Monday, November 16, 2020

Voice and its Uses: George Estreich on Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights and H is for Hawk

Part 1

By the time I was halfway through Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald’s new book of essays, I knew I wanted to write about it. I had notes. I had ideas. I thought I could write something short, around a thousand words. I always think this and it is almost never true, which I only bring up because it is precisely the kind of self-deception Macdonald writes about in Vesper Flights, which is (among other things) a very self-aware book about the limits of our self-awareness: our ability to ignore the obvious, from small things (hints of an oncoming migraine) to large (evidence of environmental collapse). These complications were absorbing, but as I read Vesper Flights I kept thinking of H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s bestselling memoir about training a goshawk in the wake of her father's sudden death; and as I reread H is for Hawk—just for context—I accumulated more notes, and soon I was writing about that too. I thought I could compare the two books, maybe extend the comparison to genre, think about essays and memoirs, and by then any hope of writing a thousand-word piece was long gone.
     The genre comparison fell by the wayside. Vesper Flights is unquestionably a book of essays, but to call H is for Hawk a memoir, you basically have to take out all the hawks. It fits the category about as well as a live raptor in a cardboard box. Besides, Macdonald’s approach to memoir is already essayistic. If memoir is conventionally defined by linear, personal narrative, and the essay by a concern with how we know and inhabit the world, then Macdonald’s approach to memoir is firmly in the second camp: exploratory, synthetic, self-questioning. It’s the synthesis that interests me most, the combination of many ways of knowing into a single, sinuous voice, and that voice is similar from one book to the next.
     A passage late in Vesper Flights offers something close to an aesthetic. It's in the essay "Dispatches from the Valley." In it, Macdonald remembers a time in the 90s when she was just out of university, at loose ends, depressed, and working at a center for breeding falcons; but as the essay concludes, she reflects on how we make meaning out of animals:

We have corralled the meanings of animals so tightly these days, have shuttled them into separate epistemologies that are not supposed to touch . . . Of course we need science to comprehend the complexity of the human world, and to help decide how best to conserve what there is still left. But there is always more. Perhaps one aspect of the sixteenth century is worthy of thinking about: the last great flowering of a form of emblematic natural history in which we could think of animals as more than mere creatures, each living species at the centre of a rich fabric of associations linking everything that was known about it with everything it meant to humans: matters allegorical, scriptural, proverbial, personal.

What intrigues me about this passage is not just the seamless, metaphor-driven integration of both science and the history of science, or the effortless pivot from personal narrative to scholarship-informed reflection, or the ambitious attempt to combine “separate epistemologies” in a single place. It's the way her reflections imply an argument for literary nonfiction. A single subject “at the centre of a rich fabric of associations”: this could describe the essay. It could also describe a book: H is for Hawk or Vesper Flights, each one a fabric, a tapestry of associations.
     In this essay, I want to think about two books, trying to account for the richness of each tapestry; but I also want to suggest that each tapestry contains ideas about tapestries in general, and about its own weaving in particular; and, finally, to suggest that each book can be understood as a response to loss. The essay is in two parts, and the first is about H is for Hawk.


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In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate compares the essayist to a hawk:

The essayist attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.

In H is for Hawk, Macdonald comes at goshawks from all angles. In the first nine pages alone, she offers the field guide’s description (“black and white barred front, yellow eyes and a long tail”), an imagined kill (“a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor”), religion-inflected metaphor (“the birdwatcher’s dark grail”) and aphorism (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace”), passages from a 17th century text on falconry (‘There are divers Sorts and Sizes of Goshawks’), and a subjective, exact description of goshawks in flight:

…I could see the big powder-puff of white undertail feathers, fanned out, with the thick, blunt tail behind it, and that superb bend and curve of the secondaries of a soaring goshawk that makes them utterly unlike sparrowhawks. And they were being mobbed by crows, and they just didn’t care, like, whatever

If, like me, you’re a writer interested in splicing experience with scholarship, science with ordinary life, then your first question is: how does Macdonald pull this off? How does she establish a style where the combination of slang, scientific vocabulary, history, and spiritual leanings sounds perfectly natural? How is the “rich fabric of associations” woven? The short answer is that she uses tools associated with fiction and poetry to bind the whole together.
     Of those tools, description is central. This is standard for a nature writer (however defined), and Macdonald’s landscapes and hawks are superbly drawn, but what matters is the way she inflects them. A hawk, in her hands, is more than a hawk: it absorbs and combine different ways of knowing, both experiential and scholarly, and it is—as she reminds us—not just a beautiful animal to behold, but a creature in the world that behaves and knows things, and a creature that exists apart from our flawed attempts to know it. In response to these complexities, Macdonald’s description of goshawks on the wing itself wheels and swerves, combining emotion and taxonomy (“that superb bend and curve of the secondaries,” “utterly unlike sparrowhawks”), behavioral observation and an imagined hawk-voice (“they were being mobbed by crows, and they just didn’t care, like, whatever”). That whatever reminds us that the hawk has its own, unimaginable perspective; at the same time, it dramatizes the act of imagination, the human attempt to grasp nonhuman lives. It’s a projection that questions the act of projection, an ironic act of anthropomorphism, and it subtly raises a question central to both H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights: how we imagine our way into the lives of others, both human and not.
     Macdonald’s tongue-in-cheek rendering of the hawk’s point of view—call it Free Indirect Nonhuman Animal Discourse—is a typical move for her as well, a flash of interiority, a fictional device she uses to great effect. We get glimpses of her own state of mind, as when she learns of her father’s death:

I was about to leave the house when the phone rang. I picked it up. Hop-skippity, doorkeys in my hand. ‘Hello?’ A pause. My mother. She only had to say one sentence.

That sunny, childlike moment—“hop-skippity”—magnifies the shock of the news. But it also sheds light on Macdonald’s inquiry into identity, because by implication the news hits both the adult and the child she used to be. Throughout the book, she considers the place of childhood in a life: the way a childhood fascination with hawks leads to an adulthood training them; the way her memories of her father (her “partner in crime”) take on new significance, after his loss. She’s interested in “the girl who was me when I was small,” a roundabout phrasing that suggests the complexity of identity over time, the way we move on from and preserve our childhood selves. (That H is for Hawk sounds like a children’s book is not an accident.)
     To these fictional approaches, Macdonald adds a poet’s approach to both sound and metaphor. Take her description of “a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor”—a brief, violent still life, alliterative, dense with consonants. Or her description of meeting a breeder to take possession of Mabel, her goshawk, where the description of unboxing the hawk reads like a lyrical version of Jurassic Park:

A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within . . . Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. 

This is a complex passage, and it depends on both sound and metaphor for its effect: the repeated thump, the shift from staccato sentence fragments to the explosive long sentence at the end, and the linked sequence of metaphors comparing light to liquid (“Daylight irrigating the box . . . The air turned syrupy...a great flood of sunlight drenches us.”)
     Macdonald’s book mixes grief with hawks, science with history, childhood with adulthood. If metaphor and sound help bind this various whole together, this shouldn’t surprise us: metaphor, by definition, welds separate domains into something new, and sound—alliteration, assonance, rhyme—can magnetize unrelated words to each other. The style that results is sonically, etymologically, and associatively rich. It is essentially celebratory, a wildly varied music equal to the world’s variety. But the book’s paradox, and the source of much of its power, is that the song of celebration is also a song of loss.
     Against her lovingly described landscapes and soaring goshawks, Macdonald counterposes the ideas of invisibility and disappearance. Soaring goshawks seem to vanish: "One minute my pair of goshawks was describing lines from physics textbooks in the sky, and then nothing at all. I don’t remember looking down, or away.” Macdonald describes herself as “a small, slightly fearful girl...who loved to disappear,” and writes that being “invisible” is useful for training hawks, a way to put the bird at ease. But it has its downside: 

It’s a habit you can fall into, willing yourself into invisibility. And it doesn’t serve you well in life. Believe me it doesn’t. Not with people and loves and hearts and homes and work. But for the first few days with a new hawk, making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world. 

As Mabel’s training progresses and Macdonald’s grief darkens into clinical depression, the wish to disappear becomes the wish to disappear into something, to identify with another, to dissolve her human identity in the hawk’s life: “I had put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room my humanity was burning away.”
     But that effort, as Macdonald makes clear, is both necessary and maladaptive. What saves Macdonald from her depression—besides meds—is her connection with other people. In that sense, H is for Hawk, though it appears to be about training a hawk, is really about the way others save us, and the restoration of something like balance, like a right relation, a connection to others—including nonhuman others—rather than submerging in them, or avoiding them altogether. It is about a choice to be visible on one’s own terms. It is, in other words, about both identity and how identity is written. 


*


Rereading H is for Hawk, I was struck by a scene that felt like an ending, mainly because it occurs with over a hundred pages to go. On closer inspection, it shows how Macdonald departs from the conventions of memoir, reinventing it from the inside.
     Mabel is devouring a pheasant, her first kill in the wild. Macdonald’s account combines cathartic grief, a memory of birdwatching with her father, and a vision of the hawk as a child:

I look at the hawk, the pheasant, the hawk. And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. It shakes me to the core. She is a child. A baby hawk that’s just worked who she is.... Tears roll down my face. For the pheasant, for the hawk, for Dad and all his patience, for that little girl who stood by a fence and waited for the hawks to come. 

It’d be a good ending for a more conventional book, but Macdonald is after something different. Her memoir questions its own terms, complicates its own epiphanies. Not long after this transcendent moment, we get another description of Mabel above her prey. It’s a remembered scene—Macdonald is in her house, deeply depressed, thinking about her life with Mabel—and its mood is so different, it reads almost like a retraction:

There’s no need, right now, to feel close to a fetch of dark northern woods, a creature with baleful eyes and death in her foot. Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close. They’re not for breaking the necks of rabbits, pulling loops of viscera out onto leaf-litter while the hawk dips her head to drink blood from her quarry’s chest cavity. I watch all these things going on and my heart is salt.

     At this point in the book, Macdonald’s ideas about grieving and the wild have been completely upended. She’s just been to a memorial service for her father, and she is questioning her approach to loss:

All the way home on the train I thought of Dad and the terrible mistake I had made. I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so.... Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling and dangerous lie. 

It’s a remarkable moment, because it rewrites the ground rules of the story we’ve been reading. On one level, it’s an epiphany about a “terrible mistake.” On another level, it’s a critique of existing “nature books,” and it reframes H is for Hawk as a different sort of project, one distinct from other “quests inspired by grief or sadness.” (She does not name names, but it is possible to guess: “Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens.”) A bit later in the book, Macdonald traces this loss-driven quest back to early texts—notably Sir Orfeo, a 13th century version of the Orpheus myth, in which Orfeo is a poet who loves falconry, grieving a death, who goes to the wild for solace. By invoking Sir Orfeo, Macdonald offers a schematic of her personal journey—loss, retreat to the wild, return—while deepening the connections between grief, falconry, and writing. It’s one example of the way Macdonald illuminates her own text by invoking others: other characters (fictional and real) are parallel to the autobiographical character she gives us, and other narratives illuminate aspects of her own.
     She does this most extensively, of course, with T.H. White, the mid-20th century author of The Once and Future King. Macdonald braids an account of White’s life and work into her story, and her approach—part literary biography, part imaginative reconstruction, part running argument—enriches her story in turn. As with Sir Orfeo, Macdonald emphasizes the parallels: White, like Macdonald, was a writer, scholar, and falconer. Like White, she tries to disappear into training a hawk; like White, the escape leads to writing, to public self-expression. She disappears in order to reappear, and writing mediates the return from the wild. 
     Macdonald concentrates on two books of White’s, The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone. Both are relevant, but the latter is central. In The Sword in the Stone, White’s hero Wart—the future King Arthur—goes through successive transformations, taking on the form of different animals. White, in other words, imagines his way into a fictional character, who himself takes on the form of a bird; Macdonald reads the book as a child, then revisits it as an adult, understanding what she could not then, imagining her way into White’s life. She returns to the book with a new understanding of the book’s undercurrents, its links to English identity, White’s thwarted sexuality, and the cruelties visited on him by an abusive father. With her skills as a literary biographer and historian, Macdonald deepens her memoir’s self-portrait. The Sword in the Stone, read as a child and again as an adult, becomes a mirror of her own transformations.
     For Macdonald, writing and reading are inseparable from identity-building. Inhabiting other identities is a spur to growth; and reading and writing are both means of blurring the edges of identity, of putting on another life for a little while, of constructing a separate version of self, a character. Experiences, Macdonald suggests, are only complete once decoded, and they can only be decoded by being retold. It’s fitting, then, that Macdonald’s final reckoning with grief is expressed in aesthetic terms. After her father’s death, she finds a key to his flat taped to an index card, along with a note from him; and in the brief scene that follows, she writes, “for the first time I understood the shape of my grief.” It’s fascinating to me that this epiphany is expressed as an understanding of form, and it’s a profoundly self-reflexive moment: what is H is for Hawk but grief given a shape?
     This reflection on grief and form gives way, in the book’s postscript, to a reflection on grief and the writing process. Macdonald visits the grounds near T.H. White’s house and sees a man puttering in the garden. She briefly imagines him as White, thinks about doing more research, writing a scene: 

I could find out more about him, make him alive again, chase down the memories here. For a moment that old desire to cross over and bring someone back flared up as bright as flame. 

But then I put that thought aside. I put it down, and the relief was immense, as if I had dragged a half-tonne weight from myself and cast it by the grassy road.

The process of grief, and the process of writing about grief, are inseparable; letting go of one, she lets go of the other. “White is gone,” she writes. “The hawk has flown. Respect the living, honour the dead. Let them be.” In this way, H is for Hawk closes the book on itself.
     Though H is for Hawk is “about” training a hawk, by the book’s end hawk training has come to stand for both reading and writing. It’s like reading, in that it requires knowledge, close attention to the hawk’s actions, an ability to interpret them; it’s like writing in that it is solitary, difficult, and deeply personal, a discipline haunted by the fear and conviction of failure. And yet even as hawk training sheds light on other human practices—writing and reading, not to mention parenting and grieving—it throws them into sharp relief. All these involved, complex, human-specific practices are set against the book’s main nonhuman character, Mabel, who has a distinct personality but no need for these things whatever. In this way, as in so many others, H is for Hawk begins a meditation that Vesper Flights continues. 


*


George Estreich's publications include a book of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, which won the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books; the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Shape of the Eye; and Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves, which NPR's Science Friday named a Best Science Book of 2019. Estreich has also published prose in The New York Times, Salon, The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, Tin House, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with his family, where he teaches in Oregon State’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. More: georgeestreich.com


Monday, November 2, 2020

Oh, hello advent 2020

Hi all: Halloween has passed, and election week is here, and that means that it's kinda hard to think past to what happens after Thanksgiving and before Christmas, but we've got Advent on our minds. So much so that I ordered not one but two Advent Calendars this year for personal use. The Costco beer Advent Calendar I had a couple years ago was kind of a bust: most of the beers were kinda crappy European ones that most people wouldn't purchase intentionally. But in the spirit of Advent I did drink one each day. I did this for you.

If you run across a good beer advent calendar available in America, let me know...my searching hasn't turned any up.

This year, though, I did pick up some more promising calendars, which both may be now sold out:

The Pukka Herbal Tea Calendar (more for my wife than myself, as tea is not my jam):



and the Bonne Maman preserves calendar (which looks great, as jam is in fact my jam):


So this reminds me that we'll be assigning our Essay Daily Advent Calendar slots shortly. This year's calendar will begin November 29 and continue through Christmas Day. 

If you're new to our site, we publish an essay a day during Advent (most years), each (loosely) on an essay or essayist. Some years are themed, some aren't. This one's not themed, though we're particularly interested in our writers writing about new essays or essayists—those published this year or first encountered this year. You can read previous years' essays in the advent calendar archives.

If you'd like to write one for this year's calendar, send us a note and/or pitch us your idea!


Monday, October 19, 2020

A Brevity Conversation: on the publication of the Best of Brevity anthology from Rose Metal Press

For the past two years I’ve been an editor of Sonora Review. Ander Monson’s been our journal’s faculty advisor for over a decade. We think Sonora is the second oldest graduate-run literary magazine in the nation, a fact we’ve never quite been able to prove. Second oldest—or third, or seventh—we’ve been around for 40 consecutive years, and we’re pretty proud of that. So Ander and I decided a little over a year ago to collect our favorite pieces from the past four decades into a single volume. But while Ander’s a seasoned anthologist, I’m a rookie. I had almost no idea, when I started the work, how I’d ever reduce to one book the contents of 77 issues—about 2100 pieces of writing by nearly as many authors.
     So, out of both practical necessity and interest, I recently spoke with Zoë Bossiere and Dinty Moore, Managing Editor and founder/E-i-C of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, about the process of creating their upcoming anthology: The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction. I’ve been reading and admiring Brevity for over a decade. For at least half of those years “Brevity” has been the tab on my computer’s Nav Bar nestled between “Gmail” and “Maps.” It’s so central because I really do like to read their consistently excellent output more often than I need to know how to get somewhere, and only slightly less than I need to check my inbox. As we point out in the interview, Brevity has been so influential to writers and readers that they’ve single-handedly created a new genre, the “Brevity essay,” which my Brevity-loving friend defines as “real life reflected in a tiny shard of glass.”
     Zoë and Dinty’s collection collects 85 of these glass shards. Some are sharp and some are sheeny. Some are warm and some are cool. Collectively they form something like a stained glass window. One I’ll surely look through and at for years to come.
     I see that, despite my best efforts, this introduction has not been as brief as Ander suggested it be. In fact it’s over 500 words (perhaps an ideal length for a Brevity piece). So I’ll close by saying that from the interview I learned, above all, that the role of the anthologist is as creative as it is editorial. Anthologizing is an art, and a humbling one at that. Our lengthy interview, which you can read in full below, taught me much about the process, the challenges, the great rewards of creating a collection of other people’s work. I grew confident, finally, that I could in fact choose the pieces of the 2100 that best complement each other and reflect our progress, for the better. I thank Zoë and Dinty not only for their generous and practical advice, but their hard work creating such an illuminating collection of groundbreaking work, which I encourage you to preorder now here. —Kevin Mosby










Kevin Mosby: As a longtime reader of Brevity, I’ve been wondering for at least a few years when a print collection of Brevity essays might appear. Why now? I understand that, as stated in Dinty’s intro, the 20-year anniversary was the major impetus, but what other factors made you two realize that now was the time to go forward with the project?

Zoë Bossiere: I proposed the idea of a Brevity anthology to Dinty as a special project the semester before my official start as managing editor. The pitch was simple: a “Best of” anthology was long overdue for such an influential and longstanding magazine like Brevity. Plus, flash nonfiction is fast becoming one of the most popular forms to teach, and I thought a Brevity-specific anthology might work to complement the existing Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction. Luckily, Dinty agreed and was on board with the project pretty much right away. We got to work on rereading past issues that same month!

Dinty W. Moore: The honest answer is that I was hesitant because I didn’t know where I would find the time. Then Zoë made a compelling case and offered to divide the work. She is amazingly efficient.

Ander Monson: I’m also wondering what assembling the first Brevity anthology in print means for the magazine. I remember that when Brevity began (just before DIAGRAM did), one of the things that we had to deal with was a lot of (older, mostly) writers not wanting to submit to online venues because online publication wasn’t viewed as “real” publication by many of them. If it wasn’t in a print book, it didn’t matter. It didn’t last. It didn’t count. (NEA applications didn’t count online pubs as acceptable publications, for instance, and many universities were suspicious of counting online publications.) Compare to this year, when one of my grad students mentioned in class that she would never submit to a print-only publication, because nobody (that she cares about) reads them!

Dinty: I’m tending lately to agree with your grad student. My relationship to online journals has been interesting. Despite having started Brevity way back when online literary journals were a rarity, I was hesitant for some time to send my own work to internet-based venues. It probably had mostly to do with the era in which I came up, and did my MFA, when journals like The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review—big paper volumes coming out of prestigious state university writing programs—were, as you note, the favored prize. But over the years, my preferences slowly shifted, until about five years or so back when I found myself sending only to online journals. I like the fact that readers can click on a link and respond, or send an e-mail, and that I can send friends to see my work via links and social media. The old paper journals tended to die alone in the back of a library somewhere, whereas the better online journals seem to have infinite life.

Ander: I feel that too. It’s one of the things I like best about online publishing: how social and immediate it is. It seems to shorten the loop between writer and reader, and it  also encourages more interactivity between reader and writer (and, I suppose, between writer and reader). That may not always be desirable, but it’s happening more and more often, and more quickly. 

Kevin: I saw that Ander mentioned in an email to you that he was impressed with the speed of the project. What was the timeline like from idea to publishing contract to having to turn in the final copy to Rose Metal Press to the expected publication date (Fall 2020)?

Zoë: Pretty quick, actually. I pitched the initial seed of an idea to Dinty back in spring of 2018, the semester before my official start as managing editor. We then got to work over the summer on reading past issues of Brevity and compiling a list of potential contributors. By fall we had drafted a proposal to Rose Metal Press. We supplemented the proposal with research in the form of a competitive market analysis and a parity analysis toward the end of 2018. A parity analysis is similar to a VIDA count, but in addition to VIDA-style gender parity we also considered the parity of other traditionally underrepresented voices in publishing, such as writers of color, LQBTQIA+ writers, writers with disabilities, and other important groups to ensure a diverse range of perspectives in the anthology.

December of 2018 was also around the time we finalized our list of potential contributors.

Rose Metal approved the proposal in early 2019 and we signed a contract to make it official in January. Then came the work of collecting contracts from contributors. We began the process of contacting all 84 writers to inquire about the availability of their work and their willingness to see it appear in the anthology. It took a couple of months to track everyone down and secure the rights to reprint all the essays, but everyone was on board. This was somewhat complicated, actually, because we had to speak not only to the writers but often also to various presses who had since gone on to publish the essay in question in a memoir or collection. But even those permissions folks were surprisingly amenable, especially at the university presses! It was a much easier process than I imagined it would be when we first set out to send those emails. There was only one writer we could not get in touch with, despite our best efforts. This writer had been a high school student when the essay was published in Brevity, and their email address had expired. Our searches to find where the author had gone (other literary publications, social media presence, college directories) all turned up nothing. I was pretty bummed about that—it’s a great piece!

So once the contracts were in order—around the beginning of April 2019—Dinty and I submitted a copyedited draft of the submissions, then set out to decide on the order essays would appear in the anthology, and begin working on extras, such as a thematic table of contents, an essay on teaching with Brevity, an index connecting the anthology to Rose Metal Press’s existing Field Guide, and so forth. All of these things were due to Rose Metal mid-summer 2019, a little over a year away from the book’s scheduled release. It was a lot of work, though for me it was also a real joy not only to have the opportunity to learn more about what goes into editing an anthology, but also to be involved in the creation of the first anthology for a beloved literary magazine like Brevity. I’m still a little star struck when I think about it, to be honest.

Dinty: What Zoë said.

Kevin: As Ander mentioned, I’m currently working on a Sonora Review anthology, and choosing the “best” pieces from the past 40 years wasn’t an easy process. What was the selection process like for Best of Brevity?

Dinty: There were a few pieces that jumped out, mainly because I had been teaching them over the years, or I knew that many other folks had been teaching them over the years. But after that a good number of hard decisions had to be made. We—meaning Zoë, Abby and Kathleen at Rose Metal, and I—agreed to limit it to 80 essays, but later upped it to 84. We easily might have chosen 100 pieces, and probably could have gone higher. “Best of” is a relative term, of course, and as founder and editor, I am fond of almost every essay we have published. (I say almost because I have made a few mistakes over the years, and no, I won’t tell you which essays I mean.)

Ander: Were there any pieces that one or both of you would have liked to have included but weren’t able to for whatever reason?

Zoë: The selection process basically involved both of us independently reading every issue of Brevity from its inaugural through the (then forthcoming) 60th. We compiled separate lists on a shared Google Doc with essays we each thought best represented the breadth of Brevity’s more than twenty years of publishing flash nonfiction. This included not only some of our most frequent contributors, but also essays often taught in creative writing classes, or that were written from a traditionally underrepresented perspective, or that embodied a unique form.

In the end, we decided to feature work by each contributor only once in the anthology. There were some writers who contributed more than once to Brevity over the years, and it was sometimes difficult to choose between those essays, especially those of Ira Sukrungruang, Lori Jakiela, Brenda Miller, Roxane Gay, Rebecca McClanahan and several others. Another tough decision was when we had more than one essay by different writers on a similar experience or theme, and in those cases we often selected just one of the essays to include. Then, when the 61st and 62nd issues of Brevity came out, I found myself wishing we could have included some of the work from those as well! So I echo Dinty in saying that, truly, I would like to have included even more of Brevity in the anthology, but it just wasn’t possible—84 unique contributors in one collection is a lot, especially with so many beautiful and well-written essays to choose from.

Kevin: Follow-up question re selection process: It occurs to me that, since most Brevity pieces ever published (post-new format, at least) have a highly visible numeric tag associated with it (the number of comments), you’re perhaps at a rare advantage in that you as editors can see exactly which essays seemed to make most of an impact on people. Did that have an effect on the selection process?

Ander: That’s a really interesting question to think about, Kevin. Or did you rely on the metrics you have access to behind the scenes, like the number of hits that these pieces have each gotten? I have to imagine that data mattered. That seems like a major advantage of an online publication, in that it’s more easily measurable which pieces connect best with readers or inspire that kind of feedback loop (or I suppose this could be a risk, too: should the “Best Of” just be the most popular ones)?

Dinty: You two flatter me. I am simply awful at harvesting data from the website, falling somewhere between clueless and lazy. I could, now that you mention it, go in and determine readership numbers (unique visitors, I think they call it) for each essay, but I haven’t and probably won’t. The metrics? You’ve mistaken me for an engineer, good fellow. Our choices were based on anecdotal evidence—people over the years have been mentioning how much they like this essay or that essay by a particular author—and gut-feeling.

Zoë: I’d like to chime in here as well, with a story. I’ve been interested in how nonfiction anthologies are compiled for a long time, and I actually ran into Michael Martone in an AWP convention center hallway a couple of years back. I asked him a few questions about how he and Lex Williford went about selecting the essays for the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction (2007), which I was, at that point, using with students in my nonfiction workshop. According to him (and in Williford’s foreword), they’d sent out an online survey asking writers which essays they taught most often in the classroom. They received hundreds of responses, but apparently there were only a few essays that most everyone listed (think heavy hitters like Jo Ann Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter” or Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels”) and many, many others that only one or maybe two writers mentioned. Because essays by certain favorite writers (Didion, Baldwin, etc.) were prohibitively expensive, and because there was little consensus about enough essays to fill the book, much of the work in that anthology was chosen from the remaining essays writers had nominated through the survey. In the end, Martone and Williford included the essays that had the most votes first, then sorted through the rest (most of which received only one nomination). While it’s a great collection for a lot of reasons, I do think this focus on crowd-sourcing essay selection by popularity is why the Touchstone anthology can (in my own experience) be frustratingly limited to teach with—there’s just not much diversity, both in terms of parity and in the range of forms/styles.

All this to say, we didn’t want the Best of Brevity anthology to include only the biggest names in nonfiction, or to feature only the most popular pieces in the magazine—especially since it seems everyone, when asked to list their favorite Brevity essays, has a different answer. Instead, Dinty and I put much of our consideration into which pieces we felt best represented the wide range of essays that have been published with us over the years.

Ander: Maybe y’all should ask a few writers or readers to share their own Best of Brevity top 5s or most-taughts or something around when the book comes out as a kind of fun promo. As an aside, I taught a grad seminar on the art and work of the literary anthology this last spring, and one of the things we were doing was reading online journals with an eye toward nominating essays for Best American Essays, since online pubs don’t always make it to Bob Atwan. We nominated three from Brevity (“The Invention of Familiars” by Kathryn Nuernberger, “Meanness” by Beverly Donofrio, and “Solving for X” by Pam Durban) though I don’t know yet whether any made it in or made the notables. 

By my count you’ve only got 12 essays included from the first half of the journal’s run, versus 72 from the second half. I imagine that’s in part because the work has gotten consistently better (I’ve also noticed this). The way people read and share things online has changed a lot and grown exponentially. There’s a much quicker response to publishing things these days that has accelerated the feedback loop between writers and events and other writers and other events. Maybe the quick nature of the flash essay is even more in tune with the way folks read and share online. As Edward Hoagland puts it, publishing an essay is taking part in a public conversation, so that it’s easy to feel like the work of publishing essays has become more urgent. Is that something you feel too? Or I wonder about how much you agree with that Hoagland quote?

Zoë: I didn’t begin reading Brevity until midway through my undergraduate career (circa 2011, around issue 35 or so), and at that point, of course, I started with its most recent issues. Because of this, those later essays stand out in my mind the most (though there is a lot to love in those earlier issues as well). So I’m probably personally biased in this way.

But to speak to your idea about how the internet has changed the way we read, Ander, I think Brevity, in addition to featuring short essays, also had an appeal and an advantage over other publications that were slowly switching from print to online, which is a faster turnaround from submission to publication. We strive to respond to all submissions within a 3-month period (and often sooner), and accepted work is often published in the next issue. Blog submissions have an even shorter turnaround. So I think it’s probably true that Brevity is more likely than other literary magazines to publish nonfiction in response to current events while it’s still relevant, whether in the blog or in the journal proper.

I would also venture to say Brevity is one of, if not the, oldest online-only literary publications still in operation, and this is certainly true if we’re thinking specifically about nonfiction. This means that as writers were beginning to embrace the idea of submitting to online publications (especially over the last decade or so), Brevity stood out as one with experience and credibility. There was less anxiety about the ephemerality of digital texts when a writer submitted to Brevity because we had already existed for 10, and then 15, and now 20+ years. Brevity has also cultivated a loyal following of readers, which remains appealing to writers looking to submit. An essay will certainly be widely read, and likely even taught, based on its appearance in Brevity.

Dinty: Hoagland’s remark about the “public conversation” is exactly right, and becomes more and more true every year. Anyone who is active on literary Twitter can see how an essay, for good or bad, can open up active, often heated, discussion within hours of being posted online, and it the unfolding can be both dizzying and exciting to watch. The rhythm was very different in the old dead tree and toxic ink journal era. 

With Brevity, the lag time from acceptance to posting in a new issue is often eight months to a year, so we aren’t publishing essays that respond immediately to the news of the day, but the Brevity Blog does sometimes do so. And of course, there are issues that sadly seem to never go away

Ander: Dinty, I’m also curious about how you feel about the genre-defining nature of Brevity. After 60 issues, the “Brevity essay” feels like it’s become an identifiable thing. I know teachers who require their students to write a Brevity Essay, for instance. It seems from the anthology proposal and your introduction that you’re uncomfortable with being prescriptive about what that Brevity Essay is. This book definitely showcases variation. This is a question for both Dinty and Zoë, since I imagine your perspectives on this might differ a bit: how comfortable are you with the genre (if you believe it’s a genre, exactly) of the Brevity Essay? Or is this something you resist?

Dinty: I prefer the term flash essay, but I hear people say Brevity essay” all of the time as a defining term and it is flattering. I feel good about the impact we have made.

Zoë: I’d say I’m very comfortable with the idea of the “Brevity essay,” in large part because it has become a distinct subgenre within the flash essay (itself a subgenre of nonfiction, I guess rendering the Brevity essay a sub-subgenre?), just as other magazines’ forms have. For instance, Creative Nonfiction’s #CNFTweets. Like #CNFTweets, I see the “Brevity essay” as existing under the umbrella of flash nonfiction. Of course, one can choose to write briefly under any variation of word constraints, but Brevity’s is and has always been “750 words or fewer.” I would be curious as to how Brevity settled on 750 as the magic number, but this might be a question as lost to time as the true identity of our bearded mascot:

Dinty: Actually, I chose that ‘mascot’ picture back in the early days, expecting the magazine might last three or four issues and then fade away, and, yes, my occasional sloppiness led me to lose track of who was in the picture. (To my best recollection, the idea of an ‘old beard’ fellow representing a snazzy new internet journal appealed back then to my weird sense of humor.) 

I have, however, recently recovered my memory (via Google image search) and, ta da, the old fellow pictured is none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

As for the 750 or fewer limit: I was fond of a number of flash fiction anthologies that came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and they ranged from a 500-word limit to a 1,000-word or more limit, so I simply split the difference. If you haven’t yet noticed, the recurring theme here is that when I started Brevity I was winging it, with a minimum of theoretical underpinning and little to no plan for the future.

Kevin: As both an undergraduate at UCLA and graduate student at U of Arizona, I was exposed to Brevity in more than a handful of creative writing classes. And now I use it regularly in creative writing classes with my students. Best of Brevity will surely be adopted by many CW teachers. How do you hope instructors utilize it as a resource?

Zoë: I’m glad you asked that! One of our great hopes for the anthology is that it will increase access to Brevity in the classroom. Though all of our essays are and will remain freely available online, not all teachers and students have access to resources like computers, or enough printing to consistently bring hard copies of the essays to class. The anthology, by comparison, is low cost—cheaper than many other nonfiction anthologies currently on the market. With 84 distinct essays, it also features an unparalleled diversity of styles.

It can also be difficult, as a teacher, to find essays by specific theme or form on Brevity’s website, since they are organized into issues and by order of appearance. We’re hoping the inclusion of a thematic table of contents and a special essay on teaching with Brevity (including craft essay suggestions) in the anthology will help teachers access the available resources more easily.

There’s also something really special, I think, about seeing these essays in print. Despite the prevalence of online-only publications and the preference of the younger generation of writers to publish their essays online, the desire to own and use print media still reigns supreme. Some essays have been anthologized or reprinted since their appearances in Brevity, but this is the first time there’s been a Brevity-specific anthology on the market, and I’m excited for folks to be able to add Brevity’s essays to their bookshelves.

Dinty: Again, what Zoë said. I couldn’t put it better.

Kevin: How did/do you two divide the editorial work?

Zoë: As I’m sure you can relate to, Kevin, going through sixty back issues of a literary magazine is a labor-intensive project. Dinty and I each compiled lists of potential contributors and then narrowed them down together based on style, voice, popularity, parity, and several other factors. Dinty wrote the proposal to Rose Metal Press, while I put together much of the competitive title and parity analyses. When it came time to reach out to contributors, we worked together on an email template and I set about sending those emails and keeping track of responses in a series of spreadsheets. I compiled the basic manuscript and Dinty did the first round of copyediting. We each wrote a separate introduction for the anthology. We collaborated on the creation of extra content, such as the thematic ToC, an “On Teaching Brevity” essay, an index linking essays in Best of Brevity to Rose Metal’s Field Guide, and etc. We communicated mostly over email but also had lots and lots of in-person meetings to brainstorm ideas and hash out various details over the months. Dinty is a great co-editor. It’s been a lot of fun to work on this project with him as well as the amazing Kathleen Rooney and Abigail Beckel at Rose Metal Press.

Kevin: I like the idea presented in the proposal to include an alternate Table of Contents that aligns the “Best of” essays with craft discussions and prompts in the RMP Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. Will that happen? What was RMP’s response to the idea?

Zoë: Rose Metal Press was on board! There will be both an alternate (“thematic”) table of contents as well as an index linking The Best of Brevity to the Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. As mentioned previously, we also wrote an “On Teaching Brevity” essay which links the works in the anthology to the resources on Brevity’s website, such as craft essays and the Brevity blog.

Kevin: And speaking of craft discussions: Since there are so many great craft essays on the Brevity site, were you reluctant not to include any in the anthology? Or was the desire not to compete with the Field Guide, as you state in the proposal, too big of a concern to consider including the craft essays?

Zoë: At the beginning, we considered including a few “reflection-style” pieces to accompany some of the essays in the anthology, which would consist of the writer discussing their craft choices. While some of these essays already exist on the Brevity blog, such as Amy Butcher on “Women These Days” or Jill Talbot on “All or Nothing, Self Portrait at Twenty-Seven,” in the end we decided it would be too much (in terms of work, time, space) to ask so many writers to go back and write a reflection piece about their original essay.

But yes, to answer your second question, we also wanted the anthology to be used in tandem with the Field Guide, which is already full of many wonderful craft essays and exercises. Rose Metal liked this idea, since leaving the craft essays out also makes The Best of Brevity desirable as a collection one might enjoy reading in contexts outside of the classroom.

Kevin: How did you go about contacting authors that you’d like to include their work in the anthology? Did any not want their piece included? What did RMP require in terms of permissions? Had the authors already signed a document giving Brevity reprint rights?

Dinty: We e-mailed and asked permission. Though our standard acceptance e-mail over the years mentioned the possibility of reprinting work in an anthology, it also returned all rights to the authors, (did someone say sloppy and poorly thought through?), so we thought it best to get fresh permissions from everyone. There were a few cases where a Brevity essay had been subsequently reprinted in a book, so we had to go to the presses and ask permission, which was more complicated, but in the end everyone said yes. We feel lucky it ended that way.

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