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.


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.”


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.


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.)