Report by Melissa Voss
The challenge that Brevity Magazine, an online journal of concise literary nonfiction, presents to writers is to tell a compelling story, and a factual one at that, in 750 words or less. Brevity is making strides in both the flash and nonfiction realms of literature, and the impact that this magazine has had on the development of these experimental forms of writing in the past twenty-two years is certainly a credit to the magazine’s creator and editor-in-chief, Dinty W. Moore, as well as to the writers who have risen to the challenge presented by the magazine’s publication specifications.
The genre of creative nonfiction is a relatively young and, at times, controversial and experimental one, and Brevity takes the challenge presented by this burgeoning form of writing one step further by limiting the word count of the pieces that it publishes. This creates, according to Moore, “A fabulous petri dish for experimentation. Everything is dialed up in a shorter piece. You need to move in and out of scene quickly, you need to introduce language, diction and rhythm immediately, and you need to establish place, character, conflict, voice right away—usually in the first sentence. The first paragraph of a brief essay has to do what the first chapter of a memoir does,” (Cole).
Broadly, any work under 2,000 words fits within the definition of “flash... (often “fiction”, but Brevity has proven that nonfiction can be condensed just as artfully.) This definition, however, doesn’t quite capture the nuance that goes into crafting a Flash piece, “Part poetry, part narrative, flash fiction—also known as sudden fiction, micro fiction, short short stories, and quick fiction—is a genre that is deceptively complex… Distilling experience into a few pages or, in some cases a few paragraphs, forces writers to pay close attention to every loaded conversation, every cruel action, every tender gesture, and every last syllable in every single word,” (Tusch). In 1997, Dinty W. Moore, then a Creative Writing professor at Penn State Altoona who had published two long-form works of literary nonfiction, took interest in the form of flash fiction as it intersected with his newfound love for nonfiction. In a letter that he wrote for Brevity’s 20th anniversary issue, Moore said “Twenty years ago I had an idea for a magazine that combined the swift impact of flash fiction with the true storytelling of memoir, and Brevity was born,” (Moore).
While many literary magazines will, certainly, accept flash nonfiction if submitted correctly and written well, and there are several lit mags aside from Brevity that explicitly state an interest in flash nonfiction, Brevity is the only space where flash nonfiction, and writing about the craft and creation of flash nonfiction is the specific publication goal. In a compiled list of lit mags seeking Flash submissions, Zebulon Huset stated, “while it definitely seemed like online journals were more likely to have accepted the genre as being somewhere between poetry and short stories, I'd also come across a number of traditional print journals that sought flash fiction in my regular submission quest,” (Huset). This shows that, flash nonfiction, even with a magazine like Brevity which specializes in the genre, is still often a difficult thing to define, lying somewhere between poetry and prose.
It is important, when considering Brevity’s impact on the literary world through the combination of these two forms of writing, to look at the history, too, of the genre of creative nonfiction. Lee Gutkind, founder of the magazine Creative NonFiction, and an early champion of the genre has written on the difficulty that the genre encountered in its early years. “On a graduate level, nonfiction was totally glossed over…” Gutkind wrote in an essay published in The Little Magazine in Contemporary America. “Since nonfiction was not poetry or fiction, it was not considered literary, and if you want to write in a non-literary manner, that was okay. But there were other places for that kind of low-end stuff: Technical writing, PR writing, or basic journalism. Nonfiction was formulaic, like plumbing,” (Gutkind, 165).
Despite the early opposition to creative nonfiction from journalists and academics alike, the genre has, in the past few decades, taken a strong foothold in the literary world. Gutkind continued by saying, “the overwhelming presence of creative nonfiction as a genre (and a publication) is now fact, and while the exact meaning of the term remains somewhat cloudy and imprecise, I think we can say the same thing about fiction and poetry; it is what we say it is. The art defines itself,” (Gutkind, 169). Indeed, the genre of creative nonfiction has defined itself over the course of fifty years of development. Long before the genre was coming up in academic conversations or being published in dedicated literary journals, the nonfiction writers of the 1960s and 70s, journalists, were starting to question the typical conventions of journalism and push the envelope of writing. One of the most notable early new journalists was Joan Didion, who’s 1967 article, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” about the characters she encountered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood “...appeared, on the surface, to have little or no structure… the article departed from standard journalistic practice… she hung out and listened, not interviewing anyone so much as just observing in the moment. Her observations were presented starkly as what was said and seen in her presence. It was up to the reader to draw deeper meaning,” (McNamara).
From Didion and the New Journalists came a craze in the late 80s and 90s of memoir writing. In an essay on the Creative NonFiction website called “What is Creative NonFiction?” Lee Gutkind elaborated on the memoir era:
Memoirs are not new to the literary world. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a classic of the form as is Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, ﬁrst published in this country in 1938. Today the memoir craze continues in full force. Celebrities, politicians, athletes—victims and heroes alike—are making their private lives public. And readers can’t get enough of these books. The literature of reality, with all of the pain and the secrets that authors confess, is helping to connect the nation and the world in a meaningful and intimate way (Gutkind).
It was in the midst of this “memoir craze” when Dinty W. Moore began his own writing career in earnest “The switch to creative nonfiction for me came for entirely practical reasons: I found a publisher interested in a nonfiction book idea, pitched a proposal to that publisher, and my proposal was accepted… Almost everything I learned as a student of fiction writing has been helpful to me as a memoirist and essayist, and slowly but surely, the genre became my mainstay,” (Cole).
Throughout the 1990s the genre of creative nonfiction was recognized and given a name by Lee Gutkind and other writers like him. “In some ways, creative nonﬁction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of ﬂavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonﬁction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these,” (Gutkind). In an interview with Alicia Cole for The Review Review, Dinty Moore described the process of defining the genre as it has evolved in the past twenty or so years and cited some of his own authorial heros, “On truth in nonfiction, Philip Gerard writes: ‘Nonfiction is in the facts. Creative nonfiction is in the telling.’ As for the rejected author who claimed memoir is not about entertaining the reader, Jesse Lee Kercheval says: ‘Tell your story as though you are trying to keep people awake.’ One change is that a body of craft instruction and scholarship has begun to form helping to define the often-invisible borderlines between literary journalism, memoir, the personal essay, the lyric essay, the humor essay, the hermit crab, and other forms….I'm fond of pointing out that the personal essay is different from memoir and they are both different from journalism, but Joan Didion did all three, sometimes within the same sentence,” (Cole).
Though the genres of creative nonfiction, and flash prose writing are both young and ever-evolving, Brevity does not stray from seeking out the best of the best in these forms. On the Brevity website, the magazine claims, “For more than two decades, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction has published well-known and emerging writers working in the extremely brief essay form, along with craft essays and book reviews. Though still committed to the mission of publishing new writers, Brevity has been fortunate over the years to include the work of three Pulitzer prize finalists, numerous NEA fellows, Pushcart winners, Best American authors, and writers from India, Egypt, Ireland, Spain, Malaysia, and Japan.”
To Moore, who started the online magazine by himself, and published only five pieces in the original number, the success of a magazine as specific and experimental as Brevity is a joy. “In the early years, we had a staff of one. For most of our first decade, we had a volunteer staff of two. Now we have roughly a dozen volunteer staffers, hard-working, loyal, bleary-eyed, and still excited by our mission. It shocks me how much we’ve grown in twenty years: the number of submissions, the quality of submissions, the number of monthly visitors (13,000), the international audience, the growth of the blog… I had no plan, and thus I never saw it coming” (Moore).
“About Brevity.” Brevity, 2018, brevitymag.com/about-brevity/.
Cole, Alicia. “The Unslanted Truth: a Conversation With Four Editors of Today's Premier Creative Nonfiction Literary Magazines.” The Review Review.
Gutkind, Lee. “War of the Words: Fighting for a Journal and a Genre.” The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, edited by Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz.
Gutkind, Lee. “What Is Creative Nonfiction?” Creative Nonfiction.
Huset, Zebulon. “An Extremely Helpful, Incredibly Comprehensive Guide to Flash Fiction Submissions.” The Review Review.
McNamara, Robert. “Joan Didion, Essayist and Author Who Defined New Journalism.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 4 Feb. 2019.
Moore, Dinty W. “On Turning Twenty: A Brief History of Brevity.” Brevity, 15 Sept. 2017.
Tusch, Becky. “Flash Fiction: What's It All About?” The Review Review.