Tiny, True Stories in 130 Characters (and the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction)

Creative Nonfiction issue 51

“Can you tell a true story in a single tweet?” This is the challenge posed by Creative Nonfiction magazine. Entrants post their microessays on Twitter and tag them with #cnftweet. @cnfonline favourites the daily winners, creating a longlist from which the microessays that appear in the quarterly magazine’s Tiny Truths column are chosen.

I’m always happy when @cnfonline favourites and retweets one of my microessays, but it really makes my day when my tiny truth makes it into the print magazine. The best part is receiving my prize: a copy of the magazine. I was thrilled to open my mailbox last week and find a copy of Creative Nonfiction’s latest issue, The Human Face of Sustainability (Spring 2014). It’s green; it’s beautiful; it’s full of intense, powerful writing. I’m honoured and pleased that one of my microessays was among those chosen to appear in such an important and significant issue.

From Lee Gutkind’s editorial to the interview with environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert to the essays from ten talented writers, I turned the pages and read and read. And I pored over the intricate illustrations. Marcy Miranda Janes created her cut paper artworks to accompany each essay, and her pieces tell stories too.

The writing in this issue is so powerful that, according to Gutkind, “[S]omething amazing happened: the panel [of sustainability experts from ASU] found all of the essays they read to be so impressive that they voted to award $1,000 to each of the finalists in appreciation for their fine writing and the urgency and importance of their messages. I have served on many similar panels, and I have to tell you, this has never happened to me before.”

It’s been a few years since I first grew enamored with the #cnftweet. As a mainly nonfiction writer, I find that writing them is a good exercise for finding the core of a story. As an editor, I love to whittle away at the details until this core is revealed. The distillation process itself fascinates me.

Just as I do with longer essays, I start by writing everything down, then look for what I can cut without changing the meaning of the sentence, paragraph, or story. Sometimes, it’s as simple as removing a superfluous comma. More often than not, all those adjectives I couldn’t resist, while pretty, do not add anything of note. (Cut, cut, cut.) Word order can be altered to reveal better structure and emphasis. An idea that is still too big for a tweet invites creativity: how can I structure this in such a way that while it may defy convention to fit the character count, it is still grammatically correct? Can I use this creativity to enhance the story, or will I just obscure the meaning? And just what makes the best #cnftweet anyway?

Browsing through the latest entries on Twitter, I always find a few that make me smile or nod my head. Many are just descriptions or statements of fact. A few appear to be fiction that has snuck in. And then I find the one that stops me in my tracks. The one that nails it. These are the cnf tweets that I read twice or three times. They contain life truths, lessons for seeing or living, moments of transcendence. And they contain writing lessons.

I’m not alone in my love of the art of the tiny truth. Several regular contributors recently participated in a virtual roundtable discussion to discuss “the challenges and lessons of the microessay”. They looked at what makes a good microessay or a failed attempt. They questioned the future of tiny essays outside of twitter. I found myself nodding and agreeing as I read the discussion. One of my favourite comments came from Jo Deurbrouck (@JDeurbrouck): “[A] microessay is like Doctor Who’s TARDIS: it’s bigger on the inside.”

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10 Responses to Tiny, True Stories in 130 Characters (and the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction)

  1. Mark says:

    Brilliant post and much to think on. Thank you.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks, Mark! It’s this issue of Creative Nonfiction that’s brilliant, though. Unbelievably meaningful and pertinent writing. So much to mull over.

  2. Evelyn says:

    This sounds incredibly hard! But a great exercise to get the core of your thoughts. As a writer who has problems cutting out the superfluous, I think this might help me a lot. I’m going to give it a try.

    • Chris says:

      It can become a bit addictive. I find that once I get going, I start thinking in microessays. Kind of like punning; once you start, it’s hard to stop. But also like puns, only a few are worthy of sharing. It’s helpful to check out the hashtag on Twitter to see what others are writing. You get an idea for what makes the great ones stand out. Hope you’ll share some of yours!

  3. Rose Hunter says:

    I’m now following CNF on Twitter. Some of these #CNFtweets are a bit like American sentences but also not I suppose. Interesting though.
    I like this papercutting too. Yes, papel picado here, it’s everywhere! Mass-produced as far as I know, but I love it. So interesting to consider it along with Victorian Valentines….

    • Chris says:

      You can try just reading the ones under @cnfonline’s Favourites tab. That helps to weed out the ones that are just statements or descriptions. There are a number of people who are more serious about crafting mini true stories. It isn’t easy. Papercutting. I like it a lot. Did some for a while. Always wondered where one could go with it. Interesting to see papel that’s picado into more than just hearts or country kitchen designs.

  4. Susi Lovell says:

    I’m going to check out @cnfonline. I’m so envious of you being able to create these wonderful micro jewels. I seem to be useless at it, although I might have another go, inspired by your excellent post! Thanks.

  5. I made the print cut in that issue too. I had fun reading all the other micro-essays. It is something special to tell tiny truths – or rather to tell regular size truths (or even big truths) in a tiny way.

    • Chris says:

      I liked yours in that issue. One of those that fits a really big truth into a tiny kernel. Thanks for commenting here. I’m enjoying the posts on your blog, full of life-truths big and small.

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