The Best of BREVITY: A Group Interview for VIDA
It requires no stretch of the imagination to explain our need, in recent months, for succinct and poignant prose. Daunted by the challenges and complications of coronavirus, quarantine, and unprecedented political polarity, our minds feel, in many ways, more fragile than ever, more susceptible to suffering. But there has also been no time quite like the present to absorb beauty, to demand it, if only in small doses. One literary journal—Brevity Magazine, spearheaded by longtime editor Dinty W. Moore and managing editor Zoë Bossiere—aims to satiate our hunger with a new anthology, The Best of Brevity, out now from Rose Metal press. Spanning over two decades’ worth of writing, this new collection combines some of the nation’s—and indeed world’s—best essayistic voices, including work by Pulitzer prize finalists, numerous National Endowment for the Arts fellows, Pushcart Prize winners, Best American Essays authors, and writers from India, Egypt, Ireland, Spain, Malaysia, and Japan, among others.
The journal has also become a beacon for amplifying marginalized voices and those whose work targets matters of social justice and inclusivity. In anticipation of the new anthology, I spoke with four whose work I particularly admire: Debra Marquart, Jamila Osman, Torrey Peters, and Alexis Wiggins. Essayists, poets, and fiction writers, each of us has published at least one essay in Brevity since the journal’s founding, and some have published several.
Amy Butcher: I want to open our conversation with perhaps the most obvious question, which is to ask each of you to speak to how you came to the flash essay form and what about it felt attractive to you at the time. Has that appeal shifted over time?
Alexis Wiggins: I confess I came to it out of failure.
I had always assumed being a writer meant being a fiction writer, and so that is what I aimed to do: write serious long fiction. I got an MFA in fiction when I was in my 20s, but I realized near the end of the program that the writing I seemed to get the strongest response to was flash nonfiction; my fellow MFA students were supportive of my fiction, but they really reacted to my nonfiction. Some of my writing teachers encouraged me to submit to some small literary magazines like Brevity (full disclosure: founder of Brevity, Dinty Moore, was one of my MFA instructors), and I began to get acceptances for the first time. I couldn’t seem to get my foot in the door with fiction, and the writing of it felt laborious, like churning butter. But flash nonfiction felt like breathing. It felt like something I had to do, to write down these flashes of my life to get them out, to exorcise them. Learning that I was writing a legitimate genre and not just fragments or notes, was freeing—suddenly this whole world opened up. You can do this? I thought. You can just write these snippets of reality and that counts? I was elated because my biggest struggle with writing had always been plot, story arc. Flash nonfiction allowed me to cut through all that and focus on the moment, the scene, the tension itself. I loved that you could “break the rules” that way; I wish I’d known about it earlier.
So I failed at being a fiction writer, but in the process I think I discovered I was meant to write nonfiction. This has been the most delicious kind of failure: figuring out who you are through realizing who you are not.
Torrey Peters: I had the opposite experience as Alexis, I wanted to be a nonfiction essayist, and I have ended up writing novels. My essay in Brevity got published despite myself. I never intended this essay to be an essay. It began as a Facebook post, written in anger at the steady drumbeat of trans women’s deaths. When I posted it, I did so somewhat aggressively, with the idea of injecting a block of horrifying text into the timelines of people who followed me in order to shock them into awareness. I spent the late hours of Trans Day of Remembrance in 2014 looking up the data compiled by a couple different transgender advocacy organizations on trans people murdered in 2014, and arranged that data into the essay. That 2014-era post went somewhat viral, and ended up attracting the notice of Silas Hansen, who was guest editing an “Experiences of Gender” special issue of Brevity. He asked to include it as an essay in the issue. Since then, when I have intentionally tried to write briefly, it has never really worked. Even my short stories become novellas. Maybe it’ll again happen if I don’t try to make it happen.
Jamila Osman: I was a poet before I was an essayist, and what I love about the flash essay form is its obliteration of genre. It doesn’t concern itself with the traditional narrative arc, honing in, instead, on what the essay cannot exist without. The stakes are immediately clear. There is no room for what isn’t important, there is no room for what can’t carry its own weight. I appreciate this transparency. I appreciate that the flash form preserves and maintains what I love most about both poetry and essay—tension, truth, clarity, precision.
Debra Marquart: It’s so interesting to read these different approaches to the short form. Like Jamila, I started out as a poet. Before that, I was a musician and lyricist/songwriter. So the short form has always appealed to me because it allows for the compression of a moment, a feeling, an insight. Even when I write in longer forms—book chapters, longer essays—I still keep the feeling of the flash form in my head as a kind of metrical unit, because I want my prose to sing.
AB: All of your essays center—at least in some regard—around violence against women or non-binary individuals: physical violence, threat or intimidation of violence, even murder. Could you each share what about the flash form felt appropriate as a vehicle for exploring those experiences?
TP: Honestly, I think most of my work comes about as I think about various kinds of transgressions or violence against femininity, but the flash form shows that aspect more starkly.
DM: It might be that a flash piece is a bitter little pill that, if you can write it down, will cure you of some of the ills of the moment that you are portraying. When I started writing, after a spectacularly catastrophic music career, I decided to put my trouble on the page—mostly in an attempt to get it out of my daily life. For the most part (knock on wood), it has worked. But I do recall having a conversation long ago with Tim O’Brien, the author of The Things They Carried and some other very traumatic narratives, who told me that when he puts trauma on the page it becomes a way to objectify the experience—there it is on the page, laid bare. You can point to it. See it more clearly, for what it really is. So I think that writing about trauma for me has been a way to neutralize it.
AW: I can’t speak for other nonfiction writers, but for me, these moments are like my memories: seared into my psyche. I write what I remember, and it’s usually devoid of external settings or context because that’s how it is in my own mind. The moment I saw my parents’ first fight at age 2, punctuated by a shattered wine glass; the January day when a childhood crush of mine took me out into the woods to photograph me, fat snowflakes falling quietly all around us; the evening shift in the grocery store when Antonio cornered me in the basement warehouse and threatened to rape me. I remember these moments because they were vivid, the details still fresh: Antonio’s white butcher’s apron, smeared with blood; the smell of bleach each night as he and the other butcher would disinfect their cases; the black hair on his head and rough five-o-clock shadow on his face. I remember the basement room where he cornered me, but not much about the rest of the building; I don’t remember anything else about the closing shift that evening, or whether I spoke to Antonio much after that incident or wrote him off completely that day. But I remember that moment and those details vividly because they terrified me; I was 17 and I felt vulnerable in an adult way for the first time in my life. The moments we are most vulnerable are, I think, the ones that stay with us.
That is why I write flash nonfiction—they are really just the flashes of memory I retain from incidents that marked me.
JO: I came of age as a writer during the proliferation of radical vulnerability. Feelings, associated with the feminine, and thus relegated as inferior, were being rebranded as a superpower. As a teenager on Tumblr and Twitter in the early aughts, every well-known influencer (although they weren’t called that at the time), urged their followers to be softer and more tender. Most of us were young women who hadn’t learned the difference between honesty and exhibitionism, or the ways our traumas could be weaponized and used against us. It was the golden age of oversharing disguised as political praxis. We were urged to identify with our pain and suffering in ways that were reductive, to bare the soft part of our necks to those who wanted to witness our pain, but not mitigate it. The flash form feels like a way for me to maintain a sense of agency over my story. I share only what I want, not a word more. In flash, it is the withholding that becomes the superpower.
The moments we are most vulnerable are, I think, the ones that stay with us.
AB: So much of what drew me to these essays, in particular, was the implication of lives lived in shadows, in silence. Jamila, in your gorgeous essay “Fluency,” you write, “Silence was my first language… I was a girl, small and dark skinned. Nothing belonged to me except what came out of this mouth of mine.” Elsewhere in the essay, you write, “All the women I know speak in whispers.” Torrey and Alexis, your haunting essays both chronicle violence—first the direct threat of, and then the execution of—against women and non-binary identifying individuals. In “A Most Dangerous Game,” Alexis, you write, “It wasn’t men who were hunted,” and the essay culminates in an image of a young woman—you—drawing doodled hearts around boys’ names. In your essay, Torrey, you invoke the found essay form to explore the dozens of murders committed against trans individuals, all in a very matter-of-fact, clinical tone. Can each of you comment on the experience and evolution of these works, first in your mind and then on the page?
JO: I was meditating on silence, my own and that of so many of the women I know. I was thinking of all the ways that silence is inherited. This piece started as a poem. Then I toyed with the idea of turning it into a full-length essay. Neither form felt like it could adequately hold what the piece demanded on its own. This flash essay/poem hybrid thing is what it became instead.
AW: I’m going to confess something that I’m afraid to, but it’s the truth: most of my pieces of flash nonfiction come onto the page almost fully formed, ideas and images and turns of phrases that I’ve been carrying for many years. They are a little like a soul finally given a body to live in. As a result, I don’t plan at all or edit much. The pieces I’ve published were written mostly the way I wrote them the first draft: a scene or event I need to get down in all its detail. Having said that, I’ll always go back and re-read multiple times, trimming a word here or there, adding an image I like better, or cutting some simile that suddenly seems horrible. But by and large, I write these pieces in one go, as a kind of excision—to get out that thing that has been growing inside me for years, and, once it’s out, I feel better.
In the case of “A Most Dangerous Game,” the title of the piece and the framing device (reading the famous story “The Most Dangerous Game” in my middle-school English class and hoping for boys to like me) came as a natural juxtaposition to the adult world of male-female relationships I was thrust into when I was 17, living on my own in Boston and working night shifts at a local health food store. In my piece, I was trying to express something akin to what I saw reflected in the much-discussed French film Cuties: the female desire to be desired, even at a very young age, because it gives a feeling of validation. But what happens when that desire reaches a tipping point, leading us to danger? Are we prepared for that moment as girls? As women? I found the memory of my middle-school English class and that classic short story a good framework in which to ask those questions and end on a note of irony that resonates more today in the #metoo era—we girls are often taught “the wrong lesson.”
I am currently working on my first memoir, something I’ve always worried I couldn’t do (see “story arc” problems above), but taking a writing workshop through the wonderful organization Inprint in Houston last year gave me the courage to write what I write best and be unapologetic about it. So my memoir is shaping up to be a kind of collection of flash nonfiction pieces like “A Most Dangerous Game,” a girlhood and womanhood told in vignettes that seared me like the moment with Antonio, moments that, strung together, make a coherent and compelling story. At least that’s the hope…
TP: Like Alexis, my essay just sort of happened. However, what has evolved since then has been my ambivalence about it. Some days I still think it’s a good essay. Other days, I’m not so sure. On the days when I am proud, I think for many women—buried under tombstones engraved with the name they tried to shed—lists like these are the only lasting evidence that they were who they claimed to be. On those days, I think having as many people see these women for who they were is the best that we can do for our dead.
On the days that I’m ashamed, I see this essay as a collection of the data about how someone was killed as opposed to who they were. Each entry reduces a person to the wound someone else inflicted. Each entry replaces personhood with victimhood. No one wants to be remembered this way. In the way that the found form often mirrors a situation, it is a description; and in the way that the found form withholds answers; it is a series of questions.
AB: Debra, it feels important that I address the admiration I—and so many readers—have for your essay, in particular, precisely because it does work so very rarely done in literature: exploring and articulating the experience of having an abortion which, despite its commonality, remains a very taboo topic in America and American literature as a result. Can you share with us what the experience of writing this essay looked like for you, and what the response has been to its subsequent publication in Brevity’s Summer 2008 issue? Has that response changed at all over time?
DM: Thank you for this question. I’m so honored to be a part of this conversation and to hear Jamila, Torrey, and Alexis’ responses to writing difficult content. For me, I wrote “Some Things About that Day,” after reading a very fine short essay by the Russian writer, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. I don’t think I can even put my finger on the title of it at this moment, but the essay was about a private emotional moment that the narrator has experienced. Maybe it was just the translation from Russian, but there was a tone in the essay that was so grave and measured and deeply interior. It was clear that the narrator had an inner mandate to tell the story. Reading that piece gave me not only permission but also a methodology for telling this story that I had been carrying around for so many years. Of course, there is silence and shame around the subject of terminating a pregnancy, but I felt it was important to find a way to tell it. The language in the essay is clipped and written in muted fragments. I don’t think I planned any of this out when I wrote it, but the voice that emerged out of that mood the Petrushevskaya essay created for me was the inspiration for being able to tell my own deeply private story.
AB: While it is important to note that VIDA itself has never conducted an official count on Brevity, a preliminary breakdown of the journal’s numbers executed by its editors notes that 511 of the journal’s 767 authors from the inaugural issue through the May 2020 issue—roughly 66.7%—identify as women or non-binary. What is it about the form or journal that you believe translates to its popularity among women and marginalized writers?
AW: That’s a great and interesting question. I wonder what the data says about how many women and non-binary memoirists there are vs. novelists. Are the numbers similar for those types of long-form writing? If so, maybe it says something more about the stories we women and non-binary folks like to tell, regardless of length. If not, if it’s really that short-form nonfiction is more popular with women and non-binary writers, then my best guess is that it’s because we have damn good stories to tell but are too busy caring for other people and taking care of business to sit down to write for long. I know I struggle with this work-family-life balance personally and feel that being a woman has negatively impacted my ability to write more prolifically.
TP: Yes, I think Alexis has it exactly. Like how Tillie Olsen wrote in Silences, the labor of femininity means that women aren’t being given huge blocks of time to write long works. I see it in COVID quarantine. Most of the women I know, especially those with kids, don’t get like, more than 15 minutes of unbroken time to think. And the trans people I know who write live in such precarity that they’re not sitting around alone much with their thoughts.
JO: I agree with both Alexis and Torrey. For me, flash is sometimes the only kind of writing I have the time or energy for. And it isn’t because I don’t have more to say, but because the constraints on our lives and our time mean that I am in a constant state of choosing. Time writing is time away from the world. Time away from the world is time not writing. Anne Boyer has this brilliant essay called What is “Not Writing” in her collection Garments Against Women where she explicitly names the forces that make writing impossible for women and non-men. She writes “Not writing is working, and when not working at paid work working at unpaid work like caring for others…” So sometimes all I can write is flash not only because of the forces colluding against the creative lives of women, but also because sometimes I must make the choice, and it is always both a personal and a political choice, not to write and to, instead, focus my care and attention elsewhere.
DM: That’s so interesting. I agree with Torrey’s observation about Tillie Olsen’s writing on this subject. I have always written in the cracks between larger obligations. As a professor of writing now, I spend most of my time on my students’ work, which is a real joy for me. But I tend to put my own work to the side in order to meet deadlines. I also think that there might be something about the short form that is delightful because of its efficiency and general lightness (of word count, not content). I was thinking about Ursula LeGuin’s essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in which she posits that the first invention had to have been the small carrier bag that we needed in order to bring more berries and nuts from our foraging home, after our hands became too full to carry our bounty. The flash piece is just about the size of a nice little carrying bag—larger than what cupped hands can carry, but not so large that it becomes a suitcase full of words. Also, I’m reminded, as I think about all this, that Gertrude Stein is probably the inventor of the modern flash form with her germinal work, Tender Buttons.
Like how Tillie Olsen wrote in Silences, the labor of femininity means that women aren’t being given huge blocks of time to write long works.
AB: Whether speaking to your own essay or those that complement yours in the pages of The Best of Brevity, what characteristics do you feel are necessary in crafting a strong flash essay? How does one artfully distill the human experience in 750 words or less?
AW: With a lot of truth and a little great imagery.
TP: Actually, my essay went over the 750-word limit and they had to make a special exception, so I defer to the other writers here. Even in Brevity, I was long-winded. I marvel at the economy that others in this book are able to achieve. Every sentence does like five things.
DM: I’ve been lucky enough to have two pieces in Brevity over the years, and I think that what they share in common, style-wise, is real compression of the moment. They center around something very singular that happened to me and they have a kind of tension or balance between a centrifugal force that wants to spin the story out into the world and tell, tell, tell and connect to larger themes and subjects and a centripetal force that wants to pull the story in close and have the reader feel it as intimate and interior as it felt in the moment.
Both of my Brevity pieces, “Hochzeit,” and “Some Things About that Day,” have that balance of spinning out while holding the language firmly in. Also, I think that poets are used to letting go of things that seem important when drafting, but then start to become extraneous when you’re trying to get the piece to lift off the ground. The metaphor I always use in teaching for this is that it’s like trying to launch a hot air balloon. At the end, they always have to toss those bags of sand, the ballast, off the side in order to get the balloon to let go and rise in the air. Any piece of writing will require those last sacrifices so that what stays in the piece can be seen in higher relief.
AB: This presidential administration’s use of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric has created perhaps even greater need and urgency for sharp, concise writing on inclusivity and gender, succinct works that amplify marginalized voices. In what ways might the essays published in Brevity and elsewhere prove useful in this time of heightened political, racial, and social urgency?
TP: I think that essays, at their best, don’t offer easy answers or talking points. It’s easy to approach most media with a pre-formed narrative, but I think essays are one of the few chances to force a reader to view something anew, to surprise them. I also can’t tell if I’m naive to think that.
AW: Living in the South, I’m acutely aware of the way politics, gender, race, and rhetoric intersect on a daily basis. Houston is the most diverse city in the entire United States and firmly blue, but I live in a neighboring county that is one of the reddest in the country. That means my friends, neighbors, and community members come from all kinds of backgrounds, cultures, experiences, and political mindsets, and we all must interact and live amongst each other despite our differences. My neighborhood has Trump flags and BLM yard signs on the same block, something I cannot say I see often in Boston or New York City, my two hometowns. I think my neighborhood and state is a microcosm of the United States, and I think it’s imperative that we find stories and art that help us better understand each other rather than letting media narratives and filter bubbles drive us further apart.
I think it’s more important than ever to invite dialogue, engage others who are different from us, and give voice to those that traditionally have not had a voice: the poor, the undereducated, the marginalized. As a white woman of privilege, I have grown so much as a writer and human being in the past five years from reading works by people whose experiences were completely different from mine: Jesmyn Ward, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yaa Gyasi, Colson Whitehead, Valeria Luiselli, Roxanne Gay, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Brian Washington, Cece Bell, Mohsin Hamid, Tara Westover. I hope never to stop reading and learning from others’ experiences; one of the key places this should be happening is in our schools. Good teachers and great curriculum can help introduce future generations to new, diverse perspectives through thoughtful, reasoned dialogue. My students are from diverse backgrounds and ideologies, and they do a wonderful job with this at a fairly young age. It’s a wonder why many of our adult elected leaders cannot do as well dialoguing with each other or with the American people…
DM: Oh my goodness, how much time do you have? Maybe I could answer this, in short, by talking about two writers who inspired me to keep telling my stories. Both of them reported having crises of faith in the act of writing, of telling our stories, after the violence of 9/11. After much searching and questioning about what possible value a personal story could have in the face of such overwhelming violence, Terry Tempest Williams wrote Finding Beauty in a Broken World and Jane Smiley wrote Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I won’t go into great detail about the amazing stories contained in these two books, except to recommend them highly as inspiration for anyone whose faltering or having doubts about the value of their stories. This is not a spoiler alert, but I can tell you that Jane Smiley concludes and proves in Thirteen Ways that our stories are the most durable things that we can create. They will outlive us and they will outlive everything we know to be our modern world.
I think it’s more important than ever to invite dialogue, engage others who are different from us, and give voice to those that traditionally have not had a voice: the poor, the undereducated, the marginalized.
AB: While in many ways the cornerstone venue for contemporary flash essays, Brevity is not alone in publishing short, succinct, concentrated works of creative nonfiction—I’m thinking of River Teeth’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” column or flash work published recently in DIAGRAM, TriQuarterly, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Are there any flash essayists or additional short works you’ve found yourself circling back to and around over the past few months or years that you might recommend for fans of the short form?
AW: No, but I can’t wait to hear others’ suggestions.
TP: I recommend T Fleischmann’s book Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, which is actually a very long essay, but is broken up into a lot of small moments, each of which could easily work as flash nonfiction. Trans people who aren’t literary at all, frequently pass around screencaps from that book, excerpts that function as they circulate as flash essays. It is beautiful writing.
JO: I always return to “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and then the piece she wrote at the start of the pandemic for The Paris Review, “I See the World.” I am always shaken by the breadth and depth of feeling and history and tension she can conjure in such finite spaces.
DM: I mentioned Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons above. I also love Etel Adnan (To Look at the Sea is to Become What One Is), Sarah Manguso (Ongoingness), Caroline Bergvall (Drift), Eula Biss (The Balloonist), Beth Ann Fennelly (Heating & Cooling), Lee Ann Roripaugh (Dandarians) and, of course, everything by Claudia Rankine, Jenny Boully, Lia Purpura, Maggie Nelson, Juliana Spahr. Also, in 2016 I co-edited an anthology with Robert Alexander and Eric Brown for White Pine Press, Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence, which has so much good short form writing in it.
AB: In closing, I wonder if each of you might share with us your favorite essay published in Brevity, and why?
DM: I teach so many Brevity essays, so it’s hard to choose one favorite, but I return again and again to Ira Sukrungruang’s “After the Hysterectomy” and Sherry Wright’s “Snapshot,” both of which are heart-stopping and heart-breaking and almost too beautiful to look at with the naked eye.
AW: Katherine Ozment’s 2004 piece “Things That Will Make You Cry in the First Six Weeks of Your Son’s Life” stuck its hooks in me from the moment I read it. I never forgot some of the central imagery: the teenage memory of the mayonnaise jar full of Jack Daniels, the smell of her son’s skin, like “apples and soap and rain”; the tiny, purple veins across his “moth-wing eyelids.” I was four years away from giving birth to my first child when I read her essay, but something about Ozment’s raw description of new motherhood—the ice-pick-deep love, coupled with the acute longing for lost freedom—captivated me. I love dichotomies and cognitive dissonance; her piece struck a chord within me for its beautiful dissonance, long before I was a mother. My own boys are currently 10 and 12, and Ozment’s insights have fresh resonance to me now as my sons grow bigger, stronger, more vulnerable, less mine every day.
TP: Ayad Akhbar’s Homeland Elegies is one of my favorite books of the fall. But when I read Julie Hakim Azzam’s “How To Erase An Arab,” I wonder if she didn’t achieve some of the same things in only a page of writing.
Amy Butcher is an essayist and author of the forthcoming Mothertrucker (Little A Books, 2022). Her essays have appeared in Granta, Harper’s, The New York Times ‘Modern Love,’ and Guernica, among others. She presently serves as the Director of Creative Writing and an Associate Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University and lives outside of Columbus with her three rescue dogs, beautiful beasts.
Debra Marquart is a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University and Iowa’s Poet Laureate. She is the Senior Editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment. A memoirist, poet, and performing musician, Marquart is the author of six books including an environmental memoir of place, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere and a collection of poems, Small Buried Things: Poems. Marquart’s short story collection, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories drew on her experiences as a former road musician. A singer/songwriter, she continues to perform solo and with her jazz-poetry performance project, The Bone People, with whom she has recorded two CDs. Marquart teaches in ISU’s interdisciplinary MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment and in the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. Her next two books, Gratitude with Dogs Under Stars: New & Collected Poems and The Night We Landed on the Moon: Essays of Exile & Belonging, are forthcoming in 2021.
Jamila Osman is a Somali writer and educator from Portland, Oregon. She was the winner of the 2019 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Her first chapbook, A Girl is a Sovereign State, was published in fall 2020 by Akashic Books.
Torrey Peters is the author of the novel Detransition, Baby, which will be published by One World in January of 2021, as well as the novellas Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones and The Masker. She also holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a Masters in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth. Torrey rides a pink motorcycle and splits her time between Brooklyn and an off-grid cabin in Vermont.
Alexis Wiggins‘ work has appeared in Ploughshares, Creative Nonfiction, and Brevity, among others. In 2004, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives and teaches in the Houston area and is currently at work on her first memoir.