Small & Large

26 October 2018 on Blog, Nonfiction, Storystorm  

I like Small. Always have. Not because of my height, which is average. Not because of my scope, which, I like to think, is Large. But because Small, in terms of word count, is my natural habitat. I wish I were as economical in all ways as I am in this.

When I started in the MFA program at UNH, I couldn’t believe the lengths to which I was assigned to write: three thousand, four thousand, even five thousand words at a go. I got used to it, and I learned. Now I can do it. But it still doesn’t feel quite natural to me.

I thought I was a freak. Or lazy. Or just unwilling to unpack, unpack, unpack a narrative to its natural end. Sometimes this was true, but not always. Things started looking up when I took a poetry elective. Poets understand Small, even if they don’t all practice it themselves. Then I discovered Brevity, known in its Large form as Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction (750 words or fewer). I breathed more easily.

But still, this Small stuff seemed somewhat abstract until I found myself at Brevity’s 20th Anniversary Reading at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in March 2018. The five sublime readers made the art of Small clear to me, especially Beth Ann Fennelly, who read from her new book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs. Complete essays, fully arc’ed, funny, poignant, wise, all in 750 words or fewer. Some were a lot fewer—95 words, anyone, or 44, or 29? As my grandmother liked to say, it was the living end. As soon as I got home, I bought Heating & Cooling, imitated it ferociously, and applied to the Iota Short Prose Conference, where Beth Ann would be teaching.

In mid-August, I arrived on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, as one of the 20 members of the Iota Class of 2018 and was immediately astonished: Small is Real. It has its own norms, publications, and stars (many of whom excel at Large as well). Small disrespects genre, even though it uses some genre terms in its forms: monostitch poems, flash fiction, hermit-crab essays, six-word memoirs. Here are some of the most important things I learned about Small. It encourages you to take risks. It enables you to tackle tough subjects. It brings out your hidden humor. It lets you make use of everything around you. It makes writing more like play than work. It can change the shape of your thinking. All of which is, in fact, pretty Large.

Susan Geib is a nonfiction reader and was Barnstorm’s nonfiction editor in 2017-2018.

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