Well, the original ambition was to create an online magazine with standards high enough and editing strong enough to be respected alongside the print and paper journals. Believe me, seventeen years ago, that seemed like an iffy goal. Online journals did not get much respect back then, in many cases because they didn’t deserve it, but a few of us persisted and I think the battle has been won. My other goal in starting the magazine was to create a rung on the ladder for folks early in their writing career to begin to publish – this, because so many editors had been generous to me early on in my own career – and that goal has been reached as well, I think. Looking forward, maybe we need new goals. We’ve recently begun paying our writers, and I’d love to pay our volunteer editors at least a small amount for the incredible effort they put forth, but funding is very hard to come by. That’s a goal though; something to shoot for.
Have you been with Brevity since its inception? Discuss how being the editor of Brevity has changed you as a writer.
Yes, I started Brevity, and for four years or so it was me and me alone doing the editing, the selecting, and laying out the website. From about 2000 to 2007 it was just me and one rotating volunteer reader – usually someone from an MFA program who helped with the submission stack in exchange for internship credit. Then, over the past five years, we expanded a bit, with a Managing Editor and some volunteers to handle the Craft and Book sections. I still do the website though, and the blog, and much of the editing, all by my lonesome.
Please describe the perfect submission.
Tight, crisp language. An immediate and consistent voice. Carefully shaped structure.
How did the magazine arrive at the word limit of 750 words or less? How does this length challenge the writer? Do you find it limiting or empowering? How does this length affect the process of defining theme and the overall development of the piece from the author's point of view?
At the time I was starting Brevity, I noted that flash fiction anthologies and contests were allowing between 500 words and 1000 or 1250 words. I thought 750 words was a good middle-point, and also brief enough to fit well with the screen format. I think authors find it challenging, but often the challenge ends up reaping rewards. For myself, struggling to write in the very brief form has made me more attentive to crispness and concision even in my longer essays.
It’s wonderful that one of your stated goals is to enable new writers to break into the field. Your list of authors is a shining example of award-winners from around the world. Could you estimate the percentage of previously published authors versus brand new writers in a typical issue?
Well, if you define ‘new writers’ as never having been published before in a national literary magazine, we are lucky to have maybe one of those folks per issue, but for me, a new writer is someone just beginning to amass publication credits, with maybe a few small journals and one or two recognized journals already on the resume. About one third of writers in each issue probably fit that definition.
Your magazine charges a nominal fee for submissions. Fee-based submissions have long been a controversial issue in the writing market, and in fact some writers will not submit to publications which charge for submissions. Do you feel that you may miss out on some talented writers because of this, or do you find it sorts the dilettantes from the more serious writers?
We did it because we were getting slammed with submissions from college writing courses. Now understand, we love student submissions and love to publish very young, student writers on occasion. But we were receiving hundreds of e-mail submissions from college remedial writing courses, because the community college system in a particular state had mandated it on the syllabus, and these students were not prepared to write serious nonfiction, nor had they even read the guidelines. I was spending hours of my time rejecting poems, 5,000 word essays, short stories, and badly-formatted essays where the writer, in a cover letter, had sometimes said “I had to submit this but please don’t publish it.” The students were being ripped off, in my estimation – given busy work with little or no instruction. Our nominal fee is now $3, and writers have been very understanding about it.
I have seen reports which indicate that Brevity’s response time to submissions is rather quick, but the acceptances are only slightly above 1%. Would you say these numbers are accurate? Do you have any thoughts related to this topic that you’d like to share with our readers?
Our numbers this year average out at about 900 submissions for every 15 essays we accept, or one in sixty. Frankly, if we had more funding we could publish every month and still hold ourselves to quality work – we are getting so much good writing – but we don’t have the manpower, and three or four issues a year is stretching us as it is. (We all have other jobs, understand, and are doing this for love, not salary.)
I particularly enjoy the Craft Essays section. The thoughtfulness with which they are presented and the wide range of topics is very impressive. Are these essays submitted by freelance writers or are the topics assigned by Brevity staff?
Sometimes the writers submit these already in finished form, and sometimes they pitch an idea to our Crafts editor. We don’t assign topics, though since you ask, I’d love to see more on flash “immersion essays,” on food writing, on the challenges of travel writing, on experimental structure, on multimedia and nonfiction, and on book-length works written with flash chapters.
Where would you like to see Brevity in ten years?
Honestly, my dream would be to hand over the reins to someone else, some university graduate program where funding was available to hire a permanent staff, where MFA students could intern and get credit, and where the journal could continue indefinitely. The costs are low for an online journal, because we don’t pay for paper and postage, but the time commitment is still a struggle. It has been gratifying starting my own journal and keeping it running out of my own pocket all of these years, but when I step away and stop doing it, the journal is likely done. I’d hate to see that happen.
You can find Dinty, and information on his soon to be released book, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash NonFiction, at his website:http://dintywmoore.com/.
Robin Kalinich is an artist, a writer, & a chemist. She believes that every day is another chance for excellence and is doing her best not to squander it. In her spare time, she leads Ink & Alchemy, a group focused on unleashing wild happiness and unbridled success into the world via the written word. www.robinkalinich.com
Excavating a Moment’s Truth
by Kerry Cohen
Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity took five months to write, but I spent almost ten years figuring out what this book was really about. To be honest, I spent almost ten years working on a single scene – the first full scene in the book. I rewrote that scene again and again, each time knowing I had not gotten it right. I knew there was something about this scene, something more meaningful than what I was getting at, something more profound. I tried writing it as an essay. I tried workshopping it in groups. I was told, “Keep writing.” So I did. I pulled up that same file on my computer and delved inside it yet again, trying to find what there was to find, knowing I had not gotten to its bottom yet.
The scene is from when I was twelve years old and living in New Jersey. Two friends and I ventured into Manhattan by ourselves one night to meet up with boys we didn’t know, and we wound up leaving in the early morning hours because one of my friends had an argument with one of the boys. We took the subway up to the Port Authority near the George Washington Bridge and then took a bus from there to get back home. Because of the hour, though, the bus only went to a town about ten miles from my home, so we were stuck.
We found an all-night gas station where two attendants promised to drive us home at the end of their shift. They did, and in the car, one of those men slid his hand up my leg and grabbed my crotch. I knew from the first time I wrote this scene that it was about danger, about three girls going into the city at night seeking danger of some sort and, in the end, finding it. For a long time, I thought of myself in this scene as a victim because that man molested me. This was certainly a part of the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I rewrote the scene and the moment when he molested me at least fifteen times. And then, one day, I was able to write a truth about that moment that I had been too ashamed, too frightened, to admit before:
I squirm, but it’s no use. His coarse fingers worm up to my underwear, scratching and grabbing as I try to pull away. They’re my best underwear, lavender in color, and he traces the edges with his fingertips. I put them on that evening with the thought that just maybe I would get to third base with one of the boys from the city. It seems a long time ago that we were in my house, full of expectation, getting ready for the night. Now he holds his fingers against my crotch – not inside, just against – letting me know he is there. I clench my body, my eyes turned to the window. I want to scream, to push his hand away, but I’m too afraid. Too afraid if I don’t give in, he won’t let me go at all. But there’s something else, too, something growing inside me, something I don’t really want to admit: There’s another part that’s not afraid at all. I almost like it. I know what’s happening isn’t right. But his touch is an inevitable result of the evening. It is my greatest hope – to be wanted. And here, with this repulsive older man, I am getting that. He holds his hand there like he owns me, but really, silently, I’m the one who owns him.
The day I wrote this version of that moment, the truest version of that moment, is the day I started writing Loose Girl. This theme in my life, this terrible, shameful theme – that I would take attention from men any way I could because it made me feel in control and loved – is the theme that would drive my memoir forward. I wrote the rest of the book swiftly, with no difficulty. The words poured forth like water.
Many times, when writers attempt to write their stories, they aren’t willing to look closely. Too much pain, or shame, or fear stands like a guard at the door. But if you can relax into those feelings, if you can sit with your flawed, imperfect self, silence your internal judge, and allow yourself to write toward meaning, you just might locate the truth that holds the key to your entire book.
Kerry Cohen is the author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, as well as four young adult novels. Her essays and fiction have been featured in many journals and anthologies, including The New York Times and Best Sex Writing 2010. She teaches memoir writing through Gotham Writers’ Workshops and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.