Further to the Art of Writing Micro-Fiction

Yesterday’s post, on reflection, didn’t have the clarity and brevity that it needed (despite a reblogging — thank you for that Yas). The words weren’t left to settle long enough. So, in the spirit of trying to aim better, I now aim to make amends in the edit.

Brevity and succinctness are often misunderstood. A very short story may well receive the feedback that ‘it feels like it could be developed into something longer.’ This entirely misses the point.

Holly Howitt-Dring’s essay uses the heading ‘micro-fiction’ as an umbrella term which includes ‘flash fiction’ as well as the ‘short short’. However, I would suggest that flash fiction is more inclined towards quick, timed writing rather than the studied brevity of ‘micro’, as I read it.

‘Micro-fiction’ in this article, therefore, is a form of writing that the author has given plenty of consideration to. There is historical precedent for micro-fiction. This reader considers some works as micro-fiction, even if the author didn’t originally label them as such.

I offer up three examples of historical micro-fiction. These examples are chosen because (i) they appear to have been considered, despite being short, in the writing; (ii) they appear either as parts of a greater whole — a ‘novel’ — or as part of a collection of stories, or as linked pieces; (iii) they can be read as individual pieces in their own right.

Brautigan’s The God of the Martians (1955/56) — six hundred words, divided into twenty ‘chapters’ — is an example that might seem to contradict my earlier statement: that developing a short piece into a longer one misses the point. I use Brautigan’s novel as an example of turning that thought around though: a ‘longer’ piece (albeit only six hundred words) can be viewed by way of its short separate entities — in this case, a series of averaged thirty-word, stand alone stories in themselves.

Kafka’s Meditations (1906-1912) and A Country Doctor: Little Tales (1914-1917) are individual pieces/stories that have been collected into a greater whole. They each stand alone.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974, 1979) are linked, yet they’re stand alone pieces.

Micro-fiction is misunderstood. It is something to aspire to (and there is a body of work to act as precedent). Writing with brevity and succinctness takes some great skill. It need not be the start of something longer (although it can, of course, be a part of something wider): micro-fiction is a beauty in its own right.

The Art of Writing Micro-Fiction

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Brevity and succinctness are often misunderstood. Put a piece, a very short story, up for peer review and — though it may receive favourable feedback — there’s often a comment tacked on: ‘It feels like it could be developed into something longer.’ This entirely misses the point.

If it’s good in its brevity, there may be a lingering after the reading. The reader may not remember every word, or every detail, every placement of every subtlety, but they may be left with the possibility of the piece playing around in their mind. Sometimes, that playing is the embodiment of the tale itself; sometimes the piece read may turn itself towards the reader, asking ‘so, how do you feel?’; sometimes, a reader’s other memories may rise to the surface as a result.

Writing micro-fiction is a challenge in itself. Let’s not confuse the terms ‘micro’ and ‘flash’ fiction here: the former, as I see it when I write it, is a craft, an art-form in the developing; the latter, though it may result in something good, is a quick race through of words, a sprint — something splashed down quickly.

Holly Howitt-Dring’s essay on micro-fiction, Making micro meanings: reading and writing micro-fiction in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice (Published by Intellect, 2011) provides an excellent research background to the form. Although she does include flash fiction along with ‘short shorts, postcard fiction, sudden fiction and even prose poetry’ under the general heading of micro-fiction, I’m inclined to disagree because of the reasons already given. As a brief overview of the form, in an essay version for Planet Extra she writes:

There’s much to condense [in a micro-fiction piece], much left unspoken to the point that the writer makes a pact with the reader: you will not be told everything, you will guess and then, in return, be allowed to interpret the stories as you wish.

As notable examples of micro-fiction, even if they weren’t termed as such at the time of their writing, I think of work by Richard Brautigan, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino.

In 1955/56, Brautigan wrote a subsequently unpublished ‘novel’ called The God of the Martians. He experimented with twenty ‘chapters’, the total word count of the work coming in at just six hundred words. It was rejected by the editor of the literary magazine he sent it to. Brautigan was, it would appear, ahead of his time.

Kafka was also, perhaps, writing short pieces before they could be accepted. However, in this case it was the author himself who didn’t consider them worthy. In the editor’s notes to the 1992 version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Malcolm Pasley quotes the author, regarding his series of short meditation pieces (1906-1912): ‘The few unsold copies of Meditation need not be destroyed, I don’t want to give anyone the trouble of pulping them, but none of these pieces should be reprinted.’ The editor goes on to write that the book met with favourable review when it was published. Metamorphosis also includes a series of short fictions under the collected title of A Country Doctor: Little Tales.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities (English translation 1974, 1979) is just an exceptional series of short fictions, all of which relate a fictionalised account of a different Venice. It may never have ever been termed as a series of micro-fictions anywhere else, but to my reading eye that is exactly what it is.

Micro-fiction is misunderstood: it is something to aspire to (and there is a body of work to act as precedent). Writing with brevity and succinctness takes some great skill and, although the examples I offer up contribute to greater wholes, each piece is also something in itself. Each micro-fiction need not be the start of something longer because each micro-fiction is a beauty in its own right.

Writing Acceptances

Sir, please find herein an open letter to myself and to any other reader, because sometimes we’re caught up in frustrations when with words. Writing, according to some, is ridiculously arduous. I don’t subscribe to this thinking. Manual labour is arduous; the freezing cold is arduous; difficult lives are arduous. Writing, by contrast, is a luxury, albeit one that sometimes frustrates us. It’s something we’ve chosen to do, but it’s also something we’re compelled to do. So, whilst we may have the need to write on subject areas that don’t come easily for us, writing is a warmth. Rather than looking on it as arduous, we should understand a series of acceptances.

Accept your themes

We may push and push for new ideas and new expressions, and this is fine, but we should accept that the themes that constantly manifest in our words are the themes that need to be written. Sometimes, consciously, I write and often, subconsciously, I find I’ve written something entirely different. Let the themes sail through.

Accept your voices

For the duration of a writer’s life, his or her voice may fragment, or become richer, or develop different forms. We think we’re on a definite path, from this naïve voice to this enlightened, deep and textured one. We are many voices. If we try to manipulate our voice this way or the other, we’re left with artificial shapes. We should accept our voices as they rise and fall away.

Accept your dormant times

A writer writes. Yes, of course: how else can the words find their way onto the page? However, there are days when the words won’t be forced. Other necessities of life get in the way. They pile up on words and squeeze their possible lives from them before they’re even ready to fall. We should accept that some days we’re merely incubators. Words can still form, but at other levels. They’ll come.

Accept your failings

Some days we can write the most beautiful lines; some days we’re useless, boneless, dry. The words we write are brittle, dull, or colourless. We should accept that these words are still words, and that they should be placed down, if they come, even though they don’t or won’t shine. All words, born beautiful or dry, are words that need placing. In time, they may re-emerge. In time, we may re-emerge.

Accept your words

Once in a while, one day when we feel naïve, we may think that our words cannot be taken seriously by others. We wonder why we’re writing this at all. We put the words out to the world and realise, suddenly, that the space they’re in now is not just the space on this one small screen. We should accept that words no longer belong to us alone when ‘out there’. We should let them go to find their own way, no matter how naïve we may feel ourselves.

Acceptance helps us.

You can lie to your wife or your boss, but you cannot lie to your typewriter. Sooner or later you must reveal your true self in your pages.

— Leon Uris


A Looking Ceremony

This is the story of a life led looking.

My wife says, ‘Why are you writing? Why aren’t you here, in the real world, with me?’

I look up at her like she’s something new to me. ‘I am in the real world.’

She has ways of knowing me, of course. She has ways of bringing me back. ‘I’ll make green tea. Cinnamon too.’

When she’s out, when I’m in words, worlds might as well fuse. Then, slightly, she touches my face with the very tips of her fingers, and even this doesn’t rouse me completely. I know she’s there. I’m looking, in words, though.

Once, in a lucid moment between words, she asked me what I was looking for. It was a night when the cold seeps deep into the skin. ‘I’m looking for love.’

‘I’m here,’ she whispered. I don’t know if she affected hurt. ‘Look.’

I saw. I smiled because she was there. When my head was down again, she asked me what it was I was writing.

Later, that night, I left my notebook open. She came to bed, and she was warmer than dreams. I was half-asleep, but she pushed her face close to mine.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m looking,’ she told me.

‘What for?’

She didn’t answer, but she kissed me.

When she’s out of the room, when I’m in words, worlds might as well fuse. Then, slightly, she touches my face with the very tips of her fingers. She comes to kneel, an offering of tea in her palm. Her hair falls over her face. She’s very still, but her eyes aren’t, and I remember us. She has her ways of bringing me back.

Why am I writing? My notebook is unattended. I see her, and she’s all the words I need in this, the story of a life led looking. Her questions, now, each time, are just the prelude to a ceremony.

Words fall from me when looking.

Imagine Us, Safely Placed and Softly Loved

Once, when we were all young and supple of thought, I never told you how I adored you. Such lost romantics as we were, believing in our bright light years, we seized our lovely days; yet, I never told you. In Paris I took your photo by the Seine. What could we know there, with the autumn sunlight cracked open on the stone balustrades and parapets behind you?

In your small room, up high, where time resides — in that building which they knocked down, taking pieces of us away with it — a space where we sat alone remains. You took your pictures from the wall. What we said, or might have said, is locked away in spaces that are no longer with us.

That day, each day, when we surfaced for our tutors, I think I must have watched you smile. We all had our names for one another, because we were young. All my words break down in time . . .

Until you visit me. It’s been over twenty years. Where have you been? This night you come to me. We walk and we’re at our beach. How I have missed you. You sit at the concrete step. It is you, I make it so. I sit there, on my heels, at your bare knees. I never told you. I never told you but, this night, a kiss is this. How I have missed you, soft on me.

I stand and there is an empty concrete step. Other dreams of time unravel out from you.

Now, this day, there is a notebook whose supple waking thoughts are deeply put upon the page. There are misplaced words because the morning does this, but there is love between the lines because the morning captures this. A bleary day away from you, and you are safely placed and softly loved.

Of the Shallow Breaths of Unfinished Stories

Pay attention. This isn’t a comment aimed at you, the reader, though you may also take note. This is a public note to self. Pay attention to all the unfinished pieces that lie deep down in the dusty archive of the laptop’s innards, or in between the pages of notebooks. What could these pieces become, if only they’re paid attention to?

Writing something straight out, there and then, as it comes, has its advantages. There’s no time for it to settle into the page, to sink in, to let the pause of several days take affect on your writing emotions. Writing something straight out, then leaving it to settle, is often the better way to do it.

In the pause, in the gap that ideas and words fall into, in the space where no words scroll down the waking screen of our day to days, we can fall into states not conducive to words: apathy, doubt, that inner editor’s eye. Later still, other ideas form and supersede the unfinished ones.

I would like to know how many unfinished pieces other writers have; or, if they’re like me, how many pieces do others think they have? Estimations are useful for large numbers.

Why do we stop writing, leaving such pieces hanging?

I stop because I pause to think, close my notebook for a short while, and get distracted by necessary unnecessaries; I wait too long for the moment of that particular writing flow to wash over me again; I re-read when I should just be writing; I doubt the characters or the scene, momentarily; I just don’t focus on writing through it; I forget to write the characters the way they tell me they should be written, trying instead to write them how I perceive other readers want them to be.

When it comes together, it’s because I’m focused, true to what I’m writing, going with the flow I find myself in. More often than not, when I re-read writing later, after its settling, the words that have been placed down in such focused ways are the ones I feel more comfortable with.

However, there is hope for the unfinished piece. Occasionally we can find our way back to that place of flow, where that particular piece was born; we can see enough of the original shine to be able to recreate it, clone the mood we were in; we can reconnect with the style we had, that day, that week, once, if that style is something we still carry within us. There is small hope, though ideally we should not have let the piece get away from us to start with.

I think of the poor unfinished things, those limp creatures pressed away somewhere dark or deep; I think of the shine they once must have had for them to reach the point of ink or pixels on the screen. What will become of them? Will they ever receive love enough, small hope, to complete them? They’re like half-formed experiments, breathing shallowly, waiting.

So, a public note to self (which others may also make note of): pay attention — stories breathe.

Rise and Write Against the Photographic Hegemony

A writer’s eyes are the only camera lens he or she needs. This morning (a clear warm day in December, where the mist rose off the dips in the hills by the side of the motorway), I drove and turned off that part of my brain that tries too hard. Its place was taken by my writerly camera obscura, that box I am: the image of the landscape projecting itself onto some screen inside me. Writers have no desperate need for the physical camera, I’m proposing.

Years ago, whilst in the huge open plan architectural studio with our tutors, who were dressed head to toe in black, smoking thin cigarettes with their legs crossed and with artfully mournful expressions wafting from them in great deep sighs, we were advised not to succumb to the ‘Kodak spot’. On field trips we were frowned upon if we dared take our cameras anywhere near the worn-down spot that ‘tourists’ chose. We were young: what did we know? We took our photos on clunky old pre-digital machines, amazed by the view over the Seine, or by the fact that we were drinking beer in Frankfurt’s old town, only thinking we were artists. Our tutors must have shook their heads in disdain, that night, every night, drinking wine in their black turtle-necks and leather brogues, sat in some back street bar listening to Georges Brassens. This is how I imagine them, at least.

Now, my art has shifted. Artists don’t die, they just shift conditions. Someone wrote this. I forget who. Shifting, shifting, and stories now come of travel . . .  

I was in New York City the year before the Twin Towers came down. We walked down Wall Street, a deep channel where the air floods through like a giant air conditioning system. We found ourselves at Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Seventeen months later and the air conditioning system was deep in ash.

In Turkey, dizzy from the sheer claustrophobic heat of the day, stupefied by the mad intense spin of the huge and canopied bazaar, my travelling partner and I heard the door of an empty carpet seller’s shop shut quietly behind us.

Once, in Barcelona, I sat and watched my Spanish friend just melt as he listened to the voice of an Argentinean waitress in a bar off La Rambla. He told me I would never know the beauty of her accent.

Another travelling partner and I paid homage to Jim Morrison: we trekked our way up to le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris and found a small bead-festooned and squalid shrine. We weren’t alone.

At Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen, I sat on the sparse wooden boards of a little house. We were crammed into a small upstairs room. Outside, we’d walked down Pusher Street to get there. I smiled at mischievous old hippies who, with some small yet tangible amusement, explained to the assembled group of pilgrims that the town was not one built on the foundations of worship at all, despite its name.

In Venice we chased the golden floats of the festival parades down the Canal Grande, and there were people strung along the quays and bridges and stood on the ramshackle tiny wooden jetties, all under the aching white-blue eggshell sky.

We live in modern times, I appreciate: we have the photograph and we have the capacity to ‘film’ all that we see. These objects created often do evoke a remembrance of experiences past; yet they are always framed. What exists beyond the frame, we will never know. Photographs and other digital recordings won’t ever capture and preserve a time and place the way that words can.

Only words can evoke the mad euphoria of a Venetian parade; the clammy uneasiness in a small room in a Danish ghetto; the sad peace of a Parisian graveyard; the utter hypnosis of love, of sorts, in a Barcelona backstreet; the surreptitious click of a door and the taste of iced tea, in forty degrees, in a Turkish bazaar; the cool portent of wind on Wall Street, one April before the world changed.

A picture can tell a thousand words, it’s true, but a thousand words can break the edges of the frame.
This article was first published, in part, at www.writersdock.com under a pen name.

On Personifying the Muse

If we must personify the muse (that sometimes lazy wretch, that sometimes delicate whispering, a touch of hair at the writer’s ear), we should know how to rouse her. She, for me, can at times just curl up on the sofa, or where I left her. She, for you, may be a ‘he’ or ‘them’ or just ‘something other’. When she sleeps she may need personifying.

I know a writer who described an ugly muse. She was effective, I’ll give her that. She pushed and bullied and was brash and loud. She practically frogmarched a writer out onto the street. I don’t subscribe to boot camp methods. I won’t be shouted at or given the sergeant-major treatment, over and over until I forget everything else and just get down and write. I need to be whispered at.

If I must personify her (she sighs because she knows she’s just a writerly device when described this way), she manifests the way that sunlight in a small corner of an over-packed room might. Just for a second, there’s a little light on the wooden table. To the untrained eye it might seem as if she’s the absinthe fairy come here, but she’s paler than this, more amaretto lemon-eyed; she’s more apricot than wormwood, more citrus rinsed.

If I must personify her, I never do see her at all. She’s sleeping elsewhere and I can only imagine how she looks. When there’s sunlight draining in, when she’s ready, she whispers how this is right, or how this works, or that this is the whole of it and write it, write it, it’s fine. It is fine: it’s light and barely felt, but known. This is why she’s just a whisper at this writer’s ear.

We should know how to rouse this personification we each have: we should know. I know how not to rouse her. I don’t demand because she won’t come. I don’t push and cajole because she won’t lift an eyelash. I don’t sulk because she would just turn over. I imagine her because I never see her.

Perhaps she’s roused enough, stirred enough, when I lift the pen or lift the lid of this box I type into without her. Perhaps that annoys her. She may be curious. Writing, without her, results in a great spew of nothing even ordinary, let alone exceptional. She sits behind me, I imagine, with a mischievous light malevolence. She lets me be to wade in farther of my own accord. Now and then her grace will rise in her though. She’ll see potential, come and whisper.

Perhaps she’s roused by the simple act of my breathing. It is odd to think that we should concentrate on breathing when breathing is something we do without thinking of it. Sometimes, if I can, I let the day just stop around me. In and out, in and out. She may hear me breathing and be intrigued.

Perhaps she’s roused simply, sometimes, by the very length of time she’s slept. There is, after all, only so long someone can stay inactive for. We all have to stretch our bodies every once in a while, and even personifications need to do this too.

If we must personify the muse, we must pay her some attention. We must think of her so that she can think of us.

First Impressions and Irrational Readers

[Umberto Eco] shares moments when loyal readers have tried to dissolve the lines between his fictional world and the real world, whilst others have discovered minute holes in his veil of realism.

— Yosola Olorunshola

Yosola writes this in commenting on a previous post of mine, and I find it also sparks off further thoughts, for me, about the ‘truth’ of fiction and the ‘truth’ of the writer. Sometimes, as readers, we’re willing to forgive the writing misdemeanours of our favourite authors because they are our favourites, or because we’ve been with them for longer than we can remember: misdemeanours such as holes in the inner world of the book, in plot, in characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.

Sometimes, however, we come across the writing of an author we’ve never read before. This is a dangerous moment for that author, even if they don’t know it. On the face of it, what does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold, or if that one copy sold and read doesn’t amount to further work being touched? Perhaps it does matter.

In his excellent book, Irrationality (1992), Professor Stuart Sutherland highlights what’s known in psychology circles as the ‘primacy error’ and the ‘halo effect’. The primacy error occurs, he writes, ‘because when connected material (such as a newspaper article or lecture) is presented, the interpretation of the later material is coloured by the earlier.’ It’s a form of first impressions count. Sutherland goes on to say something we’ve often been told regarding job interviews: namely, that interviewers are known to make up their minds about an interviewee quite quickly; Sutherland says that the interviewer then conducts the rest of the interview trying to confirm their first impressions.

The halo effect, Sutherland writes, happens ‘if a person has one salient [that is ‘available’ or obvious] good trait, his other characteristics are likely to be judged by others as better than they really are.’ I shall come back to this.

I think here about writers who I’ve only recently ‘met’. That is, I think about writers whose pages I’ve only just got round to reading. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of these writers. I’ve heard of The Remains of the Day, but I’ve never read it. I don’t know if I will. It’s not that Ishiguro’s writing is bad in his story collection, Nocturnes (I read the whole book and it didn’t make me stumble with issues of fiction/reality, plot, characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.) — I was just expecting better. That’s all.

I’m well aware that the primacy error could well kick in and any future work I might read of his could become coloured by my reading of Nocturnes. The opposite effect to the halo effect is what Sutherland calls the ‘devil effect’. Ishiguro, for me, is now pictured in a certain way, with a certain writerly trait that projects itself, unfairly perhaps, beyond his other abilities. I consider myself an intelligent enough person and I’m aware of what’s going on under the surface of my thinking. I may give him another read some time; I may just forget my rational thinking, however, and let irrationality play itself out, steering clear of the ‘I’ section on bookshop shelves.

Lilian Faschinger falls into the same category. I have her novel, Magdalena the Sinner, sitting on my bookshelf at home. I’ve had it for several years and I may just have been attracted to the cover (I must have seen something in it). Maybe I was swayed, that day in the bookshop, by a line in her author bio: Lilian Faschinger holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Graz. I have tried, I really have, several times, to read this book; however, the author chooses to write as the narrator to her captive priest, and it’s clunky, awkward, jarring. I can never get more than a few pages in.

Perhaps, for me, Faschinger occupies a slightly different territory to that of Ishiguro: I want her to be good; Ishiguro I expected to be so. I tuck her back up on the shelf again.

How co-incidental that she sits there exactly next to Italo Calvino. Calvino can do no wrong. I read his Invisible Cities whilst immersed in architecture over twenty years ago now. There’s a halo hanging over that slim volume because of my immersion in such study, I suspect. Even now his writing has a knock-on effect: other writers who also write about Venice seem to benefit from Calvino’s halo.

Authors flirt with dangerous moments when their writing is picked up by a potential reader. What does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold? It matters because, as Professor Sutherland points out, humans are irrational creatures. First impressions have lasting effects.

True Stories

A writer’s problem does not change . . . It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it.

— Ernest Hemingway

Further to thoughts on the personas and vanities of the blogger, in furtherance of the idea of the ‘fictive dream’, how concerned are you, reader, about the truth of another’s writing? That is, if I say a piece of writing to be the absolute truth of the matter, that the characters did in fact do this or that, or that this place is exactly how the place actually is, are you perturbed to find out that it isn’t so?

Of course, when we’ve created our fictions, we’re engaging in a form of contractual arrangement with our readers: I commit to writing so as to keep the ‘real world’ from your door; you commit to believing in what I write. In these fictions we create, we can write characters into real places, though the reader may believe in one and not the other. If the reader believes in both, and then finds errors in one or the other, will the whole thing become false to them? How forgiving are you?

Once, on Barcelona’s harbour front, I looked out at the rows of palm trees marching off towards the distant hills. The breeze was warm and swayed the cable cars of the Olympic village behind me. It was a quiet Sunday. There was a storm brewing, angling along the coast from Salou, drenching the plastic chairs and tourist paraphernalia there. That day, I looked out at the palm trees and thought of onward journeys. Ines would be finishing work, in the side street restaurant off of La Rambla, at five. She’d said we were to meet. She’d said it that way, the dark strips of her fine black hair falling over her serious face. I turned back to the Greenpeace ship, which was moored nearby. I touched her hull, thinking of onward journeys and of arrangements I should be honouring.

How forgiving are you? Is the whole of this now false when I tell you that some of it, at least, is true? Do the parts that I’ve created, which you can only guess at, leave an odd taste? Have you been cheated when I tell you that only some of this is true?

Perhaps, as I have known — or perhaps believed — for a long time now, all stories are true: the story now exists, so its existence is not false.

Is the fictive dream of my time in Barcelona, that one I hoped to create in you, still intact? Are you willing to believe in the truth of stories? This ‘writing truly’ is more difficult than it, at first, might seem.