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…and you’re right about “brevity” being at least a healthy part of it. I am a notoriously long-form writer, which I consider one of my great failings (for evidence of this, check the Brevity blog and notice how nothing of mine is featured there). A good friend told me the other day, as if I were just freshly out of the gates, “Selectivity is as important as what you put in your stories.” Amen. What do you think I’ve been trying to teach myself for the past, oh, twenty years? And yet it remains beguiling to me, this idea of leaving things out. Those afflicted as I am likely felt the smack of recognition in Wonder Boys when Grady Tripp refers to having to “go back through the previous two-thousand-odd pages” if he changes the ending to his never-ending novel draft. I’m with you, brother. So it was in a state of maximalist’s despair that I e-mailed Vicki Lindner, who’s teaching the “Writing The Short Essay” intensive at Lit Fest, and asked for her thoughts on writing short. Here’s what she had to say:
I’ve always loved writing short essays. Back in the ‘seventies, I cut my freelancer’s teeth on Cosmopolitan’s Speakeasy column. (The $400 paycheck for “Get to Know Him in Bed” covered my rent.) Now, like then, readers inhale these word truffles because they’re quick to read and digest. That’s why short essays plug into print media, like magazines, newspapers, and artsy lit journals, as well as websites and blogs. Some do double duty: High Country News published my 750-word essays on their website, then sold them to newspapers. I’ve written “lyric essays” that utilize poetic imagery, and brief editorial rants that explode an opinion like a Colt .45. A good blogger is really a good short essayist: I like reading posts that are tightly focused with strong, distinct voices, and I bet you do too.
Yet a memorable blog post, a poetic essay on Brevity.com, or a 650-word guest editorial for The Denver Post call for the same skills. From short essays I have learned to distill my thoughts, refine my logic, create lean, mean sentences, and recognize the sound of my own voice. Each one I write makes me rein in my verbosity and ask, “What exactly do you want to say here, girl?” Come to think of it, the skills short essays have taught me have helped me with fiction, as well as memoir. And when I get burned out, but don’t want my wheels to rust, a short essay lets me make use of experiences that fall outside the scope of whatever major project I am working on. Here’s a link to a lyric essay, with a disgruntled “point,” that came out of living alone for four years in a “shack” thirty miles from Laramie, Wyoming.
All that and a check to cover the rent? This is just further proof that shorter is (sometimes) better (despite my ardent defensiveness on behalf of writing long). I’m pretty sure that whether you want to write short for its own sake or to make your longer work shine brighter, asking that distilling Lindner question: “What do you want to say, here?” can’t hurt. All I request is that if you take Vicki’s class and write a short essay or two at Lit Fest, you consider sending a submission to the top-secret blog! (Though we can’t cover your rent.)