“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.”