Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ander Monson on Shortness

Don’t want no short dick man —20 Fingers feat. Gillette
In America we admire the large, the supersized, the tome, the megaboob, the trente, oversize, the Escalade, the epic sprawl, Supra Extra Nacho Cheesier Doritos, everything embiggened.

Bigness leaves me breathless. As an asthmatic I’m aware of the usefulness of breath. As a fiction writer and a poet, my unit of meaning is always in some way the capacity of the human breath, the sentence, more or less. My tool: the human voice (I thought grandly of and to myself). But, oddly, until recently, not in nonfiction. My essays used the page, not the breath, as their natural habitat. They were visual like that, hard to read aloud.

The whole point of essays, I thought then, was to connect and keep connecting: it’s what I loved about them, essaying as networking: essay as conversation, as aggregation, as pathogen vector, or maybe just books rhizomed on library shelves, one essay echoing after or referencing another.

My sentences began stretching longer, containing more. Essay as collection. An idea sparked another. A research move dominoed a dozen more. It all fits, I’d say, so leave it in. I essayed like Katamari Damacy, kept rolling stuff into my katamari, kept collecting.

But some of my favorite essays were more superdense star than lipglossed suburban teen mall sprawl. I read the occasional iteration of the entire magazine devoted to brevity in essay. Sean Lovelace, an auteur of the short, schooled me by going short about a short in last year’s advent calendar.

Something changed. Like a blog or blob I kept getting bigger but more dilute. I missed my constraints, Oulipian or otherwise imposed.

If we can do anything, Bruce Mau told me, what will we do?

So I quieted down. Spent days in libraries, reading and writing actual books, you know, the kind that smell of paper, that you can drop in water and keep reading. I started finding weird stuff in them: marginalia, inscriptions, a human hair. I wrote about it. And I wanted to publish the weird stuff I wrote about the weird stuff I found back in the book where I found it as a way of messaging a future reader of the book. This meant 6x9 cards, double-sided. This meant they’d max out at 750 words.

I had to learn to write short. Was hard. Changed my brain.

Recently I read Patricia Vigderman’s essay collection Possibility: Essays against Despair, which features quite a few short essays, including at least ten of four pages or less, including “Eggs,” most briefly and amusingly, clocking in at 509 words.

Short is hard but powerful. The poet knows this well, aware as she is of the dialectic between the textshape and whitespace. Compression and suggestion make the muscle stronger. It’s what’s best about the fragment: the reader’s asked to do more lifting in the reading. She’s supposed to process more what’s there.

Of course it should be all compressed: prose, as we sometimes disparagingly call it. Otherwise it just runs and runs and breaks where it breaks until it ends. But prose has a tendency to get prosy if you let it.

I’m running out of words (not a problem unless I make it one: I’d rather my flaw become a feature), so back to Vigderman. Several short essays populate her book, including “Eggs,” which begins: “Peter is trying to figure out how to create a structure in which to drop an egg from a fourth story window without breaking it.” Who’s Peter? Doesn’t matter. Where we at? Whatever.

I’ll get to it quickly: the essay is the egg, though it wouldn’t be so gauche as to say so.

From this scenario we go to dream, to anecdote, to metaphor, to “the art of boiling an egg, while perhaps entirely off-message and perfectly unspectacular, is nevertheless a useful application of physical principles” [my italics]. Liquid becomes a solid, more easily manipulated. The essay admits it’s straying here, but lies. It’s not straying: instead it’s leaping from a window, four stories above, hoping not to crack.

Flashback: “What makes an egg that when the bottom of it hits the ground the top is still falling.” There’s something resonating here. Can you feel it? It’s what we want from the whitespace an essay (poem, story) exits into at its end: a question mark, a little wonder. Art should accelerate through its last line into air and suspend there.


  1. I used to chafe at word limits, which I believed were artificial fences constructed to impede the stampede of (imagined) genius. But I'll have to agree with you on the importance of shortness. The unfenced mental prairie often leads to an idea infinity-loop. Need spurs but also a firm hand on the bridle. Further writers-as-cowboys metaphors forthcoming...

  2. There's importance in brevity, in the preciseness of image or idea, all on point. However, some of the most engaging essays are long, sprawling works that present a variety of elements as if random or remixed, so as to keep the reader on her toes while simultaneously developing an experience, an emotion(al truth), an idea. These types of essays are difficult to read, yes, and harder to write, so, when done rightly, I admire all aspects of it. It's muchness.

  3. Amazing essay. Very nice wok. Keep up.

  4. This was needed. Yes sir. I have marching orders now.