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 scissors 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.