Issue #50, Fall 13/Winter 14
The Square Root of True
A roundtable discussion
The Square Root of True
In April 2009 Creative Nonfiction Associate Editor Stephen Knezovich began tweeting under the handle @cnfonline. This was three years after Twitter, a “microblogging” site, was born; two years after the first iPhone was released; and a year after SMITH magazine published Not Quite What I Was Planning, a bestselling collection of six-word memoirs from writers both famous and unknown. That June, @cnfonline posted this tweet:
Forget 6-word memoirs. Can you tell a true story in 130 characters or less? Prove it. Trend topic #cnftweet, and we’ll RT our fave everyday!
A translation for non-Twitter users: Creative Nonfiction was calling for essays short enough to fit into Twitter’s 140-character limit with room left over for an identifying tag, #cnftweet. Knezovich was promising to broadcast, or “retweet,” the best entries to @cnfonline’s followers.
The challenge was intriguing. What might such an essay look like? What sorts of topics could one address satisfyingly in 130 characters? How would a person go about writing such a thing?
Succinctness fits the frenetic 21st-century lifestyle, but the search for it is far from new. Creative Nonfiction’s invitation came more than 300 years after a Japanese parlor game—the goal of which was to create long collaborative poems—spawned an evocative, 17-syllable form called haiku.
CNF probably didn’t anticipate the fervor with which the nascent Twitter community began debating winning choices, launching challenges at one another, and engaging in pointed or playful meta-riffs off each other’s work—as if this wasn’t just a fun game for readers, but literature with a capital L.
Four years and hundreds—possibly thousands—of #cnftweet entries later, Creative Nonfiction has published in its pages 121 microessays from 77 authors (with a total word count of only 2819) and still the Twitter community debates what a successful cnftweet looks like, how seriously to take this form, and whether it can survive transplantation out of the ephemeral medium in which it germinated.
What follows is a virtual roundtable Q&A by ‘Fred,’ a collective of regular #cnftweet contributors (and named after one of the group’s members). Most of us have had microessays selected for publication by Creative Nonfiction. All remain intrigued, four years after Creative Nonfiction first launched the #cnftweet contest, with the challenges and lessons of the microessay.
Stephanie Austin (@lucysky)
Chelsea Biondolillo (@devakali)
William Bradley (@William_Bradley)
Jo Deurbrouck (@JDeurbrouck)
Dewi L. Faulkner (@dewichick)
E. Victoria Flynn (@EVictoriaF)
Raymond Gibson (@rgibson103)
Jane Hammons (@JHammons)
Karrie Higgins (@karriehiggins)
Antonia Malchik (@amalchik)
Kate Moseley (@venilegivici)
Fred Osuna (@spitballarmy)
Ericka Schenck (@inthemilk)
Kellie M. Walsh (@kmwalsh)
What do you like about using the microessay form?
Stephanie: I’m used to writing these long, occasionally overwrought pieces that involve days and weeks of despair and frustration where I question myself not just as a writer, but as a human being. Using cnftweets taught me to pay more attention to individual sentences, and I’ve become much better at line editing.
William: It’s caused me to be more precise, more thoughtful about word choices, more economical with language.
Jo: That precision is useful. There’s no easy place in a microessay for a cliché—or any other writerly absentmindedness—to hide.
Fred: They force me to cut right down to the most basic facts, or fact. Generally, I tend toward word proliferation; writing cnftweets has trained me to get to The Point in other writing projects.
Chelsea: In such a condensed form, I have the chance to explore why a moment caught my eye or attention. I take a lot of mass transit, and I am an unabashedly obsessive people watcher and eavesdropper. The microessay is a way to capture the narrative that literally flashed by.
Karrie: My writing process is immersed in psychogeography so, for me, my essays are places. I am forever searching for the base and meridian, the point from which all values radiate.
By contrast, with cnftweets, I often feel as though I am working backwards: standing at the faraway end of some value, some inkling, and tracing it backward to its center. In fact, writing a tweet essay has quite often led to a revelation about a longer piece’s true center, like finding its true north.
Jane: Usually I’ll have an experience or a memory that suggests the form, long or short. For example, I was in the library watching a group of small children look for books. They were whispering (loudly) the titles of the books they wanted to find. Adults started shushing them and giving them dirty looks. And I thought: don’t do that—that’s the sound of kids learning to read, to love books. That does not strike me as an observation I’d want to write a lot about, so I wrote it like a note that could be posted on the library wall: “Dear Library Patrons: Do not shush the joyful noise of glee-filled 6-year-olds finding their books. That is the sound of reading.”
Jo: Yes, small is liberating. Meera Lee Sethi (@gruntleme) told me that when her long form essays displease and frustrate her, she writes microessays and feels like she is creating little sculptures. Another longtime #cnftweet participant, Matthew Miller (@matthewgmiller), describes himself as “a frustrated writer with zero discipline and no colleagues.” He says he can’t make himself complete a long-form essay, but what he can do, every day, is give himself the small satisfaction of having written at least one cnftweet.
Ericka: For the past nine years, I have been unable to write. I panic when I open a blank document, or put pen to blank paper. But 130 characters on Twitter is a thing I can do, and it’s turned out to be a perfect format for me. I want to give you the bones, force you to add the flesh and hair. What happens, and what makes the format so deliciously ambiguous, is that my truth will often become your truth, too—but in a way I never intended.
E. Victoria: It’s all about choosing a moment, examining it. For a while I ran with the ease of the form, writing simply, almost on the surface. Then I backed off when I realized I wasn’t really seeing the essays for what they could be. As I started examining what others were writing I realized the endurance and affecting nature of the microessay.
Chelsea: I also use them to tell stories that would become too maudlin with excessive words. Breakups, for example: no one wants to read 3000 words on most people’s breakups. But to crystallize in 130 characters the moment when you knew you weren’t in love, and why, requires that most of the petty specificities be stripped.
Antonia: Matthew Miller, who Jo mentioned, has made a real art of that, writing daily cnftweets on the unraveling of his marriage under his separate @slomotrainwreck handle. Following his feed is both heartbreaking and fascinating because, while it unrolls the larger arc of his story, the cnftweet form forces him to keep a laser focus on each step away, each individual loss.
Dewi: It’s the economy of thought that attracts me the most. Often, when I wear my copywriter hat, I have the very human response of irritation when a client doesn’t like my work. But I’ll often look at their suggestions and realize I can craft something eons better than what was there before. Microessays can serve the same function. I have to pare down and drill more deeply—feather dust away all the unnecessary sediment until only the good stuff remains.
What makes a microessay or cnftweet work?
Jane: Precision in language; insight in the story—
Kellie: Also punctuation. It’s important to all writing, but when working in such a small space, the choice to use a comma, em-dash, or colon can determine the fate of the entire story—tone, voice, impact, point: everything.
Jane: The precision is also something of a paradox since some of my favorite cnftweets are ambiguous. I’m not quite sure I’ve gotten it. But I’m intrigued and keep thinking about the image or the story or the humor. Since the cnftweet is so short I can keep thinking about the entire thing in the way that I might a scene in a film or a character in a short story. Those are only pieces of the whole, but the cnftweet is the whole thing.
Fred: A good microessay doesn’t leave the reader wondering what happened, but lingers in the mind or provokes exploratory thought. It encourages a collaborative moment between the writer and the reader.
Kellie: Yes, a good microessay does more than boil a story down to its most essential parts: it boils it down even further, inspiring the reader to complete the circuit between the information presented and its relevance or poignance or irony or import.
E. Victoria: Years ago I worked for a fine chocolatier. When customers would come into the store we offered them a plate with half a truffle, just a bite. Inevitably, they would take the chocolate, pop it into their mouth and have a moment of personal ecstasy. “Mmmm,” they would moan. A great cnftweet comes with that sort of emotive experience. I want to share it out loud or show it to everyone in the room, even if I know they might not appreciate it in the same way I do. Some people are attracted to humor or the profound; with the microessay you can have that one bite on an immediate level. Mmmm . . .
William: Its brevity gives it tremendous power—we don’t expect something told in such a short form to knock us over with truth or beauty. So when it happens, we’re sort of left breathless.
Dewi: I agree. It’s as though a good microessay causes a little buzzing exclamation point to materialize behind your eyes. Something akin to an “a-ha” moment, but even better.
Kellie: The form also has the ability to convey meaning through negative space. While a long-form essay takes you on a journey through what is said, the best short-form prompts you to take a journey yourself through what is unsaid.
Chelsea: The art is in the writer’s ability to create both characters and arc in such a short space. The characters can make a good tweet, but it’s the arc that turns an otherwise simple scene or lush description into an actual microessay.
Stephanie: Ideally, these cnftweets come from the top of that arc, and they possess a miniature sunburst from a core moment in life. If a sentence can create movement, and the reader of that sentence feels that movement even if it’s different than the original intent, then hallelujah and praise be to God because I’ve just succeeded as a writer.
What makes one fail?
Fred: Some of my least favorite cnftweets seem to feel the need to direct my feelings about the story, to force the writer’s conclusion on me. I’m never as interested in how the events in the essay make the writer feel, as I am curious as to their relevance to me. And even though that sounds self-centered and egotistical, what’s a piece of writing meant to do, if not to touch the reader in some way?
Kellie: Especially in short-form, that kind of prescription can throw the reader right out of the equation. Even in 130 characters, you need to leave room for the reader to participate.
Jane: The cnftweets that I tend to be baffled by are those that are really obvious, like, “Sheesh I ripped my pants at the grocery store.”
Chelsea: Right. They just tell a reader what happened, not why it mattered. Tell me who was standing right behind you, or the sense of physical or psychic relief that the rip inspired.
Stephanie: Social media is often this unfiltered stream of people’s random thoughts. Putting a hashtag on random thoughts doesn’t make them meaningful. Honestly, I’m ok with people ripping their pants in a grocery store, as long as they make it an art.
William: It’s the same things that make a regular essay fail: poor word choice, pretension, an obsession with the vapidly scandalous as opposed to the truly thought provoking. Having a dramatic situation doesn’t mean you have a compelling story.
Antonia: The words are critical. Mine have to pull at least double-duty. I was watching my toddler once discovering the two-way light switches in our hallway, and it reminded me of how my grandfather first flipped a light switch at nineteen, prompting his decision to leave his Ukrainian ghetto for Leningrad. There’s a story in that juxtaposition, between his poverty and upheaval and his great-grandson’s luxury of two-way switches, but the cnftweet I wrote failed because the words I chose didn’t create a link between the two events and their import for me. Maybe the material was just too big for a super-short form, but in any case there’s no space to hide that failure in a tweet essay.
Jane: If I have a “so what” response to the cnftweet, then I think it’s a scene: interesting to read, but it is incomplete and leaves the reader nothing to think about or reflect on.
Raymond: A good microessay should invite a sense of flânerie rather than voyeurism. If the readers feel they are rubbernecking, it’s a failure making a spectacle of itself.
Jo: I wouldn’t call this a failure exactly, but some of what I and others write when we’re trying to create microessays are really aphorisms. They’re smart and pithy, but the reader’s relationship with an aphorist is as appreciative audience, not collaborator. And an aphorism is only the size it is, whereas a microessay is like Doctor Who’s TARDIS: it’s bigger on the inside.
Dewi: Which relates to what Kellie said about what makes them work: there has to be an outer darkness for the reader to peer into. If you try to include every aspect of a story in 130 characters, you’re going to fail. And if you pick a story that can be adequately covered in 130 characters, it’s going to be so flat and lifeless that there won’t be any dimension or spark.
E. Victoria: A failed essay doesn’t crystallize the experience, doesn’t “spark” as Dewi said. If we’re going to start with the banal it has to become exceptional in the end.
Fred: Cnftweet failures are often characterized by disregard for standard grammar and punctuation, use of abbreviations (a la text messaging), excessive cuteness—
Fred: Mm hmm. Also, when the essay’s used as an obvious outlet for personal anger or criticism, or when it employs obscure cultural references that send the reader scrambling to the nearest search engine—that’s a fail. And, you know, I’ve violated every one of these criteria repeatedly.
Chelsea: Every time I have to resort to an “&” I feel like I have failed.
Antonia: And I so often want to use the “&!” But you’re right. When I’m tempted, I know I’m just trying to stuff more words in. There’s a lack of honesty in that, being false to the form, which a seasoned writer knows better than to succumb to.
Karrie: I have had a crisis of faith in this recently, but I used to think of my writing as forensic science. Essays became adversarial confrontations with myself; I played prosecutor and defense.
I attempted that process on Twitter and wound up distilling stories to their “trace evidence.” Somehow that felt too certain, like “guilty before proven innocent.” To me, this felt like a lie because it erased reasonable doubt. The form didn’t work for those stories and, ultimately, I found the medium too discursive for a deep plumb line.
Jo: One of the things I learned as this group tried to pick a list of ‘best’ microessays is that we do not agree on what a successful microessay looks like and even less on what the ‘best’ microessays look like. I think this is because, like poetry and short fiction, microessays that try to accomplish as much as they possibly can are forced to take risks. The writer guesses what sorts of leaps a reader is willing to make and what sorts of connections the writer can assume she and the reader share. When the writer has guessed incorrectly about you, the microessay or poem or short story fails for you, even though it might be wildly successful for me.
Ericka: A few weeks ago Jo and I were talking about one of my cnftweets: “From the valley, the trees on the mountain are blue. From the trees, the valley is brown. From under the lake, everything’s green.” It’s a birds-eye tour of a place, and I felt when I wrote it that it could stand alone as simply that. But central to that place is a mountain that both sustained and broke apart my family, and a beautiful lake that is also a grave for bodies rarely discussed and probably never to be found. Maybe you want those details. Maybe it fails without them. Honestly, I’m still not sure. This, I think, is the central difficulty of the form: Recognizing when you’ve said too little; or, much worse, when you’ve said too much.
How can writers use microessays and the #cnftweet contest in their work?
Jane: I don’t remember exactly when I started #cnftweeting—2009, maybe—but I do remember that I was trying to get back into previous, more regular writing habits. So I would write a cnftweet every morning as a kind of daily writing practice—even before I went to work. Sometimes I’d post them, and sometimes I didn’t. But I liked being able to sit down and do some quick writing. Having the #cnftweet possibility helped me think about audience. Once I started actively participating, I looked forward to the feedback from this group, whether it was a Favorite star on Twitter or a DM (direct message) with a personal response or question. I began to feel like part of a community. And I really liked that. Still do.
Ericka: The 130-word microessay has spawned an active, diverse, supportive community of writers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. That’s really something.
Kate: One of the greatest moments in #cnftweet history, in my humble opinion, was a few months in 2009 and again 2010 when cnftweeters began riffing off of each other’s submissions. (And not in a snarky way, though that may have occurred once or twice, too.) The tweets would play off of a word, or a theme, or a sentence structure: the original tweet was the prompt for another, then those together for another, each building and playing up to a jazzy concerto of micrononfiction. Every now and then it happens again. I thrilled in the community of it, the leaps of imagination and intuition, and the sheer talent of the writers who participated. It wasn’t just an exercise, or a contest; it was a dance.
Fred: I remember those, Kate. One such jam began with Kellie’s
Year 1 traditional: paper; year 1 actual: sex. Year 9 traditional: willow and pottery; year 9 actual: violets and toilet paper.
It continued with Michael Johnson (@surrealtweets) launching off of Kellie’s tweet,
After @kmwalsh: “Year 1 traditional: paper; year 1 actual: sex.” Year 15 trad.: crystal; actual: watching True Blood together.
and concluded with Ericka’s take, in a decidedly darker tone:
After @kmwalsh: Year 1 trad.: paper; year 1 actual: I forget. Year 10 trad.: tin; year 10 actual: divorce, finally.
A marital tryptich, a la cnftweet.
Karrie: Because of my background in art history, I often see writing in terms of visual art movements. For a long time, I had a goal of recreating in writing what Mondrian had achieved in visual art. I feel that the #cnftweet contest is a natural fit with this aesthetic because it requires me to locate points of intersection. Later, when I was exploring Malevich, I started thinking about each cnftweet as a pure essence of something, a piece of grammar in a universal language. That made it fascinating to read the cnftweet hashtag every day, because you could see all the tweets as parts of this grammar, coming together into a ‘statement’ of some kind, especially on the days that Creative Nonfiction posted a theme for the contest.
E. Victoria: Most of the writers I know keep their stories bubbling around inside them; they’re constantly creating or questioning what will work, what won’t. Microessays have the power to focus our attention, help us see which piece of the story works, which doesn’t. For me, cnftweets are a digestible platform for moments that don’t garner a larger story.
Antonia: They also make a great tool for pinning down the narrative in a longer essay, that true north that Karrie mentioned earlier. I started out in travel writing, where there’s a clear narrative line, which I think made me lazy with my other essays. I thought I could just weave together 5000 words of scenes and research, sprinkled with people and quotes, and it would come to mean something. Writing microessays makes it very clear that you have to know what that “something” is ahead of time. The more you hone that skill, the more clearly you can see what it is you’re writing about and the stronger grasp you end up having on your own story, no matter how long or short it is.
Kellie: Some stories, though, no matter how you mold them, just can’t fit into 130 characters. But what’s cool is, if you keep working at it, you’ll often find yourself discovering an even bigger revelation beneath the first. The forced brevity can reveal an even better, truer story than the one you’d originally conceived.
Fred: I find this to be bracingly true. On at least three occasions, I’ve resorted to writing what I felt was a sprawling mini-epic as a serial, using up to eight cnftweets to cover the narrative ground from front to back. It took writing a five-part serial connecting my family history to old Hollywood to reveal to me that I was simply attempting to describe my father’s cycling dispositions in terms of Humphrey Bogart’s hardened tenderness.
Stephanie: So often as writers, we’re asked to think about a piece as a whole. Where’s the emotional pull? How will a reader relate to this? Is that scene in the shopping mall important? Have I portrayed these people the way they should be portrayed? Have I honored my own emotional intention? What, exactly, did the doctor say and how did he look when he said it? Being able to focus, cut, load more into a sentence is exceedingly valuable in the grander writing scheme. In a microessay, every word, piece of punctuation, and inflection counts.
William: Those of us who teach writing frequently tell our students that every word has to count, but we don’t always follow our own advice. But Twitter doesn’t allow bloviating. Or, really, adverbs.
Kellie: Or many adjectives either. If you’re like me and tend to use three adjectives where one—or better yet, none—would do, cnftweeting can really help bash that habit out of you.
Chelsea: Bloviating! Exactly. I usually compose my cnftweets in Twitter, and I almost always start out with adverbs, stacked adjectives and clever punctuation that must be edited out to fit the character limit. This has definitely helped my long-form essays. I mean, I think we can all agree that a shriek can be presumed to be piercing in nearly every instance.
William: I think there’s a temptation to look at microessays as a kind of gimmick—a less serious, less artistic form of expression—because, let’s face it, Twitter is probably most famously used by celebrities to communicate vapid ideas. But the best of these 130-character stories remind us of the importance of finding the right words, and that “brief” is not necessarily synonymous with “slight.”
Jane: William, do you ever tell your students about the contest, or advise them to participate in it?
William: Oh, yeah. In fact, one of my former students—Alegrea Boone (@Leggy0324)—had one of her microessays appear in the Tiny Truths section in the same issue as my roundtable discussion with Dave Griffith, Steven Church, and Bob Cowser on writing nonfiction about violence. That was particularly gratifying—to be in the same issue of Creative Nonfiction as one of my students. My students who participate in the contest benefit in the same ways I do—they reflect on their experiences and ideas, and learn the value of linguistic precision. But I also suspect that they get a bit of a confidence boost when they’re selected, to be recognized by our field’s top magazine so early in their careers.
Jane: I’ve been teaching writing for a really long time, always trying to create publishing opportunities and a sense of audience for students, putting together readers of their prose, encouraging them to submit to various journals. With the #cnftweet, they have an authentic audience. And they can watch people participating in the #cnftweet community daily—hourly! Knowing that people outside the class are reading their writing is a little scary for them, but also exciting. On the day I announced that two students from the class had won the microessay contest in one week, the whole class burst into applause. You would have thought someone had won the Pulitzer!
Chelsea: For me, too, getting favorited by @cnfonline, appearing in the CNF newsletter, and (joy of joys!) that first publication in the magazine were shining, needed endorsements. I had been rejected in 2011 from every MFA program I’d applied to, all of my stiff, adverby essays were being turned down by every journal I sent them to. . . . Honestly, I often thought that year that I’d made a mistake in changing my life around so I could pursue a writing career. I used the form, and the community that grew up around it, to bolster my confidence, and to tighten my craft. Now, however, I believe that a tweet can be much more than just an exercise. There are former cnftweets printed in manuscripts of mine as stand-alone essays.
Jo: At first I wrote microessays to learn how to write them. Years later writing and reading microessays have become for me a conversation, a conversation about irreducibility and the rights and responsibilities of the writer and the reader. I also write microessays for consolation: I hate knowing that most of the pitch-perfectly ironic moments I observe, most of the cigars screaming that they could be far more than just cigars, will slip through my fingers. Even if I were a far more ambitious writer than I am, that would be true. Microessays let me do something small and, hopefully, powerful with a bit of material I would otherwise lose.
Do microessays have a future outside of Twitter?
William: Absolutely. Their presentation in the magazine itself illustrates this.
Fred: My guess is that we’ll see writing trend more toward the micro direction and gain wider acceptance and popularity as people find that the form fits more comfortably into their increasingly electronic lifestyles.
Jo: Sure, wider acceptance, but not outside the medium. It’s the medium—not just Twitter, but status boxes of all kinds—that acts as literal and figurative frame for the microessay. That strikes me as a shame, but on the other hand, the status box is not going away any time soon. Even if microessays never leave their box, if that box is ubiquitous, is boxiness really a limitation?
Antonia: I wouldn’t say they’re stuck in a box. Look at how micro- and flash writing are gaining more traction in serious literature. Lydia Davis won England’s prestigious Man Booker International Prize this year, and she’s known for writing stories as short as one sentence.
Jane: Absolutely. I saw recently that Roy Peter Clark has a new book called How to Write Short. And in one of the classes I teach, I use Christopher Johnson’s book Microstyle. Students are fascinated by this sharpening and shortening trend that is in some ways antithetical to what they have been learning in an academic setting. It is a different way of communicating, and they see its value, especially outside the academy. It can be smart and provocative and insightful, like other kinds of writing.
Kellie: At the same time, the form of presentation needs to retain context. Don’t get me wrong: I’m always delighted to see one of my microessays in Creative Nonfiction. But packing multiple cnftweets on a page together takes the impact away from each: instead of savoring each one, you end up reading them all—boom, boom, boom—like a list. To retain their effectiveness, microessays need to be presented in a way that sets them apart, that makes explicit their self-containment, as one would with poetry. That framing Jo spoke of—whether a status box or sidebar or page or placard—is vital to the essay’s completeness, to its identity. That there is no more: this is the story.
Antonia: That’s a great point, Kellie. It’ll be interesting to see how the microessay’s presentation and acceptance evolve alongside similar short forms in other genres.
Ericka: If haiku is a valid format, then so is the cnftweet. And, if a cocktail napkin is a valid medium for a first (or final) draft, so is Twitter. To say something lacks seriousness because it originated on social media is ridiculous. All writing is social media.
Fred: Journalist Michele Norris (@michele_norris) re-tweets submissions from her public solicitation of six-word stories about race (#theracecardproject). They have been enlightening and moving true micro-stories, sent from around the globe, and they continue to flow in. I imagine that they’ll one day see the non-Twitter light of day inside a book, or in an exhibition—in fact, I’m sure I’ve read that she is planning such a project. I think that constitutes a future—a future that will possibly allow these sharply polished truths to comfortably co-exist alongside more florid and dense works by established writers such as Paul Auster, Paul Theroux, and John McPhee.
Chelsea: If the packed room at last year’s AWP panel on the art and craft of short-form nonfiction is any indication, then yes, definitely. People want to explore this narrow space as being between nonfiction and poetry. There is a challenge inherent in the form to do something magical in a short amount of space.
Dewi: There has always been a fascination in the literary world with how naked, how free of flower storytelling can be—I would say especially in nonfiction circles. This intrigue will only increase as the inherent stripped-down nature of online communications continues to flourish.
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