The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020), is an anthology celebrating the online journal’s 20 years of publishing flash creative nonfiction. (Even though it says “Twenty Groundbreaking Years” right on the front cover, I had to double-check that number myself.) Right there in his introduction, founding editor Dinty W. Moore recalls launching the journal in 1997, which technically makes Brevity even older, nearing a quarter century of existence. The passage of time has felt strange and shifting during this era of a world pandemic, but even so, 23 years of internet publishing is a remarkable feat.
Speaking of the pandemic, I’ve been one of those whose mental focus took a hit over the last year; most of my reading reduced to obsessive phone-scrolling, looking for scraps of hope or the next damn thing on the horizon. And so the Brevity anthology, with its 84 flash essays of no more than 750 words each (and sometimes far less), has been a way for me to get my literary fix, and immerse myself in a writer’s unique syntax and style. I linger over sentences packing an emotional power that a longer essay might take a few paragraphs to set up and deliver. What I’ve most connected with, in this last year of not meeting anyone new, is the experience of unique voices. As Moore describes in the introduction, “someone is telling the story, and telling it only as they can, different than you might tell it, and different from the way any other author in that issue of the magazine might tell it. A particular voice on the page.”
A scan of the table of contents reveals several names recognizable to fans of literary prose, such as Abigail Thomas, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay. There are twice as many writers whose names are not as instantly familiar, at least not yet. What all deliver is a slice of the world, wrought in miniature, and revealed through each inimitable “voice on the page.”
Some essays offer fully developed scenes, with setting and dialogue capturing the events of a single day, like the mother and daughter bickering over recipes and God in Lori Jakieln’s “Holy,” or the schoolyard tensions of Joey Franklin’s “Girl Fight.” Others cover a longer span of time and events, as in “Ace of Spade,” Julie Marie Wade’s metaphor drawn out along the length of a family’s history, or Jaquira Diaz’s teenagers loving and living against the backdrop of Miami in “Beach Cities.”
And then there are those essays that break the classic narrative structure and play with form. These are the pieces that stir my creative envy for their cleverness and risk: the lists, the lyrical long sentences, or fragments like shards of brilliant light. There is Randon Billings Noble’s deservedly famous “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” referenced often as a model of what are known as hermit crab essays, those works that borrow the form of other writings such as menus, recipes, or, in this case, an online diagnostic health quiz. Sam Stokely’s “How to Discuss Race as a White Person” is almost entirely white space, except for enigmatic footnotes with a clear message. Christine Byl’s “Bear Fragments,” a series of bear-centric memories and lore, is one of the many essays in the form of lists.
My only initial quibble with the book was the seeming lack of organization in the arrangement of essays. The table of contents lists titles and authors, but I detected no obvious method to the groupings, no sections devoted to form or theme. After reading the book, it’s clear that some pieces are put together to reflect off of each other, but this isn’t always the case throughout (unless I’m simply dense and missing where they relate).
However, this issue is remedied by the helpful sections at the back of the book. The first of these sections, “Further Resources for Writers, Readers, and Teachers of Flash Nonfiction,” addresses how to use the anthology for teaching flash and creating writing prompts. This section also directs readers to some of the most popular craft essays that discuss a variety of topics related to writing flash and writing in general, all available on the Brevity blog. This dedication to the instruction of flash is addressed in co-editor Zoe Bossiere’s Introduction, in which she describes using Brevity to great effect in the college classroom, and states, “One of our hopes for this book is to create an easy-to-use teaching resource from the vast archives of Brevity.”
Another section is a guide to pairing this anthology’s essays with a companion publication from the same publishing house, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, a book devoted to craft essays and prompts. In the last resource section, I found the type of table of contents I’d sought at the front of the book, an Alternate Table of Contents by Subject and Form. Here is where essays are grouped into alphabetical themes, ranging from Aging to Writing About Family. I was glad to see that many essays were placed into multiple categories, as subject labels can often be limiting. For example, Deesha Philyaw’s “Milk for Free” appears under three of the headings: Gender, Race and Ethnicity, and Trauma. Within the “Forms” section, readers and writing instructors can find essays grouped by their various styles, such as Braided, Hermit Crab, Researched, etc. Again, sometimes essays fit into more than one of these categories.
Brevity’s reputation as a leading publication in creative nonfiction is evidenced over and over again by the quality and brilliance of these essays. Whether you come to The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction as a devotee of flash prose, or are just discovering the form in all its limitations and possibilities, this is an indispensable anthology. It will long have an important place on the bookshelves of teachers, writers, and all readers who admire the alchemy of what can be created with 750 words.