“Kathy” in Brevity

Distilled from an essay of more than twenty pages and part of another of that length, my essay “Kathy” appears in the May 2009 edition of Brevity, a journal of concise nonfiction. Essays for Brevity may not exceed 750 words and are compressed wonders, caught moments, life’s puzzles, shining nuggets fetched tumbling from a brook. I’m proud to have work in this company!

“Right before her high school senior photo, Kathy took her mother’s sewing contrast-flowerspondblogscissors and sawed off her long brown hair—it was hot on her neck in the fields. Mary, mortified, begged the photographer to do something, and he dabbed brown paint on the picture. The yearbook showed a girl wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses and an uneven pageboy that looked like Joan of Arc’s dented helmet. A layer of baby fat still softened her cheeks, but her composed smile—a young intellectual’s nod to the world—wasn’t warm enough to distract a viewer from the intense inquiry in her eyes.”

The last sentence in that passage is punctuated differently in my parent essay: “A layer of baby fat still softened her cheeks, but her composed smile, a young intellectual’s nod to the world, wasn’t warm enough to distract a viewer from the intense inquiry in her eyes.”

I now think  those parenthetical dashes in the Brevity version are too obtrusive, not as smooth as the commas. (Any votes? I’m  interested.) Punctuation affects tone: a friend now editing a piece for me just pointed out that I’d gone on a semicolon bender. She believes in using semicolons sparingly in creative nonfiction since they are more “talky” than vivid by nature. Incidentally, Scott Fitzgerald is a master of dashes and semicolons in The Great Gatsby. Consider their elegant use in this gorgeous passage from the end of the novel:

“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled to an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

My sentence that bugs me aside, I feel  “Kathy” just clicked in its brief version and affirms that good stories resist summary. “Kathy” is about a connection at their first, historic meeting between two people I love. Depth calling to depth. The Brevity vignette captures this encounter without unnecessary backstory or impossible explanation. There was something  both perfect and elusive about the incident and my reaction to it.

One friend who test-read the piece for me hated it; she said it had no theme and didn’t add up to anything. She’s a gifted editor, but in this case I knew she was wrong. The stories we can’t stop thinking about our whole lives, the ones most worth telling, remain mysteries.


Filed under editing, essay-concise, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, narrative

9 responses to ““Kathy” in Brevity

  1. John

    I agree; too obtrusive.

  2. Christine

    I prefer the dashes. I think the sentiment of the sentence is clearer with them and gets lost with the commas.

  3. Vivian

    Hi I’ve just read your story on brevity. I have to say that I really enjoyed your piece on Kathy. I’m not one to suggest the usage of semicolons or dashes but am just glad that the end-product on Brevity was a beautiful one. Good work:)

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I love the comments so far, though on the blog and in email correspondence the opinions on those darned dashes are split 50-50!

    I just got this from a friend who is a talented fiction writer: ” I like the dashes. For me they are informal, almost like a turning up of the palms. At times they can seem abrupt or ostentatious but they are neither here.”

    Oh, it is so lonely being an (obsessed) writer!

    • Just read “Kathy.” Very nice…especially the last line. I prefer the dashes, but mainly from a mechanical standpoint. You’ve already used a comma in that sentence, and the dashes keep you from swimming in commas. Take care, and keep sending out notification of your pubs! I like reading them. -traci m.

  5. theexile

    Congratulations. As far as the dashes in your sentence — they make the contrast between the soft cheeks and the strong smile work; the contrast stands out, but without being forceful. Commas soften it. I love dashes and semicolons.

  6. I’ll get the dashes or commas question out of the way first. The dashes version gets my vote. That one feels more reflective, which is appropriate in a piece that seems to me more reflection than narration.

    Returning for additional reads, intriguing strings of adjectives jumped out at me, and I found myself wanting to read the larger work from which this was carved.

    You circled around a number of life’s big deal issues; circled in the way of a dog, checking for bugs and spiders before he lays down. The business of our fears, for example, and how our own deep-seated fears inform our life choices.

    It all added up to a certain atonal quality to my ear, in which – like Kathy’s sailor cap and the white drake – “something about the combination unsettled.”

    This is a windy way of saying I liked the piece very much.

  7. Donna

    What does this mean:

    “She believes in using semicolons sparingly in creative nonfiction since they are more “talky” than vivid by nature.”

    And, are semicolons more appropriate then in fiction?

  8. That’s a poor sentence and explanation by me: I think she meant that MY sentences with semicolons were getting too long and talky. She probably wasn’t trying to make a rule against semicolons but instead to remind me to be more direct and colloquial, which I think does tend to reduce semicolons. But writers use them well all the time, of course, including fiction writers. Gatsby is my model for beautiful use of semicolons and dashes.