Celebrating Creative Nonfiction: The Best of Brevity Magazine

You may already know Brevity Magazine for concise creative nonfiction, craft essays on writing, and its prolific blog. For nearly two decades, the magazine has published work from emerging writers and well-known authors alike, including Roxane Gay and Sherman Alexie.

We asked Brevity’s editors to consider this exceptional body of work and recall the piece that speaks to them the most.

Dinty W. Moore, former zookeeper, is the author of many books and the director of the creative writing degree programs at Ohio University.

Dinty W. Moore, Founder and Editor

Coming up on our 20th year of publishing brief essays, it is an undeniably tough task narrowing down the choices. “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” by Randon Billings Noble is, however, a favorite of mine for both its honesty and its ingenuity.

The essay is about love, or more precisely, infatuation. I’m tickled that the author calls this sort of obsessive desire what it really is: an injury, with recognizable symptoms — “A heightened sensitivity to glances, postures, gestures, attitudes, and casual remarks from observers. A propensity to blush.” — and various self-care remedies — “Hold yourself together.” The human heart can tear just like a muscle can tear, but this is a metaphorical rending, an injury no one can x-ray or suture. Still, the pain is real. So, protect the heart. Remember, “The only muscle you can’t live without needs to stay whole.”

Your heart was already full, but then you saw him and your heart beat code, not Morse but a more insistent pulse: Oh yes. That’s him. That one.

–“The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” by Randon Billings Noble (January 8th, 2015)

Photo by Melissa Askew
Photo by Melissa Askew

Debbie Hagan is Brevity’s Book Reviews Editor. She is the former editor-in-chief of Art New England and the author of Against the Tide.

Debbie Hagan, Book Reviews Editor

From Brevity’s current issue, I chose an essay that really resonated with me: “The Woods Are Going to Close,” by one of our frequent book reviewers, e.v. de cleyre. While readers expect a story to unwind from its beginning, de cleyre turns the narrative upside down. The end begins the story: “Mother unzipped our snow pants and clumps of sawdust fell to the floor.” This odd image prompts questions, namely, where have these children been? Readers are led backwards through the story: “Before that, the bloodhounds sniffed us, and their handlers asked us where we had been.” And before that a stranger offered the children a ride, and before that, they were lost and wandering the woods. Going back in time like this not only heightens the suspense, but mimics the way most of make sense of our memories.

Before that, we climbed mountains of sawdust and slid down. Climbed up and slid down. Climbedupandsliddown. Mount Fine Like Sand. Mount Clumpy. Mount Wood Chips. The scent of chewed up balsam fir, or maybe it was pine. Four meant I did not yet know the names of things.

–“The Woods Are Going to Close,” by e.v. de cleyre (January 18th, 2016)

Photo by Pär Pärsson
Photo by Pär Pärsson

In addition to being Brevity’s Craft-Essay Editor, Julie Riddle is the creative nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University and is associate editor of Whitworth Today magazine. She is the author of a memoir, The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness.

Julie Riddle, Craft-Essay Editor

In just 290 artfully chosen words arranged in eight sentences, Brenda Miller’s “Swerve” encapsulates the depth and scope of an oppressive, fraught relationship, a feat that would have taken me thousands of words to attempt. The essay opens with Miller running over a piece of stray wood in the road. Her edgy, paranoid boyfriend in the passenger seat, fearing they would get pulled over for the contraband pot he had put in the trunk, explodes at her supposed carelessness and her subsequent apologies.

I love the essay’s brief title, “Swerve,” which means “an abrupt change of direction.” The word appears only once, at the very end of the piece, where its meaning connects to, but shifts and expands from, the opening scene, when Miller writes, “…and even now I’m sorry I didn’t swerve, I didn’t get out of the way.” Here, at the last moment, the essay’s litany of apologies veers away from Miller trying to appease her boyfriend in the past and toward Miller in the present, expressing compassion for her younger, suffering, stifled self.

I’m sorry about that time I ran over a piece of wood in the road. A pound of marijuana in the trunk and a faulty brake light — any minute the cops might have pulled us over, so you were edgy already, and then I ran over that piece of stray lumber without even slowing down.

–“Swerve,” by Brenda Miller (September 30th, 2009)

Photo by Kerrie DeFelice
Photo by Kerrie DeFelice

Allison K. Williams is a guerrilla memoirist, essay writer, and travel journalist. She’s written about race, culture, and comedy for NPR, the CBC, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and McSweeney’s. Her humor writing was a Mark Twain Award winner; she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Allison K. Williams, Social Media Editor

One of the joys of participating in a literary community is witnessing evolution. Thaddeus Gunn first wrote “Slapstick” in a class we both took with Dinty W. Moore at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Hearing him read it aloud — the spare, unflinching words that find black humor in childhood abuse — was riveting, and seeing what it became in the pages of Brevity was astonishing. I love the opening list of “All Star wrestling moves” that make me laugh despite myself, the razor-sharp image of the tumor in his mother’s skull, the softness of the “grain of sand at the center of every pearl.”

Another joy, specific to the online literary community, is the ability to make connections beyond a printed page. In the comments below the piece, Thaddeus has linked a photo of his mother as a child — a flaxen-haired, wise-eyed angel in a pinafore — that lets the reader ask themselves again, “How does this happen? How do we let ourselves revisit our own trauma on the next generation?”

But I remember perfectly well. My grandmother, proudly noting she was never one to spare the rod, told me herself what a bother my mother was: how she was sullen, how she burned the toast, spilled the juice, and failed in math. And for these infractions she was justly punished, with the rap on the knuckles, the slap on the jaw, the punch in the stomach, and the milk bottle to the side of the head.

–“Slapstick,” by Thaddeus Gunn (January 18th, 2014)

Photo by Jim DiGritz
Photo by Jim DiGritz

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Sarah Einstein, Special Projects Editor

Diane Seuss’ “I hoisted them, those two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were…” is a stunning lyric essay about mothering a young man who has lost himself to addiction. The author expertly weaves from the moment of the story, to the far past of his birth, to the very near future of the night after the event, when her son will threaten her and she will have to banish him from her life. The artfulness of this piece isn’t surprising; Seuss was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry. This is the lyric essay at its best. But that isn’t why I chose it as my favorite.

On the day Brevity published it (and the day I read it, since it was under Kelly Sundberg’s stewardship, and not mine, that it was chosen for the journal), a young man came into my office at the university where I teach and asked me if there was any way he could re-enter the class after a long series of absences. He had been, he told me, in rehab for opiate addiction, and although he knew he might not be able to earn a passing grade, he thought the work of the class would be useful for him. On another day, I would probably have said no. I’d have read the attendance policy on the syllabus to him, and talked about fairness to the other students. But on this day, because of this essay, I thought of his mother, and of how exhausted she must be by the work of trying to shepherd him through these hard times. I thought about how much she must need the help of other hands to try and guide him to better days. So I said yes. But even now, we aren’t at the story. The story is this: the next day, a niece I loved very much, a child I had helped to raise, died of a drug overdose. It broke me in a thousand different ways. But, because of this essay, I was saved from the way it would have broken me to have heard this news on the day after I turned another young person in trouble — another young person who no doubt has aunts who love him — away from my classroom.

And, for me, this is the power of good creative nonfiction. It reminds us to see the world through more than our own jaundiced eyes; it instructs us in what it is to be a person in this world. It offers us opportunities to be better people, because it grants us access to ways of seeing that we don’t ourselves possess. I’m grateful to all the writers, published in the journal or not, who share their work with Brevity — for every opportunity to see beyond myself and into the experience of another — but I am particularly grateful for this one.

…my son, he was nowhere to be found, I didn’t see him until, what was it, later that night or the next day, he showed up at my house and put his hands on me, he didn’t hurt me but it was moving in that direction, and something in me rose up, like a deer I once saw that stood up on its back legs and roared…

–“I hoisted them, those two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were…” by Diane Seuss (September 3rd, 2015)

Photo by Paco S
Photo by Paco S

Brevity is currently accepting submissions for its issue on race, racialization, and racism which will include Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay as anchor authors. It will be published in September 2016.

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