On Brevity

And vita brevis

Brevity in writing is what charity is to all other virtues—righteousness is nothing without the one, nor authorship without the other.

Rev. Sydney Smith, Edinburgh Review, 18111

I first read Lamott’s Bird by Bird many years ago, and was struck by her saying, after an account of a friend’s last days and how well they were lived: “the truth is we are all terminal on this bus” (179). It was a revelation to me. Everyone is dying. We have only so many hours left. I figured it was my responsibility to write and publish the kind of work that a dying person could read in their remaining time, if they chose, and consider the time well spent.2

I might have been eighteen at the time.

It is an ethic I have tried to write by, with varying success. It is not something I would impose upon anyone else. But I find that striving to write and speak only that which is honest, generative, precise, and life-affirming is a worthy endeavor, both despite and because of our inevitable failures.3

As Toni Morrison said (listen): “You’re going to die. You know you are. You’ve got a little bit of time. You’ve got some dragons to slay—pick the ones you’re going to slay. Make it worthwhile.”

In the meantime, other people are slaying their own dragons. And it is out of respect for their time and my art that I write and rewrite, until my words are as brief and clear and full of meaning as they can be. For time—the material of life—is not to be wasted, or trifled with, or frittered away, neither yours nor mine.

For one arrow to fly straight and true, the fletcher must cut small things smaller, glue and set and dry, and the archer must practice a thousand times the setup, draw, aim, release, and follow-through. It is a long labor to perfect a flight of seconds. But when a small, brief, perfect (per + facere) thing strikes straight to the heart, kingdoms rise. Dragons fall.


Grace notes:

  • The recording of Stars Between, the short opera for which I was librettist and Steven K. Tran was composer, will premiere on Seattle Opera’s website and Youtube on September 10 at 7pm PT, along with the other operas from our Creation Lab cohort (some of which appear the day before). They will be available after that date, though I do not know for how long. This too has been a work of my deepest heart. Crosscut article.

  • Its obscurity notwithstanding, Amal El-Mohtar very kindly slipped On Fragile Waves onto NPR’s list of 50 SF&F Books of the Past Decade and NPR Lifekit’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. My debt to her is staggering. If you haven’t read This is How You Lose the Time War, which she wrote with Max Gladstone, it is a joy and delight.

  • Huh, what an interesting new podcast on game design. Wonder who’s behind it. Such a mystery.

  • UNHCR’s call for $1.3 billion in aid for Afghanistan at the beginning of this year has only been 38% funded. The LEGO Foundation just chipped in $4.7 million. If you feel moved to, of course, donate; but your effect will be much greater if you convince your employer or Congressperson to care. I have recently seen what one person can do, in that regard, and am full of wonder.

1

Also Sydney Smith: “Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea?—how did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

2

I misremembered this as an injunction from Lamott, went back looking for it, and couldn’t find it. It seems too harsh to be coming from her, anyhow.

3

Our limited lifespan is the coldest equation. There is a direct tradeoff between time spent honing one’s craft and producing good work, and time spent tearing down other people or defending oneself. It is rare (though not unheard of—time being borrowed elsewhere) for those involved in the latter to also be rich in the former. This is not necessarily a matter of character or goodness, since one can be the target of unprovoked attacks; but even in that case, one must make hard choices.

From Toni Morrison’s 1975 Black Studies Center dialog at Portland State University (excerpts): “Racism was always a con game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It's the red flag that is danced before the head of a bull. Its purpose is only to distract. To keep the bull's mind away from his power and his energy. Keep it focused on anything but his own business…. The very serious function of racism… is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work…. Life is short. Freedom is in my mind. That's where one is free. There's always some other constriction. But the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well.” (Listen.) (Full transcript. Note: site certificate expired.)

An Appeal, in Other People's Words

I'm not interested in anybody's guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn't do it, and I didn't do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason: As long as my children face the future that they face, and come to the ruin that they come to, your children are very greatly in danger, too. They are endangered above all by the moral apathy which pretends it isn't happening. This does something terrible to us. Anyone who is trying to be conscious must begin to be conscious of that apathy and must begin to dismiss the vocabulary which we've used so long to cover it up, to lie about the way things are.... If we could do this, we could save this country, we could save the world.

—James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son,” in The Price of the Ticket (NY: St. Martin’s, 1985) pp. 400-401.

James Baldwin was writing about white Americans’ apathy toward the death of a black boy. I think his words apply broadly. The following is adapted from a list put together by the tremendous work of one of my colleagues, who gave me permission to share it. I encourage you to share it also, if you have the heart to, without attribution (since these aren’t my words). Note that you should copy and paste into a plain text editor first, like Notepad, to avoid the intermediary link-mangling that both Substack and Facebook indulge in.

Apologies for this interruption to the usual. More soon.

Crowdfunding

On-the-ground NGOS

Larger International Orgs

  • Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj.org)

Volunteer

Your nearest International Rescue Committee office, HIAS, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (especially Seattle/Tacoma, D.C./Maryland/Virginia, and Houston and Fort Worth folks)

Action/Other

Shortlinks are to Google Docs.

  • WAW list of political actions and volunteer opportunities: bit.ly/3xZVXb6

  • Afghan American Foundation list of organizations to donate to: bit.ly/3girkaD

Rainbow, Rainbow, Rainbow

Tight lines, Yeats, and Elizabeth Bishop

Most days I have no luck with the trout. Some days1 I pull in four, one right after the other, and lose a fifth as it nears the pier. Then I eat trout all week, in a series of economical and delicious dinners.2

There’s nothing fancy about fishing for rainbow trout, which are farmed in hatcheries and dumped into the state’s lakes by the thousands. Sometimes, when I am soaked in rain, and more rain is dripping from my hair onto my glasses, it is miserable. (Speaking of fancy—I tried casting into the Puyallup for the last pink run, where the river ran behind a supermarket. I caught a tiger-print seat belt and a trash bag’s worth of fishing line.3)

But even when I come up empty-handed, I’ll count a flotilla of duckling or goslings, watch an osprey dive and emerge, or admire a heron that’s ignoring me, and consider myself very fortunate.

Trout fishing involves a curious economy of attention, where one must hawkishly watch the line and the tip of the rod, and now and then check the stringer for opportunistic otters; and yet, when the fishing’s slow, I can also read a book. Folks tend to be friendly and willing to teach, and I’ve been charmed by the kindness of strangers: the offer of a battered umbrella, the gift of a hook and a fish. I’ve likewise loaned scissors, pliers, net. We wish each other tight lines.

My pink Powerbait, which comes in strings of pearls and is quite effective when smeared with garlic oil, reminds me of Yeat’s Wandering Aengus and his berry on a hazel rod:

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

But it is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” that returns to me now with greatest vividness, after I first encountered it in high school:

I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

I had been moved then by the beauty of the words and the narrator’s graciousness in triumph (…everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go), but I lacked knowledge of the physical and tactile reality that she described.

These are the words of a woman who has carved a fish open from jaw to vent and thumbed out the entrails. This is the poem of a woman who has looped the line five or six times to tie an improved cinch knot on a metal swivel and tightened it with her teeth. This is a poem I did not fully understand until I was rinsing a freshly gutted trout of its blood in the sink, having just scraped out the long scarlet line of its kidney with my nail.

Imagination conjures kingdoms, bridges universes, traverses galaxies with a thought. It shuffles and deals marvels. It performs miracles for free. One could not write well or freshly without it.

At the same time, there is no substitute for experience. Who could write, of a fish’s eyes, the irises backed and packed / with tarnished tinfoil / seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass, except for someone who has met such a fish’s gaze? And who could nod at the rightness of the phrase, the perfect capture of its physical correlate, except for a reader who has also met such a fish’s gaze? Bishop has thrown her fish back into deep waters for us to catch again in the mind, on a line not of monofilament but of words. And by so doing, she has turned one fish into thousands.

And Bishop has also landed what Woolf once lost, pondering by the river of a men’s college: “How small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating…” The indignant Beadle approaches, Woolf recalls that “he was a Beadle; I was a woman,” and by the time he chases her off the grass, “the Scholars and Fellows… had sent my little fish into hiding.”

Bishop has not only a room but a rented boat of her own, commands a Beadle-less body of water, and catches fish and composes poetry in perfect peace. This too is a gift: this time that we live in, this anxious and fiery and terrible time, in which female students eat as well as male students, in the same college dining halls, and that which was denied Woolf is now available to us.

(Well, for the most part. British universities remain haughtily territorial about their grass lawns.)

One need not fish in order to cast a weighted line into the weedy broth of the world, to be sensitive to the tremble of an unseen bite, to put one’s hands into the bones and belly of life. One need not fish to read or write. One need not fish to live.

But just as one must have rain to make rainbows, and lakes and patience to catch rainbow trout, one must have a body soaked and shivering or sun-cracked and rusted by living to see everything, however briefly, become rainbow, rainbow, rainbow.

Put this missive down and go.


Notes, somewhat against the spirit of the last line:

On Saturday, July 17 at 10am EST, I'll be on panel at Literary Cleveland Inkubator with Laura Maylene Walter (Body of Stars), Eman Quotah (Bride of the Sea), and Nancy Johnson (The Kindest Lie). Register.

If you’re in the Seattle area, on Saturday, July 18 at 5pm PST, I’ll be hosting a book unbirthday party for myself, Cookie Hiponia (We Belong), Donna Miscolta (Angie Rubio Stories), and Sonora Jha (How to Raise a Feminist Son) at the Kirkland Barnes & Noble.

Paying subscribers who read “The Cost of All Things” may enjoy knowing that this recent op-ed for Prism Reports was the unspecified task requiring citations.

1

Once. It was one time.

2

What, did you think I wouldn’t give you the recipe?

3

Incidentally, this was when I learned that the manly art of tying salmon lures involves fluffy pink yarn and pink and orange plastic beads. The gendering of activities appears to be teleological.

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