September 9, 2022 § 10 Comments
By Leslie Stonebraker
Welcome to part 3 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. For the genesis of this research project, read Part 1: “How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” To discover Brevity’s most overused words and best-favored subjects, read Part 2: “Word clouds and other squishy results.” This final installment is where a non-analyst tries her hand at hard math.
Before narrative, before voice, before tense and point of view, before even paragraph and sentence, there was a word. The word that birthed every other word, brought them all forth stacked and tumbling. Hieroglyphs slick with meaning that, when we’re lucky, conjure a universe in a few scratches of ink.
Flash essays are made of very few and specific words. But it’s difficult to conjure worlds in less than 750: fewer than half the essays I read achieve a sub-650 count, and only 11% contain less than 400 words. A grand total two essays limbo under the 150 threshold. It’s hard to write small. More than a third of Brevity’s accepted submissions from 2017 to 2021 clock in at 700-749 words.
Zooming outward to the rooms the words built: sentences and paragraphs. There appear to be three categories of flash essay: the nearly-if-not-exactly-single-sentence, the balanced essay, and the choppy essay. But to prove this theory, I’ll have to analyze sentences and paragraphs simultaneously, and I need to work myself up to that level of math.
Instead let’s examine the building’s aesthetic: essay type, point of view and tense. 58% of the pieces are best understood as personal essays: personal experiences told using literary techniques. Essays like Megan Pillow Davis’ “Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling,” which cleverly lulls me into forgetting the title by the end of her 708 words, such that I read her bared teeth as a snarl. Like Donna Steiner’s gleeful “Lick”—though that anecdote begins with a short list. Speaking of, more than half of the hermit crabs (themselves 13% of Brevity’s essays) are lists. The rest tend toward the lyric, the fragmented, the braided—all arguably subsets of the personal essay. Only 8 of the 228 essays analyzed could be considered literary journalism. The gravitational tug of the personal helps writers to create a strong connection in such a brief space.
This logic also explains why 85% of the essays are in the first person singular. I. Me. Point of view perspective from my eyes, staring at my chapped fingers tapping these words onto my MacBook keyboard. Distant second of second person, you netting only 9% of the essays in my data set. You that can invite a reader in, you that can put difficult events at a distance, you that sometimes requires acrobatics for exposition that you should already know since you are, well, you. First person plural and third person the remaining 6%, handfuls of essays managing these tricky points of view.
Tense, too, tends personal: 64% using present—the immediacy of running, jumping, climbing trees. 35% went reflective, those that ran, jumped, and climbed in some sepia-tone past. Only 1% thought forward: one day, when my back doesn’t ache from slouching in front of this computer, I will run and jump and climb.
Narrative time period is a different beast. In The Best of Brevity, Dinty W. Moore commended the “inventive writers” who quickly disproved his preliminary hypothesis that successful flash must focus on “the smallest period of time possible” (x). My graph verifies Moore’s realization: there are no narrative limitations to a flash essay.
Which brings me to scary big “M” Math.
Removing Jill Kolongowski’s “160 Things That Scare Me”—a true outlier with 199 sentences across 97 paragraphs—I pivot my table, nest sentences beneath paragraphs, and command Excel to create a scatterplot. Setting the background to black, I sit and stare. I like to see the flash this way, a swarm of lighting bugs, a constellation of stars.
I am happy to disprove my tidy theory of three essay types: in place of distinct groupings, a continuum. Most essays fall within a rough parallelogram below 20 paragraphs and 55 sentences. As paraphs increase, so do sentences—it would be difficult to read an essay that broke sentences across the backs of paragraphs (though successful in Irina Dumitrescu’s “Line,” and Kristine Langley Mahler’s “A Knot on the Finger,” among others). The bands of yellow dots seem to slope upward at the same rate, hinting at a golden ratio. When I limit the data to the concentrated area of light and insert a trendline (I impress even myself with this bit of Excel wizardry), I get the following Math:
y = 0.9497x + 22.595
R² = 0.2122
It doesn’t feel all that actionable, and a quick Google search confirms my coefficient of determination (R²) is probably weak. I talk up my coefficient, try to give it the determination to succeed, but it replies that I should brew another mug of peppermint tea and look elsewhere for answers.
I’m drawn to the graph’s brightness in the low paragraph counts. It signals those single sentence essays I expected to see—true one sentencers like Elena Passarello’s “Death Sentence” and close-enough-ers like David L. Ulin’s “Rite of Passage”—but also a second category: the stream-of-consciousness essay. These essays are one paragraph because it evokes the rush of a breath, words punctuated by sentences mostly for flair. Francis Walsh’s “I Can Shrink to Perfection” (22 sentences), Joe Plicka’s “But Whyyy?” (32 sentences), and even Allegra Hyde’s “Misinformation” (45 sentences) could be categorized stream-of-consciousness.
Digging further, I diagram the words per sentence of three stream-of-consciousness essays: “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” “Twenty Minutes,” and “Anniversary Disease.” Here we see the melody, pitch, and rhythm of the flash.
“If You Find a Mouse…” and “Anniversary Disease” meander along gentle turns. In contrast, “Twenty Minutes” is a high-speed chase—all peaks and valleys, especially the build and drop between Sabrina Hick’s first four sentences.
Performing the same work on five more essays, chosen because they reside in the average band of the scatterplot and because I like them:
The turn from short to lyrical sentences halfway through “WANTED: Biological Father” is obvious. The rapid fire of “Known Killers” unceasing. The lyricism of “Conduction,” the devastating finale of “Women These Days,” the evenhandedness of “When a 17-Year-Old Checkout Clerk in Small Town Michigan Hits on Me, I Think about the Girl I Loved at 17,” all appear in the graph.
Viewing flash as sentences per paragraph simplifies the drama into soft, undulating waves, the same way ocean breaking over coral turns to rumpled velvet when viewed from an airplane.
Is this a useful way to think about writing flash? Or writing generally? Perhaps a tool for revision, to ensure musicality matches content and voice. To bend and crack sentences until they shine like glowsticks. Will this data land you a Brevity byline? Against the odds, it got me one, so who knows!
Please comment with your insights. Perhaps together we can feed our addiction and tame the beast of flash.
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.
April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Alexa Weinstein
I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID
James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.
Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.
Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.
I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*
(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)
who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges
how it made me feel • how many pages
a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air
in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit
not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft
the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away
no long speeches
as the plane crashes • as I learned to write
so weird and unique • so enchanting
for the picture • for the end • for taking it
like a sentence • like lying down
to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over
more silence • more attention
wants to arise
I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY
At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.
At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.
On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.
At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.
At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.
March 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
The next iteration of the popular NonfictioNow Conference will be hosted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, from October 28-31st, 2015. The conference began in Iowa City in 2005, repeated twice in Iowa, and moved to Australia for 2012. This year’s conference – the fifth in an irregular series – is discussed by conference organizer Nicole Walker, in an interview conducted by Erica Trabold:
Erica Trabold: NonfictioNow is a relatively new conference for nonfiction writers. What do attendees typically find most appealing about the conference?
Nicole Walker: Although this conference is centered around nonfiction, nonfiction itself is a somewhat hybrid, inclusive, bending genre. Fiction writers, poets, essayists, and journalists gather to really consider what is nonfiction and how nonfiction is shaping and defining itself as its own genre and in a conversation with other genres. So in some ways, its exclusive title is just a tricky way to be incredibly inclusive. This conference, too, is working on establishing an international understanding of the genre— writers will be attending from Hong Kong and Singapore, among other places.
ET: In the call for proposals, you expressed interest in work that focuses on genre boundaries, tensions between art/facts/truth, and “forms beyond the strictly literary.” What can you tell us about the proposals you’ve read so far and, perhaps, selected?
NW: We haven’t selected proposals yet. We’re still compiling them. We’re received over a hundred panel proposals for about 50 spots, so the competition will be stiff this year. Still, glancing quickly at the spreadsheet that my MFA student and conference-organizing-assistant Stacy Murison has put together, I see excellent titles like “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating The Animal World,” “The View from the ‘Slush Pile’,” “Author Versus Narrator,” “Rewriting Those We Love,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Perspective, Agency, and the Tools for Getting Both on the Page.”
ET: What might attendees recognize about this year’s conference, and what will be brand new?
NW: As in the past, we’ll have keynote speakers who are as diverse in content as they are in form. Roxane Gay, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery, Brian Doyle and Michael Martone will bring their unique vision of what nonfiction is to the conference. We will have panels during the day and readings around town at night, integrating the town of Flagstaff with the conference, as happened in Melbourne and Iowa City.
For the first time, we are hosting a book fair. We’ve limited the book fair to 20 tables so attendees aren’t overwhelmed by the vast number of lit mags and presses out there. Those exhibitors will be able to promote their books, magazines, and commitment to publishing contemporary nonfiction.
We’ll also host a game show night— which happened before but will be a little more formal this year— with Patrick Madden and Elena Passarello. On opening night, Alison Deming and Joni Tevis will kick off the conference with a reading sponsored, we hope, by the Arizona Arts Commission. It’s going to be nonstop nonfiction, but, even more inclusively, we’ll have discussions about how fiction and poetry are informed by nonfiction.
ET: What part of this year’s conference has you the most excited?
NW: I’m incredibly excited how many speakers we have coming to the conference. Six! Plus two more on Wednesday. And readings hosted by Milkweed, Diagram and Hotel Amerika in spots around town. And the influx of editors from magazines and presses will add a new dimension to the conference. We’re hosting the conference in the High Country Conference Center, which is attached to the Drury Hotel, where a number of our guests will be staying. It will be great to have a centralized space for everyone to convene and hang out and attend the panels and the keynote speaker sessions. The conference center is only a couple blocks from downtown so it will be easy to connect Flagstaff businesses and restaurants with the conference, making it a destination conference as well as a professional one. And true to form, I care most about the food, so I’m excited to bring a number of local restaurants on board to help sponsor the conference by advertising their restaurants and offering deals to visitors. I want people to know how excellent Flagstaff’s restaurants are. (Hmm. That was a lot of “ands.” It was too hard to pick just one.)
Brevity blog readers can visit nonfictionow.org to register for the conference and learn more about confirmed panelists and speakers as information becomes available.
Erica Trabold’s (@ericatrabold) essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Weave, Seneca Review, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction.
Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, released in June 2013 and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.
March 9, 2013 § 8 Comments
I am thrilled to report that on Thursday I met my nonfiction idol, Phillip Lopate, and while name-dropping and in the interest of full disclosure, I will also share that David Shields stopped his auditorium reading just to address my friend and me specifically. Fine, so it didn’t happen exactly that way, but since this is both the age of genre-bending and look-at-me social media, it could have happened that way, or it may well have happened that way, or perhaps it even did—in a fictionalized-accounting-of-nonfiction-event-in-pursuit-of-a-higher-truth sort of way. (The higher truth, of course, being that I am special and so are my friends.)
I sat like an excited schoolgirl in the front row with my writing cohort, Nina Gaby, for the I Essay to Be reading of four generations of essayists: Lopate—60s, Shields—50s, Amy Fusselman—40s, and Elena Passarello—30s. Nina and I are disastrous classmates: she, the animated instigator, and I, the giggly sidekick. On my own I can pass for well-behaved, but with her I am a goner—a grown woman with appallingly-little self-control, who has to sit on her hands and bite her cheeks to keep from losing her mind and bladder.
David Shields introduced the reading with a suggestion that its arrangement along generational lines might allow us to see how the essay “tumbles forth” over time. ‘Tumbling’ proved the perfect verb, as the event romped, sang, whispered, boomed, cried, and looped back again, in a chorus that illustrated the form’s elasticity and capacity for wide-ranging structure, subject, and tone. The experience served as a reminder of the essay’s expansiveness, how it holds room for pretty much everything, even nagging examinations of truth itself—where and how truth fits and what it even is, which I realize is a non-assertion assertion that makes me sound like a douchebag.
Through Lopate’s softly-assured and funny reading about genre concerns, to Shields’ deadpan delivery of “Life Story,” a riff on cliché via bumper stickers—from fill-in-the-blank “On Board” to “Sober and Crazy,” or my favorite, “Die With Your Mask On,” Nina and I (and most of the audience I would guess) were overcome—howling with laughter in some moments, wonder-struck in others. Next came Amy Fusselman’s essay on time, parenthood, and pedophilia, all rendered in a pitch-perfect collage of musing and narrative, and then Elena Passarello, from her new book Let Me Clear My Throat. What is there to say about a writer who looks like a starlet herself, belts like Judy Garland, reads in a husky almost-drawl, and writes crackling prose that compares Garland’s voice to a “a disturbing emotional vertigo” and the way she sings as “like a dram of Armagnac”? Spellbinding.
But back to what did or didn’t happen: I sat close enough to Lopate to touch him and weep into his blazer, but I didn’t. I might have, though, if I could be sure the gesture would come off not as stalking, but as guerilla marketing. In fact, I was merely star struck, and so naturally I stared at him with a frozen serial-killer smile and said nothing.
When Shields read, my friend howled with such consistency and enthusiasm that I became a giggly noodle in my chair, and Shields paused and motioned to us, “this woman [Nina] is really enjoying this essay.” I felt quite proud to be singled out, but then waited for us to be removed and put into the hall. Maybe we were removed, I can’t remember.
Lopate says that facts and their implications reveal “the innate shape of reality”; he describes his as the “vanguard position” and concedes that Shields’ blurrier view of fiction vs. nonfiction while fundamentally different, is as valid—even healthy for the form. This acknowledgment seems right to me, the essay itself so flexible, the conversation should be too. My own position is closer to Lopate’s, not because I have a crush on him or a pre-contemporary aesthetic or am somehow more abjectly truthful than my contemporaries, but because I am sentimental. I believe, as Lopate does, that “facts matter,” in part because they encode the DNA of emotional resonance that I try to render as a nonfiction writer. I believe in William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things.”
What I was wearing; how it smelled like banana and lemon oil; the isosceles triangle of light that hung over the readers; how Passerello arched like a cat when she broke from reading into song, “When You’re Smiling!”; that Amy Fusselman was late, through no fault of her own I am sure; and that David Shields’ hands shook a bit as he read: these things mattered. I wish I could tell you how much they mattered, but I wasn’t there.
Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist ofGlamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.