You’ve heard it before—the notion that writing short stories and poems is more difficult and time consuming (on a word-for-word basis) than writing novels—but you don’t believe it, do you? For the general population, especially, the idea that some writers spend two weeks on a six-line poem seems preposterous, if not idiotic, when other writers need just a couple months to write a 400-page novel. But all of you skeptics should recognize that many of history’s best writers confirm the excruciating work that goes into writing something as concisely as possible.
Let’s be clear: it’s not that shorter works are better, it’s that “short writing is capable of everything of which long writing is capable—except excess,” in the words of Alex Stein, coeditor of Short Circuits, along with his compadre James Lough.
At Foreword, our discipline is writing reviews, a very particular, disciplined, concise form of literary criticism. We’d be the first to tell you, it’s not easy to offer a bit of summary, opinion, and commentary about a lengthy novel with just a couple hundred words—which is why we admire the skill showcased in Short Circuits.
For this week’s Foreword Face Off, reviewer Matt Sutherland caught up with James and Alex for a convo about short writing. Take a minute to check out Matt’s review of Short Circuits from our May/June 2018 issue, but not before reading the greatest short book review of all time. See if you can guess the book:
Man steals loaf of bread and doesn’t hear the end of it.
In Short Circuits, you’ve assembled fantastic short works and insight from thirty or so talented writers specializing in the genre. Can you talk about who these people are, why they do what they do, how many of them are out there in the writing sphere, and where their aphorisms and other shorts are typically published or collected?
When my co-editor Alex Stein and I first undertook Short Flights, the forerunner of Short Circuits, also published by Schaffner Press, I was pleased to learn that there is an aphorist underground out there. We discovered that aphorists are toiling away by candlelight behind black air raid curtains, quietly saving the world one sentence at a time. While a few of the sixty-four authors in Short Circuits write only aphorisms, most of us work in different forms, as well. Many are poets; others, like Irena Karafilly, are novelists; and there are writers of essays, such as David Lazar. I would venture to guess that many of us see aphorisms as a sort of sideshow, a little hobby they practice on the side.
We also included a contingency of joke writers, such as Hart Pomerantz, Charlene deGuzman, Patrick Carr, Clayton Lamar, and Mike Ginn. Some high priests of literature might object to binding joke writers into the same book with proper poets and august aphorists, but, as I discuss in the book’s introductory essay, jokes and aphorisms share more similarities than differences.
As far as where these aphorists are getting the work published, the first source I think of is the journal Hotel Amerika, edited by David Lazar, which devoted an entire issue to aphorisms. This showed Alex and me that there were enough good aphorists out there to fill a book of our own. An online journal, appropriately called Brevity, and edited by Dinty Moore, features very short work. Fraglit, a web journal created by Olivia Dresher, is no longer publishing new work but is still archived on the Internet. A few years ago, the Georgia Review announced it was planning an aphorism issue, but the editors changed their minds, saying they couldn’t find enough good aphorisms to fill it. I fear they were pointing their flashlights too high and forget to check under the rocks among the grubs and slugs and centipedes.
Aphorisms and other short stuff get short shrift when compared to other forms of writing, even as most accomplished writers recognize the great skill needed to express oneself with the fewest words possible. Short Flights and Short Circuits are helping to change that perception amongst the general population, thank you very much. What inspired you to do these books now? What was your hope?
The easy answer is that we really love the aphoristic form and its history, and we want to keep it pulsing along. There are lots of aphorism collections from historical figures, going way back to antiquity. But we knew there were also contemporary aphorists. Until Short Flights, and now Short Circuits, there was not a single anthology of aphorisms written entirely by living writers.
That’s our story, and we challenge anybody to prove us wrong. I will personally send signed copies of both books to the prover and credit them on my Twitter feed.
Another nice result would be a wider audience for the writers included in the books, many of which are poets. Sadly, it’s a rare American who can name a single poem or poet. So if Short Flights or Short Circuits points readers to the amazing work of some of the poets who wrote aphorisms in them, that would be a bonus. Because the Internet is a perfect delivery device for these short little pills of insight, the potential for big audiences is bright.
Steven Carter, one of your contributors, mentions that James Geary considers aphorisms a form of poetry, as do many others. And, James, you make several points in your splendid introduction to Short Circuits in support of the close relationship between the two. Obviously, some aphorisms are more poetry-like than others, but do the two disciplines share an audience? Are fans of aphorisms mostly made up of poetry lovers?
Many of the authors in Short Circuits are poets. Aphorisms and poets share some traits in common: compression and concision of language, attention to imagery, and some rhetorical tropes. But the two differ in how they approach their topics. Aphorists tend to hit their topics directly on the nose. There’s rarely ambiguity in an aphorism. Contemporary poets tend to look down their noses at the didactic impulse, preferring to “tell it slant,” as the poet Emily Dickinson lays out didactically.
Aphorisms share as much in common with philosophy as they do with poetry. Reading poetry is more akin to watching a documentary without a voiceover narrator explaining things to you. Aphorisms are all voiceover. Of course there are exceptions and overlaps all over the place.
James, in your intro, you aphoristically write, “A short work can awaken us from our conditioning, the waking dream of ordinary life,” and that “aphorisms contain an element that not only diminishes mental sets but thoroughly deconstructs them: the element of surprise.” But the surprise you’re talking about is not of seeing something in a new light, rather, aphoristic surprise “throws readers back upon themselves, upon their own assumptions and expectations.” Heady, fascinating stuff, and spot on when we come across this beauty from you:
We sleep, our bodies curved like question marks, as if only when unconscious do we admit we have no answers.
Can you talk about what it takes to be a great aphorist? What’s the creative process like? Do the best ones arrive when least expected, and often get jotted down on bar napkins?
Any old surface will do—napkins, text messages to us, the palms of our hands. What does it take to be a great aphorist? I think Nietzsche said it best—the author must have the power of rumination, the ability to dwell on a topic for a long time, the gift for the zigzag dialectal thinking: “on the one hand, on the other hand.” This oscillating, back-and-forth thinking can actually provide the aphorism’s form, because, as James Geary put it, a good aphorism must have a twist. It must switch back on itself and surprise the reader.
On the other hand, aphorists and creative people in general benefit from following the inner impulses and inspirations bubbling up from deeper places than discursive thought. Inspiration, by its nature, comes by accident, surprising the writer. Dialectical thought, however, comes from the author’s need to figure something out, to control it. This need can be antithetical to fresh creative discoveries.
So aphorists must be deep thinkers who do not think? Sort of. There’s a third way that synthesizes thought with no thought. Buddhists call it detachment, the ability to observe one’s own mind as it ruminates, to observe the thought stream without yielding to the temptation to step in the water. Cultivating little holes of emptiness inside our psyches, zones of calm uncertainty, opens a door, enabling us to watch our thoughts from a slight distance, as if the thoughts belonged to someone else. There’s an apocryphal saying in Zen: “Enlightenment [inspiration] is an accident—practice makes us accident prone.”
So that detached state, what Keats called “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” is fertile for an aphorist. Never mind writing skills like concision, a big vocabulary, facility with vivid images, a keen observing eye, and a healthy sense of irony. So that’s about all it takes.
I teach a class at the Savannah College of Art and Design called The Art of the Sentence, where graduate students often realize—with a dismal thud—how challenging it is to write these little things well. By the end of the term, some of them are getting the knack of it, and I’ve kept in touch with alumni who have gotten better and better. Learning to write well has a steep learning curve, which includes learning about oneself. It takes even longer to write short. As Blaise Pascal wrote in a long letter to a friend, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”
Some of my absolute favorite aphorisms in the book run just five words. Here’s two:
There’s no place like nowhere. —Kevin Griffith
Only the unimaginable is real. —Steven Carter
And another gem is
Now that it’s no longer necessary for me to pretend, I’m not sure what is real. —Zara Bell
Can I put you on the spot to each name a couple that particularly speak to this moment—political, cultural, or otherwise?
Like any good parent, I insist that they’re all my favorite, each in their own special way. I will say, however, that the writers we culled from Twitter are quite timely. Patrick Carr and Clayton Lamar at @dogsdoingthings report the mordantly naive commentary of dogs, such as:
Dogs wondering, “What happens when celebrities die,“ and visiting a wax museum, realizing “Oh.“
Then there’s Mike Ginn:
Being 28 in 2016: I’m not ready for a relationship.
Being 28 in 1816: I have 13 kids.*
Being 28 in 1000 B.C.: I lived a good life, thrice I ate a berry and once a pear.*
Or Charlene deGuzman:
Please don’t let all my good news fool you I am still putting gas in my ’97 Toyota Corolla 7 bucks at a time.
What’s next? Are you currently pulling together the bits and pieces for another short-themed book project?
For now, we’re taking a short breather. But I wouldn’t be surprised if something bubbled up and we started shoring up fragments for another Short book. Short Cuts? Short Changed? Or your suggestion: Short Shrift? And just what is a shrift, anyway?