11.06.2004

Space Constraint, part deux: The Other Hand

I am inordinately fond of short shorts and am dismayed when writers don't take it as seriously as other forms. You can say much in just a line or two. Ezra Pound, in explaining "In a Station of the Metro," wrote, "A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can’t say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better keep quiet." Some ideas deserve a larger canvas, but some small ideas use inordinately large canvases.

I recall Howard Waldrop once told us: If you think you have a novel idea, it's a novella. If you think you have a novella, it's a novelette. If you think you have novelette, it's a short story. If you think you have a short story, don't write it.

Which goes to show not only the need for brevity but also what Waldrop thinks of too much brevity. For too long, the subgenre of the genre has been home to the bad joke, devaluing what could have held much promise, which is to say neither that we don't need humor nor that anyone's to blame except a busy writing schedule allowing little extra time to make a short short significant. To find a gem among the old Asimov 100 Great... or Microcosmic Tales takes a lot of hunting. Amazing Stories seems to have discontinued their 1000 word game after three issues. Just as well though I hope it doesn't discourage the genre.

On the other hand, Eileen Gunn takes the genre seriously--both in Infinite Matrix and in her own two examples from her Stable Strategies collection.

Even lit-folk don't always take the genre seriously. Jerome Stern's Microfiction anthology has one diamond among few other gems. In less than 250 words, Rick DeMarinis' "Your Fears Are Justified" packs a wallop with three well-characterized characters:

In the Clinic City hospital I have to share a room with a heart patient. "What are you here for?" he asks. "Brain tumor," I say. He perks up, interested. "How's your ticker?" he says. His wife, large and phlegmatic, visits twice a day. The whisper. "You're terminal?" she asks, coyly. It's as if she's asked me about the weather in Des Moines. "Not that I know of," I say. "Brain tumor," her husbands whisperes, nudgeing her. They exchange loving glances. I know what they are thinking.... They want my heart.

Other stories worth studying from Microfiction:

Molly Giles' "The Poet's Husband" has a nice, resonant moment. Robert Shuster's "Eclipsed" captures a potent, child emotion we never lose. Pamela Painter paints the picture of a ham against marital discord's aftermath in "The New Year." Virgil Suarez's "Anti-Cain" shows how much politics can be stuffed in a tiny space. Joanne Avallon's "All This" is amazingly compact in time yet discursive yet delivering one imagistic blow to tell a lasting truth that isn't new but one we pretend to forget (not unlike Ron Wallace's "Worry" though the impact wasn't as thorough).

Stories (though that term does not always apply) worth reading:

Roberto Fernandez's "Wrong Channel" has good humor. Fred Chappell's "Painted Devils" shows machismo at full throttle. Natalia Rachel Singer employs lyric language. Tom Fleming's "Conception" and Stuart Dybek's "Flu" have a nice touch. Jamie Granger tells the old tale of "Stone Belly Girl" as does Betsy Kemper tell her own age-old injustice in "This Is How I Remember It." Ursula Hegi varies the theme on Sylvia Plath's life. In Russel Edson's "The Bridge," the male character speaks of looking for a sign that may already be there. Padgett Powell regrets "A Gentleman's C."

What I like about Stern's Microfiction is that most of the stories make an attempt that, like Peggy McNally's "Waiting," while it may not resonate for me no matter how I look at it, it must resonate for someone, one can tell, just by the way it's set up.

Finally, James Kelman sums up the feeling of telling a hard story to tell:

Ach, I dont want to tell this story....

Obviously the story has to get told....

Mmm, aye.... I don't want to tell it.

But you've got to tell it. Unless... if it's no story at all.

Oh, aye, christ it's a story, dont worry about that.

What often unites the better works is capturing poignant emotional moments that radiate meaning deeper than they seem they should. Before sending out prose, ask if it's a story, and if it is, what's it about? What words will carry the reader beyond the page?

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