Grant Faulkner’s new craft book, The Art of Brevity, was released on February 15, 2023 by University of New Mexico Press. “With elegant prose, deep readings of other writers, and scaffolded writing exercises, The Art of Brevity takes the reader on a lyrical exploration of compact storytelling, guiding readers to heighten their awareness of not only what appears on the page but also what doesn’t.” I recently talked to him about his love of things undervalued, the simultaneous pleasures and frustrations of writing short, and how writing these reflections on brevity has affected his writing and his attention.
Michelle Ross: Grant, first, congratulations on this book, which was such a pleasure to read! You talk in the chapter “Found Objects, Found Stories” in The Art of Brevity about believing that your true calling could be junk collector. When I read that, I thought, aha! Because this book is kind of a collection of scraps, isn’t it? A collection of meditations on brevity—its many forms, its various pleasures, its components, its craft. Reading this book, I felt like I’d picked through your pockets.
Grant Faulkner: I like your reading metaphor, and that’s the way I’d like to be read. I like odd little objects, in life and in stories. Or as stories, rather. And you’re right, this book is a collection of thoughts that I’ve been jotting down over the years and stowed away, so I’m a type of ragpicker as a writer.
I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about the words “junk” and “scraps,” though, because I find a lot of beauty in objects that have fallen into a state of desuetude or been discarded. To be a junk collector is to search for treasures. Just the kind of treasure that others often don’t value.
MR: Reading The Art of Brevity, I was reminded of my own fascination with miniatures of various forms, from Joseph Cornell’s boxes to Laurie Simmons’s photographs of dolls in miniature kitchens. How miniatures both distance us and beckon us inside. How they enable us to see more widely and more clearly. Part of the appeal is, like you say, how miniatures reveal the absurdity and strangeness of our reality. But also there’s a satisfaction in being able to take in the whole of something at once. That’s certainly part of the appeal of writing flash. That is, a 7,000 word short story can feel sprawling. One gets lost in it, or at least I do. If all I have is an hour to write, I might use up that time just rereading and reorienting myself. But with a flash fiction, I can see the whole story at once. Thus, I can much more quickly and easily get inside it and get to work. Of course, I don’t at all mean that flash fiction is easy to write. Being able to easily see what’s there can also be very frustrating when the story isn’t working. Its guts are right there on display—everything in view—so why can’t I fix it? Is that a frustration you relate to? How are the pleasures and frustrations of writing short and writing long different for you?
GF: I like your thought about how miniatures both distance us and beckon us inside. They’re intimate, yet because they’re fragments, we’re at a remove from the story by definition, always on the margins.
I think somehow that the pleasure of writing miniatures is in the frustration. They’re like a Rubik’s Cube—you’re turning words and sentences this way and that as you try to find the perfect essence of the story.
In my book, I talk about how Yasunari Kawabata was obsessed by capturing the essence of a story, and how he turned his acclaimed novel Snow Country into an eleven-page story, “Gleanings from Snow Country.” The novel was already written with brevity, so I’m fascinated by his urge to take it further, almost as if his first effort, despite winning the Nobel Prize, wasn’t good enough—that the truth of the story required a smaller space, to be made into a type of perfume.
I share Kawabata’s reverence for capturing the essence, and as a result, my longer work is increasingly influenced by the aesthetic of brevity. Writing short has always been my way of writing poetry, so that’s what I try to do in all forms.
MR: A Rubik’s cube: that’s a perfect metaphor for writing flash—that idea of moving (and cutting and adding) words and sentences around until they click into place just right.
Fittingly, given its subject matter, this book is composed of many rather brief chapters. I smiled at the particular brevity of chapter 18, “Going Small to Go Small,” where the form so wonderfully fits its content. I’d love to hear about the book’s origin story. Did you write a few of these pieces first and then think, hey, maybe I’ll write a whole book of these reflections?
GF: Yes, I actually wrote the book as a series of random snippets that grew into an elliptical collection of thoughts, without chapters and without exercises. The initial draft was around 30,000 words, about two-thirds the length of this final book, and in some ways, that version is my preferred version. It was meant to be a reflection of the flash form, with thoughts floating about, an emphasis on white space, the narrative taking different shapes and textures. I wanted a reading experience that was one part puzzle, or that encouraged piecing things together instead of being led by the hand of an author.
So your description of the process is right—I started writing some reflections, without any true end-goal, and I followed my meanderings, which I find is a pretty good way to live and write.
MR: What was the process of writing this book like? Does the order of the chapters at all reflect the order in which you wrote them? Did you know up front what topics you wanted to write about or were there many surprises along the way?
GF: I knew some topics I wanted to write about, but I really like Robert Frost’s quote: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” I think every book, every story, needs to be a search, so I’m always searching in my writing, no matter if it’s nonfiction or fiction, and as a result there were many surprises along the way—surprises of topics, of stories discovered, of what I learned while exploring the subject more deeply.
For example, I went deeper into my notions of collage by exploring Elizabeth Alexander’s discussion of the collage aesthetic as a fundamental Black art form because of “the way that it mirrors the process of taking from many places and recombining in the new space,” like a quilt made of many pieces of found fabrics. I expanded my notion of erasure to see how erasure can hold political poetics, how it is a tool of commentary, disruption, and decoding just as it is a tool of recreating and expressing. I also discovered so many new, amazing flash writers like K-Ming Chang, Veronica Montes, and Lucy Zhang.
The wonderful thing about writing about writing is how you peel off layer after layer to better understand not only your own aesthetic, but how that aesthetic is part of your soul, part of the way you approach life. An aesthetic is a type of lens you see the world through. This aesthetic helps me see what’s in between or not said, in particular—the little stories that exist in the nooks and crannies of life. But “little” doesn’t mean they are any less significant than a big story. Quite the opposite.
MR: I love that notion of one’s aesthetic being part of their soul. It brings to mind how oftentimes newer writers will write about what they think they’re supposed to write about, will write how they think they’re supposed to write. The result is that the writing feels not only lifeless and dull, but dishonest. It’s when a writer learns to really tap into their obsessions and their itches that their writing starts to come to life.
Has the process of writing a book about brevity affected your fiction writing in any particular ways? Has it affected your attention?
GF: I love this question because when I interview flash writers, I often ask how writing flash has changed their lives. So, yes, pondering brevity and writing about it has affected my attention in important ways. Articulating the way I feel and intuit a story has made me much more observant of the way that sensibility guides my attention to the world around me. An aesthetic is an existential position because of the type of lens it provides.
I think of Nathalie Sarraute and her notion of small stories being like “tropisms,” a biological term used to describe the almost imperceptible movements that living organisms make toward or away from whatever impinges on them. She wrote tiny stories that traced the contours of nuance because she wanted to “take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it,” by dramatizing small interior movements. So she didn’t write with an idea of plot or traditional notions of characterization, and this allowed her to delve into the unspoken, the overlooked, the marginal, the in-between.
That’s what an aesthetic of brevity gives me: a different way of noticing, a keener eye, I think.
MR: I enjoyed the two short postscripts to this book, and they made me wonder: since finishing this book, is there more now that you kind of wish you could go back and add?
GF: In another world, I’d like to write a book on brevity that was a huge and overwhelming tome, a book so big you couldn’t pick it up. I like that notion for its absurdity. I imagine Borges writing this book, just as he wrote “The Library of Babel.”
But, seriously, this is the irony and challenge of writing about brevity: how do you truly say more with less? We live in a culture of “more,” and I’m wary of “more” in nearly all ways. I actually think the book is a little too long. If I took another pass at it, I’d look for places to trim.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He recently published The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story. He’s also published Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories; the short story collection All the Comfort Sin Can Provide; Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (as editor); and Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, and he has been anthologized in collections such as Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Flash Fiction America, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast Write-minded and subscribe to his newsletter Intimations: A Writer’s Discourse.