A Review of Brevity, Winter 2011

I don’t know about you, PANKsters, but I am in that middle section. I’d like to pretend I’m far too busy and important to read things that are longer than 1,000 words, but as it’s midday and I’m still in my pyjamas eating Weetabix, that would be a lie. I just like to read things that are short.

Sure, I love novels so thick that I have to prop them up on my knees and stories that spend pages building worlds. But I also like to read between subway stops or while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil. I like stories that fit on one page and I like stories that last for a cup of coffee. I like to read on my phone. And this is where Brevity comes in.

Brevity, if you’re not already a fan, is a quarterly online journal of concise creative non-fiction. Each essay gives the perfect little quantity of someone else’s life: a mouthful, a fistful, just enough to open a door into a strange room and then slam it shut. The afterimage is the best part.

In the latest issue, the first heavy-hitter is Christopher Battle’s ‘Waiting on Cancer‘. We get a glimpse of a man waiting in a hospital corridor with nothing to distract him from thoughts of the war inside his body:

For once I have nothing to read and no one to talk to, nothing to distract my wandering mind. I am alone in the Nuclear Medicine Wing, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t have my cell phone, no way to catch up on my email. I don’t have a newspaper to read. There is no waiting room with dated magazines.

That awful place of no distractions: this is when the fear hits. It’s blessed relief to get lost in emails and old news, and I get the sense that Battle never fully considered his situation before this point.

Kirstin Clodfelter’s ‘There Was a Moment to Turn Back‘ occasionally slips from beauty into melodrama (“his eyes glitter like little ghostly windows in the black”), but overall it’s an intense and thoughtful scene that shows one of many mistakes we willingly make. Tessa Fontaine’s ‘The Blind Prophets of Easter Island‘ also examines the complications of relationships, showing us a boyfriend’s baby by another woman and a love for Jacques Cousteau in a way that somehow makes them fit together perfectly. In ‘Transubstantiate‘ Rachel Yoder shows us the significance of her aunt’s discarded hair, in ‘Teeth‘ Dylan Nice kills a cat with his stepfather, and in ‘What Grace There Is‘ Meera Lee Sethi confesses to the distance between generations. All highly recommended.

I’m a sucker for lists and other unusual structures, so I loved Gretchen Legler’s Things That Appear Ugly Or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful. It’s inspired by Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, which is basically a book of lists (so, obviously, I love it). For example, under ‘Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster’, Shonagon lists things like “sparrows feeding their young” and “It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.” Legler follows this form, building a sensory and fully-realised world in very few words:

Abandoned barns, their huge roofs sagging like the backs of tired horses.

The way a great rainstorm washes out your dirt driveway and leaves a beautiful fan of sand on the paved county road below.

A perfect tiny gray field mouse caught in a trap inside your pantry, its ears and tail pink and soft, its eyes round and dark like peppercorns.

I have never seen any of the things on the list, but the strength of Legler’s carefully-chosen words makes them more vivid than a photograph.

But not everything is lit gloomy with sickness and death and broken relationships. Steven Barthelme’s piece  is a relatable peek into the humour of the everyday in a connection between strangers. Here is ‘White Guy‘ in its entirety (when they say brevity, they’re not kidding):

I was in Walmart yesterday, swung around the end of one aisle where a five-foot-high cardboard-display edge stuck out about eight inches and, like an old fuck, caught it with my chest. Back up slightly, proceed on toward the Life Savers.  Halfway up the aisle (around the Life Savers) this black guy, twenty-five-ish, slightest smile with eyes, says, “I was the only one who saw that.”

A few of the stories, though, elicit no response stronger than a shrug. ‘Go‘, Jon Pineda’s bittersweet childhood reminiscence about bike-riding and a girl in Jordache jeans, doesn’t say anything I haven’t read in a Judy Blume book, and Tim Elhajj’s ‘Sobering‘ felt over-the-top and moralistic. But to be honest, it’s hard for me to get annoyed about a few off moments when the quality in general is so high.

Also! All these fucking sweet essays will probably inspire you, so head for the craft section. They’ve got essays on blogging to find your voice, turning dry historical details into fully-realised stories, narrative arcs, and all sorts of other useful things.

I know that your day will probably contain a few empty minutes, so head over to Brevity to fill them with a taste of someone else’s life. You’ll love it, I promise.

  • Brevity always has a few inspiring selections and their Craft essays are great tools for the classroom. I love to share the narratives with my students, and you got it right: if anything is less-than-stellar, it’s all so brief that you can’t hold it against them.

  • I like short pieces very much. But I can’t write them.