On Brevity

We’re pleased to present a guest post by Jay Ponteri, Director of the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Marylhurst University. Jay’s post offers an example of the way that digital writing borrows from many sources. It serves as an excellent example of, and conversation about, authorship. It’s also super cool.

On Brevity

by Jay Ponteri

It requires you to look at it very closely, to engage it in an intimate way. It does not overwhelm you, it cannot swallow you up.

Your mind can encompass a short piece in a way it cannot grasp a novella or a novel. Like a hand closing over a stone with the word sadness painted on it.

Napoleon was a short man.

Make endless meaning using fewer words.

David Markson: Samuel Beckett once sat through a New York vs. Houston doubleheader at Shea Stadium.

The surface, which can be dense and even ornate, is small but the feeling one gets from the surface is deep.

Try brushing your teeth with chocolate milkshake.

Charles Baxter: The novel is, spatially, like an estate; the very short story is like efficiency on the twenty-third floor. As it happens, more people these days live in efficiencies than on estates.

The only thing that matters is the thing itself.

The white space inside the letters and around the words and the block of text is part of the surface and part of The Void, which we can try to fill with our own meaning.

Perhaps it is the nature of small things to flow together, to form something larger.

From Richard Linklater’s Death by Hand series: Thumb gouge to the brain via eyes.

Card designer Bekki Witt: I love cute. I equate “small” with “cute.” Therefore, small things are cute things. Kittens, a baby’s sock, tiny handbags, and little, dangly earrings. I like peoples’ responses to cute. It’s the ooh and aah factor. It’s like the little bits are just bits on their own, but put together in the right combination, it’s a grand work of art. I like the focus that working with small things brings. I must be exact and careful and pay attention to nothing but the little stuff in front of me. I don’t focus on details in most areas of my life, but here is one place I must pay deliberate, patient attention. Creating with smallness forces me to exercise the flabby areas of my personality and style, allows me to express myself in a way nothing else can or does and teaches me to remember balance in all things.

Paraphrasing Alice Munro: Most novels could (read: should) be condensed to thirty-pages.

Art critic says about Joseph Cornell: He was devoted to the fleeting sensations of inner experience.

The smaller surface must culminate inside of the reader in similar ways the larger surface does.

The larger surface accumulates in front of the reader’s eyes whereas the smaller one seems to send elliptical signals to the reader through The Void. The transmissions seem beyond knowledge.

Begin or end in the middle; begin at the ending or end with the beginning but do not, do not begin at the beginning or end with the ending.

When you dip a single toe in cold water a shiver runs through your entire body.

“Memoir” by Amy Hempel: Just once in my life—oh, when have i ever wanted anything just once in my life?

Try painting a landscape on a grain of rice.

David Markson: William Burroughs killed his wife while trying to shoot a glass perched on her head a la William Tell.

David Markson: I could die to-day, if I wished, merely by making a little effort, if I could wish, if I could make an effort.


With a smaller surface, the parts that make up the fragmented whole are smaller and more intricate, more fragile. Working requires a steady, quick hand and a readiness to let it go.

And we learn to see each single part more closely, and thoroughly, so what we can’t see we can imagine.

As in, a child who gets to know every inch of the fort made from couch cushions and blankets.

As in, “the eels in Seattle” is wholly different from “the eels in Fond du Lac.”

Our sense of being in the world narrows without feeling congested or confined.

Charles Baxter: These stories tell us something about the scale of our lives, not so much that diminishment has occurred but that intimacy and community have increased. It is as if all the borders, to all other realms, have moved closer to us, and we ourselves are living together in tighter psychic spaces.

Russell Edson describes the ideal prose poem as “a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own madness.” He’s come to understand his process as “dreaming awake.”

The Mountain Goats: And I dreamt of a camera pointing out from inside the television and the aperture yawning and blinking.

John Cheever (from Journals): I dreamt my face appears on a postage stamp.

The dream, which can build and collapse story in a single instance, which is fragmented and elliptical, which is closely and strangely detailed, seems most potently and profoundly expressed in briefer forms.

“Cup of Blood” by Ayane Kawata (trans. Sawako Nakayasu): I hold a cup, trying to drink the blood coursing through it, but I just can’t bring myself to drink it.

David Markson: They’re going to cut a street through. They would, Bill said.

The aphorism is an ancient form, knitting together in a single stitch contradictory emotions, mindsets, or concepts. With each new word, the prose shifts toward the contra. Swinging from action verb to direct or indirect object is like moping into a wild fire, is like speaking to a brick wall.

Words pulse and cut, then sop it up.

To define an aphorism is almost to ruin it.

My son and his friend race slugs.

Mark Leidner: Anything worth doing is worth taking your lifetime to do.

Mark Leidner: One does not begin a poem, one abandons one’s life.

Joseph Joubert: Where do thoughts go? Into the memory of God.

Joseph Joubert: The body. Like a piece of clothing that wears out.

Joseph Joubert: I have to oil my brain.

Joseph Joubert: Let’s go; and follow your mistake.

Joseph Joubert: Dream. Lost Memory.

The small surface requires one’s gaze to slow itself, to expand, unfurl.

Shaking through.

Brevity may or may not culminate in a shorter duration of time passing, but that’s not the point. The point is to pass through time in a different way.

Anything brief or small inherently expresses a sense of exquisite humility for its immediate surroundings, for its diminutive stature so quickly blends into the other, attending to and depending on the white space and what lies beyond.

The space in between the eye and what it beholds.

Your limpid eyes, your raised fingers.

Charles Baxter says: What we find, if these stories are part of the evidence, are the virtues of quickness: humor, surrealism, and some skepticism. The skepticism has to do with explanations. We are all getting tired of the Village explainers. Explanations don’t seem to be explaining very much anymore. Authoritative accounts have a way of looking like official lies, which in their solemnity sound funny. If you don’t know the whole truth, you might as well keep whatever you have to say short. You might as well puncture the pretense of sheer size.

David Shields: A final thought regarding shortness—I love how it cuts to the chase, eliminates all dross. The very brevity says, “Get rid of contrivance, character development, scene, setting, tedious dialogue”—give me, as in Robert Hass’s Human Wishes, the core concerns, the guts of the thing that thrills and pushes the writer to cut to the bone.

Charles Baxter: They put up and shut up.

The point is to feel something substantial in your heart.

Sam Shepard: Then you land and go to the hotel. The air smells so good you can taste it. They have breakfast all ready for you. It’s sitting there on this glass table in front of a huge picture window. You just sit there and eat and look out over the ocean. I’ll send you some postcards. I’ll buy a dozen or so and send one a week. It’s a great place. I’m going to do some swimming too. Floating on my back. You just float and stare at the sky. You just float and stare at the sky. You just float and stare at the sky. You just float and stare at the sky.


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