as I wash dishes, griddle my partner a breakfast of pancakes.
I had seen single sentences published in lit mags before, but I’d never heard of a journal that dealt exclusively in single-sentence content. Well, I thought. That’s an idea. That’s a magazine for this new age of insecurity.
This July, I launched Complete Sentence, an online magazine of single-sentence prose. Weekly, we publish single-sentence essays, stories, reviews, and hot takes. If you are having trouble focusing, consider this challenge: write a single sentence. Just one. And then send it our way.
For submission guidelines to Complete Sentence, click here.
Jason Thayer is the Editor-in-Chief of Complete Sentence. His work has been published in The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Hobart, and Essay Daily among others. Find more info at jasonthayer.com and on twitter @thejasonthayer.
April 19, 2016 § Leave a comment
Lavish congratulations and turquoise sequins glued onto sea-colored cotton to Diane Seuss, frequent Brevity contributor, and one of two finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, for her book Four-Legged Girl.
This might be a good time to reprise some of Diane’s stunning prose work over the past few years, including “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” “Gyre,” “Candy,” “I can’t stop thinking of that New York skirt, turquoise sequins glued onto sea-colored cotton,” and “You Like It Don’t You, You Like It Hard and Cold.”
Hard to beat those titles.
January 11, 2012 § 1 Comment
In Brevity’s Winter 2012 issue, John Warner, Melissa Delbridge, Nina Boutsikaris, Anne Panning, Philip Gerard, Heal McKnight, Amy Butcher, SJ Sindu, Samuel Autman, Margaret Whitford, Sheila Squillante, Kerrie Kemperman, Kara Garbe Balcerzak, Dylan Brown, Diane Seuss, and Brenda Peynado offer brief, vivid prose focused on inadvertant idiocy, stillness, gunfire, family funerals, how quickly gossip travels, almonds, community college teaching, and narrative. Stunning work across the board.
Watch for it late next week.
May 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
We’ve launched a truly outstanding Summer 2010 issue, featuring twelve beautiful concise essays from Fleda Brown, Steven Church, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Sarah J. Lin, John Calderazzo, Marcia Aldrich, Melissa Ballard, Erin Murphy, Danny Goodman, Lisa Groen Braner, Diane Seuss, and Jenny Spinner.
In our Craft Section, Drema Hall Berkheimer visits those moments when the muse seemingly has better things to do, and Sharon DeBartolo Carmack outlines the ways a writer can put proper flesh onto the bones of ancestral stories.
Also Book Reviews from Michelle Wittle, Kelly Ferguson, Patty Wetli, and J. Luise, and stunning photographs from Ryan Rodgers.
January 22, 2009 § 2 Comments
BREVITY, the journal of concise nonfiction, launches the 29th issue today, bringing you the Big Bad Wolf, a glass eyeball, Parisian lingerie, a pair of stolen sneakers, an orphaned doe, and, possibly, a visitor from another planet. Maybe it’s just the snow playing tricks on our eyes, but each of these pieces seems to ask the same thing: “Did I see what I think I saw?” Bundle up and get warm by the intense fire of such talents as Lance Larsen, David Bradley, Tim Elhajj, John Bresland, Diane Seuss, Joe Bonomo, Kyle Minor, Laura Sewell Matter, Elizabeth Westmark, and Bryan Fry. Also, new Craft Essays from Brenda Miller and Lisa Knopp, and Book Reviews from Mary Richert, Richard Gilbert, and Stephanie Susnjara.