Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dec 2, Brenda Miller on Jill Christman

Being December 2, we present the excellent essayist Brenda Miller, writing about a short-short essay by Jill Christman.


I’ve always been enamored of the short-short essay form. In a short-short (or “flash”) essay, there’s little room for abstract thought or cliché or long-winded setups—no runway on which to build up one’s courage—and so experience is shaped to give precedence to image, scene, detail, subtle metaphor, not necessarily to “feelings” or bare emotion. In one such essay, “The Sloth,” by Jill Christman (originally published in Brevity magazine), we see that the impetus for writing may have its roots in deep emotion, but the writing goes beyond that, finds the mettle to explore this emotion through keen observation, precise language, and organic metaphor. It begins:

There is a nothingness of temperature, a point on the body’s mercury where our blood feels neither hot nor cold. I remember a morning swim on the black sand eastern coast of Costa Rica four months after my twenty-two-year-old fiancé was killed in a car accident. Walking into the water, disembodied by grief, I felt no barriers between my skin, the air, and the water.
Later, standing under a trickle of water in the wooden outdoor shower, I heard a rustle, almost soundless, and looking up, expecting something small, I saw my first three-toed sloth.
Notice how Christman’s description of grief is not so much an emotional feeling as a physical one: “no barriers between my skin, the air, and the water.” She gives us the context for this situation quickly—a fiancée killed—but her most effective move is that she does not start with that line. No, we start with a fact external to her own experience, a physical fact that will become the focal point for Christman’s overarching metaphor. With this ostensibly simple move, Christman shows us that she has the perspective to translate experience into artifact, and she is not screwing up her courage so much as becoming keenly interested in the connections between her own inner state of mind and the images the outer world provides her. Noticing the sloth, the narrator takes herself out of introspection and so, in the end, this story becomes not a polemic about her own personal grief, but about new insights into the nature of grief, an articulation that does not necessarily arise from one’s own experience, but from a literary re-imagining of that experience:
I thought I knew slow, but this guy, this guy was slow. The sound I heard was his wiry-haired blond elbow, brushed green with living algae, stirring a leaf as he reached for the next branch. Pressing my wet palms onto the rough wooden walls, I watched the sloth move in the shadows of the canopy. Still reaching. And then still reaching.
What else is this slow? Those famous creatures of slow—the snail, the tortoise—they move faster. Much. This slow seemed impossible, not real, like a trick of my sad head. Dripping and naked in the jungle, I thought, That sloth is as slow as grief. We were numb to the speed of the world. We were one temperature.
These paragraphs end the short essay. From a statement of fact about an equilibrium of temperature, we come full circle, but this fact is now imbued with much more meaning. Because the essay is so short, every image must be precise, every word must further the narrator’s discovery in a focused and measured way. The essay must move like the sloth—slowly, deliberately—opening up space for this grief to manifest in the reader’s own heart. Christman didn’t need courage; she needed that sloth. She needed that sloth to carry the weight of her grief for her, and eventually for us.


Brenda Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone (Skinner House Books, 2011), Blessing of the Animals (EWU Press, 2009), Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002), and co-author of Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes and has been published in numerous journals. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Bellingham Review. Her latest book The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, co-authored with poet Holly J. Hughes, was released in 2012 from Skinner House Books.


&: this post is an excerpt from Miller's "A Case Against Courage," originally published in The Writer's Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2011.


  1. I love that Sloth essay. I teach it every year.

  2. I love that essay too, and I love Brenda Miller. Excellent pairing.

  3. Oh, I love that piece, and I love Miller's analysis of it. Thank you!