Some of My Favorite Essays from Brevity Magazine
The single resource I’ve used the most in my writing classes might be Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. The site is jam-packed with short nonfiction pieces and craft essays that are quick to read as well as fun, moving, and instructional.
Editor-in-chief Dinty W. Moore is someone you might want to follow on social (he’s a great source for writing quotes), as well as take a look at his books. I recommend Crafting the Personal Essay for anyone working in the genre (aside—browse Amazon, buy indie).
I can’t write a blog post about Brevity without mentioning Allison K Williams. Allison is the journal’s social media editor (you should follow her too) and she writes terrific blog posts. My recent fave is Not a Memoir but a Mystery. Here’s a snippet: “Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.” Will this memoir work? Allison gives the hard truth. No. Read this thing.
If you’re new to Brevity, you might be overwhelmed by the amount of content. A member of one of my classes recently asked me if I’d get her started with what I found worthwhile to read there. I gathered up a handful of the pieces I’ve used in class and thought I’d share them with you here. Enjoy! And let me know if there are any other Brevity pieces you love.
Not Every Sentence Can Be Great But Every Sentence Must Be Good
Should every sentence in a book be a *good* one? Michael Cunningham thinks so. Cynthia Newberry Martin’s essay was inspired by Cunningham’s letters in the New Yorker about his experience as a Pulitzer fiction juror in 2012. Her Brevity piece discusses how to take a sentence from boring to good and also provided a fun exercise for my class in which we turned to p. 143 in a random novel and decided whether not the first sentence was good or not. It was also a great chance for us to give each other novel recs!
Going Cold: Writing Emotion, the Earley Scale, and the Brilliance of Edwidge Danticat
In writing classes we often talk about the idea of “writing cool when the action is hot.” It’s common for writers to want to match the strong feelings and forceful emotions in a scene with strong and forceful language. It seems almost counterintuitive to pull back on the language, to go colder when your objective is to increase the emotion in your reader. But you should. And this essay explains why.
The Water is Rising Pleas
We read this essay after talking about Dinty’s introduction to the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction (highly recommend). In the intro to the book, he describes the reader as a “smoke jumper” who starts a flash nonfiction piece by landing close to the fire, where our words must be hot from the first sentence. The Water is Rising Pleas (about Hurricane Katrina) is a beautiful example of that. It would also be a good piece to read as a model if you’re wanting to write something inspired by images (photos or video) or headlines. Stunning and heartbreaking.
Things That Appear Ugly Or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful
I love lists! So many wonderful works of literature are crafted from lists and this essay is one of my favorite examples. When writers working in short forms get stuck, list-making can often get them unstuck. In this blog post, I suggest making a list of “mundane” objects within a 5 ft. radius of your chair and how you can use that list as the impetus for an essay or poem. The ugly/beautiful things in the Brevity essay are just so delightful and had me thinking about how I could use the concept to create my own new type of list.
This essay has become a faithful go-to in my classes. I’ve used it numerous times when teaching flash nonfiction and when talking about writing in the epistolary form. It’s also worth reading the companion piece by the author about why she wrote the essay.
On the farm
Judith Kitchen is the queen of short creative nonfiction and she’s edited some of my favorite flash nonfiction anthologies. In the two sections that make up this essay, Kitchen imagines that she’s the girl in the photos (she’s not). This is a wonderful example to look to when writing from photographs, which is one of my favorite types of *prompts*.
Watching My Words: A Writer Learns to Trim the Fat
It’s true, almost every draft will be improved by shortening it. This piece makes the case for trimming your adjectives and adverbs, shooting the darlings, and hacking out the boring parts. We know this, yet we desperately need to be told it again in a fun way! Praise be to the brilliant writing teachers who give me things like this to hand over to my students.
That’ll get you started!