Hello Essay Daily! My name is Dinty W. Moore and I started Brevity, the journal of concise literary nonfiction in 1997, on pure whim, with just five contributors and – counting myself – as many as six readers.
Sixteen years a later, we average 10,000 visitors a month, or roughly 40,000 pairs of eyeballs for each issue, and given that we are online, geography is no limit: we’ve accepted submissions from India, Egypt, Ireland, Spain, Malaysia, and Japan, and our readership is similarly international.
Still, though, I wake up certain days and wonder, why am I doing all of this? Thanks to a few dedicated volunteers, Brevity is no longer a one-man show, but we still have a very tiny budget. For reasons outlined here, we adopted a small reading fee a few years back, and thankfully that means we now pay our writers. I wish we could pay our editors as well, but life is tough out here in the literary magazine world.
What are we looking for? I’ve adjusted my standard answer a few times over the years, as brilliant writers show me how much can be done in 750 words or fewer, but here is what hasn’t changed – we are looking for absolutely crisp prose and tight sentences, and a strong sense of voice. I want to feel the author’s presence, know the author’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, as well as her experience or memory.
One of my recent favorites – it is hard to pick favorites, of course, since nothing gets published unless we love it – is Jill Talbot’s “Stranded.” Notice how much is at play in the very first sentence: “This night like a photograph neither one of us can make out when I call you fifteen years later to ask if you remember the gun, the men, the comet.” Notice how mood is set through crisp description: “You are standing behind me, a gun in your hand. We’re both wearing our long-sleeved flannel shirts, khaki shorts, flip-flops. The truck that pulled up behind us is dark, quiet, and we can’t see the men who got out of it. The back right tire of my car is flat.” Notice how it seems to be about one thing – the men in the truck – but is actually about another: “(I read a) postcard. Neat handwriting fills the rectangle: ‘Half my days I cannot bear not to touch you. The rest of the time I feel it doesn’t matter if I ever see you again.’ ... And then I stopped, the lines too close to the things we were doing back in Lubbock. You with that one man. Me with that other. The two of us taking turns driving out of the state to change our state of mind.” And all of this embedded in a phone call, fifteen years after the fact. A tale of survival.
Sejal Shah’s “Thank You” is markedly different, but similarly urgent. “You will never know me,” it begins, “will never know your father once professed ... to love me, will not know the first time we made love you were in your bedroom next door sleeping, and we paused to listen when we heard you ... call out in sleep.” All of the pain of a broken love affair is revealed through direct address to a child the author never met, and through intimate details such as these: “Your father showed me pictures of you in pale pink leotard and translucent white skirt, a series capturing your curly hair and sparkly eyes, and assured me you’d love me. But you will never meet me now, and I will never meet you, though I heard months of stories about you and gave you two books, both of which I heard you loved.”
But the truth is, what gets me most excited in the submission queue is an essay that does not resemble other Brevity essays, something new in both form and content. That’s hard to do, I know, but thank goodness there are so many writers who are willing to keep on trying.
Dinty W. Moore is author of numerous books, including The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. He recently edited THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING FLASH NONFICTION: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers.